SAN FRANCISCO – The programmers at PopCap Games Inc. used to think of themselves as the unloved stepchildren of the computer gaming industry.
Their humble word puzzles and math teasers were in a different league from games in which role-playing characters spray bullets, slay dragons and maim rivals in fantastic virtual worlds. Such hardcore games can cost $30 million or more to develop — as much as a Hollywood movie.
But the casual gaming niche, which includes hits like "Bejeweled," "Scrabble" and the low-budget classic "Tetris," is in the midst of a Cinderella-like transformation.
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Companies like PopCap are sinking hundreds of thousands of dollars into casual games and demanding sophisticated graphics, more nuanced plots and even original music instead of bland electronica.
The sequel to one of PopCap's popular word puzzles, "Bookworm Adventures," is expected to be the most expensive title produced for the casual game genre.
PopCap, which has offices in San Francisco, Seattle and Ireland, spent $700,000 over 2½ years developing the game. It's set to debut online Tuesday at $30 per download.
"A couple years ago, the prevailing wisdom was that it took three guys six months and $100,000 to make a casual game," said PopCap director John Vechey. "They used to be considered a low art form."
Casual games are simple, one-player puzzles that can be played on desktop computers, gaming consoles, cell phones or hand-held computers. It takes less than a minute to understand the rules, structure and plot. The games often revolve around spelling, trivia, arithmetic or geometry.
They're rarely gory or militaristic. If they include characters at all, they're almost never the stereotypical swashbuckling soldiers or stealthy kick boxers of hardcore games.
The protagonist of "Bookworm Adventures" is Lex, a brainy, bow tie-wearing invertebrate who bops evildoers on the noggin whenever the gamer spells a word from a random assortment of letters.
The original game blends features from crossword puzzles and The Jumble, and in the sequel Lex progresses through stages of richly stylized dragons, vampires and other foes. The sequel also has an original musical score.
Casual gamers play to relax — the same reason people play solitaire, dominoes or mahjongg. The games can be played for 5 minutes — while the baby is sleeping or between office meetings — or for hours at a stretch in a Zen-like trance.
Big Fish Games Inc. released its most expensive title — "Travelogue 360: Paris" — earlier this month.
The Seattle-based company spent $300,000, hired seasoned illustrators and photographers, and bought the rights to images of historic landmarks like the Eiffel Tower. Players scour Paris for souvenirs as they're interviewed for an article in a travel magazine.
The casual-gaming segment, which didn't even have a name until the late 1990s, has grown exponentially in the past half-decade with the proliferation of cell phones and mobile devices.
Research group DFC Intelligence estimates that revenues from casual games worldwide will grow to $953 million this year, from $713 million last year. They were $228 million in 2002. Those numbers don't include casual games played on handheld devices.
"It used to be that these were commodity games," said Alexis Madrigal, analyst at San Diego-based DFC. "But now these companies are showing they can get a return on their investment."
Casual gamers differ sharply from the 20-something males who make up the hardcore gaming demographic.
According to an August study by Information Solutions Group, 89 percent of casual gamers are 30 or older, 72 percent are female, and 53 percent are married with kids. Nearly half are college graduates.
Many companies offer 60 minutes of free playtime, then charge anywhere from $5 to $30 for a download. Others charge monthly fees of $5 or less to access an online arcade, and some — particularly those with advertisements, either embedded or as pop-ups — are free.
Once a game becomes a hit, rogue programmers usually write knockoffs and distribute them for free. That's one reason the most successful companies, including Big Fish Games, launch new games as frequently as once a day.
The risk posed by copycat coders makes experts question the spend-more-money development approach. They also say dazzling visuals are less important than a clever plot: Like a novel, you can't spend more money to guarantee a best seller.
Some executives say the fancy graphics and original music may even detract from the games' appeal.
RealNetworks Inc. (RNWK), which launched a new version of its "Scrabble" download this month, tested background music on 15,000 gamers. Testers consistently liked techie tunes better than original music, said Senior Vice President Michael Schutzler.
"At the end of the day, people are playing these games for stress relief — it's less about how beautiful the game is," Schutzler said. "Those gizmo-y little sound effects aren't picked because they're cheap. They're picked because they work."
Paul Thelen, chief executive of Big Fish Games, said big budgets could backfire. If companies spend huge sums of money, they'll want to minimize risk — and they may only fund sequels to "Scrabble," "Zuma," "Bejeweled" and other established hits.
"You can only do so many clones of 'Bejeweled' before people become tired of that," Thelen said. "The game has to offer something fundamentally new to become a breakaway hit."
Katherine Franco, 25, has been gaming since 1989, when Nintendo Co. released "Tetris" on the Game Boy. She said high-budget graphics might distract her from "staying in the groove."
"If it doesn't play well, there's really no point, regardless of how pretty it is," said the South San Francisco massage therapist, who plays games on the bus. "Besides, I still find myself humming the music to 'Tetris.'"