Hold onto your keyboard and kiss everything you know about interactive entertainment goodbye. Superb a year as 2006 has been for casual games between the release of blockbusters like Mystery Case Files- Prime Suspects, Diner Dash – Flo on the Go, and Slingo Quest, 2007 brings countless exciting new happenings and innovations.

For starters, the industry’s finally going global. Quality’s steadily improving across the board, and the rise of worldwide studios, including Eastern European, Russian, Indian and Chinese ventures, means not only more awesome outings in general. It also assures software creators will soon be offering additional perspectives and cultural reference points to draw from, ensuring no matter your age, interests, race, creed or color, there’ll always be a joystick-jabber for you.

Online-connected multiplayer gaming is booming too. As titles like The Poppit! Show (touting integrated chat options and support for earning character upgrades that award greater status within a virtual community) illustrate, socialization’s the next big thing. With casual game companies like Pogo, Big Fish Games, PlayFirst, iWin, Oberon, and RealArcade all keen to distinguish themselves from competitors, personalized, interconnected experiences offer an excellent way to offer customers unique value.

What’s more, we’d venture that many game-makers, tired of waiting for a single, unified electronic backbone to be created supporting such initiatives, will soon provide individualized solutions. Expect to see several big-name amusements shortly that provide novel, cyberspace-ready features like global high score rankings, matchmaking, avatars (digital body doubles) and bite-size, on-demand purchases dubbed micro-transactions.

Storyline and character are becoming crucial to boot – it won’t be long before most mouse-mashers sport in-depth plots and signature mascots, e.g. Super Granny or Cake Mania’s Jill. Production values are further rising across the board, meaning games like PopCap’s best-selling Bookworm Adventures (which cost $700,000 to make and sells for $29.99) will become less rare, more commonplace. Happily, most won’t cost quite so much to make/distribute, so $20 sticker fees should remain standard. Better still, new business models – see: subscriptions, advertising-subsidized content and pay-per-play options – will help offset these expenses, providing more for your gaming dollar.

Cloning, the process of swiping popular ideas from existing hits, isn’t going anywhere either. (As movies and primetime TV teach, unoriginality pays.) Still, it’s anticipated the general range of content represented will be much wider, as forays into the fantasy, simulation and strategy genres join the generally puzzle- and action-dominated fold. The top titles you’ll see emulated shortly? Our guess: Tactically-minded, ten gallon hat-clad favorite Westward and life simulation Virtual Villagers.

Don’t think you’ll be killing time solely on PC or mobile phone either. With Apple’s iPod now a full-fledged portable game player, can it be long before Microsoft’s ostensibly MP3-focused Zune follows suit, introducing Xbox Live Arcade-style game browsing/buying provisions? After all, the initiative’s proving hugely successful on Xbox 360. Chart-topping handhelds PSP and DS are suddenly awash in conversions of popular desktop diversions. And Nintendo’s "virtual console"-equipped Wii also brings the hobby’s underlying philosophy of simple, fun, accessible titles to the living room.

Whoever you are, whatever your platform of choice, one thing’s certain, though: Starting this January, casual gaming is officially bigger and better than ever.

Scott Steinberg is managing director of Embassy Multimedia Consultants. A prolific freelance author and radio/TV host, Scott covers gaming/technology for 300+ outlets from CNN to the LA/NY Times, Playboy, Rolling Stone, USA Today, TV Guide, and of course, Gamezebo. Other ventures include software publisher Overload Entertainment and Games Press, the ultimate resource for game journalists.