Page last updated at 16:53 GMT, Friday, 18 July 2008 17:53 UK

Casual games make serious profits

While big-budget, violent, "hardcore" games grab the headlines, Spencer Kelly talks to industry leaders in casual gaming, and finds that it is a growing and highly profitable area.

Woman playing with a Nintendo Wii
Nintendo Wii outsells the combined total of PlayStation3 and Xbox 360s

Of all the three next generation video games consoles, it would have been a brave man to put money on the Nintendo Wii coming out on top.

After all, the Wii does not have the processing power of the Xbox 360 or the PS3, but then Wii games are not meant to have impressive graphics or realistic sound. They are just meant to be fun.

They are games that can be picked up in a matter of minutes by anyone.

Wii games occupy the "casual gaming" space. And in fact casual games have been around for a few years on the PC too.

What is the definition of a "casual game"? Iris Williams, a programmer for GameHouse, describes it as: "the basic game that has to be fun before you add all the bling - all the sounds, all the art. Fun is the biggest thing."

Serious fun

GameHouse is one of many casual gaming companies based in Seattle.

Comupter game of solitaire
Solitaire is the most successful of all casual games

Looking round its offices, (on one of the children's scooters thoughtfully provided), the toys, fairy lights, bright colours and fairground-style sculptures could have you thinking you had walked into a pre-school playroom instead of a business.

But the video gaming industry is big business, and the garish surroundings are very far from child's play. They are there to foster creativity, and new ideas cover every surface.

Iris Williams says the development process is taken very seriously. "If we have a good idea, the first thing we do is to put together a prototype, which is a real fast and dirty game, to see if it's fun.

"Sometimes it's fun when you put it on a black board or a white board, but when you actually go to play it then it's not fun any more".

Derrick Morton, boss of believes ease of use and fun are the overriding considerations:

"People are looking for a break. So they go through their whole day with a little bit of stress, maybe they have a job which requires high concentration, they have meetings, they have school work, they have homework.

"When they come to a casual game they want something which only takes a portion of their brain, to let that other portion of their brain take a break and not have to think about the world and what just happened."

The three most popular casual games in history are Solitaire, Tetris and Bejeweled, in that order.

All three can be picked up in seconds and played by anyone of any age. And that means that while hardcore games are the playthings of the under 30 year old male, the potential casual gaming audience is much bigger.

Big business

Today's casual game market is booming. Online portals offer hundreds, or even thousands of games each.

Person playing a game on a mobile
Mobiles are an expanding market for casual games

Puzzle games, maze games, board games, all harking back to the good old days when fully animated backgrounds were the stuff of science fiction, and home computers and coin-ops did not have a pixel shader between them.

Daniel Bernstein, CEO of Sandlot Games thinks that calling these games "casual" is a bit of a misnomer now:

"We're talking about mainstream games. It is everybody who's not a hardcore Halo, Grand Theft Auto player (that) is going to play a casual game".

Last year, the casual games industry was estimated to be worth $2.25bn (1.17bn).

Low cost

Compared with the big budget, show-stopping hardcore games grabbing the headlines at E3, the figures involved in the development of casual games are miniscule.

They can take around six months to develop - from original idea to publishing. GameHouse says it can turn out 40 games in a year.

Says Ms Williams: "The thing about casual games is they're easy to learn how to play but you want to give the customer depth long term, so we have to put power-ups into them and make them very exciting by putting in different power-ups".

And never mind the realism of the trees, or the fur, or the grass, catchy tunes and simple cartoon-style artwork are the order of the day.

With higher speed broadband, even casual games can weigh in at a 50MB download, although even here, the size of the actual programs is surprising. The executable is about 3KBs, while the remainder is artwork and sound.

Money spinners

Maybe the most important statistic to compare between hardcore and casual games is how they make money. Perhaps you can justify spending $50 (25) on a title that you buy once and spend three or six months playing, but not for a simple pick up and put down game.

Some games give you a free trial, after which you pay a few dollars to download the full version. Others allow you to play for free. They make their money from advertising which surrounds or even interrupts the game.

However, a new type of payment method, the microtransaction, is already popular in some parts of the world.

Jessica Tams of the Casual Games Association explains: "They create a product which you give away for free.

"So it doesn't matter if they steal it, they actually want people to steal it, because that way more people play.

"Then what they do is they sell little add-ons to the characters, or to the game, so that the consumers have to pay money, so even if they pirate the game, they still have to pay. And then they pay as much as they want."

And of course the easier the game is to play, the easier it is to port to mobile devices, which can be a real money spinner too.

How mobile got its game on
20 Feb 08 |  Technology

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