Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

Online Games Appeal to ‘Casual’ Players

The world of computer gaming is often associated with “gamers” — mostly men who invest in special controllers, giant monitors and subwoofers for use with violent action games. But a different type of gaming, “casual gaming,” is becoming popular with a different type of user, mainly middle-age women.

Casual games include puzzles, card and arcade games and don’t require hours of play in order to understand how they work or which computer buttons will do what. The game industry sees the casual gamer as a growing market and believes it mainly consists of women over 35.

Character Photo
A character from “Mystery Case Files — Prime Suspects”

This week we tested an online gaming service from Big Fish Games Inc., which, since 2002, has specialized in selling downloadable casual games that are family friendly. It now offers more than 300 games through its Web site (www.bigfishgames.com) that are broken down into categories like Puzzle Games, Card & Board and Action & Arcade.

Big Fish isn’t the only player in casual gaming. The leader is generally thought to be RealNetworks’ RealArcade, which we’ve reviewed in the past, and Microsoft and Yahoo also offer casual games. But Big Fish provides an interesting twist — a sort of multilevel marketing scheme where you can earn money for getting your friends to buy games.

In general, we liked Big Fish, which allows you to download a free 60-minute trial of a game to see if you like it enough to buy it. After the trial, you must pay $20 to download the full version of a game. The BigFishGames.com site itself, where users select and download the games, is rather straightforward, offering a variety of fun titles that kept us distracted for hours.

But two other sections of the service — one called My Big Fish Games and another section for online game-playing — each require their own sets of log-in information, totaling three possible log-ins in Big Fish Games. This makes for some unnecessarily confusing navigation around the three sections of this product.

Web site
Big Fish Games lets you set up your own Web site with reviews of games that you can share with friends.

We started on the basic site, BigFishGames.com, and right away we appreciated the inviting and colorful environment. Even someone without any online gaming experience would understand how to begin playing a game seconds after logging on by choosing from organized categories like genre, new releases, featured areas or top 10 downloaded games. Games are offered for both Windows and Mac operating systems, though not as many are available for use on Macs.

The Mac games looked and worked fine, but they caused other open windows on the Mac to become reduced in size, something we had to manually correct when we were done with the game.

A discount subscription service called Game Club offers games for less than the usual $20 fee when you sign up to buy a certain number of games per month, such as $7 each if you buy 12 games in 12 months. Using Game Club requires an email address and password.

A link within the BigFishGames.com page directs you to a second Web site called My.BigFishGames.com. Here, you can sign into yet another account by entering your email and password to create your own personal Web page with a welcome message for friends, a list of your top five favorite games and your own reviews of the games.

This personal Web site can be shared with friends and comes in handy when using the Big Fish Games referral reward program, which the company introduced last week. Though not everyone will be willing to solicit their friends, this idea might earn you a few bucks.

This rewards program works when you tell friends about the site and they purchase a game, giving you 25% of that purchase from Big Fish Games. If the friend refers someone else to the site who also buys a game, you and the friend who did the referring each get 25% of that third party’s purchase. There’s no limit to the number of people that this chain can reach, earning you more and more money.

Your monetary award can be sent to you as a check, or it can be used to double your money for use when buying games (a $5 kickback becomes $10 that can go toward games). If you don’t want to receive the money, you’ll be able to donate it to charity starting in October.

If you’d rather play games online instead of downloading them on the BigFishGames.com site, a Play Online tab in that site shows you which games are available for online play. All of these games can be played free in a browser window, but if you’d like to be able to chat with the online gaming community, you must create yet another log-in with a username and password. This third set of Big Fish Games log-in credentials lets others see your username so they can interact with you.

After browsing around and dealing with all of these navigational headaches, we found that the games themselves were really entertaining. The first two games that we downloaded in 60-minute trial versions were about retrieving hidden objects in cluttered pictures — adult, computerized versions of the common picture puzzles found in kids’ magazines. We liked one called “Mystery Case Files — Prime Suspects” enough to buy its full version, which took about 10 minutes to download.

Titanic Game Image
A Big Fish game called “Hidden Expedition: Titanic” challenges players to find hidden objects in various room of the Titanic.

Katie nostalgically remembered her elementary-school days when she came across a mystery game called “Nancy Drew — Last Train to Blue Moon Canyon.” This game, a huge 850-megabyte file, isn’t available in trial version, but Katie got it anyway and was hooked on its impressive graphics, amusing characters and cheesy story line.

Smaller downloads like Boggle Supreme and Mahjong Towers Eternity also proved satisfying. In the Mahjong game, you can select from numerous tile layouts created by other Big Fish users.

We tried our hand at online gaming with a takeoff on “Wheel of Fortune,” called “Pat Sajak’s Lucky Letters.” Pat’s voice could be heard narrating the rules as we played.

One game called Cake Mania was categorized in the Action & Arcade section of games. The goal of this game is to help the main character bake as many cakes as possible in a certain amount of time — quite a switch from typical action games that would more likely involve traversing minefields and shooting enemies.

But because of the three sections within Big Fish Games, it was hard to remember where we had seen a game that looked interesting to us — on the basic page of games, in the online gaming section or on our own Web page of recommendations.

Big Fish Games says it will offer a unified log-in system in three to four months that will enable you to use just one log-in for all three sections, which is a relief. Until then, things can get confusing on this site. But if you can keep your credentials straight, the games can be a lot of fun without requiring much skill. And if you have friends who agree, you might just make a buck or two through this game Web site.

Email: MossbergSolution@wsj.com.


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