Trilogy Studios has zigged and zagged since its founding in 2005. But the game company believes it is zeroing in on a lucrative market opportunity as it makes casual online games for players who want something more meaty than what you can currently get on the social networks.

The company was founded by hardcore game developers from Electronic Arts. They started making online games known as massively multiplayer online games for hardcore gamers. But the game market has changed and Trilogy has evolved with it, focusing on more casual players frequenting social networks or other web sites. It shifted into virtual worlds and is now doing social games.

While Activision Blizzard dominates the high-end hardcore MMO market with World of Warcraft, and Zynga is the leader with simple social games on Facebook, Trilogy hopes to carve out its own niche.

“We believe there is a race to the middle,” said Michael Pole (pictured below), chief executive of Trilogy in Sherman Oaks, Calif. “We can come down from the high-end console games and up from the turn-based, slow-paced Facebook games.”

To do that, Trilogy Studios has built a game development platform called Firefly, which can run massively multiplayer online games. Trilogy is also making its own original titles and is making online games for well-known brands. In those games, Trilogy is using PlaySpan, a provider of virtual goods and virtual currency for games, to make money from its games. Trilogy’s own original games coming later this year will be free-to-play, meaning that players can play the games for free but can pay real money as they go for virtual goods such as better weapons. The PlaySpan technology enables the virtual goods business model.

“We’ve spent the past five years building up an expertise in social and casual games, and now have a complete platform in Firefly to quickly deliver massive, immersive games for leading content publishers,” said Pole. “We hope to make social games more engaging.”

In 2007, Trilogy created the Pimp My Ride virtual world (pictured at top)  for MTV Networks. That world did not use the Firefly platform. But earlier this year, Trilogy created an online game on the Firefly platform for a movie studio, which had commissioned a movie game. That game has more than 1 million registered users, but Pole said that Trilogy does not have permission to talk about it. Brands are charging into the social game market, as evidenced by Electronic Arts’ purchase of Playfish and Disney’s purchase of Playdom.

Pole says Trilogy’s Firefly platform could be attractive to brands that want to get big in social gaming, which has become the hottest sector of the video game business. That’s because games created with Firefly can be published to just about any social network or web site. And with the PlaySpan virtual goods technology, there will be 85 different ways for gamers to pay for the virtual goods in their games.

Pole says Trilogy can create two-dimensional Flash games or more sophisticated Unity 3D-based games as well using the Firefly platform. For several years, Trilogy has been partnered with Ultizen, a Shanghai-based contract game designer that makes art and other assets for Trilogy’s games.

At the moment, Trilogy does not plan to license the Firefly platform widely. Rather, it will make its own games and games for brands using the Firefly platform. Pole estimates the company will produce about four games a year. Trilogy has 40 employees, while Ultizen has 60. Pole’s partner is Rick Giolito, who worked with Pole at Electronic Arts. Between them, they worked on games such as Medal of Honor, Knockout Kings, Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf and The Simpsons.

In some sense, Trilogy is a gun for hire, making online games for brands. In that sense, it competes with Bit Trap Studios and Gazillion Entertainment’s Net Devil division. In original social games, Trilogy will compete with the likes of Zynga and Disney’s Playdom.

Trilogy has raised $6 million to date in two rounds. Its investors include Evanston Financial Strategies and Chichen Itza Ventures. Trilogy became profitable in 2008, thanks to its work with MTV, whose Pimp My Ride social game has more than 3 million users. Trilogy will be announcing its own games later this year.