WorldWinner Helps Keep Boston in the Game of Casual Games
Poor Flo. She’s the only hostess at the diner. So she has to seat the people coming in the door, serve them coffee, take their orders, seat more people, serve the first table’s order, pour more coffee, take more orders, seat more people before they get impatient, take dessert orders, clear tables…and, if she’s lucky, collect a few tips when the lunch rush is over.
It’s a nickel-and-dime life. But apparently, millions of women want nothing more than to be Flo—at least for a few minutes at a time.
Flo, of course, is the heroine of Diner Dash, a hugely popular online “casual game” introduced by San Francisco-based PlayFirst four years ago and recently adapted by Newton, MA-based WorldWinner, one of the country’s leading casual-game publishers, for its tournament-style online competitions. While you might not think that playing a beleaguered waitress would be most women’s idea of fun, PlayFirst says women actually make up Diner Dash’s primary audience—something that’s also true of the larger casual-gaming genre. In 2006, in fact, 74 percent of all paying casual gamers were women, and Diner Dash was one of that year’s top five titles in the category, according to the Casual Games Association.
WorldWinner attracts a similar demographic mix, according to Christian Meyer, the company’s chief marketing officer, who hosted me at the company’s offices last week. “The majority of our players are working moms who play from home in chunks of four or five minutes, when they need a mental break,” Meyer says. “It’s a competitive outlet for a demographic that doesn’t have an outlet elsewhere in their lives.”
Casual games are distinguished from traditional video games by their generally simple rules and brief, self-contained play. WorldWinner is the country’s largest publisher of prize-based casual games, which also makes it one of the hidden giants of the Boston online media scene: with a jaw-dropping 26 million unique visitors a year, it competes on a level with news portal Boston.com (which reports that it has 4 million unique visitors per month, but doesn’t release annual figures). It’s also one of the newest parts of technology-and-media-mogul John Malone’s Liberty Media empire, which happens to include GSN, formerly known as the Game Show Network—of which more in a moment.
WorldWinner’s visitors earn some $250,000 a day in prizes, paid out of entry fees that average a dollar or two per tournament. The site features a unique style of competitive-yet-solitary gaming, pitting users against other people playing the same games at the same time, but without immersing them in common online spaces that demand social interaction, the way an online poker tournament or a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game like World of Warcraft would. “The experience we hear from our players is that this is their ‘me time,’” says Meyer. “It’s personal and cherished. There’s a ‘together-but-alone’ feeling to it.”
That feeling, and the way games like Diner Dash, Bejeweled, and Solitaire help players blow off steam and fill up interstitial moments, may account for the massive success of the casual gaming industry as a whole over the last few years. Over 200 million people play online casual games regularly, spending $2.25 billion a year, according to the Casual Games Association—which also reports that investors poured over $200 million into casual games between mid-2006 and mid-2007. The industry’s unofficial capital is Seattle, which is home to Microsoft and Real Networks (which both have hugely successful casual-game portals) as well as specialized publishers such as GameHouse, PopCap, Big Fish, Sandlot, Movaya, and Oberon Media. But Massachusetts isn’t far behind, with WorldWinner, Boxford’s Funkitron, Boston’s Mocospace and Floodgate Entertainment, Framingham’s Imaginengine, and Cambridge’s Conduit Labs anchoring the local casual-gaming scene.
WorldWinner was founded in 1999, and its pay-for-play business model—90 percent of revenues come from the company’s cut of the entry fees, according to Meyer—probably saved its skin during the downturn in online advertising after the dot-com crash. “It’s an interesting example of a venture-funded startup that survived because … Next Page »