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Girls play on the Web

Simple 'Net games draw a diverse crowd

WHO’S PLAYING?

Percentage of game players who are male, by type of game:
Console games: 62%
PC games: 66%
Web games: 46%
Average age of gamer: 26
Average amount gamer spends per month on games: $198

Source: Yankee Group

While the TV industry increasingly worries about the disappearance of young males from the ratings, the vidgame industry has a similar, long-established problem: Where are the girls?

The answer to both is ironically the same: they’re online. But while boys are abandoning TV to surf the net, it turns out more women are playing online video games.

While the console gaming market, with its intricate stories and high-tech graphics, generates most of the attention, the market for casual games — low cost, easy to learn, and quick to finish — is growing at a healthy pace.

Market estimates peg online and Web-based casual gaming subscriptions at $350 million in 2003, plus another $500 million for game-based advertising. Add in an extra $160 million for casual games on cell phones and you’ve got a business worth more than $1 billion.

Games like “Bejeweled,” “Literati” and billiards generate little attention from industry pros, in part because of their simplicity and also because the typical casual game player isn’t much like the typical console gamer.

“We’ve got everyone from 6-year-olds to 100- year-olds,” says AtomShockwave CEO Mika Salmi, whose Shockwave.com is one of the space’s major players. “Broadly speaking, we’re able to attract more women and older audiences with puzzle games that are oriented to thinking and strategy, not reflexes.”

The potential of online gaming has attracted some of the biggest names in gaming and online media to the space, with top sites including Yahoo! Games, MSN’s Zone, and Electronic Arts-owned Pogo.com. Yahoo! drew over 10 million unique visitors to its games sites in March, followed closely by MSN at 8.8 million, Pogo at 8.6 million and Shockwave at 5.1 million.

Casual game sites generate the majority of their revenue through Internet ads, a prospect that’s increasingly attractive as the online ad market recovers from the dot-com bust. But the holy grail remains subscriptions, and providers try to lure recurring revenue with free downloads that work for several weeks and then expire unless the player starts paying.

The model is similar for wireless games, which typically offer free demos before the user pays to download. In both spaces, though, grabbing a user’s attention becomes paramount since, unlike stores, there’s a near endless number of options for users to consider.

“Our shelf doesn’t give us a whole lot of room to communicate, so we choose things that are very easy for the end user to understand,” says Jamdat Mobile CEO Mitch Lasky.

Casual games are starting to get notice within the games industry, too. For example, PopCap Games, the developer of such Web-based hits as “Bejeweled” and “Bookworm,” took home the first ever Maverick Award for independent developers at the Game Developers Conference in March.

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