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Real seeks subscribers for games

The streaming media company is planning to announce a paid service that will charge gamers $6.95 a month for access to its RealArcade titles.

The rest of the game industry is wielding huge development budgets and taking on massive technical challenges in its effort to push consumers to complex, multiplayer online games. But RealNetworks thinks there's a lot to be said for a nice game of mah-jongg.

The streaming media specialist has sold more than 700,000 downloadable copies of games--mostly simple puzzle and card titles--through RealArcade, the game download and online play service Real launched last year.

The company hopes to prompt even more downloads with a new subscription service to be announced Tuesday. Customers who pay a monthly fee of $6.95 ($4.95 for those already subscribing to the RealOne service) will be able to download one game a month and receive discounts on further downloads.

RealArcade's titles are different from the stuff that usually makes headlines. The most popular titles are puzzle and card games that seldom take less than 10MB on a player's hard drive and cost as little at $10. RealArcade hosts the games for developers and provides all support and download services in exchange for a cut of sales.

Andrew Wright, general manager of the company's game division, said RealArcade has provided a valuable outlet for game developers who don't want to deal with the super-complex projects and Hollywood-level production budgets.

"The simple puzzle games you can develop for as little as $60,000," Wright said. "The chance of getting a payout pretty quickly is very high."

RealArcade titles typically appeal to people who don't spend a lot of time playing games but want a quick diversion now and then. The service's customer base is more than 50 percent female.

"We're going for a mass-market consumer, not your typical core gamer," Wright said. "The retail channels are not catering to this audience. You go to Best Buy, and it's all about action games, blood and guts."

Schelley Olhava, gaming analyst for research firm IDC, said it's possible to make money from such casual gamers, but it's tough to compete with free online games offered on sites such as Yahoo and Microsoft's The Zone.

"The trick in the casual game market is to get those people to pay for content they can get for free elsewhere," Olhava said. "It's a tricky balance--you have to make the download games compelling enough to convince people to pay a few dollars for them, but not so advanced you lose your audience."

Still, Real's model may make for an easier route than the one facing major game publishers hoping to bring a mass audience to sophisticated role-playing games. "I think it's easier to get the average consumer to pay a few dollars for a casual game than to get them to sign up for an 'Ultima Online' or 'EverQuest,'" Olhava said.