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Casual Ware

Chris Early on Microsoft's plans to dominate the casual gaming space.

Microsoft has never been slow to embrace new entertainment mediums, and casual gaming is proving to be no exception. As its dedicated division forges ahead across a myriad of platforms - most notably Xbox Live Arcade - we caught up with product unit manager Chris Early to discuss the companyâs success and its future plans for this burgeoning market.


Having launched in November 2005, Xbox Live Arcade has already enjoyed vastly superior success than even the most optimistic analyst could have predicted - with the console exceeding the modest 2 per cent net-based uptake for casual games by a staggering extra 46 per cent.

"Weâve had over twenty million downloads on Xbox Live Arcade," explains Early. "What we see is that gamers play good games. The most popular game on Xbox Live Arcade is Uno. Unoâs not a hardcore game, itâs a card game. Bejeweled is also a good seller.

"What we see is that gamers play games no matter what style they are. Sometimes itâll be for short play sessions, sometimes itâll be for long play sessions."

However, despite this high uptake, Early is quick to admit that the key demographic for the casual gaming sector in general remains women aged 35-plus, and that attracting these consumers to Xbox 360 will be the consoleâs next big challenge.

"The interesting point is, how long will it be before that 35 year-old female walks into a store and buys an Xbox 360 because itâs something she wants, instead of something that her son or husband wants?

"Itâs for these reasons that I think Xbox Live Arcade is looking to have continually broadening content for players."

Though Microsoft Casual Games may be just one piece of the Xbox 360 setup its influence has been much greater than appearances may suggest, helping to slowly transform a traditionally hardcore gaming machine into a multilateral entertainment hub.

"When I think about our target demographic, itâs essentially anybody who can get online, regardless of age, gender or play habits," says Early.

"Thereâll be a ton of times when you ask someone if theyâre a gamer and theyâll say no. Then youâll ask them if they play Solitaire, and theyâll say yeah.

"As a whole product group, I think our demographic is very broad. When you look at individual platforms, youâll see that there are concentrations of certain demographics and I think that in each of those cases, our aspirations are to take and broaden that demographic on those platforms.

"On Xbox 360, many are 18-34 year-old males. So our growth opportunity there is female and a broader age range."

But Xbox Live Arcade isnât the only format on which Early and his team are keen to expand. With mobile, Vista and Messenger casual gaming dominated by the 35+ female market, the companyâs challenge is the exact opposite of the one faced by Xbox 360.

"If you look at MSN games, youâll see that 66 per cent of our users are female and are over 35. So our opportunity there is to grow that demographic in other areas. One of the things that we need to discover is what can we do from a services or content perspective to draw more people in."

One answer to this - and to the conundrum of making casual gaming more readily available to anyone - is a combination of intuitive consumer purchase points and more focused advertising models, which edify rather than alienate the consumer.

"With the download model, when someone buys the game, you get the revenue," explains Early. "The issue is, thereâs a conversion rate problem. Lots and lots of trials to get to one point of conversion.

"I think that weâve solved some of those problems with Live Arcade. Making one button buying easier, having a debit-type system and having a try before you buy format, helps with those conversion rates. But thatâs just a limited business model."

"Thatâs where advertising comes in. If you think about advertising sponsors, it can be very obtrusive for the player. We need to make advertising as unobtrusive as possible. The biggest responsibility we have is delivering relevant ads to the player. That way it no longer feels obtrusive.

"Iâve been married for twenty years, so I donât need dating ads in the games I play. But if Iâm about to order a pizza and you deliver me a coupon for a pizza delivery service, then thatâs not an ad, itâs a service. We need to know that this player is Chris Early, no matter what game heâs playing.

"Thereâs a bunch of ways of capturing this information. We can register the user when they start playing and we can then collect more information as they play. This is where skill comes in on the advertising side. Itâs an advantage that Microsoft has, because we can deal with multiples of advertisers."

While Xbox Live Arcade has received the majority of the attention over the past 15 months, Early is keen to point out that his divisionâs ultimate goal is to unite all platforms - a vision that was unveiled at E3 last year with Microsoftâs announcement of Live Anywhere.

"We want to create a casual gaming experience that transcends the piece of hardware that you have. We want you to have an identity that flows with you wherever you want to go.

"We need to deliver gameplay experiences that are optimised for the piece of hardware that the consumer has in their hand and we need to do that in a fashion thatâs entertaining and engaging. We need to have people wanting to be part of that community."

Itâs this approach to casual games development that Chris and his team at Microsoft Casual Games are currently on the look out for - new, innovative products that blur the boundaries between the formats.

"The thing that will catch our eye no matter what is a developer thatâs willing to make a game on multiple platforms and think about how they work together - common companion elements such as building a car on your mobile then racing it at home on your Xbox 360. The concepts that involve multiple people and multiple platforms are of the most interest to us."

With the rapid rise in the popularity of casual gaming, it seems that Microsoftâs aim, as with so many other virtual entertainment sectors, is to lead the way into the future - a future that may well involve the delineation of new, far more flexible boundaries between the hardcore and casual gaming markets.

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Martin Korda

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