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E3 Feature: Casual Games Focus

Although games such as Snood and Collapse have been around for years (MSN Games is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, in fact), casual gaming has recently started to really hit its stride.

Mass appeal

Casual or mainstream gaming is a big attraction. Just look at the numbers: EA's Club Pogo has attracted 1.2 million paying subscribers in just over two years, while MSN Games attracts more than 9 million unique users each month.

Although the success is no doubt due in part to the increase in the number of homes with PCs and Internet service, that doesn't tell the whole story. Casual games are finding a huge audience because they're easy to learn, last only a few minutes, and can be abandoned for long stretches of time without players experiencing any real degradation in skills. In short, they fit in perfectly with the lifestyles of adults trying to squeeze some fun into schedules already chock full of appointments, responsibilities, and obligations.

"Games have to be fun, quick, and approachable, with the most important element being approachability," explains Chris Early, studio manager for Microsoft Casual Games. "Players should be able to jump right into a game without having to spend too much time trying to figure out how to play it. If it takes more than five minutes to become fully immersed, that's too long."

First one's free

Casual gaming does more than just fit into active lifestyles, however. Casual gaming sites have the flexibility to offer the consumer a risk-free gaming experience, allowing them to play online or trial versions of games as many times as they like without ever having to spend a single dime. Sites that work on a subscription basis, such as GameTap, offer free two-week trials, allowing players to get a real feel for what the site has to offer before devoting any actual cash to it. In either scenario, the consumer has all the power and gets exactly the kind of game experience he wants and it's a strategy that works. At Club Pogo, more than 90 percent of all trial members convert to paying subscribers, a statistic sure to make most developers salivate.

Stuart Snyder, senior VP and general manager of GameTap, thinks that this pricing structure is key to winning over the average consumer. "GameTap's value proposition of more than 400 games at just $9.95 a month is really appealing to the mass market, especially with disposable income at a premium for subscription-based services like TiVo, Netflix, et cetera," he says.

Everyone else is doing it, why don't we?

Casual games are fast to make, have surprising longevity, and reach audiences that hardcore games don't. But there are challenges. A quick tour of gaming sites illustrates the single biggest issue plaguing the casual game market. Although some casual games are unique, most are knockoffs of older games, or of each other. The gems of Bejeweled have been replaced with fruit in one copy, and the furry little Chuzzles have become flowers in another. Enticing gamers not only to play, but to stay is becoming more and more difficult for casual sites.

AOL's approach is to reach out to a segment of the casual gaming population that's often overlooked: men. Says Ralph Rivera, general manager and VP, AOL Games, " offers a wide selection of games…that appeal to game fans of all kinds, not just women. While women tend to prefer word and puzzle games, men are more likely to enjoy arcade-style games and casino games. Casino games such as poker are among the most played games on AOL, so we decided to take it a step further by partnering with World Series of Poker to create an area on AOL dedicated to all things poker." AOL also offered tangible benefits for playing, by giving players the chance to win a seat at offline World Series of Poker competitions.

GameTap attempts to stand out by providing unique services for its customers. "GameTap is games-on-demand meets original programming via a broadband-connected PC," says Richardo Sanchez, VP of content. "No other on-demand service offers both games and shows." GameTap recently announced GameTap TV, which boasts more than 250 videos on demand. New GameTap programs include the "GameTap Survival Guide," in which experts teach noobs all they need to know to master particular games, and "Hyper 5," a countdown show spotlighting the "wild, weird, and whacked elements of games."

MSN chooses to emphasize the community aspect of gaming. Says Early, "Choosing where to play your favorite casual games such as Bejeweled or Zuma can be compared to where you choose to drink your favorite beer. You can buy Corona at any bar, pub, or grocery store, but most choose to drink it at their local haunt; the place where they feel most comfortable and can socialize with their friends. We believe gaming communities are very similar; users will return to the site where their friends are and to the place they're most familiar and comfortable with as long as it continues to offer their favorite games." To that end, Microsoft offers its games across multiple platforms, including MSN Games, Messenger Games (played through the IM program MSN Messenger), and Xbox Live Arcade. "Windows XP Games, Messenger Games, and Xbox Live Arcade are great ways to stay connected with friends and family," Early points out.

Will it be enough to distinguish them from Yahoo, MumboJumbo, SkillJam, PopCap, or RealArcade? Tough to say, but competition breeds creativity, so the outcome, whatever it is, should be exciting to see.

Arcade Heroes

Hardcore gamers are not immune to the allure of so-called casual games. Ask an Xbox 360 owner what he plays most on his shiny new machine and the answer very well may be Geometry Wars, a simple arcade-style shooter available from Xbox Live Arcade.

Arcade's seamless integration into the 360 has done the unthinkable: bridged the gap between serious and casual gaming. Chris Early, studio manager for Microsoft Casual Games, isn't that terribly surprised. "Serious gamers like games of all shapes and sizes, as long as they are engaging and fun. Moreover, many of them are short on time. Retro classics, action arcade titles, light strategy games, and the more traditional casual genres like puzzle and card games all resonate with this gamer, since they are all fun, quick experiences with high repeat play value," he says. This year, Microsoft expects to add 50 to 60 new titles to its Arcade lineup, which already includes favorites like Marbleblast, Zuma, and Hexic.

Early is also excited about the chance to work with smaller developers on these new titles. The lower cost of production opens up the development field to a whole new roster of companies, providing a breath of fresh air in an industry that can sometimes suffer from a feeling of stagnation. "Developing games for Arcade is now easier than ever, and our suite of developer tools…allows developers to be focused on great gameplay rather than code, encouraging creativity and risk-taking," he says.

The success of Xbox Live Arcade may force the industry to rethink its approach to new products. For years, the emphasis has been on more: more realistic, more characters on screen, more immersive, more polygons, more hours of gameplay. While the audience demand for more is clearly compelling, it seems that there's just as lively a market for less.

The Big Boys Get Involved

"With the rising cost of developing next-generation titles, game publishers need to court both the hardcore and casual gamer to remain viable," says GameTap's senior VP and general manager Stuart Snyder. It seems that some major publishers are beginning to agree with him.

EA entered the casual gaming ring with, and THQ is taking a crack at the casual market with its Slingdot site. Although Slingdot offers much that other sites do community, free games, a chat function it also has exclusive titles and no advertising, a relative rarity in the casual gaming market. Part of the appeal of casual games for developers is that players tend not to mind when the games are surrounded by ads, so long as those ads don't interfere with the gameplay. It's a simple way to make easy money, so Slingdot's decision to go ad-free is both surprising and daring.

Pogo has already proven to be a successful outing for EA, with the average Club Pogo player spending about two hours a day on the site. "The ability to chat online helped spread the community," says Andrew Pederson, executive producer of EA's Pogo. "We have 300,000 people playing online at any one time." Companies looking to break into the casual gaming arena might want to consider following EA and THQ's lead by creating a new brand name. "Because we are not seen as a typical EA brand, we have a lot more opportunity to try new things," observes Pederson.

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