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July 23, 2008 12:15 PM

Casual games conference: Who's playing what?

Posted by Brier Dudley

Maybe they have to rename the Casual Connect conference that began today at Benaroya Hall in Seattle, the hub of the casual games industry.

In the event's opening speech, Big Fish Games founder Paul Thelen said the term "casual" no longer works as a definition of the industry landscape.

Industry shorthand puts games into two broad categories, casual and hardcore, but that's like saying there's "hard" and "soft" types of music, he said.

"The word casual is a very broad term,'' he said, explaining that research Big Fish conducted with NPD Group found that the game market is much more nuanced.

Their research also found lots of overlap in the types of games people are playing. In other words, people should be cautious about stereotyping gamers and assuming that people of a certain age only play a particular type of game.

The NPD survey of a sample of U.S. households found that 58 percent of people playing games played both casual and hardcore games. It also found that in total, 67 percent had played some sort of digital game in the previous three months.

Thelen came up with 14 new categories within the casual genre and four within hardcore.

The casual includes Nancy Drews, older females who prefer to play thinking games alone, and Spongebobs, kids who gravitate toward branded games and Nintendo platforms.

Others include King of Kongs, middle-aged, tech savvy types nostalgic for quarter arcade games, plus Whimsicals, Frenetics, Clickers, Tycoons, Dancers and Kid Worlds.

Thelen divided hardcore gamers into fans of heavy action, slow strategists, fantasy worlds and virtual.

Yet there's still crossover. The Nancy Drews, for instance, are over 35 and big fans of games like Sudoku and crossword puzzles, but 41 percent had played action games during the past three months. They're the least likely segment to own a game console, except for Nintendo's handheld DS.

"Whenever you mock your grandmother for playing cards, be careful, she may whip out a DS and kick your ass on Sonic,'' Thelen said.

The same goes for the manly men in the heavy-action segment. They're 73 percent male, nearly half are 18 to 34 and many are in the military, craftsmen or students. Yet 56 percent of them also dabble in casual games, particularly the Nancy Drew-type, the survey found.

"One size fits all does not work for them,'' he said.

(But when it comes to players who end up paying for casual games, and not just playing free ones, one stereotype holds true -- more than 70 percent of the paying customers are women 35 or older, according to the Casual Games Association's 2007 market report. That report also said the industry had sales of $2.27 billion last year and should grow 20 percent this year in established markets.)

Thelen's speech was preceded by an introduction from Harold Zeitz, chief operating officer of RealNetworks' Games Division.

Real announced that its in-game advertising program served its 400 millionth ad impression this month, two years after the program was announced at a previous Casual Connect conference. The company also announced an agreement to syndicate games on National Geographic Channel's Web site; a new game being developed with Mattel, "Uno Undercover"; and a new partnership with Topics Entertainment to distribute RealArcade-brand games to retail stores.

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Gadgets and games | Fun stuff I've written about lately includes Apple's iPhone, Hewlett-Packard's HDX laptop and Microsoft's Halo3. Also on the radar are new digital video boxes such as the Tivo HD and the Vudu.