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Casual games go upscale

The programmers at PopCap Games Inc. used to think of themselves as the unloved stepchildren of the computer gaming industry.

Their humble word puzzles and math teasers were in a different league from games in which role-playing characters spray bullets, slay dragons and maim rivals in fantastic virtual worlds. Such hardcore games can cost $30 million or more to develop -- as much as a Hollywood movie.

But the casual gaming niche, which includes hits like "Bejeweled," "Scrabble" and the low-budget classic "Tetris," is in the midst of a Cinderella-like transformation.

Companies like PopCap are sinking hundreds of thousands of dollars into casual games and demanding sophisticated graphics, more nuanced plots, even original music instead of bland electronica.

The sequel to one of PopCap's popular word puzzles, "Bookworm Adventures," is expected to be the most expensive title produced for the casual game genre. PopCap, which has offices in San Francisco, Seattle and Ireland, spent $700,000 over 2 1/2 years developing the game. It is set to debut online Tuesday at $30 per download.

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