Thứ Năm, 14 tháng 7, 2011

Gaming breaks out of its bo

‘Casual’ gaming is a concept alien to many typical gamers – but it’s an important sector
EVERYBODY’S AT it. Whether it’s tilling virtual fields on FarmVille or incessantly rearranging gems in Bejeweled, the world, and now literally its mother, is gaming.
It’s no longer the preserve of young males, bombing things in dank rooms for hours on end, breaking only for a pot noodle. No, the new gamer is a far more varied species.
The appeal of gaming was illustrated this week by the announcement that Electronic Arts, the second-largest US video-game publisher, has agreed to buy PopCap Games for as much as $1.3 billion (€917 million) in cash and stock to extend a drive into online titles played on websites such as Facebook.
Electronic Arts will pay $650 million in cash and $100 million in stock for the producer of games such as Plants vs Zombies . PopCap’s owners may receive as much as $550 million more in performance-based payments.
“The audience is very much changed,” says Paul Breslin, general manger of PopCap Games in Dublin of gaming’s growing fan base. “Historically, when you thought about gaming, it was male 14-25 year-olds. Now it’s truly the audience of everyone.”
PopCap, which employs 75 people here, has developed hit game Bejeweled – a sort of virtual Connect Four, where players compete to match three gems in a row in 60 seconds. It attracts three million players a day.
While the traditional gaming companies were battling for the thumbs of trigger-happy young males, PopCap charmed a new audience – their mothers.
“We would look at who played our games and it tended to skew toward older, female gamers,” says Cathy Orr, director of PR of the company’s online origins. “What we heard from a number of them anecdotally and have since conducted research to prove is that they are playing to de-stress or relax,” she says.
“With Bejeweled , we hear from people that their other hobbies include knitting or crafts, which seems really incongruous [with gaming], but when you think about the repetitive match-three nature of the game, there’s a kind of zoning out that goes hand in hand with that, like knitting,” says Orr.
In the US, computer games are played in 72 per cent of households, with 42 per cent of them women aged over 18. In courting the fairer gamer, PopCap is clearly on the money.
The company refers to itself as a developer of “casual” video games, a term that causes many traditional gamers to switch off.
“It’s a challenging term to be honest,” says Orr. “You’ll hear most people say it refers to the nature of the audience that is playing, so they are casual as opposed to hardcore gamers – people who want to dip and out.” Casual games tend to reflect the player too, says Orr. “So they [the games] are easy to pick up and play with simple controls . . . our games in particular tend to be very colourful and friendly.”
Favouring primary-coloured palettes and upbeat jingles to the dark landscapes and ominous audio of more traditional games, it’s no wonder that console-toting gamers feel they have little in common with the casual crew.
But the term casual also refers to the devices on which gamers play, and perhaps it’s PopCap’s platform promiscuity that really differentiates its games from those of more traditional gaming companies.
“We felt our remit was to very much make gamers out of non-gamers,” says Orr. “They were unlikely to be coming to us so we had to be going to them, and the way to get to them is to have your games on every technology they might encounter. It’s on their Mac, PC, the web, mobile phone and, of course, now it has progressed to things like social networks.”
In fact it’s more and more the platform, not the game, that tells you who the player is – while Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook has a predominantly older female audience for example, Bejeweled on Xbox or iPhone has a completely different player.
“Our goal is to get our games everywhere,” says Paul Breslin. “We want to connect your gaming experience across multiple devices so you can be playing on Facebook, leave your office and pick up your iPhone on your way home and continue on with your Bejeweled Blitz experience, and [when] you get home, turn on your computer and play a desktop version of the same game.”
PopCap sells a copy of Bejeweled every 4.5 seconds, but “micro-transactions” – where those who play on Facebook for free but use Facebook credits to purchase “boosts” such as adding extra game time – are a thriving cash cow. “The cost per boost is very, very minute,” says Breslin, “but we have three million people playing Bejeweled every day, so it only takes a small proportion of those individuals to pay.”
If arranging gems in a row isn’t your thing, there’s always CityVille and FarmVille , the progeny of Zynga, another US gaming company with offices in Dublin.
Unknown four years ago, the company is now the world’s largest “social” game developer with more than 250 million monthly players who, like PopCap players, defy the traditional “gamer” stereotype. Originally made popular through Facebook, Zynga is now following PopCap’s lead into mobile gaming.
In Dublin last month to open the company’s office, Zynga chief operating officer Marcus Segal was coy about the profile of the Zynga gamer. “God, I don’t know . . . I think we make big games that are global and universal.”
However, he does say that, at a recent fan event for the company’s Café World game, there was a glut of women in their 70s, all with the same story – “My children or my grandchildren are on Facebook so I wanted to be there too, and they got me into the games.”
Titling itself a “social” gaming company, Segal is keen to emphasise the sense of community he says Zynga’s games create.
“In early video games, it was really just about a high score. You put your initials up and that was the game,” he says. “In our games the play is much more involved. So in FarmVille , you might need help to raise a barn . . . I visit you and you visit me and we give each other gifts we need to succeed in our games . . .”
He says grandmothers who play Café World see the game as a means to connect with their grandkids, without being a burden. “They are living their lives and I’m living mine . . . but I don’t mind taking five minutes out of my day to visit their [virtual] café, I spice their dishes and give them these little [virtual] gifts. Then, when we are together on the holidays, our relationship is richer because there is all this context,” notes Segal of his grey gamers.
Such virtual gifts are the big earner for Zynga, whose free-to-play games earn their keep by flogging virtual goods. With 44 million “farmers” now playing its FarmVille game alone, the company sells virtual animals, tractors and crops for their cyber farmyards. A tractor is 60-80 cents – a lot for a virtual item. “[With Farmville ] I can have the experience of owning a tractor and driving it . . . without any of the headaches. I don’t have to keep it clean, I don’t have to put fuel in it, and yet I can have this experience . . . and it’s really a joy, a great escape,” says Segal – almost convincingly.
Zynga draws ire from many traditional game developers who say its titles are nothing more than challenge-free time-suckers, but Segal is dismissive of this: “They sound like people that don’t have a whole lot of fun.”
Filing recently for a $1 billion stock market flotation, Zynga’s having fun all right. And with the news of what Electronic Arts is paying for the PopCap business, it is increasingly clear old divisions are breaking down.
With their platforms and players mushrooming, “casual” and “social” are no longer just subgenres of gaming. The next step, as any gamer knows, is world domination.

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