Game-makers discuss the future of 'casual games'

Millions of people who don't consider themselves gamers play computer games from 1 to 20 hours each week. These people, who game developers call "casual gamers," don't play the hardcore PC games like FEAR, World of Warcraft, or City of Villains. They don't rush out to pay upwards of US$50 when a new PC action game hits the stores, and they put the lie to virtually every stereotype of computer gamers. But they constitute the biggest pool of customers and the hottest market for new games, and the attendees of this week's Game Developer's Conference taking place in San Jose are getting serious about making games that appeal to this vast audience.

Casual gamers love free games -- anything from word games like Boggle to Breakout clones -- on MSN or Yahoo, where they don't mind seeing the occasional product placement or corporate sponsorship in their game, as long as it doesn't interrupt the gameplay. And if they like a game enough, they buy them, for a few bucks, or sign up for a monthly subscription where they get access to dozens, or hundreds, more games. They don't mind playing on their PCs, but also play on their PDAs and cellphones, in the airport, waiting for a bus, or anywhere they have a few minutes to kill time.

At this morning's session, developers and managers at some of the top casual game companies participated in a panel discussion on the future of casual games. The market for casual games seems set to skyrocket in the next few years, and developers crowded outside the doors in an attempt to get into the standing-room-only talk.

Among trends the panelists discussed:

-- Casual gamers will likely see more, and more varieties of, games sponsored by corporations. James Gwertzman, Director of Business Development at Pop Cap Games (a company that foxuses on casual games, and whose titles, Bejeweled and Zuma, are by far among the most popular casual games) said that gamers don't reject sponsored games when the sponsorship makes sense, or adds to the fun of a game. Both developers and gamers loved it when, for instance, Tyson Chicken sponsored a version of Bejeweled where the multicolored jewels (which gamers have to move into groups of three or more in order to progress) were replaced with chicken parts.

-- Advertising within the game will become more prevalent. Peter Glover, VP of Atom Entertainment, said his company's product is a tool game developers use to create ad space within 3D game environments. Revenue from such "ad impressions" can help boost a small, casual game making company's bottom line, and don't interfere with the fun of a game.

-- Piracy in asia helped drive game makers to invent new kinds of harder-to-steal casual games, which are focused on online content and are more action-oriented than the traditional US or European casual game market. These kinds of casual games will begin to creep into the US in the near future, as the classic word and puzzle casual games in the US will make inroads into asia.

-- Casual gamers are already in the midst of a frenzy of casual-game creation, where the existing universe of casual games is so saturated that even some good, but less-well-marketed games might fall off the radar of publishers and players just due to the volume of new games hitting the market.

Judging by the level of interest in the conference session, a lot of developers seem to be ramping up their focus on this huge group of gamers-who-don't-consider-themselves-gamers. These folks can look forward to an explosion of new titles vying for their attention over the next several years. The trick for us, the gaming public, will be finding the gems among the multitiude of sequels, derivations, and clones of successful but over-hyped titles.

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Andrew Brandt

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