They make the games you play at work

" Casual gaming " is becoming big business, and it's encouraging developers to pump up the pizazz on those puzzles. Will we buy it?

Published December 13, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO - The programmers at PopCap Games Inc. used to think of themselves as the unloved stepchildren of the computer gaming industry.

Their humble word puzzles and math teasers were in a different league from games in which role-playing characters spray bullets, slay dragons and maim rivals in fantastic virtual worlds. Such hard-core games can cost $30-million or more to develop - as much as a Hollywood movie.

But the casual gaming niche, which includes hits like Bejeweled, Scrabble and the low-budget classic Tetris, is in the midst of a Cinderella-like transformation.

Companies like PopCap are sinking hundreds of thousands of dollars into casual games and demanding sophisticated graphics, more nuanced plots, even original music instead of bland electronica.

The sequel to one of PopCap's popular word puzzles, Bookworm Adventures, is expected to be the most expensive title produced for the casual game genre.

PopCap, which has offices in San Francisco, Seattle and Ireland, spent $700,000 more than 2 1/2 years developing the game. It costs $30 per download.

"A couple years ago, the prevailing wisdom was that it took three guys six months and $100,000 to make a casual game," said PopCap director John Vechey. "They used to be considered a low art form."

Casual games are simple, one-player puzzles that can be played on desktop computers, gaming consoles, cell phones or handheld computers. It takes less than a minute to understand the rules, structure and plot. The games often revolve around spelling, trivia, arithmetic or geometry.

Casual gamers play to relax - the same reason people play solitaire, dominoes or mah-jongg. The games can be played for five minutes - while the baby is sleeping or between office meetings - or for hours at a stretch in a Zen-like trance.

The casual gaming segment, which didn't even have a name until the late 1990s, has grown exponentially in the past half-decade with the proliferation of cell phones and mobile devices.

Research group DFC Intelligence estimates that revenue from casual games worldwide will grow to $953-million this year from $713-million last year. They were $228-million in 2002. Those numbers don't include casual games played on handheld devices.

"It used to be that these were commodity games," said Alexis Madrigal, analyst at DFC. "But now these companies are showing they can get a return on their investment."

Once a game becomes a hit, rogue programmers usually write knockoffs and distribute them for free.

That's one reason the most successful companies, including Big Fish Games, launch new games as frequently as once a day.