Of course, none of you reading this would ever play "Solitaire" on your computer at work.

Clearly, however, lots of people are playing what the industry calls "casual games" like "Minesweeper," "Fish Tycoon" and "Zuma" via the Web at work and at home. The industry has grown from almost nothing in 2002, to well over $600 million in 2004 in the U.S. alone. Industry experts anticipate that the domestic market will reach over $2 billion by 2008.

We're not talking "Madden Football" or "Grand Theft Auto." Those are high tech, graphically impressive video games designed for separate play stations. Casual games have simple rules and designs and are frequently based on classic games like tic-tac-toe for a mass audience on the Web, where they can be accessed via browsers or download. They require no special skills and can be played quickly in short bursts say, a work break or, in the case of portable and cell phone games, on public transportation.

Among the new movers in the field is Los Angeles-based RedRoverGames.com, which was founded by Roger Nall as an offshoot of his 11:11 Media Works Corp., which creates special visual effects for film and TV. Nall created the company with help from his computer savvy son Robert, who was named the company's lead designer and game developer. Currently, Red Rover has three full-time employees and shares a number of 11:11 workers as well. Robert Nall said he's happily designing video games, but he admitted he had to take a pay cut from his earlier job as a designer with 11:11.

The company has scored with "Lost in the Labyrinth," a computer version of the old-fashioned wooden maze game, and its second offering, "Scramble," available in the new few weeks.

Founder Roger Nall says the casual gaming industry right now couldn't be bigger or better.

"Our goal is roughly a six-week development period, with a couple of weeks testing," Roger Nall said. "We intend to do six to eight more games this year. For the moment, we are building a library of games and looking for user feedback to help dictate the direction of future games."

The dominant business model in 2000 for targeting the casual games audience was offering free online games that were monetized by advertising and sponsorships. Today, the casual games market has a number of business models: fee-based downloadable games, premium online subscription services, skill-based gaming and free game play supported by video advertising and sponsorships.

The games that Red Rover produced are available online for $19.95 each and can be purchased in a Mac or Windows format.

"Our new company will be creating original downloadable casual games for the ever-expanding casual game market," Nall said. "Every game will be available in a free Web-playable form and a downloadable demo form."

A number of the largest video game publishers, including Santa Monica-based Activision Inc., are testing the casual games market. That can be seen as an aggressive foray into a natural realm for these firms' considerable technological, design and graphic capabilities. Or it can be seen as joining, rather than fighting, a rival games delivery approach that may have even more potential.

Cash Infusions

Southern California's venture capital investments hit $534.7 million in the fourth quarter and totaled $3.4 billion on the year, according to SocalTech data released last week.

Tech Coast Angels led the field with 19 investments on the year, followed by Enterprise Partners and Domain Associates with 10 each and Intel Capital and Mission Ventures with nine deals.

Monrovia-based Xencor Inc., which develops biologic drug compounds, raised $45 million. Los Angeles-based SpotRunner Inc., which allows businesses to create low-cost local cable advertising online, was among the biggest beneficiaries, raising $40 million in Series C Funding.

MySpace in China

News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch has struggled in his bid to expand his media empire into China, where the government has staunchly resisted foreign film and television forays.

The Internet may offer its best hope for a significant beachhead. News Corp.'s L.A.-based MySpace.com is looking to partner with Silicon Valley-based IDG Technology Venture Investment LLC, a general partnership that will manage a new $250 million China Growth Fund, launched by Accell Partners and International Data Group. The partnership has invested in more than 140 China-based technologies companies, including Baidu, cTrip and Sohu.com, since entering the territory in 1992.

In November, Murdoch's Chinese-born wife, the former Wendy Deng, went back to China for a week with MySpace.com founders Tom Anderson and Chris DeWolfe. She is the former Vice President of Business Affairs at News Corp.'s Asian satellite television operation.

Strike Up the Broadband

Slowly and surely, Woodland Hills-based United Online Inc. is shifting away from its dial-up service strategy. The company has tapped San Jose-based Covad Inc. to help start its NetZero DSL broadband Internet service. United Online intends to launch its expansion near the end of the first quarter, with a target of bringing broadband to about 30 percent to 35 percent of its subscriber base.

Staff reporter Dan Cox can be reached at dcox@labusinessjournal.com or at (323) 549-5225, ext. 230.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.