Casual gamers are a species the industry has trouble understanding, at least the gaming industry we know and love. “Trying to capture the casual gamer,” means, in industry parlance, “we’re probably going to dumb down the same game we made last time, or maybe just offer an easy mode.” When sales suffer, developers and publishers are left scratching their collective heads. The model worked last time, why didn’t it work this time?

Trying to figure out the answer to this question led me to Paul Jensen, president of SkillJam Technologies. Of course, I ask him about his industry experience, just to get a feel for who I’m dealing with. He sums it up rather neatly, “I’ve been in the casual games industry for five years now, which surprisingly, makes me an industry veteran considering how new the industry is. I’ve been fortunate to work at a leading games portal (MSN Games), a leading game developer (Sony Pictures – properties include Wheel of Fortune/Jeopardy), and the leading Skill-based games provider (SkillJam).”

When an industry greybeard is jumping from Microsoft and Sony to join a casual gaming company, obviously something is afoot. SkillJam, by the way, dates back to 2000 and was acquired by FUN Technologies in July, 2004. According to Mr. Jensen, they currently enjoy a “$280-plus million” market cap. This may be the biggest business you haven’t heard of.

Clearly, I’m dealing with a big brain in the casual side of the industry. I put to him the question developers and marketing people worldwide would love to answer: “What’s different about casual gamers? What are they looking for in a game that the existing industry isn’t providing?”

He knows this one off the top of his head. “Casual games appeal to a broader and older demographic. In fact, it stretches from 25 to 54-plus and is roughly 65% female. This user is looking for an entirely different experience than the 18-year-old college freshman. In fact, they are looking for a fun and entertaining experience that provides a break from their daily routine. The games need to be fun, easy to learn, and provide immediate reward.” Skilljam players are “65% female, with an average age in their late 30s. They are educated, have a higher than average household income and are web savvy.” No wonder 20-something guys making games to impress and intrigue their 20-something gaming friends have trouble appealing to the casual market. They live in two entirely different worlds.

With the “who” out of the way, I want to find out the why and how. Clearly, there’s something fundamentally wrong with most attempts to appeal to the casual gamer, despite the best efforts of publishers and developers. I ask him why they play, and his response surprises me. “People play our games to have fun, escape from the daily grind and feel rewarded for their efforts.” It shouldn’t surprise me, but it does. Reading reviews and hanging around hardcore gamers, one gets the impression that gaming should be pushing a giant rock up a hill, only to have it fall every time you near the top. He continues, “In some respects, the entertainment value to our users is similar to sitting down and watching their favorite TV show, as they play the games, on average, in 20 to 30 minute increments.” Again, I am surprised, being used to 40 hour RPGs that are “too short,” at least according to hardcore friends and colleagues.

The casual games army is bigger than you’d think, too, and even though they only play in 20 to 30 minute spurts, they play in a lot of 30 minute spurts. He quotes me a figure of “100 million casual gamers worldwide [are] playing these games at work, at home and on their cell phones,” which shows you the power this unheralded branch of the gaming industry wields. Bejeweled doesn’t get many magazine covers, but millions of people play it on a daily basis.

To appeal to those millions and draw them in even further, Skilljam is putting up millions of its own, sponsoring a Skill Games World Championship with a $1 million prize for the winner and a further $1 million in prizes for the other contestants. And if you still think casual games shouldn’t be taken seriously, check out the list of their partners: AOL, MSN, Virgin, GSN and Real Networks. What’s slipped under the radar of the hardcore and the press, has caught the eyes of the guys who write the checks. While Fata1ity is feted in the gaming press for wins in the thousands, someone out there is going to win a million bucks for playing Bejeweled 2, Solitaire and Zuma. And it’ll pass unnoticed because you can’t sell Solitaire-branded motherboards or get taken on fancy trips to write features about Zuma‘s groundbreaking new 3-D engine.

Talking business leads to talking about the business. I get a glimpse into a cut-throat, competitive world of scrappy kids trying to make it big, when I ask him what kind of challenges the casual developer faces. “One of the biggest challenges in casual games is also one of its greatest benefits, that is, there is a low barrier to entry to create casual games,” he says, continuing, “While it could take two years and $20 million to build a top notch console game, in the casual space, it could take three to six months and cost anywhere between $50,000 to $150,000 to develop [a casual game]. This, therefore, creates an accessible market for all game developers to potentially create the next big hit, but it also creates an overcrowded environment where a game developer must compete against many others for those few promotional spots on the game portals.” While the big boys battle for shelf space in a retailer near you, scrappy developers worldwide duke it out to be on top of the Games page when you’re looking to kill a few minutes at the office.

Mr. Jensen then allows me to crawl inside the head of a casual developer to explore what makes a casual game. He draws it all out, showing me the basic alchemical formulas. “There are tried and true gameplay methods that work in casual games such as: Match 3 (example: Bejeweled), Shoot 3 (example: Zuma), Card Games (example: Solitaire), and Word Games (example: Bookworm).” We proceed to Casual Gaming 102 when he tells me, “The successful games over the past few years have been based on the tried and true games and then slightly alter the game play mechanics and introduce a new theme.” Instead of, say, drastically altering the model of a successful game, they take something established and give it their own twist. See also: Blizzard Entertainment.

He reels off some examples for me, “Jewel Quest was a huge hit that took Bejeweled‘s main game design and added a unique twist. Luxor is another game that took Zuma‘s initial design and added a new twist to make it fresh,” and as I nod along, I find I know what he’s talking about because I’ve played every single one of those games. If you shouted “ZUMA” in an angry tribal tone, I would instantly flash back to a stone frog shooting brightly colored balls at other brightly colored balls.

Looking toward the future, mainstream publishers lament a coming dark age of sequels and series because they’re engaged in Cold War-scale spending contests with their cohorts. By contrast, Mr. Jensen sees a bright future ahead for his industry when I ask him to indulge me with a little forecasting, “The market is still in its rapid growth phase. Even though there are 100 million people playing these games worldwide, it will continue to grow at a rapid pace across international markets, distribution channels, and organic growth.” I find myself nodding again, when he tells me what it’s going to take to succeed. “Successful developers will be the ones that come up with the original idea, execute well on game design, and are effective in gaining broad scale distribution across the global market and on different platforms.” After all, you don’t need a $10 million marketing budget when you go where the titans of industry aren’t. You just need really good games.

Millionaire playboy Shannon Drake lives a life on the run surrounded by Japanese schoolgirls and video games. He also writes about anime and games for WarCry.

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