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Where have the gamers gone?

We hardcore gamers are a dying breed and, as we edge ever closer to that great arcade in the sky, there just aren’t enough people interested in replacing us.

There was a time when a Game Master commanded a little respect around here. Family, friends and, especially, my son’s friends would drop by and see the floor-to-ceiling piles of games I receive practically every day and be appropriately awed. Recently, however, I’ve heard whispers to my wife asking how she deals with “those dust collectors” and whether I’m ever going to “grow up.”

The truth is that we hardcore gamers are a dying breed and, as we edge ever closer to that great arcade in the sky, there just aren’t enough people interested in replacing us. The Entertainment Software Association boasts that of the 292 million people in this country, about half play computer games. By my count, that means another 146 million do not.

Converting that group from non-players to players is the only way the games industry can continue expanding. Unfortunately, game publishers haven’t caught on; instead of aggressively pursuing that market, they strategize over how to sell more games to the “already converted.”

The ESA reports that most non-gamers have never even tried a computer game. Ask them why and they say things like “Because I don’t like them.” Other non-gamers say: “All that technical stuff is over my head,” or “They’re too hard to learn,” or, “It’s too time-consuming to pick a good one,” or, “How do I know it’ll work on my PC?”

In other words, non-gamers perceive PC games as a chore–to wade through all the boxes to select a good one, to determine whether their computer is up to the task, a chore to load, to learn, and, yes, to play. What non-gamer has the inclination to pick up a huge real-time strategy game like, say, “Age Of Empires II,” read the hefty manual, and spend a week building a Phoenician civilization from the ground up?

That is precisely why “casual games”–those teeny games on the Web that take a second to learn and five minutes to play–are such a hit: Instant gratification. Want to take a short break at the office? On a site like PopCap.com there are 20 cool games to download and try. Don’t like “Dynomite” (our fave)? Dump it and try “Diamond Mine.” Now imagine, instead, spending your five-minute break with “Age Of Empires II.” Could you even load it that fast? So what’s my suggestion? Glad you asked. While most game companies are signing deals to turn out bigger and more complex games, some courageous, innovative, big-name publisher somewhere needs to think small. Take a chance. Build games that are easy to grasp, quick, and a snap to play but challenging to master. Think “Tetris,” think “Snood.”

Then get the word out. Hand out free demo disks at Wal-Mart and Target with non-threatening spec information on it (“If your PC is less than three years old, these games should play just fine.”). Skip the techno-babble descriptions (“powerful 3-D graphics engine” and “advanced linear gameplay” are meaningless to non-gamers). Use big print for grandparents who would buy games for their grandchildren if only they could read the fine print.

In Japan, developers understand that simplifying games can expand their appeal. Masaya Matsuura, the creator of the popular “Smash Bros.” series, observes: “There’s a gap between what game designers make and what customers want. It’s OK if a game is easy or doesn’t target the hardcore gamer with massively intricate stories and overly difficult gameplay. My target audience is people who aren’t playing games right now.”

Fortunately, that’s a mighty big target. More folks should take aim.

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