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Making a Case for Casual Gaming

Sometimes you just have to take a break from saving the galaxy, rescuing the princess and shoving a double-barreled shotgun up some evil alien’s rump ? family, life and work schedules simply demand it.

Which is precisely where the concept of casual games (user-friendly, coffee break-style diversions with straightforward play mechanics, catchy themes, and value-friendly price points) come in, as I so recently rediscovered.

Touting the virtues of these offerings is one thing. Analysts such as DFC Intelligence predict the North American market for such amusements will grow from a reported $281 million in sales this year to over $1.15 billion by 2011. Hundreds upon thousands of people already flock to online providers like and AOL Games, the vast majority women aged 35 to 54, a market undreamt of by traditional videogame publishers. And hey, seriously? Let’s face facts. What’s not to love about gray matter- or reflex-intensive digital diversions suitable for all ages that parents, kids and even bored 9-to-5ers alike can jump right into and out of at a moment’s notice?

As for physically diving in and observing why casual games are so darn compelling firsthand, that’s another ball of wax entirely. Case in point: Titles like 10 Talismans, Super Pop & Drop, Bricks of Atlantis, Zuma, Jewel Quest, Mystery Case Files: Huntsville, LEGO Bricktopia and Saints & Sinners Bowling.

Prior to penning this article, I had a rotten week at work. Multiple features were due, editors kept calling and requesting major changes and the closer deadlines loomed, the more unforeseen distractions and last-minute emergencies started cropping up. Taking a break to unwind with a little Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories or Urban Chaos: Riot Response was, quite plainly, out of the question.

Nonetheless, I managed to sneak in time with not one or two, but all of the aforementioned stress relievers. Even stranger still, I actually managed to fully complete several, which is more than I can say for a single set-top console or PC outing in the last six months. (Never mind that my innate preferences naturally lean towards complex role-playing games, sprawling adventures and epic battlefield simulations.)

There isn’t simply a feeling of accomplishment there. You also have to take into account the fact a nervous breakdown was neatly avoided. Try squeezing in a couple rounds of Halo 2 or NFL Head Coach between your daily spate of meetings, sales calls and presentations. Yep, not so feasible, is it?

What’s interesting too is that the phenomenon, once solely confined to desktop and notebook computers, is making major inroads into the console marketplace.

Given that we’re in a transition year, with sales projections especially precarious, publishers such as Activision, Electronics Arts and UbiSoft are increasingly aware of the need to reach out to a larger, more mainstream audience. Their plan for doing so: Offering cheap, high-quality amusements that actually speak to shoppers who don’t worship Vans Warped Tour-headlining bands or appreciate the virtues of bling and body piercing, for once.

Nintendo’s new Touch Generations series for the DS proves a ready example.

Standout selections such as Sudoku Gridmaster, Big Brain Academy and Brain Age are clearly targeted at casual buyers, and a proposed means of expanding the industry’s reach. Each can be played satisfyingly within a single 10-minute session and appreciated by almost anyone to boot. What’s more, all prove handy sources of entertainment for those operating on exceptionally tight schedules, whether on the go or in a pinch.

Not to be outdone, Microsoft, via its Xbox Live Arcade platform, has additionally been racking up accolades from critics and consumers alike.

The service, which lets Xbox 360 owners purchase and download classic arcade titles, independently developed games and episodic content straight to their system, has already scored massive hits in Uno and Geometry Wars. Retailing between $4.99 and $14.99, featured selections target a variety of age and interest groups, and have enhanced the machine’s reputation as a must-have part of any modern living room setup.

Even Sony’s showing signs of interest in the market, with the PlayStation 2 now supporting a range of sub-$20 dollar titles in random categories from drag racing to bowling and billiards. One glance at the shelves at your local Target or Wal-Mart says it all. To wit: Trivia titles like The Bible Game and interactive shooting gallery NRA Gun Club aren’t exactly aimed at the same folks playing Hitman: Blood Money and Splinter Cell: Double Agent.

All of which calls into question the industry’s previous definition of a gamer (spiky-haired teenage boys) and the inherent validity of 40-50 hour magnum opuses (The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, we’re looking at you). Meaning that while suitable for some folks, the old ways of doing business aren’t necessarily the ones that jive best with the future of the marketplace.

Hence you don’t necessarily need a free afternoon, hundreds of extra dollars or a spare sick day here and there to appreciate the best the biz has to offer. Courtesy of forward-thinking manufacturers like PopCap, Reflexive, RealArcade, MumboJumbo and Big Fish Games, tomorrow’s interactive entertainment industry looks a whole lot brighter. Not to mention, that is, infinitely more capable of fitting in with everyone’s increasingly crowded daily routine.

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