Cubicle Salvation: Casual Game Sites

One of the things I hate about my occasional treks to midtown are these cult-like smikers who accost me and ask, "Do you like comedy?" in an effort to corral me into some sleaz-o club with $15 drinks. My friend suggested that I reply, "What's it to you?" and walk the hell away. Which I will.

Having said that, I have to ask, Do you like casual games? If you do, you're not alone. So do some of the world's biggest companies. For them, there's gold in them thar hills. The people who make money prognosticating such things believe the casual niche will become $1 billion a year business by the time 2008 rolls around, according to Jupiter Research. Right now, the people who make and promote these games are pulling in $350 million a year.

With such success come the dreaded marketing types, and with them come, gulp, ads. Sure, this column is about a couple of casual games that I've found on Web, one good, one bad. It's also about the way ads are presented to gamers. Sometimes, it's downright obnoxious.

Sims: Life in the fast line
image: Courtesy of Electronic Arts
Sims: Life in the fast line

First, take a look at Pogo, the casual game site created by the world's largest video game maker, Electronic Arts. Here, you can play games for free. But you'll also have to pay for them: with your time because there's no way to opt out of looking at ads. One of the great free games on Pogo is “The Sims Pinball,” based on the best selling simulation franchise created by gamemaking genius Will Wright. Just as with any real life pinball game, you get three balls on a table that pops up after you register on the site (Don't worry, they don't ask too much info of you to become a member.)

If you know The Sims, you know the game's often about getting experience for your character. In THE SIMS PINBALL, you have the choice of a few career paths, everything from doctor to slacker. Each character has six experience levels, and its doggone hard to complete your experience with three balls—even with the exciting additions of multiball mode and an extra ball or two.

But here's the rub. This game is sponsored by Sharpie, the logo of which covers the middle of the playfield. If you rack up a certain amount of points, you're entered into a Sharpie contest. Thing is, it's natural for a human to want to score better and better—even if you don't want a Sharpie t-shirt in the stupid contest. So you want to play again…and again. That's where Electronic Arts gets you. Every three or four games, your game stops, and you have to watch a popup ad. Which stays up for 30 seconds. It's kind of like watching a TV commercial, except these ads don't have video. I take this time to check my email.

My guess is when you go to Pogo, you'll find a game you like a lot. And because you like the free game, you won't be bothered by the ads which appear in the game.

On the down side, take the case of Riddler, one of the original casual games sites. These pioneers have been around since 1996. With over a decade to get their act together, you'd think the site would be full of innovation, from games to presentation. If you thought that, however, you'd be dead wrong.

I went to Riddler to play a game called MARIO HALLOWEEN. I'm a big fan of Nintendo's Mario, and of Halloween, which I consider to be the year's most enjoyable holiday. So wanting to play was natural. I just had to do it. And yet, Riddler befuddled me before I got to play. In the process of registration, they tried to get me to fill out a lengthy survey. I even filled out a page of the survey before I realized it was an ad that had nothing to do with Riddler. Instead, it was from some sponsor. In fact, it looked like Riddler wouldn't let me play a game unless I answered these lengthy and personal questions.

Thankfully, when I opted out of the survey, I found I could go back, log in and play the game. Already, my trust in Riddler had been dashed. They were trying to make a buck and they were doing it in an underhanded way. To top it off, the game wasn't worth the bother. Mario Halloween was an overly simplified, side scrolling affair. It had scary background music, but Mario moved like he was in molasses, way too slow. The goal was to collect coins, but it the whole thing was presented badly. I didn't want to continue, especially since there were no ghosts or humorously creepy things in the level that I played.

The salient thing about casual games and ads is this: because these online sites are still in their infancy, they probably will listen to you. If you don't like the ads, gripe in an email. If you feel they're being unscrupulous, as I did with the shady Riddler survey, shoot them a note. They probably won't lose the ads. But they may get up off their rear ends to make them just a little more palatable. They definitely don't want to lose one thing: you.

Check out reviews of all the latest and greatest games (updated every week), along with past faves in NYC Guide.
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