This week, Electronic Arts formed a new casual gaming division called, logically enough, EA Casual Entertainment. It'll publish games across various platforms, including PCs, consoles, handhelds, and mobile phones.
EA isn't alone in seeing mobile as part of a wider casual gaming trend. PopCap Games has traditionally released its casual games online and as PC downloads, while licensing out bestsellers like Bejeweled and Zuma to mobile publishers. However, as PopCap's Andrew Stein explained to us last week, the company is now going to release its own mobile games too, starting with Chuzzle Mobile.
And there's more. Last week, mobile games publisher I-play was bought by online casual firm Oberon Media in a deal rumoured to be worth £55 million. RealArcade has been taking its online casual games mobile for a while now. Publishers including Eidos and Gameloft are also experimenting with releasing their mobile games as PC downloads.
A casual relationship
There's always been a crossover between casual online games and mobile – mainly because the demographics of who's playing are thought to be similar (roughly equal numbers of men and women, and skewed towards older gamers rather than teens, in a nutshell).
And the success of games like Bejeweled, Zuma, Diner Dash and Jewel Quest when transferred to mobile shows that the sort of games that work well online often work well on mobile (and more importantly, if you're a publisher or operator, sell well, too).
Increasingly though, it seems we're going to start seeing the appearance of truly cross-platform publishers – companies releasing games simultaneously online, on mobile, and even on console services like Xbox Live Arcade and Sony's PlayStation Network. Or as simultaneously as it's possible to be when working with umpteen mobile operators, casual websites and console firms.
And y'know what other big trend this ties into? Convergence on the part of the operators. Think about Orange, which now offers customers home broadband as well as mobile phones. Or Virgin Media, which famously has 'quadplay' (broadband, TV, mobile and home telephony). O2 and Vodafone are expected to launch broadband later this year, too.
Now, imagine you're in charge of games at one of these operators, responsible for selling mobile games on your mobile portal, but also in charge of the casual games section on your broadband portal. Doesn't it make more sense to deal with companies who can provide games for both of those, rather than having one set of mobile publishers, and another set of casual publishers?
Theory into gameplay
That's the theory, at least. At the moment, this is more of an issue for the industry than for gamers (translation: big online and mobile firms are trying to figure out who they can buy to become a cross-platform giant). But what will it mean for us gamers once the dust has settled from all this convergence?
One: As we've said, expect more games to come out roughly at the same time on mobile, online and on, say, Xbox Live Arcade.
Two: At some point, these different platforms will hopefully be able to communicate, raising the prospect of playing a game on your mobile against someone sitting on their PC or Xbox 360. (Obviously, there's a host of issues around making that fair, given the control and screen restrictions on mobile. But it'll work for plenty of games.)
Three: The operators can start trying some innovative pricing modes around gaming. Say, you pay Orange a set amount per month (£10 maybe) for unlimited use of casual games on its web portal, and unlimited downloads of the mobile versions. Not that it has to be an operator, of course. RealArcade could do the same thing, or Oberon/I-play, or any one of the many casual games portals online.
Figuring out how to make this business model work is the industry's job. But if they can get it right, the convergence between online and mobile casual gaming could result in a bunch of fun for us gamers.