How casual gaming silently swept the world

Minesweeper to Peggle - how many of these do you play?

Bejewelled

Casual game. It's such a horrible, snobby little phrase. There's something so patronising about it – as if just because it doesn't offer 70 hours of story, or a hundred rendered cut-scenes, that makes it somehow less of a game.

It completely ignores the fact that many of the people playing them can burn through more hours in their company than any World of Warcraft player, not to mention show up any hardcore gamer in a direct competition.

The biggest problem with 'casual' as a definition is that it means nothing. You can fire up Fallout 3 for a casual amble around over lunch, but that doesn't matter. A lack of complexity doesn't make a game more casual than a more complicated one, as proven by the fact that we can teach a computer to play Chess at grand master level, but we don't have a prayer right now of getting a good game of Go out of one.

Pick up and play?

Quake Live lets you jump into a game straight from the web browser, but nobody's going to call its twitch deathmatch a good casual time-killer. Instead, when we say casual, what we're thinking is 'I know it when I see it'.

What we don't necessarily see is just how big a market it is. Over 70 per cent of the people who play and pay for the likes of Peggle are female, and wouldn't count themselves as gamers. Their games are there to fill a few boring minutes here and there, not to become a lifestyle. Even so, we guarantee you've got one of the world's biggest casual games on your PC right now.

Yes. Minesweeper

Interestingly, Minesweeper and Solitaire were never intended as the productivity assassins we all know and love, but as that most hated of genres 'edutainment'. When Windows first hit the streets, everyone was used to command line interfaces, and needed to be trained in how best to use the mouse.

Minesweeper was built as an easy to understand application that used both mouse buttons (left-click to uncover a square, right-click to place a flag), while Solitaire demonstrated the art of dragging and dropping. The fact that they were on every desktop when office workers got bored was simply a bonus, and not something that went unnoticed.

Several games of that era, including the original Leisure Suit Larry games, featured a 'boss key' which the player could press to pretend to drop out of the game at a moment's notice. (We have something similar in the office, which makes Microsoft Excel look like Team Fortress 2, just in case someone catches us working instead of playing games.)

Aside from these early dalliances, casual games never really found a home on the PC at this point. There were simple games, usually distributed shareware, but they were thought of in different terms. As systems became more powerful, several problems became obvious.

Early PC games could be an absolute nightmare to get running, and tended to be expensive. Arcade games looked prettier on damn near everything else, and the PC's perceived role as the computer that helped with the homework and did the accounts didn't exactly help.

When we went in search of games, we wanted meatier fare – adventure games, role-playing games, strategy games. If you wanted something simple, you bought an Amiga, or God help you, an Atari ST. Or of course, a console. Even now, the mere words 'casual gamer' may as well mean a random person on a train, staring intently at a Gameboy, lost in the world of Tetris.

Portable consoles were perfect for casual games. No set-up, no high-end hardware, nothing to lose except a few minutes of your time. You could switch them on, play until you didn't need to any more, and shove the whole thing back in your pocket.

Simple games like King of the Zoo that could never have held anyone's attention for more than a few minutes had a purpose. We're still not at the point where we can do that with our PCs, but in recent years, we've seen something almost as good. Instead of handheld consoles, we have web browsers.

Instead of paying £20 to £30 for a console, the world is our oyster. There were casual games before the internet – puzzlers like Supaplex, or The Incredible Machine, or Pipemania – but it was the internet that really created the genre.

Glorious time wasting

Whatever genre a casual game falls into, it's going to share a few basic traits. You're always able to try before you buy – either a selection of levels, or 60 minutes worth of the full game. It'll be cheap, so that you can finish a trial, say "Yeah, okay," and buy it without any great soul searching. If it's successful, it's going to be surrounded by a billion almost identical clones.

The portal sites that house these games online always choose quantity over raw quality, and developers are always looking out for the next big thing.

Popular targets include Diner Dash (seat and serve an endless stream of customers), hidden object games (the challenge usually being to spot that the candlestick or whatever you're looking for is actually 20ft tall and makes up part of the skyline) and anything involving making words out of a jumble of letters.

These games may look good, but they're hardly difficult to churn out – especially if someone else has done all the hard work of coming up with a fun premise. The most common clone in recent years is the 'match-three' game; a board of mixed symbols which you have to put into horizontal, diagonal or vertical lines of at least three. This sounds simpler than it is.

Bejewelled popularised the basic game, while the follow-up, Bejewelled Twist, switched the action from swapping coloured gemstones to spinning them clockwise. This apparently minor twist instantly makes the game more tactical, and puts the focus on getting certain colours in the right order instead of simply racking up the points.

A more advanced variant is Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords, which wrapped the same basic idea into an RPG world, threw in spells and inventory items, and made the gems do different things when matched. Matching the colours charged up spells, diamonds added extra experience at the end of the battle, and skulls dealt damage to your opponent. Same basic idea as Bejewelled, yet different enough to be its own thing entirely.

The sequel, Galactrix, does something similar by swapping out the square board for a hexagon, adding gems from any direction, and being set in space rather than a fantasy kingdom.