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Games

Focus of Video Games Shifts to Lure More Casual Players

PARIS, June 17 — Critics may fume about violent killer video games, but top manufacturers are starting to beat some of their swords into beauty tips.

By fall, software developers will start introducing offerings aimed at nudging players to bond with Grandma, balance their hormones and eat their peas.

Ubisoft, the French manufacturer known for its top-selling Rayman game and Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon, is betting on a vocabulary-building exercise game called My Word Coach.

Also in the works is My Life Coach, which will be packaged with a pedometer and a portable Nintendo DS player that analyzes walking and rewards exercise and a hearty breakfast with game play.

Konami, the Japanese manufacturer of rough-and-tumble sports titles like Pro Evolution Soccer, is poised to offer a beauty care guide on DS consoles. The game player dispenses customized advice based on the player’s basal body temperature and hormone balance.

Those steps reflect an intensifying effort to attract a global mass market for portable video games, which are expected to hit $10 billion in sales this year, according to DFC Intelligence, a game research company in San Diego.

The strategic shifts in the game industry come as critics and government authorities are growing impatient with violence in video games. The justice ministers of the European Union vowed last week to press for stricter regulations on the sale of “killer games” to children

“These companies are doing this not because they want to make a better world to live in,” said Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen, an assistant professor with the Center for Computer Games Research in Denmark who recently founded his own company, Serious Games Interactive.

Nintendo, he said, has shown that there is room for growth in the market for casual gamers with its popular DS hand-held consoles, which are easily operated with a stylus, and its new Wii, which mixes video games, physical movement and human interaction. “Wii has had a huge impact and so has its game Brain Age, which basically showed all the game industry that you don’t have to have great graphics,” Mr. Egenfeldt-Nielsen said.

Some top manufacturers recently created special departments to chase after family players, even using their own mothers as testers, as one game developer, Igor Manceau, said.

“When my mother played our game she was fine and had fun,” said Mr. Manceau, who is developing My Word Coach for Ubisoft from the company’s Canadian studios in Montreal. “But she needed me there to go through the game and select each one. So we started to focus on accessibility after that.”

The casual market has largely been dominated by companies like PlayFirst, publisher of Diner Dash, and PopCap, which develops simple and addictive games like its popular Bejeweled puzzles.

But in recent weeks, the bigger manufacturers have started to demonstrate their interest, including Skype, which announced that it would soon start a casual games portal that would give game developers access to Skype’s two million registered users.

Electronic Arts, in Redwood City, Calif., was the latest game developer to move into casual gaming by hiring Kathy Vrabeck, former president of Activision’s publishing unit, to head a newly created division, EA Casual Entertainment.

“With the creation of this new division you’ll be seeing and hearing a lot more about lighter entertainment forms for families,” said Tiffany Steckler, a spokeswoman for Electronic Arts in Europe. In Japan next month, the company, known for its FIFA soccer games, is introducing a wine guide game for DS players called Sommelier, part of a series that will include Sake and Bartender.

The company is also planning to bring out in August a karaoke-style game, called Boogie, for Wii players. The game allows users to sing and dance along with cartoon characters.

Some game developers are braced for a reaction from hard-core gamers who are already worrying in blog postings about whether their interests will be eclipsed by mass market forces. “It’s not about moving from our core franchises,” Ms. Steckler said. “This is about continuing to bring these franchises along and adding others.”

But clearly, game developers are desperate to reach out to those teaming masses. Ubisoft has been testing its new easy-play games in special labs in France and Canada after conducting hundreds of interviews to determine why some people were reluctant to play video games.

“The reason was always the same,” said Pauline Jacquey, who was recently named by Ubisoft to head the company’s new casual games division. “They thought they were losing their time because the game didn’t give them any value.”

As a result of the research, Ubisoft began exploring games with a purpose. My Life Coach, developed with a behaviorist, will advise players on nutrition and antismoking strategies without being judgmental, executives say.

Ubisoft’s goal is to double sales in the category to 20 percent of the company’s annual revenue, which amounted to more than $900 million last year.