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More gamers going with the likes of 'fl0w'

Casual video games are easier to develop and play than complex titles.

August 28, 2007|Alex Pham | Times Staff Writer

As video games go, there's not much to "fl0w."

The graphics are two-dimensional. There aren't any points to win or lose. Nothing explodes.

But the game, which lets players maneuver plankton-like creatures through a hypnotic primordial soup, has been a hit. It's the most downloaded PlayStation 3 game, and critics have given it high marks -- Gamespot.com called it "honest-to-God fun."

Fun and video games don't always go hand in hand. The complexity of many games has increased dramatically, especially when it comes to game consoles, requiring dedication and button-mashing dexterity that the average person doesn't possess.

But games like "fl0w" are on the cutting edge of a counter-movement toward games that are quick and enjoyable and don't require weeks to learn.

Long derided by the industry, so-called casual games are now seen as an antidote to the lengthy development cycles and bloated budgets of such big console games as "Madden NFL" and "Halo" -- which, like a Hollywood movie, can bring in big profits or flop spectacularly.

"It's the biggest thing happening right now in the games business," said IDC analyst Billy Pidgeon.

The casual games category comprises a wide range of offerings, including "fl0w," "Solitaire" and online puzzlers such as "Sudoku," played on platforms including consoles, personal computers and cellphones. The Casual Games Assn., a trade group, estimates that 150 million people worldwide -- many outside the demographic of typical gamers -- play them.

Publishers like the games because they're relatively cheap to produce. Developers like the instant gratification of being able to create a game in months rather than years. And there are more game consoles, such as the Wii and several hand-held systems, on which to play them.

"It requires some level of concentration, but not really deep thought," said David Little, 66, a research programmer in San Diego who plays "Sudoku" on his PC.

Jason Schutte, a 29-year-old marketing consultant in Milwaukee, is a dedicated gamer who uses "Collapse," a puzzler, and other short casual games as the equivalent of a brain detox.

"It clears my mind," he said.

Players are expected to shell out $1.2 billion in 2012 to download casual games to computers, up from more than $430 million last year, according to market research firm DFC Intelligence. When revenue from subscriptions to and advertising on casual gaming sites are tossed in, the figure is expected to reach $2.3 billion by 2012 from $932 million in 2006.

And that doesn't include sales from games downloaded onto consoles such as Sony Corp.'s PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360.

In November 2005, Microsoft launched an online marketplace, Xbox Live Arcade, which lets players purchase games to download to their consoles. Sony followed last year with PlayStation Network, and Nintendo Co. also has an online shop for its Wii consoles.

Digital distribution via game consoles gave smaller games a new sales outlet that's more consistent than retail. Stores tend to cycle through titles much faster, causing sales to drop off sharply within weeks of release.

It also has benefited the console makers. Microsoft has sold $30 million worth of casual games since launching Arcade, according to Parks Associates, a media consulting firm in Dallas. Sales were so brisk that Microsoft boosted Arcade's revenue projections three times in the first six months.

"We hit our annual projections within a couple of weeks," said Bryan Trussel, Microsoft's director of content and portals.

Casual games are relatively new to consoles, but they've been big business on personal computers for years.

Yahoo Inc. uses games to keep people on its ad-filled website. RealNetworks Inc.'s Real Arcade sells downloadable games as well as monthly subscriptions to its 550 titles. Neopets, owned by Viacom Inc.'s MTV Networks, and GoPets generate revenue from sales of virtual items.

"Casual games have the advantage of having multiple business models," said James Kuai, an analyst with Parks Associates. In a recent Parks survey, 34% of consumers play online casual games at least once a week, compared with 29% who watch online videos and 19% who use social networking sites.

"Wii Sports" has also changed the way people perceive casual games. The series of quick, easy games ensnared a broad array of players, from senior citizens who had never before played video games to 17-year-old devotees. The success of "Wii Sports" opened publishers' eyes to the potential.

"Wii helped support the cause," said Kathy Vrabeck, president of casual entertainment at Electronic Arts Inc.

Showing the importance of the category, Vrabeck's was one of the four main business units left standing when EA, the world's largest independent game publisher, reorganized this year.

Game companies like that development costs for casual games are substantially lower than traditional console games: a few hundred thousand or a million apiece, compared with more than $25 million for big-name titles.

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