Ask Patricia O'Brien, 36, about her college years and she readily admits to having had an addiction. Her habit? Tetris, the puzzlelike computer game that resided on countless hard drives during the 1990s. "I could play for seven or eight hours straight," says O'Brien, now an advertising sales manager in Chicago. "It was addictive [and] very satisfying while I was playing. But by the end, I felt like I had a hangover." Lately, she's had a relapse: Diner Dash, a download-for-free "casual videogame" in which players must serve grumpy diner patrons.
As the mother of 6-year-old twins, O'Brien doesn't fit most people's stereotype of a serious gamer. And until recently, her new addiction was her own dirty little secret. "Sometimes when everyone is in bed, I play for hours at a time," says O'Brien. "It helps me wind down. But then in the morning I'm exhausted."
She's not the only one seriously hooked on casual videogames. In recent years downloads on sites like Yahoo! Games and pogo.com have become something of a furtive national pastime among bored office workers, insomniac moms and chronic procrastinators alike. Like the Froggers and Ms. Pac-Mans of yesteryear, games like Bejeweled and Mystery Case Files take little skill to learn but are challenging enough to keep players fixated on their screens. Such games are in contrast to "hardcore" titles that have darker storylines, are more complicated to play and are favored by Xbox and PS3 devotees.
The hardcore crowd still dominates the $16 billion videogame industry. In contrast, about 145 million casual gamers will spend $690 million this year. And according to the new-media research firm Interpret, casual gamers average 5.1 hours of game play each week, up 28 percent from the year before.
Casual-gaming developers and Web sites, however, have yet to fully capitalize on their increasingly dedicated fan base. The industry is struggling to "find better ways to monetize its audience," writes James Kuai, a research analyst at Parks Associates. Of particular interest: the armies of women age 25 to 45 who play the majority of the games. It's a worldwide market that the Casual Games Association says could potentially generate $1.5 billion in revenue this year.
Ironically, the industry can't rely on sales to generate that kind of cash. The majority of players—legions of loyal but budget-conscious moms like O'Brien—don't actually pay to play. Instead they rely on no-charge Web sites or simply download their favorite titles for free.
That's forcing gaming companies and game portals to look increasingly to online advertising and other more novel methods for revenue. They reason that moms like O'Brien are just the kind of demographic advertisers want to reach. According to Interpret, casual gamers buy more online than the general population, are 22 percent more likely to research product information online and more than 35 percent more likely to change brands. With casual gamers, the Avis's of the world have a valuable shot at grabbing market share from the Hertz's.
Some in the industry are taking the advertiser relationship a step further. "People love to download the games for free, but when they're asked to pay $20 [after their trial period ends], a lot of times there is only a 1 percent conversion rate," says Jonathan Murray, founder and chief executive of Lift Media, an ad network. To get gamers to pay up and pay attention to advertisers, Murray's company has gotten sites like Wildgames.com, to issue free virtual game tokens when they open accounts to Blockbuster or other Lift Media clients. "A lot of users feel that these games should be for free," Murray says. "So we're saying, sign up with one of our advertisers that you're interested in, and it will be. We're giving value back to the customer and it works."
So far, Patricia O'Brien has neither purchased a casual game nor signed up for any special offers to prolong access to her beloved Diner Dash. But she doesn't rule it out. After all, she says, "I'm getting better, and I don't want to lose these skills." She's not entirely joking. After all, if time is money, she's already invested a small fortune.