Industry gets serious at Casual Games Conference

Next generation of casual games gains traction among blue-chip players.

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BELLEVUE, Wash.--If you have a PC connected to the Internet, odds are you've tried your hand at a casual game like Bejeweled, Tetris, Yahoo! Hearts, or Zuma over the past several years. These games are some of the championship-level contenders in the casual class. They're easy to pick up, hard to put down, inexpensive to play, and appealing to demographics outside the traditional 18- to 34-year-old male "gamer" set.

For the past decade, false technological starts and failed business models have kept this steadily growing segment of the video game industry in the shadow of console, PC, and even mobile games. However, the robust showing at the inaugural Casual Games Conference in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue belied the subject material's supposedly trivial nature.

Hundreds of enthusiastic developers, publishers, and businesspeople--including delegations from heavy hitters like Microsoft, Real Networks, Nokia, and Electronic Arts--turned out for the first day's sessions, which focused on casual gaming's burgeoning revenues (estimated to grow from $600 million last year to $2 billion in 2008) and immense versatility.

Many of the roundtables discussed the special advantages and opportunities afforded by the casual model, as well as the potential pitfalls. For instance, casual games are both supported and constrained by the unique feedback link between a particular game's provider and its players, said Daniel James of Three Rings, the British developer behind the cult multiplayer hit Puzzle Pirates.

Thanks to involved communities of casual gamers, "It's a challenge to do anything but make the game better," noted James in the multiplayer panel. Vocal customers, James said, will mobilize to provide real-time feedback throughout the product's life cycle. Puzzle Pirates players are anything but casual, according to James, since they average about three hours of play per day.

At the same time, countered Jim Greer of EA's Pogo games channel, "It's hard to keep everyone happy." He cited the example of a Bingo game during Pogo's early days that went live with a bug that let all players win simultaneously. When Pogo attempted to fix the bug to make the game competitive, the players, who were mostly middle-aged women, revolted. Pogo kept the buggy game on and rebranded it as "Shared Bingo."

Greer highlighted the importance of distinguishing between competitive players and communitarian players, as well as weighting the game mix accordingly. "Only a small fraction of World of Warcraft players are interested in fighting each other," Greer pointed out. EA's Club Pogo subscription channel boasts 100 percent annual growth. It currently stands at 800,000 customers, who pay five dollars for a handful of new, premium games each month.

Another important trend discussed was the advent of alternative pricing and payment models for casual games, including solutions like in-game micropurchases and "advergaming."

While most casual games purchases in the US today are almost uniformly limited to credit card transactions over the Internet, many European and Asian services have developed more-creative payment vectors. In fact, gamers who play Habbo Hotel, an MMO casual game from Finnish publisher Sulake Corporation, have more than 160 ways to pay for their virtual hotel rooms' furniture, including SMS messaging and prepaid cards.

Usually, players will buy virtual cash in larger $10 to $50 blocks, and then they'll spend it gradually on room upgrades, which they can trade off later. Most panelists agreed that this sales model showed much promise, although Susan Choe of NHN US cautioned that people have been literally murdered over virtual property in Asia. "Some of these online assets are very real," Choe said.

An alternate philosophy for monetizing casual games is advergaming, or making games that promote a brand for a commission. Alex St. John of WildTangent claimed that television advertising is in the process of deteriorating, since many kids are now principally entertained by video games. "Advergaming actually attracts consumers," said St. John, who added that his company's branded games averaged 45 minutes to an hour of play time.

Dynamic ad placement in console games is another indication of the change, said St. John. He was seconded by Alan Miller of Skyworks, a leading provider of casual advergames, who indicated that his company has 10 portable games under development for the Game Boy Advance and the Nintendo DS.

Whichever the platform of choice, today's proceedings made it clear that casual gamers are both playing in droves and ready to spend. The result is a renewed interest by traditional gaming companies angling to establish hegemony in this promising sector. Casual or not, everyone at this week's conference knows the stakes are high. And everyone's ready to compete for his or her share of the $2 billion pie.

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