Big Fish Goes Cinematic, Nintendo Sees Opportunities for Developers at Casual Connect

Casual games are a serious business.

Seattle-based PopCap Games’ Bejeweled and Big Fish Games’ Mystery Case Files were cheap to develop compared to most modern computer and console games, and the cost to buy them is similarly low, but games like these are played by millions of people around the world. Between the recession and the ever-rising development costs for new games, the so-called “casual” video game seems ripe for an extension of its already massive success. For developers, entrepreneurs, business strategists, and others, the place to network, show off products, and learn new techniques is in Seattle this week.

Casual Connect Seattle, a three-day conference combining seminar, lectures, and networking opportunities started today, filling Benaroya Hall in downtown Seattle with a strange mixture of video game exhibitions and business meetings. While men in suits discussed adjusting costs to hang onto consumers, a woman dressed like a medieval princess took pictures with men wearing a crown to promote, a games website. “This is a really important conference for your industry,” Washington Technology Industry Association president Ken Myer told a crowded auditorium this morning in his welcoming remarks. More than 2,000 people are expected to attend the event from companies all over the world.

Casual Connect occurs three times a year—in Seattle, in Kyiv, Ukraine, and a rotating European location (this year Hamburg, Germany). Seattle is home to a large cluster of video game developers of all stripes, including divisions at Microsoft and RealGames devoted to casual games. “We’re very proud of our gaming industry here in Washington,” Myer said.

Xconomy wrote about the recognition of casual games as increasing sources of revenue at last year’s conference, and the surprising resilience of casual game profit margins despite the recession. Understanding that, the keynote talk given today by Big Fish Games president and CEO Jeremy Lewis focused on what he called “building value”—growing a casual game company into the best shape possible. Lewis talked about his own personal journey to his current position, using various artistic pictures as analogous illustrations. It’s easier said than done to grow value, he admitted, but he offered some lessons he had learned such as putting aside ego, making culture a priority, and looking for ways to expand the audience. For Big Fish, the audience “is what we call the chief household officer,” Lewis said.

What really drew the attention of the crowd, though, were the announcements Lewis made for the first time. He showed a brief preview of a new game called “Drawn: the Painted Tower,” and said it is the first “cinematic game”—a more graphically intensive story-based kind of game that Big Fish will be focusing on more. He also announced an exclusive deal with to put games on their site, which, with 32.6 million unique visitors a month, should build value for Big Fish quite well. And 88 percent of those visitors are female. “That’s a lot of chief household officers,” Lewis remarked.

Tom Prata, senior director of project development at Redmond, WA-based Nintendo of America was the other main speaker this morning. He expanded somewhat on what Lewis said, focusing on what exactly creates avid gamers and retains them. The main area of development has expanded beyond just the linear improvement of graphics because of a combination of cost and complexity, he said. Ten years ago, “the cost of developing titles was increasing at an alarming rate,” Prata said, and games were becoming so complicated that many potential customers were dissuaded from buying them. Today, however, with the rise of casual games, the video game market has expanded enormously, with around 30 million new players in the last two and a half years. “There have never been more opportunities for game developers than right now,” Prata said.

Judging from the eager energy and purpose-filled stride of people in Benaroya, Prata is not alone in his belief. Dozens of companies have booths to talk about their latest products, and there are certain to be a number of deals between different companies and organizations in the works before the end of Thursday. And office workers everywhere can look forward to a new crop of games to absorb them. “Everyone enjoys video games,” Prata said.

Eric Hal Schwartz was an intern in Xconomy's Seattle office. Follow @

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