Nintendo Black Friday Shoppers
Bob Riha  /  Nintendo via AP file
Dorothy Ayer, right, from Glendora, Calif. takes a break from shopping  to play 'Tiger Woods PGA Tour '08' for the Wii at the Westfield Mall in Arcadia, Calif. Other publishers are scrambling to clone Nintendo's triumph.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/26/2008 9:20:10 AM ET 2008-02-26T14:20:10

It’s still tough, a year on, to wangle a Wii. Nintendo may have cannily managed inventories, but the persistence of premium pricing suggests the company has tapped a vein far broader and deeper than niche enthusiasms for most gaming hardware. It’s opened gaming to a whole new, casual audience.

Nintendo has already sold more than 7 million Wiis in the United States to date — and has sold its concept to everyone from typical geeks and kids to retirement home residents. Now other publishers are scrambling to clone Nintendo’s triumph and carve out their own slice of the casual-gaming market.

In May, Ubisoft expanded its casual games division. In June, Electronic Arts launched EA Casual Entertainment. Two months later, it signed a seven-year pact with Hasbro to create digital versions of its properties, including the likes of Nerf, Monopoly, and Scrabble. Take-Two created casual label 2K Play in September. Last November, Majesco Entertainment announced a new casual studio. Kuju Entertainment’s US branch will focus on casual games. Call it the casual gold rush.

Even without formal announcements, publishers and developers are repositioning their portfolios in the hopes of snacking on a rapidly expanding market.

“Any major publisher that’s not building a casual business is behind,” says Tony Key, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Ubisoft.

There’s little agreement, however, on what makes a casual game. The moniker describes everything from browser-based versions of “Bejeweled” or “Zuma” to console titles like “Wii Sports” and “Scene It.”

“Like pornography, you know it when you see it,” explains Majesco’s executive vice president of operations Gui Karyo.

Regardless of platform, “casual” generally refers to bite-sized games that are easy to pick up and play. They’re titles that are often consumed in short bursts, but their size betrays their longevity. A typical bout of “Wii Tennis” lasts a mere five to ten minutes, but its possible to play it week after week without wavering.

The definition is so vague that industry analysts can’t even specify the size of the marketplace. The closest breakout they have tracks only online browser games, estimated to hit $928 million this year.

Key says Ubisoft’s casual business will account for more than the 25 percent of its fiscal year-end revenues he projected last July, and the company will continue growing its casual offerings. Majesco has nearly clawed its way back to profitability, reducing losses by 67 percent thanks to 1.6 million copies of its hit casual Wii and DS game “Cooking Mama.”

Despite the sudden success in this arena, casual games aren’t some sparkling new genre. The casual game has existed since “Pong.” The games industry and its non-stop assembly line of World War II shooters simply forgot about everyone except 13- to 30-year-old males.

Now, thanks to Xbox Live Arcade, the Nintendo DS, and the Nintendo Wii, the focus has returned to serving everyone, to reclaiming adult gamers who no longer have the time or the patience to battle through lengthy titles, and to building games for other under-served demographics.

“You can only sell so many products to the same customer,” says Chip Lange, general manager of EA Hasbro Studio. “The games industry has done a good job growing the core customer, but when you start looking at the casual landscape … you’re really looking at everybody.”

In an effort to re-focus on the casual gamer, Electronic Arts recently completed the largest strategic reorganization Lange has seen in his 17-year tenure at the company. Some of its early fruits include “Boom Blox,” a casual game created by household brand Steven Spielberg, and the first wave of Hasbro titles gracing consoles, mobiles and online portals — both unveiled in early February.

Of course, there’s more at play than a larger demographic. Publishers don’t want to admit to it, but casual games offer significant financial incentives. Read: They tend to be cheaper to manufacture, hence less risky, than core-focused titles like “Halo 3.” A typical console title costs $10 million to develop and needs to sell 600,000 copies to be considered a success. By contrast, a casual game costs under $1 million and need only sell 100,000 units.

As soon as Nintendo’s “Brain Age” and Microsoft’s “Geometry Wars” proved that inexpensive, easy-to-make games could succeed, everyone has chased after a golden formula, says Wedbush Morgan analyst Michael Pachter. “Everyone is mimicking everybody else.”

The obvious side effect is a genre glutted with titles as publishers attempt to lay claim to the latest industry stake. Ubisoft itself is pumping out fitness titles like “Quick Yoga Training” and the recently announced, pedometer-equipped “My Weight Loss Coach” for the Nintendo DS in order to jump onto what it hopes will be a trend started by “Wii Fit.”

Lange notes that the lower development costs of casual games make it easier for competitors to bring their own products to market, and the competitive limits on pricing can put casual games in the same price category as other entertainment options like DVDs or a batch of music downloads.

“We have to start understanding what works,” says Lange. “How do I make sure that a 10-year-old girl is going to spend her time playing 'Littlest Pet Shop' instead of listening to her iPod?” ponders Lange.

Big bucks ride on the answer.

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