Did you snap up games like Company of Heroes, Oblivion and Medieval II: Total War as soon as they were released? Are you almost unable to contain your anticipation for the likes of BioShock, Spore and Hellgate: London? Do you have a kick-ass gaming rig that’s the envy of all your friends? If so, you’re a hardcore gamer. And like me, you’re not the future of PC gaming.

How can this be? Well, it’s because there aren’t all that many of us. According to an Entertainment Software Association report, 39.4 million games were sold in the U.S. last year. If we arbitrarily assume the average hardcore gamer bought six, it means there were at most 6.6 million of us. Factor in those who bought fewer or raise the average quantity, and it’s pretty credible to peg us between 2 and 3 million, less than 1 percent of the country’s population. And since units rose only 1.5 percent over 2005, our numbers aren’t exactly exploding.

On the other hand, the Casual Games Association reported North American sales of $314 million in 2005 and shot up to $690 million in 2006. While monetarily smaller, it’s also indisputable that this sector is numerically far larger, with more than 150 million people worldwide playing free casual games via the internet. It’s not the future of PC gaming, it’s the present. The dollars just haven’t caught up yet, but they will.

“Hey, wait a second,” you say. “What about World of Warcraft and its 9 million subscribers?” The situation is similar. WoW brings in more money, but a number of casual online games have more users. For example, Audition Online has over 120 million registered accounts internationally. Even if we figure 75 percent of those accounts are players’ second and third accounts, we’re still left with a whopping 30 million individual users – more than triple that of WoW.

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WildTangent CEO Alex St. John is of the opinion that casual gaming is “unequivocally today.” He estimates the U.S. has about 2 million hardcore gamers compared to 143 million casual. “Over 90 percent of games are sold to people who are not young male gamers,” he says. “Hardcore gamers aren’t even the primary customers for traditionally hardcore games anymore. They represent only a tiny minority of the PC gaming audience; 65 percent of people with computers play games on them. It’s the number one online activity, after email and chat.”

PopCap Games has sold over 10 million copies of its landmark property, Bejeweled, even though the basic version is available for free over the web. James Gwertzman, the company’s Director of Business Development, feels the huge casual market was there years ago, just untapped. Lots of people were playing games like Minesweeper and Windows solitaire because little else was readily accessible. The internet made a much broader selection easily available, but it wasn’t until the dot-com bubble burst, which meant ad-supported web games were no longer commercially viable, that PopCap learned – out of desperation – that people would purchase deluxe editions on a shareware-like, try-before-you-buy basis.

In Korea, where consoles were almost absent, piracy issues made creating client-based games impractical, so the developers focused on server-based ones. There too, companies found that free play could lead to sales. However, the revenue model that evolved was predicated on selling items, not the games themselves. According to Min Kim, U.S. Director of Operations for Nexon America, his company led the way in the virtual item market. “This business model was critical to casual gaming,” he says, “as subscription models do not lend themselves to attracting the casual online gamer.”

Removing the subscription barrier to entry worked because if players had fun, they didn’t mind making small, optional payments to enhance their play. Indeed, it’s far from unknown for those who buy items to spend far more than what a subscription would have cost, had it been available. The model also helped expand the total audience. “The logic is very clear,” says Kim. “There will always be room for great subscription products. However, how many will a person play? One? Two? Nexon’s casual games such as MapleStory and KartRider offer hardcore players alternative, free playing experiences while growing the overall population of gamers.”

At NetDevil, Ryan Seabury is the Producer on LEGO Universe, a massively multiplayer online game that, while not necessarily casual, is primarily aimed at children. He agrees with Kim. “Look at Runescape or Club Penguin,” he says. “They’re very low-spec browser games with millions of players, almost all of whom came from outside the hardcore PC gamer market.” While recognizing that there will always be some people willing to pay for the highest-end gaming rigs and spend hours playing every day, he understands the total PC user base is “several orders of magnitude larger,” and that “as an industry, we’d be foolish to ignore them.”

James Gwertzman sees the industry evolving in a way that makes ignoring any segment less likely. In his view, there’s considerable overlap, more like concentric circles than a Venn diagram. “Traditional hardcore games appeal to a fairly small, albeit passionate, audience,” he says. “Advanced casual games appeal to a slightly broader circle, and traditional casual games appeal to the broadest circle of them all. But hardcore gamers play Zuma, too, and as the latest example, Peggle is a huge hit with the editorial staffs of most of the hardcore gamer publications!”

St. John also regards the distinction between casual and hardcore as artificial. “Casual gaming is not a demographic, it’s a behavior,” he says. “Very few people just go to movies and refuse to watch television, or vice versa. Hardcore gamers are just really enthusiastic gamers; they play everything, including the light casual games. They may be less likely to buy them, but they play the heck out of them.”

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“A fun game is a fun game, no matter how you look at it,” adds Seabury. “There are countless examples of this … Tetris, Pac-Man, Geometry Wars, Wii Sports. Fundamentally, both audiences look for the same things: accessible fun that turns into engaging depth over time, something that feels rewarding for the time invested. In another domain, all Pixar movies could be classified as for kids, but they’re layered with superior technical execution, adult innuendo and cinematic excellence. They succeed in creating entertainment that satisfies almost every demographic, and there’s no reason games can’t do this, too.”

In this regard, Gwertzman offers a word of caution, since movies are passive entertainment, while games are interactive. Although they share many elements, including soundtracks, computer graphics and storylines, “few movies cross over successfully into games, and it’s not because people haven’t tried hard enough in the past. It’s because they’re fundamentally mismatched mediums.”

Nexon’s Kim also feels the market is converging. “Currently, in North America, I feel we are at a stage where many players are ready for both hardcore and casual online games,” he says. “It’s not just an issue of styles, but also accessibility, cost, genres and community. World of Warcraft proved the right offering with a good community can please hardcore and non-hardcore gamers at once.”

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“A well-designed casual game appeals to everyone,” says PopCap’s Gwertzman. “What it doesn’t have are needlessly complex controls or user manuals that are dozens of pages long. Since I entered the casual game space, I’ve become appalled at games that think it’s OK to ask the player to master a dozen types of key combinations in the first 20 minutes. I think that’s the product of poor design! It’s almost always possible to simplify the UI and make the game appeal to a wider audience.”

At present, many companies are working to attract substantially larger and broader audiences through a varied spectrum of initiatives. For example, NetDevil’s LEGO Universe is primarily aimed at kids and based on a cherished IP that stands for child safety, family friendliness and accessibility. Nexon has launched Audition Online in North America; in the Far East, half the title’s registered users are female. The company has also established a strategic marketing partnership with MTV, and rumors continue to circulate about a virtual world for the latter’s Neopets property.

WildTangent is pioneering a revolutionary business model called “sponsored sessions.” It’s based on the understanding that boxed games are seldom completed in a single sitting. What the company does is offer a choice. You can purchase its currency, WildCoins, which are worth about $0.25 each, and pay from one to four per play session, which lasts until you voluntarily end it, or you can opt to watch an advertisement and play for free. Because the ad selection is filtered according to user demographic data, and a game that would retail for up to $50 is broken into multiple short play sessions, it becomes affordable for advertisers to pay for them.

St. John has tremendous enthusiasm for this concept. “I believe sponsored sessions will ultimately prove out to be a major revolution in business models for gaming of all types, because now that advertisers have a consumer-friendly way of sponsoring premium play, we’ll very quickly see a day when all games are available in this model, and consumers will [overwhelmingly] choose ‘free’ content over paid, just as they do with television.”

PC gaming isn’t going to explode thanks to lots of people suddenly becoming hardcore. The casual market segment is already much larger numerically, and despite this, it also possesses far greater potential for growth. It’s also catching up quickly in dollar value. When we combine these factors, it’s basically impossible to create a plausible scenario in which hardcore gamers represent the future of PC gaming. Like it or not, that mantle is worn by Uncle Charley, Aunt Emma and the hundreds of millions like them who own PCs but will never be mistaken for hardcore gamers.

Richard Aihoshi has been writing about games for over a decade, specializing in the RPG and massively multiplayer online world genres. When he’s not playing them, he has been seen playing both online poker and assorted casual games.

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