The Rise Of Casual Gaming

Nothing beats a shoot 'em up like a good, old-fashioned farm simulator.

Traditional games like Halo, which require intense commitments of time and attention, are being supplanted by simple, low-commitment "casual games" like Farmville, the Facebook game in which 83 million users tend virtual farms. (In a story today on the industry-wide shift, Fortune describes casual games as having "small pleasures, constant releases, ease of play and cheap price.")

MySpace last week was trying to lure developers into making such games for its site so it could better compete with rival Facebook. And this week PayPal changed the way they charge merchants for small-transaction fees to woo the casual gaming industry. Big-name videogame designers are jumping on board, too.

It's a change that the videogame industry didn't exactly see coming. "The huge numbers of casual players indulging in simple games on social networking sites and spending money on virtual goods have caught the industry by surprise," The Financial Times reported yesterday. And the growth of casual games represents the industry's largest challenge since the early 1990's, says Trip Hawkins, the founder of Electronic Arts, the 28-year-old videogame company that earned $4.2 billion in revenues last year. Hawkins now runs Digital Chocolate, a casual gaming-focused startup he founded in 2003, according to Fortune.

Zynga, the company behind Farmville and other casual games, has been estimated to be worth $1.5 billion to $3 billion, according to a story yesterday on AOL's Switched Web site. "If the company decides to go public, as it's rumored to be considering," the site reported, "it will instantly become the industry's third-largest, stand-alone publisher." But, despite the growing popularity of casual, social games, not everyone welcomes the change:

The sudden rise in social gaming's popularity caught not only game makers by surprise, but also the gamers, themselves. In fact, many Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 players refuse to acknowledge the category, labeling social gamers as housewives and grandparents.

The old-schoolers aren't entirely wrong. Women play more online games than men. According to one recent report, divorcees play more than single folks. And, somewhat surprisingly, more adult women play computer or video games than teenage boys. Just take a look at the Web site for Lifetime, the women's cable channel. The tagline is "Connect. Play. Share.", the title of the homepage emphasizes games ahead of movies, shows and full episodes, and the site features at least 35 games.

One reason for the explosion of casual gaming might be that they're as quick and easy to make as they are to play. "Facebook has more than 400m members and 32m a day are now playing the farming social game, Farmville," The Financial Times reported yesterday. "It was developed by 11 people in just five weeks."