home > interview > Talking About a Million Dollars: SkillJam's Casual Gaming Championship
GamesFirst! Online since 1995

View Image Gallery || Get Prices

Talking About a Million Dollars: SkillJam's Casual Gaming Championship
game: SkillJam.com
posted by: Shawn Rider
publisher: SkillJam
view related website
date posted: 10:43 AM Sat Apr 8th, 2006
last revision: 10:42 AM Sat Apr 8th, 2006

Click to read.SkillJam is a gaming portal service that supplies games to other websites and also makes some of the most popular casual games online available at their own website, SkillJam.com. These range from board game clasics like FreeCell and BlackJack to casual favorites like Bejeweled, Zuma, and Bookworm. No only does their own site offer these games free to play, but SkillJam also facilitates site-based gaming for such clients as NHL.com and provides competitive casual gaming to clients like Verizon Wireless.

With casual gaming on the rise, SkillJam has made a move to ratchet up the genre\'s popularity even more: They will award a million dollars in September to the best Solitaire, Bejeweled 2 and Zuma player. That will make the highest-paid gamer in the world the winner of the SkillJam contest (take that Fatal1ty) and should do a lot to disrupt the balance between \"casual\" and \"regular\" games.

SkillJam\'s cash-prize tournaments are bringing a whole new incentive to gamers interested in \"casual\" games, a notion that is constantly challenged as the fanbase for these titles becomes more and more committed and as companies like SkillJam offer more and more tangible rewards for playing. We got a chance to sit down with SkillJam President, Paul Jensen, to discuss SkillJam\'s million dollar tournament and dig a little deeper into the casual gaming phenomenon.

GamesFirst!: Can we start off with an overview of what SkillJam does?

Paul Jensen: SkillJam is a casual gaming provider. And we\'re one of the largest gaming providers that nobody has ever heard of. Why? Because the majority of our games are distributed through our partner sites. We provide skill-based games and download or subscription games, all types of games, to our partner sites, which include AOL, MSN, Real Networks, GSN, Lycos, Virgin, and the list goes on. We have a very broad partner base and it just depends on what the partner wants. SkillJam initially began as a skill-based gaming provider, but grew from their into a full gaming platform. So, for example, if you go to Lycos and sign up to play games, whether for free or in prize tournaments, or even just download a game, all of that is run from our SkillJam platform.

GF!: So as a distributor of casual games, and with casual gaming coming to home console platforms like Xbox 360, are there any plans for SkillJam to branch out onto our home consoles as well as our PCs?

PJ: I can say, because my background before SkillJam was as Vice President of Sony Pictures where I helped to run the casual games there and before that with MSN where I headed the casual games group, I have a lot of friends who are a part of the Xbox Live casual games group. That extension of Xbox Live, what\'s going on with casual games on Xbox, is simply their recognition of the expanding demographic of casual games and expanding the demographic base of the Xbox outside of the core 13-34 year-old male. Instead they\'re trying to reach out to the ladies of the household as well, so they can truly try to own the living room experience. But \"casual games,\" whether it\'s Bejeweled or Zuma or Solitaire, have truly gone mainstream and is an integral part of the overall gaming experience on a platform.

If you look at what SkillJam is doing, we are a platform provider. We make our own games. We make games for our providers. And we provide those gaming solutions to both our providers and on SkillJam.com. We are in the wireless space, such as Verizon and others, with a point-driven subscription service. We have deals with Lodge Net hotels. We have deals with cable providers. We have relationships with many different online portals. So we\'re a broad-based solutions provider working across a variety of distribution channels and hardware platforms.

We are not a console. And if you look at games on Xbox Live, they\'re trying to get a lot of the game developers to bring products to their platform. We are, for the most part, a platform in and of ourselves, so we don\'t just publish games like a PopCap or Mumbo Jumbo. We instead license our titles to our partners and provide that platform for download and play.

GF!: And you\'re not involved with Sony\'s plans for a PlayStation 3 online service?

PJ: No, we aren\'t working with them. If you think about it, you have the home platforms like Xbox and PlayStation. Online you have the big game destinations like AOL, MSN, Yahoo! and EA\'s Pogo. But there are hundreds of sites around the world who want to have games, but don\'t have a 50 or 100 person team dedicated to getting games on their sites. That\'s where we come in. We provide that portal-quality experience to all these different sites. Take the NHL site for example: They are a major site, a big site, but they\'re not focused on games, they\'re focused on hockey. But everyone loves games, so it makes sense for them to work with us to provide their users with access to SkillJam games.

GF!: Shifting gears a bit, the topic of casual gaming and casual gamers is contentious among mainstream gamers in general. So to start discussion, what do you see as being the essential aspects or qualities of a casual game?

PJ: A casual game is a game that you can learn easily. There isn\'t a large time investment, you don\'t have to level your character up before you can enjoy the game, or you don\'t have to complete a certain set of levels to unlock the really good car to race. A casual title is a game where you can immediately immerse yourself into a fun and rewarding experience within 30 seconds of playing. You shouldn\'t even have to read the rules to play, it should be as easy as possible to get going.

Another thing that makes casual games different from other games is that even if you\'re a horrible player you\'ll get just as much fun out of the game as a very good player because the levels are set up for someone to come into it fresh.

And if you think about it, it makes sense, because the casual gamer, for the most part, is a 30-45 year old female. That\'s 65% of the marketplace, on some games over 70% of the market, and if you total the number of hours played in casual games, women play much more. What are these gamers looking for? They\'re looking for an \"entertainment break.\" They\'re looking for these breaks in 20 to 30 minute increments. On the whole, these gamers won\'t play for four or five hours at a time. They play 20 minutes at a time, and typically our gamer traffic peaks at lunchtime and at night, which means they\'re playing on their lunch hour, while the kids are at school, or after getting the kids to bed. The question becomes, \"Should I watch this brain-drain TV show, or should I actually play a game where I feel rewarded and have a bit of fun?\"

GF!: So how much time, total, do you think people spend playing casual games? Some of your corporate literature claims that adult, female casual gamers are spending more time playing online than teenagers.

PJ: If you look at, overall, a casual gaming portal, the average is about 120 to 180 minutes per month. That\'s the average player, averaged out across all games. Now, if you look at some specific players, we have some players who have played 50 thousand games in a year. It\'s intense how many games some people play. Yes, they\'re a casual gamer, but it\'s unfair to say they are not committed gamers. In fact, I consider myself a very competitive person and a pretty good player, and when I play casual games on SkillJam I realize that about a third of the players are much better than me. They have figured it out.

We have one player who, in the last three years, has played over 31 thousand games of Solitaire. Think about that: That\'s a lot of games of Solitaire! And players like that get good. That\'s why we\'ve launched this World Championship because we really want to bring an awareness to the 70 to 100 million casual gamers worldwide that people are really playing these games.

It\'s interesting because many of these casual gamers would not call themselves \"gamers,\" but they definitely see themselves as loving to play games. They love the games, they play them, and they talk about them. They think about them. That\'s why we are doing the competition.

We\'ve taken the best casual games in the world, based on genre, and we\'ve made this contest. So it\'s Bejeweled, the most popular puzzle game online, Zuma, the most well-known arcade style casual game, and Solitaire, a bread-and-butter card game. We picked those three games based on popularity of game and genre, and we\'ve set up the Skill Games World Championship. You can play these games online to qualify, and if you qualify, then you get flown to Los Angeles to compete in the finals, where players have to play all three games to win the grand prize, which is a million dollar check. Obviously, that\'s a life-changing experience. And on top of all that, the finals will be broadcast on the Game Show Network, GSN, which comes to 58 million households in America.

GF!: Now, obviously the Solitaire player racking up over 30 thousand games a year is extreme, but how does creating such a high-stakes tournament potentially change casual gaming? If you compare the million dollar prize to the kinds of prizes offered to other professional gamers competing in the CPL or just one-off competitions. I think even the most famous professional gamers like Fatal1ty or Thresh have never made anywhere near that much in tournament winnings. What happens when the champion Bejeweled player literally could \"own\" the champion Unreal player?

PJ: My original thought was, \"Uh-oh. What\'s going to happen?\" The demographic across all of our sites and partners is about 66% female, about 38 years old. I was afraid that when we put up the prize our demographic would switch to a bunch of 18 year old college kids practicing Zuma and coming just to win the tournament. But if you look at the qualifiers that have been going on, over half of the players are female, so we\'re finding that the original demographic is interested, and they\'re doing well.

GF!: Are these the exact same players who are putting in two to three hours per week after work and at lunch? Is it possible that someone who has been with the site for awhile will win the money?

PJ: Yeah, you\'ve been able to win a few dollars at a time in our tournaments. I mean, these aren\'t poker players who want to risk $400 on a hand. It\'s like, when you go to the arcade, you don\'t mind putting in 50 cents because it\'s worth it for the experience. That\'s the skill-based gamer in the casual sense: The outcome is always based on skill, and they aren\'t really interested in risking a lot. Of course, we\'ve had tournament prizes that were five thousand dollars or whatever, but never anything close to a million dollars. We want to broaden the awareness, overall, of skill-based casual games. We wanted to get casual games on TV.

Think about poker: It\'s not an exciting game to watch. But if you throw some money at it, put it on TV, now your grandmother is watching people play poker. It\'s kind of boring actually, and it\'s only one game. At least with casual games we have several games in the tournament. And in the future, who knows what these games will look like.

I have to admit ? a lot of our players didn\'t believe the tournament prize was real, but after so much press coverage and advertisement they believe it. Now they\'re like, \"Wow, I could possibly win this playing the games I already love.\" And these are passionate people. Another example: We built Lingo based on the Game Show Network\'s tv show with Chuck Woolery. Chuck promoted a tournament where winners in the online version of Lingo would fly to Los Angeles to have dinner with the show\'s producers and to play Lingo on television. When the show\'s producers met with these casual gamers, they were blown away by how passionate they were about Lingo. One player showed them a hand-written 50 page guide she had written about how to win at Lingo. And when these players went on television, they spanked every contestant they came up against. They were really good.


The SkillJam.com Skill Gaming World Championship qualifiers are happening now. The finals will take place in Hollywood on September 8-10, 2006, and will be broadcast on the Game Show Network.

Click images for larger version

Click for larger. Click for larger. Click for larger.