A theme within the gaming industry this generation has been the expansion of who plays video games. Console makers have been looking to draw in a new audience by making games easier to approach and simpler to play. Motion sensors and touch screens are just two of the things we’ve seen this generation that are making it easier for your mom, dad, and little sister to pick up and play video games. But look a bit deeper and you’ll see a trend when it comes to the games themselves as well, and Xbox Live Arcade has something to do with it.

Games for the masses, available with the touch of a button

This concept isn’t anything new to those who follow the gaming industry closely. But when one of my sixty-something year old co-workers was telling me about how she planned to spend her entire weekend doing nothing but drinking frappaccino and playing Farmville, something triggered in my brain. It’s not only the way we play games that expanding the gaming audience, it’s the games themselves and how they’re delivered. Take Farmville for example. It’s a free to play game that originated on Facebook, one of the largest social networks on the Internet. All it took was one simple gameplay concept being put in front of millions of people around the world and they were hooked. Next thing you know, they’re buying up in-game Farmville currency from retailers around the country, and the makers of Farmville are rolling in cash.

Microsoft and its publishing partners are tapping into this same notion via Xbox Live Arcade. For amounts of 400 MSP to 1200 MSP, developers are delivering games that almost anyone can afford and almost anyone can pick up and play. And they’re so easy to obtain. Gone are the days of driving down to the nearest game retailer. All you need to do is turn on your Xbox 360 and you can download games right from the dashboard. As a wise man once said “It’s so easy, anyone can do it”.

Gaming on a budget

Let’s take a look at some of Xbox Live Arcade’s most successful titles. Geometry Wars: Evolved was one of the original smash hits on XBLA. Geometry Wars is based on the ancient concept of the arcade style shooter with some splashy next-generation effects. It’s simple to play, entertaining to look at, and it only costs 400 MSP ($5 USD). What’s not to like? It’s so easy to part with a virtual five dollar bill.

For the same reason, free to play games and the “microtransaction” are growing in popularity. If a developer is in decent enough financial shape to give their game to you for free, why not do it? You’ll download it free of charge, have fun and get hooked. Then when you see you can pay a nominal free to customize your character, or for a new weapon, or that new map, you’ll do it. And so will many others. The best part about this is that it benefits just about everyone. Developers and publishers can get their games out to more people, and the players on the other side get to choose what they’re paying for instead of jumping on top of a $60 retail title and crossing their fingers that it’s worth it.

Microsoft themselves have decided to experiment with pricing and “freemium” games on Xbox Live Arcade. The recently released Crimson Alliance is available at three different prices. You can download the entire game for free, but the features of the game are limited. There are prompts to buy the full game all over the place. They’re basically giving you a limited version of the game in hopes that you’ll want to unlock more features, pony up and buy the full game. On top of that, Microsoft is selling the game for both 800 Microsoft Points, and 1200 Microsoft Points. The difference? The cheaper 800 Microsoft Point edition only allows you to play as one of the game’s three classes. If you’re the type of person who’s only going to play the game once, this is a perfect option for you, and you’ll save yourself some money. However if you’re the type of person who’s going to play the game for an extended period of time, and wants to play as all three classes, you’ll want to buy the 1200 Microsoft Point edition of Crimson Alliance. It sounds complicated, but it makes perfect sense and it gives gamers the option of getting the game they want, at the price they want to pay.

So what does all this mean? It means that the term “gamer” no longer applies. It’s so easy both to play, and to afford being a “gamer” now that everyone out there is now a gamer. Whether you’re grinding in an MMO, playing Angry Birds on your iPhone, shooting up the enemy online in Call of Duty, or downloading the newest hit on Xbox Live Arcade, we’re all the audience now. Even my sixty-something year old retired and widowed co-worker. Maybe I’ll be fighting alongside her avatar in a game on Xbox Live tonight. That’s the beauty of gaming today. It’s no longer just entertainment to a select group of people. It’s entertainment, art, storytelling and an experience for everybody.