games reporter

Vid game near-future calls for casual attire

From a developer's point of view, casual games are the place to be. They're relatively quick and cheap to create, simple to distribute, and the easy-to-learn video games appeal to such a huge audience that the more that can be made, the merrier.

Not so, says one prominent industry analyst, who warns that even though a large supply is needed to satisfy all the platforms that offer casual games — from mobile devices and PC portals to video game consoles and even in-flight entertainment — a glut might be on the horizon.

"Everyone is jumping on board — every media company, every small garage, even companies that you'd never suspect would be in gaming," UBS' Ben Schachter says. "That's because a small investment can get you into the business; there aren't a ton of barriers to entry."

Further evidence of casual games' skyrocketing popularity is the surprising success of Nintendo's Wii. The next-generation game console is proof positive that there are those consumers who don't necessarily consider themselves gamers, who are outside the usual target demographic of 18- to 35-year-old males and who still will go out and buy a game machine that doesn't necessarily appeal to so-called hard-core gamers.

In June, video game giant Electronic Arts reorganized and created a Casual Entertainment Group that now oversees not only the typical small, downloadable games that the company makes available on its Pogo.com portal but also all of its mobile and family-friendly games.

The group's first offering was this month's release of "Boogie" for the Wii that allows gamers to use the packaged microphone to score points by showing off their karaoke and dancing skills.

Similarly, EA recently signed an agreement with toy manufacturer Hasbro to create casual games based on some of its original brands, which include Monopoly, Scrabble, Yahtzee, Nerf and Tonka. The first several games — none of which has been announced — are scheduled to launch next year on multiple platforms.

EA's plan to release Hasbro games in a year or less is testimony to the fact that the development time for casual games is considerably quicker than the two or three years it takes to build a triple-A title for hard-core gamers.

"Because casual games are less man-hour intensive, they cost less to make, which is one of the opportunities EA sees in this space," says Kathy Vrabeck, recently named president of the Casual Entertainment Group after serving as president of Activision's publishing division. "But just because online games have an infinite amount of 'retail space' doesn't mean we intend to dump a bunch of games into the marketplace and create a glut."

EA's announcement to reorganize around casual games didn't come as a complete surprise; after all, it has owned and operated Pogo since 2001.

"What was so interesting about EA's move," Schachter says, "is that it was a statement by the 700-pound gorilla of the video games industry that casual games have become a critical focus of theirs and that they are in fact reorganizing the world's largest games publisher in order to deal with casual games in a better way than they had in the past. In effect, EA was acknowledging how important casual games have become."

Schachter offers this advice to major companies still considering whether to invest in casual games: "Decide what you want to accomplish. Do you want to make money off of the games? Do you want to use games as a promotional vehicle? Are you willing to enter the space full-steam ahead, or is this some halfhearted attempt to be trendy? To be successful, you need to make a decision and stick with it."
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