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Casual games -- good, clean, cheap fun online

By Marc Saltzman
Gannett News Service

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Casual games like "Bejeweled 2" have become one of the fastest-growing gaming categories.

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Casual games, those five-minute diversions you play for a quick break but somehow end up clicking away on for two hours, have become one of the fastest-growing categories of computer gaming.

While sales of boxed PC games at retail are on a steep decline -- 38 million games sold in the United States for 2005 compared with 47 million games sold in 2004, according to retail marking consultant the NPD Group -- casual games are now enjoyed by an estimated 100 million PC users, according to comScore Media Metrix.

And this doesn't include the tens of millions of consumers who play casual games on cell phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs).

"Casual games are typically defined as nonviolent puzzle, word, trivia and classic arcade-style games that generally appeal to all ages and both genders," explains David Roberts, chief executive officer of PopCap Games, the makers of popular time-wasters such as "Bejeweled 2," "Chuzzle," "Bookworm" and "Zuma."

Casual games are also distinguished by the fact that the vast majority of them are sold online via download using a try-before-you-buy sales model.

Gamers can try out the title for 30 or 60 minutes before being asked to cough up a small fee (usually under $20) to keep playing. PopCap says its games have been downloaded more than 175 million times over the past four and a half years.

Many casual games are free to play online, but are usually limited in some way, such as the inability of players to save their progress midgame or post a high-score.

If you compare this with the traditional retail model -- buying a boxed game that can cost up to $60, without knowing if you're going to like the product -- it's no wonder casual games are fast becoming a preferred choice among PC players.

Getting into the game

Casual games are becoming so popular, some of the Web's top sites are offering a downloadable or online casual games page, including USA TODAY, Yahoo Inc., CNET and AOL, which like CNN is owned by Time Warner.

Some companies, such as Real Networks, have created a custom front-end program for players to browse and launch casual games; the downloadable RealArcade software lets you test-drive more than 300 casual games.

Similarly, WildTangent, which began offering downloadable casual games in 1999, says its WildTangent software has been downloaded more than 110 million times.

Its top game is "Polar Bowler," which has been played more than 75 million times. WildTangent has also paired with PC manufacturers Dell and Hewlett-Packard to provide casual games on an estimated 20 million new laptop and desktop computers this year alone.

Under the Gamezebo

Launched in January, Gamezebo is billed as the first Web site solely devoted to covering the casual games space.

The new electronic magazine offers reviews and ratings on all the latest casual titles, as well as previews on upcoming ones.

"Gamezebo celebrates casual games in the same way TV Guide celebrates television," explains Joel Brodie, president of Gamezebo.

"Traditional video games are to MTV as casual games are to 'Oprah' or 'Desperate Housewives," ' adds Brodie. "Video games often appeal to young boys, (while) casual games appeal to their moms, and increasingly, their dads and grandparents ... but especially women."

PopCap agrees adult women make up a large percentage of the casual gaming audience: Of the 7 million unique visitors to the PopCap Web site each month, 58 percent are female and 75 percent are over the age of 35.

Guys, too

AOL says it's not just female gamers who prefer casual games to violent shoot 'em-ups which are so popular on the Microsoft Xbox and Sony PlayStation 2.

AOL Games recently launched two new offerings that strongly appeal to the male demographic, including "World Series of Poker" and "World Series of Blackjack" in partnership with GSN (Game Show Network).

"By aligning AOL with two prestigious brands, we are able to create the ultimate online destination for casino game enthusiasts as they test their skills and get the chance to win seats at high profile tournaments," says Ralph Rivera, vice president and general manager of AOL Games.

Rivera says more than 8 million consumers visit AOL Games each month, making it one of the most popular activities on AOL rivaled only by e-mail and instant messaging.

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