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Casual games growing at a not-so-casual pace

While the mainstream games industry continues to suffer sluggish sales, the casual games industry is booming. With mobile phone games and social games leading the way, what was a %300 million industry five years ago is now a $3 billion industry.
Casual games are booming. Players have downloaded 1 billion  games from Big Fish Games' web portal. Big Fish is the casual games developer and publisher behind the "Mystery Case Files" series.
Casual games are booming. Players have downloaded 1 billion  games from Big Fish Games' web portal. Big Fish is the casual games developer and publisher behind the "Mystery Case Files" series.Big Fish Games

It may be difficult for some of you to admit, but those 80-some-million "FarmVille" players  really are onto something.

And don't forget all those people playing "Words with Friends" on their iPhones and iPads.

While the traditional retail video game business continues to slump its way through the year, those in casual gaming say business is booming.

As Casual Connect, the casual gaming industry's annual conference, got under way in Seattle Tuesday, casual games executives and observers offered dramatic statistics and stories from an industry that is not only rapidly growing ... but rapidly changing.

In 2005, casual gaming was a $300 million business worldwide, said Jessica Tams, managing director of the Casual Games Association. Today, analysts estimate it's a $3 billion industry – if not more.

"Casual gaming is the fastest growing mass medium in history," insisted Matt Hulett, chief revenue officer for casual games developer and publisher GameHouse, during one of the first presentation of the conference.

He shared a statistic from research firm DFC Intelligence that put the number of casual PC gamers at 340 million monthly unique users today, with estimates that number will reach 412 million monthly users by 2014.

Meanwhile, just last week, developer and publisher Big Fish Games proved just what a big fish it is in the casual gaming pond. The company, responsible for the "Mystery Case Files" series, "Flux Family Secrets" series and the "Hidden Expedition" series, announced that players have downloaded one billion games from its web portal.

What exactly qualifies as a casual game isn't as easy to pin down today as it was just a few years ago. But generally speaking casual games are easy-going gaming fare. These games tend to be brainteasers and stress relievers, instant distractions that take mere minutes to learn how to play but a whole lot longer to master. "Bejeweled" is a quintessential casual game and "FarmVille" is the new heavy hitter.

Why is the casual games business booming when other gaming segments seem to be struggling? For starters, Hulett says it's a business buoyed by thriving networks and fast growing platforms that make it easier than ever to reach a worldwide audience. That is, social networks like Facebook have seemingly invaded everyone's lives and casual games have taken root and flourished there with them (as anyone who's bemoaned their friends' many "FarmVille" and "Mafia Wars" updates can tell you.)

There's also Apple's iPhone and the seemingly unstoppable smart phone gaming phenomenon. Meanwhile, the arrival of Apple's iPad along with the proliferation of affordable netbooks, has provided a new place for people to play primarily casual games.

"Even the naysayers on the iPad would not have guessed that Apple would have been able to sell 3 million units in the first 80 days," Hulett said.

Also it's important to note that casual games typically cost anywhere from the low-low price of free to, at max, $20. So it's not-so-difficult to understand why these games would thrive during these tough economic times. (Certainly a $60 traditional console game becomes a more difficult sell when wallets are thin.)

And it's easy to see why new companies and investors are increasingly keen to take up the casual gaming banner, said Joel Brodie, founder of casual game review site

"The companies that have embraced casual games have been the ones that have been able to revolutionize the games business," he said. "Those that have held onto the core games have not. Look at Facebook, they embraced casual games. Apple with the iPhone embraced casual games. Look at the three major consoles. Who won? The Wii. Why? They embraced casual games."

But ultimately casual game developers, publishers and pundits say that the casual industry's ongoing success comes down to one important thing — games that are made to be played by pretty much everyone. And everyone is a whole lot more people than the more limited demographic some segments of the gaming industry appeal to.

"Casual games have grown because, by their nature, they’re designed for everyone to use," Brodie said.

You can find Winda Benedetti playing it casual right here on Twitter.