Social sites help casual games reach the next level

Casual games are making connections with social networks to make a play for even bigger audiences.

The reach of online casual games is already impressive: One-third of people ages 6 to 44 have played them, according to market tracker The NPD Group. Globally, casual games on PCs, game systems and handhelds, played online and off, generate about $2.25 billion annually, according to the Casual Games Association.

By playing nice with social networks such as Facebook, expected to hit 100 million users by year's end, the casual game category can only increase the stakes, says CGA president Jessica Tams. "The introduction of platforms which create opportunities for accessible and family play have raised the awareness of the fact that games are played by everyone, everywhere," she says.

In the past two months, two new online gaming hubs, Cafe.com and Mytopia, have launched with features that let players connect with friends on the Web and through various social networks such as Facebook and MySpace, as well as Bebo and Hi5.

Cafe.com features drawing game Sketch-It!, along with the more traditional Concentration and Sudoku; players can buy game "boosts" and outfit "Mini-Me" avatars. Mytopia.com focuses on traditional games such as backgammon and dominoes, and also has virtual currency for prizes and upgrades. Mytopia founder Guy Ben-Artzi says he created the hub to "build bridges" between online islands like Facebook and MySpace.

Two popular existing networks, Zynga and Social Gaming Network, have begun adding their games as applications on social networks. More such combinations are on the way, because the revenue potential from advertising, subscriptions and virtual items "is enormous," says Ross Popoff-Walker, a researcher for Forrester Research. "It's a huge audience, (and) there are a lot of different experiments on the Web taking on elements of gaming and the traditional social network."

Social Gaming Network (sgn.com), which opened in August, has seen its WarBook game attract more than 33,600 daily users on Facebook since becoming an application last fall. "It's a once-in-a-generation opportunity," says SGN co-founder Shervin Pishevar. "You have free access to all these users looking for fun and engaging experiences with their friends. We're connecting them in ways that wasn't really possible before."

Over the past two months, since gaming hub Zynga made its games such as Texas Hold'em and Scramble available on Facebook, its audience has grown from 1 million to 2.3 million players daily, says founder Mark Pincus. "This is clearly penetrating a mass market."

Historically, games such as Popcap Games' Bejeweled helped fuel casual games' growth in versions for the Web, cellphones, handhelds and game systems. Electronic Arts' Pogo.com rose as a dominant casual games hub that began offering subscriptions (currently 1.62 million) as well as downloadable games.

When online Scrabble clone Scrabulous last year saw its Facebook following grow to nearly 1 million, Pincus says, "social gaming got on the map, and people were asking 'Is it one game or an industry?'

"Social gaming has continued to grow," he says. "For the first time ever, digital games can start to penetrate people who never played games before."

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