Eric Hautemont breathes enthusiasm for gaming. His French accent carries it through the telephone and into your brain as you listen to his plans for his company's big bet on computer gaming. Which is odd, since the company of which he's CEO, Days of Wonder, is a big player in the very low-tech world of boardgames. This makes Hautemont's crusade (and it is a crusade, don't doubt it for one second) that much more unlikely: Bring turn-based, multiplayer strategy gaming to the PC casual games market. Even more unlikely is the fact that his first game, Ticket to Ride, isn't really casual. It's just very good.
Casual games are that huge segment of the industry that hardcore gamers don't want to acknowledge - over-35 soccer moms and solitaire-playing old ladies, visiting big portals like Yahoo! Games and Pogo.com. Often, the media that serves these gamers doesn't want to acknowledge it, either: When Hautemont was marketing the standalone PC version of Ticket to Ride, one of the largest gaming websites told him they simply didn't look at casual games, period. Ticket to Ride for the PC will be released in December, minus that coverage. The way Hautemont sees it, that website's readers are going to find out about it, anyway.
That's because Hautemont's view of the casual space is fundamentally different from that of almost anyone else in the industry. He sees multiplayer casual games as filling a gaping hole in the current market: Strategy games that are simpler than the current hardcore crop, yet elegant and engaging in a way more complicated games can't be. Sort of a throwback to the days when games like Panzer General could sell hundreds of thousands of copies in retail stores. Today, those games have little chance of showing up at your local Best Buy.
Publishers' willingness to take chances on such games has changed a lot since then. Hautemont found this out when he was pitching his game. "When we talked to the big PC publishers, we found that they had some very surprising attitudes. PC publishers basically either see their customers as two eyeballs they can derive money from through advertising, or they see them as casual gamers who have very specific desires that you don't want to stray from."
This kind of marketplace myopia has led one industry veteran, Greg Costikyan, to found his own publishing company. Manifesto Games plans to aggregate the marketing for overlooked and under-publicized games that have no chance of making it onto retail shelves. But as far as casual gamers go, he's skeptical. "The people who frequent Yahoo! Games are not going to play these games. That audience was built of Hearts and Backgammon players."
Jason Kapalka, whose company, PopCap Games, is one of the casual market's leaders with games such as Bejeweled and Zuma, agrees. It's not that he doesn't want to sell strategy games to this market - PopCap is currently working on its own light strategy game - it's just that from his experience, casual gamers and old-school gamers who might be tired of current fare "don't seem to overlap very much."