Online mystery games are back from the dead

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Mystery games are back from the dead, thanks to surging interest from older gamers and digital technology that makes them cheaper to produce and distribute, experts say.

A woman in a costume plays a game in Beverly Hills November 8, 2006. Mystery games are back from the dead, thanks to surging interest from older gamers and digital technology that makes them cheaper to produce and distribute, experts say. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

Mystery games, which require players to solve puzzles to advance a storyline, were popular in the mid-1990s but then fell out of favor, said DFC Intelligence analyst David Cole.

“It became a very high-budget type product at the time the PC game genre was overcrowded,” Cole said. “A lot of money went in (to production costs) and (game publishers) weren’t getting a return on investment, so they pulled out.”

While there is “a definite opportunity” to bring back the genre, as more mature PC users reach beyond free offerings like Solitaire, the challenge is getting them to pay to play, he said.

DFC Intelligence estimates that casual online games generated about $400 million in revenue in 2006, even while one of the fastest-growing demographics -- women over 35 -- was slow in shelling out cash for that purpose.

“The big way to reach them is retail distribution, which is always a challenge, Cole said. “It would be great to be in a grocery store or (convenience store) impulse purchase. That’s why it’s been tougher for this type of game.”

Publishers of two popular mystery games, “Mystery Case Files” and “Mystery at Mansfield Manor” say word-of-mouth has been crucial in attracting the disproportionate numbers of older women who are playing.

Paul Thelen, chief executive of Big Fish Games, said the audience for “Mystery Case Files” is overwhelmingly female and over 35 -- a demographic the company plans to focus on with six coming installments of the mystery-themed games.

“This is a demographic of gamers who started five or six year ago with simple games. This was the next step for them,” Thelen said. “Advertisement doesn’t work for this demographic. It’s kind of a secret industry because it grows by word of mouth.”

The three “Mystery Case Files” games, including the latest title, “Mystery Case Files: Ravenhearst,” have sold more than 700,000 units.

In “Ravenhearst,” the Queen of England asks players to unravel a 200-year-old mystery in a rundown mansion by finding pages of a diary written by a woman who lived there.

Players advance the story by solving two kinds of puzzles: finding a list of objects in a room and unlocking exceedingly complex Rube Goldberg type contraptions to open a door.

The game takes about 20 hours to solve for first-timers and features different clues each time it is played, Thelen said.

Big Fish plans a retail launch for “Mystery Case” Files this spring at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other major retailers to get recognition for the title with consumers who may be leery of buying online, Thelen said.

The company launched a social networking site,, to let fans earn free games for spreading the word about “Mystery Case Files” and its other offerings.

With not one dollar to spend on advertising, Rory Scherer, founder of Toronto company SR Entertainment, banked on the appeal of TV crime shows and mystery novels when he launched “Mystery At Mansfield Manor” last summer.

The interactive murder mystery movie puts players in the gumshoes of Detective Frank Mitchell to solve the murder on a stormy night of an oil baron who had gathered his family and employees at his mansion to announce changes to his will.

The electricity goes out during a rancorous dinner, and when the lights are restored, the mogul is dead.

“Mansfield Manor” takes two to three hours to play and features multiple endings.

The game’s rich look and user-friendly Web site, praised by several reviewers, was achieved for $50,000, Scherer said.

Scherer, who dreamed up the idea for “Mansfield Manor” in business school, said the numbers add up to profitability.

“The technology that is available now made it all possible. It’s very cheap ... you can get a worldwide audience right away (on the Internet),” Scherer said.

SR Entertainment recently inked a deal with Stonehenge Media Group Inc. to raise $2 million to make five more interactive games, Scherer said.