Forget all the hoopla surrounding new video game systems, such as the impossible-to-find Sony PlayStation 3 or the TV-breaking Nintendo Wii – the real gaming story in 2006 was the explosion of so-called “casual games.”

You know, those try-before-you-buy, downloadable diversions that are a cinch to pick up yet impossible to put down? Just ask your mom what her Zuma high-score is. Most casual games are under a cool $20, or roughly a third of a cost of a next-generation console game.

According to DFC Intelligence, the North American casual gaming industry grossed more than $458 million in 2006 (excluding casual games on cell phones), compared to $65 million in 2001. And despite the stereotypical gamer being a male tween, 76 percent of casual gamers are women and 89 percent of them are 30 or older, found PopCap Games in a recent survey.

OK, so you need not be convinced about the popularity of these insanely addictive games – if you’re reading this, then perhaps you’ve already served a virtual customer or two in PlayFirst’s hit game, Diner Dash – but the following are a look at a few big casual gaming stories to surface over the past 12 months.

Multiple genres

It wasn’t too long ago when a casual game was synonymous with a puzzle game, be it a 3-in-a-row gem-swapping title such as Bejeweled, a word game a la Text Twist or perhaps an ancient tile-matching exercise as with the multitude of Mahjong solitaire puzzlers. In 2006, however, new casual game genres emerged, be it hack-and-slash fantasy role-playing games (RPGs), such as Fate and Aveyond; life simulations including the village sim, Virtual Villagers; real-time strategy games (namely, a western-themed adventure, dubbed Westward); and hide-and-seek head-scratchers, including the celebrated Mirror Magic Deluxe or Mystery Case Files game series. Many games also combined multiple genres to create an all-new experience, such as Bookworm Adventures Deluxe, which fuses together word games with RPG elements.

New platforms

Rather than remain as a PC-only phenomenon, casual gaming has taken over other mediums in 2006, including TV-based consoles (example: the Xbox Live Arcade features dozens of casual puzzlers, such as Bejeweled 2 Deluxe, and classic arcade favorites), cell phones and handheld gaming machines (including Luxor on the Sony PlayStation Portable). Heck, even Apple unveiled downloadable casual games via iTunes for its 70+ million-unit-selling iPod, ranging from Tetris to Texas Hold ‘Em. Casual games are also about to be played at 30,000 feet as video game giants Electronic Arts recently announced its casual games site,, will be providing casual games, such as Poppit! and Tri-Peaks Solitaire, as in-flight entertainment on selected airlines. Talk about the friendly skies.

Year of the Sequel

Unlike Hollywood, a sequel in the casual game space is usually an improvement over its predecessor; this is because many game makers weave in feedback offered by the vocal online gaming community. For example, players who spent time with the original Bejeweled requested the company add a more relaxing mode — without a clock to race against — and thus the “Endless” mode was created for Bejeweled 2, along with a similar stress-free feature built-into other PopCap games, including Chuzzle (“Zen” mode) and Insaniquarium (“Virtual Tank” mode). Many sequels saw the light of day in 2006: LUXOR 2, Diner Dash 2 and 3; Mystery Case Files’ Prime Suspects and Ravenhearst, and Bookworm Adventures Deluxe, to name just a few.

This article was written by Gamezebo to be displayed both on Gamezebo and Yahoo! Games.