SAN JOSE, Calif. - You might think that the face of one of the hottest areas in gaming right now is a young male in his 20s who owns the latest supercharged gaming system from Microsoft or Sony - or both.
But you’d be wrong.
Instead, the epitome of the new-era gamer is a woman in her late 30s or early 40s who plays on an average PC.
Yes, the video game industry seems to have been turned on its head.
For years, the dominant themes have been faster game machines, increasingly realistic graphics, more immersive gameplay, as well as the old standbys - blood, guts and blowin’ stuff up.
But that picture has begun to look increasingly outdated. While young men dominate the gaming industry as a whole, casual games are one of the fastest-growing parts of the industry and attracting a whole new demographic.
You can find signs of the revolution everywhere. One of the fastest-growing parts of the game industry is centered on so-called casual online games, PC-based titles that users can generally start playing in minutes and usually don’t require the mastery of some combination of multiple buttons to enjoy.
The upheaval has spread to the console market, as sales of Nintendo’s Wii console and DS handheld, both of which stress fun-to-play games over powerful processors or realistic graphics, are far outstripping their supercharged competitors from Microsoft and Sony. Meanwhile, the list of top-selling games for consoles or handhelds are dominated by family and non-traditional titles.
“There’s a huge business to be made,” in casual games, said James Lin, a financial analyst with MDB Capital in Santa Monica who has long covered the game industry.
The market for casual games is still a fraction of the total game industry, but it’s growing considerably faster.
The growth is being fueled in part by the rise of broadband Internet access, which has allowed game developers to bypass brick-and-mortar retailers. Intead of a small handful of casual games that consumers might find at their local Wal-Mart or Gamestop, the average online game site - unconstrained by shelf-space concerns - offers hundreds of titles.
But the casual game industry has also grown by reaching consumers that the traditional video game has essentially ignored in recent years: women and older people. Among the consumers who buy casual online games, 74 percent are women, according to the Casual Games Association, an industry trade group. And more than half of the people playing casual online games are older than 35, according to Parks Associates, an industry research and consulting firm.
Game companies have been able to reach these audiences not only by making the games more accessible, but also through emphasizing family-friendly fare. Many of the casual games eschew the graphic violence often found in traditional console titles.
Sandra Richardson, for instance, fits the mold of the new gamer. The 55-year-old Bloomington, Ill., resident started playing online casual games about a year and a half ago when her kids left home.
She’s bought 40 online casual games so far and has become a big fan of the Mystery Case Files series, in which players solve a mystery by finding hidden objects.
“It’s a way for older people who don’t go out any more to have something to do,” Richardson said. “It helps keep your mind going.”
The casual market differs from the traditional console gaming business not only in who is playing the games, but who is making them. A handful of big publishers and developers dominate the traditional gaming business. In contrast, casual games are being developed by many small, independent companies.
A big part of that has to do with simple economics. While console games can cost tens of millions of dollars to develop, the average cost of casual PC games is in the range of about $150,000 to $500,000 per title. That lower bar makes it easier for smaller companies to participate.
The Bay Area alone hosts casual game companies such as Mountain View-based Neoedge, which runs the MostFun.com game site, and San Francisco-based iWin, which develops games and runs its own online game site.
And while many smaller companies have been leading the charge in casual games, even some of the more traditional companies are starting to pay closer attention to them. Electronic Arts, for instance, recently reorganized around four new divisions, one of which will focus exclusively on making casual games. And earlier this month, EA signed a deal with Hasbro to develop video games based on Hasbro board games such as Monopoly and Scrabble.
To be sure, the industry faces challenges.
Much of the industry is built around a try-before-you-buy model, for instance. That may be a good deal for game players, but it isn’t necessarily for the developers, considering that consumers only buy about 2 percent of the games they download.
And while the economics are different, the casual game market is much like the traditional one in this respect: Most games don’t make money and developers tend to be dependent on a handful of hot-selling games.
Still, many industry executives and analysts think the games business has a new hit on its hands with casual games.
“We’re definitely bullish on the industry,” said Michael Cai, director of broadband and gaming at industry research firm Parks Associates.