Casual video-game market grows

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      Marc Saltzman can't get enough of Plants vs. Zombies. Of all the games the Toronto-based video-game journalist could be playing, the one keeping him up at night is this Windows and Mac title, a so-called casual game that has players use plants to defend virtual homes from hordes of zombies.

      Plants vs. Zombies is incredibly compelling, Saltzman told the Georgia Straight at last month's Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles. In a later phone interview, Saltzman took a stab at defining what a casual game is.

      “Accessible, inexpensive, easy to pick up, yet impossible to put down,” he said.

      The “casual” moniker can be misleading. In an interview, Garth Chouteau, spokesperson for Seattle-based PopCap Games, told the Straight that all games, even the casual titles his company specializes in, have hard-core elements. Which is why, he explained, there are casual gamers who are as committed to playing as fans of shooter games, like the stay-at-home mom who plays hidden-object games in the afternoon, or the businessperson who plays tower-defence games during conference calls.

      “The best Zuma player is a grandmother in California,” Chouteau said by phone from his San Francisco office, referring to the PopCap puzzle game.

      Scott McRae, CEO of Jolly Bear Games, echoed Chouteau's statements.

      “There's nothing casual about how people play these games,” McRae told the Straight by phone from his home office in North Vancouver.

      Not long ago, casual games were defined by the platform they ran on: the PC. According to the Nielsen Company's “The State of the Video Gamer”, a report concerning the fourth quarter of 2008, the most- played games on the PC are still the card games—Solitaire, FreeCell, and Hearts—that ship free with Microsoft's Windows operating systems.

      In the past few years, McRae said, the casual-games category has evolved into something bigger as developers and publishers have capitalized on the opportunity presented by game consoles' digital-distribution channels—namely the PlayStation Network, WiiWare, and Xbox Live Arcade—not to mention social-networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, and smartphones like the Nokia Nseries, the BlackBerry, and the iPhone.

      Chouteau asserted that casual games are where the innovation is happening in the industry: “These are the games that everyone enjoys playing.” That explains why the casual-games sector is growing faster than the rest of the video-game industry, he said, and shows no signs of slowing.

      According to the Casual Games Association, more than 200 million people are playing casual games via the Internet worldwide. The industry's revenues from mobile, PC, Mac, and Xbox Live Arcade titles totalled more than US$2.25 billion in 2007. The association will hold its North American Casual Connect conference in Seattle from July 21 to 23 this year.

      In an interview with the Straight in February, Paul Lee, cofounder of the Vancouver-based venture-capital firm Vanedge Capital, said that one problem casual-games developers face is that “There's now tens of thousands of [casual] games being released, and only a handful are breaking through the noise.”

      The intense competition has led to improvements in quality, even as the prices of games drop, according to Jolly Bear's McRae. Game art, in particular, has gotten better, and developers are including more content with each release. McRae said that the price of a downloadable PC game has dropped from $20 to as low as $6 since he started developing casual titles in 2005.

      Saltzman appreciates the fact that there are casual games that don't take 200 hours to complete or require complex button combinations. “My kids, who are four and six, can play the same game I do,” Saltzman said. “And I'm 39.”