Triple-A Games for Women? Seriously?
There's a longstanding piece of conventional wisdom in the game business that women won't shell out big bucks for games. They might play small games or free games, but for most women, buying a AAA console blockbuster for themselves is out of the question. I haven't done any research on the issue, but I'm pretty up to speed on our shibboleths, and I know that's what a lot of developers think. (Of course, women in the game industry spend money on games, but they're atypical.)
Imagine my bogglement, then, when Brandii Grace informed me at the 2012 Game Developers' Conference that she is founding a company to make AAA games for women. I suppose I shouldn't have been so surprised; this is after all Brandii Grace we're talking about. If you don't know her, Brandii is about the size of a firecracker and possesses a similar energy density. She has been in the game industry for close to ten years, starting as an IGDA Student Scholar and working her way up as a designer, writer, producer, programmer and eventually teacher. She's still a big deal in the IGDA, too, having won their MVP award this year for setting up their events volunteers program. And if all that weren't enough, Brandii also fought and won a National Labor Relations Board case against an employer who treated her and her co-workers unfairly, spending six hours on the witness stand and never losing her cool under relentless cross-examination.
Still, you can't persuade women to buy AAA games with composure alone. Her new company is called Transform Entertainment—at least for the moment—and I decided to play devil's advocate and ask her what makes her think she can do it.
At the Game Developers' Conference, you told me you were setting up a company to, in your words, "make AAA games for women." What's wrong with the AAA games we already have?
I wouldn't say there's something "wrong" with the AAA games on the market today. Rather, I'd say they are like a man's best, custom-tailored suit—a perfect fit for the intended audience and a poor fit for most women.
Interesting analogy, but games don't wrap themselves around a human body. What does a poor fit mean in this context?
It means that most AAA games don't properly target most women. I'm not just talking about the themes of these games; their execution doesn't support the needs or attitudes of this audience. Compare how Twilight and Underworld both approach the theme of vampires versus werewolves. Underworld attracts more men by focusing on the action of a gun-toting, catsuit-wearing hottie kicking ass. Twilight attracts more women by focusing on the drama of internal and interpersonal conflicts between desire and the emotional bonds of love, family, and friendship. Yet, too many people in our industry think they'd attract the Twilight audience simply by making the Underworld vampires sparkly!
Are you seriously going to put the conflict between desire and the emotional bonds of love, family, and friendship in a video game? The only things we're really good at simulating are physics and economics.
I disagree! For starters, deception and alliance manipulation are mechanics successfully implemented in plenty of games like Mafia and Werewolf. Social networking technology has matured considerably and alliance manipulation is an area social games are well-positioned to explore.
Moreover, The Sims—the AAA franchise most successful at attracting large audiences of women—created interpersonal conflicts between its AI characters. They successfully implemented gameplay I refer to as "empathy play." Players are given a voyeuristic view of all the drama and the ability to influence its outcome; but players never become a direct or indirect target of the emotional conflict. (Watching a screaming match may be fun, being in one is not.)
Fair enough, although in The Sims you can't actually tell what the conflict is about. You've raised two issues: social networking and omnipresent (non-role-playing, avatar-less) voyeurism. What do you think about Prom Week, the AI-driven Facebook game?
Actually, I'd say the Sims' emotional reactions and icon thought bubbles explain conflicts far better than Prom Week's unnatural and unhelpful dialogue. Prom Week's gameplay communication is in its menus instead of its dialogue—which is like reading a book where the entire story is in the narrator's exposition.
More importantly, you made an interesting assumption that I was talking about avatar-less omnipresence. There are plenty of real people involved in conflicts without being targeted by them—divorce lawyers, for example. But we don't often make games featuring such "tangential" interactions. That's because we assume fun emerges directly from the challenge of conquering a conflict. This makes sense, as most men are driven by overcoming challenges in games. However, only about 10% of women play games for the challenge. In many cases, challenge can actually deter women because they are so averse to the risk of failure.
Only 10% of women play games for the challenge? That's an extraordinary statistic, and if true, one that requires that we re-think what game even means. It also suggests that the female player is far more different from the male one than I had thought.
It sounds as if you want to create dramatically different games—partially in content, partially in tone, and in the very activity that you offer. By setting yourself so far apart from the mainstream, and branding your product "AAA games for women," don't you risk creating a pink ghetto?
The "pink ghetto" is what we're trying to stop! The "non-traditional" gaming audience bought millions of Wiis and Kinects; yet the AAA games released for those systems still rely on mechanics targeting core gamers! Meanwhile, companies targeting this market continually release low-budget games designed with a shallow misunderstanding of their audience. These trends have left a hole in the market we're filling with high-quality AAA console games targeted to casual, "non-core" gamers.
Now, you're right that we have to re-think our designs in order to win in this new market; but we don't have to completely reinvent the wheel or toss everything we've learned—just subtly tweak things using a solid understanding of this audience. Our strategy is simple: combine deep, content-rich worlds with fun, casual-style mechanics and create a new kind of experience to serve a new kind of gamer.
So not only AAA but console AAA. There isn't a piece of conventional wisdom you're not prepared to challenge, is there? How do I think thou art asking for trouble? Let me count the ways. There's a lot of Internet yak about how consoles are dead; I don't believe it myself, but it's something that you'll have to convince your funders is not true. There's also a general feeling that consoles (except the Wii, which is seen as for little kids) are a hardcore gamer's platform. The games are expensive and the hardware is a luxury. Women can justify owning a PC for other reasons, but a console?
I'll count the ways: 18 million Kinects, 100 million Wiis. Women don't need to "justify" buying a game system—they've already got them! They're just lacking good games to play on them. Besides, the "hardcore" market is increasingly dominated by family men whose console systems are set up in shared living spaces. Plus, studies show that most women play games to connect with their friends and families. A quick tour of the "mommy blogs" shows a rising demand for engaging games they can play with their kids.
Ubisoft's female-friendly Wii game Just Dance 2 sold 9.1 million units.
OK, I'll grant you Just Dance 2, but Kinect Adventures was a pack-in. You got it with the Kinect whether you wanted it or not. Anyway, you've convinced me that the mothers have access to consoles and want to use them. Are young single women buying them? (Your female friends in the game industry don't count!)
I'd say making Kinect Adventures a pack-in just shows that Microsoft is marketing the Kinect to be a family-friendly gaming experience and still outselling their biggest hardcore games.
As for stats: Last year, 18-34 year olds made up 33% of the female gaming audience. I've never seen stats on relationship status; but, the overall percentage of women using consoles goes up steadily each year. As for female devs—I suspect most women driven to create games come from that 10% of females who belong to the "core" gamer market. Remember, women are as diverse as men. No game will ever appeal to all women, just as no game appeals to all men.
OK—so you yourself know you can't appeal to all women, and I agree that women are at least as diverse as men in their gaming tastes, if not more so. So let's cut to the chase. What's your launch title, and who is it for?
While we're not ready to go public, I can tell you that our first title is a whole new experience for the Kinect that brings player's fantasies to life in much the same way Rock Band let players feel like rock stars. This particular title is aimed more at young women, but we have designed games targeting a variety of demographics.
For example, another of our Kinect games should really excite those mommy bloggers I mentioned. It's designed to encourage immersive whole-family play. It allows, but does not require, all players to maintain continued engagement. This is done intentionally so little kids (with their often sporadic attention-spans) can step in and out of the gameplay easily without adversely impacting other players. This kind of family engagement is difficult to achieve when each player has to have their own controllers, keyboards, mice, or smartphones.
Interesting. I have to admit I haven't heard of a lot of multiplayer local (not online) games that permit players to come and go. Generally with a board game or even something physical it calls for a sustained degree of commitment. You may well have something there, if your gameplay is appealing enough.
It seems you're beginning to see the true potential in our games! If you want an idea of how latent interactions might work: imagine baking cookies. You can ask kids to sift flour, roll dough, and use cookie cutters; but it won't destroy the recipe if they don't finish because you can still do it. Our industry used to be restricted by the one-to-one relationships of players-to-input devices. As technology restrictions are continually removed; we, too, must remove unnecessary restrictions on our designs.
Can you talk about your dev team, and/or your own role?
I'm the CEO and creative lead for Transform Entertainment. I've designed each of our games based on years of solid research. Companies that fail to seriously research their audience risk relying on misguided concepts. A funny example I've heard: "Women need main characters to have 3-letter names." I doubt sales of Diner Dash would suffer if Flo were named Carla. Another popular one is, "Women won't play games without a real-world benefit." Millions of women play Windows Solitaire and, like most games, its benefit is simply entertainment. This idea originates from the fact that women want their actions to be meaningful; but within the context of the game, not necessarily the real world.
It sounds as if you're really excited by the Kinect. Can I ask who your backers are? One does not simply walk into AAA game development. There is evil there that does not sleep.
We are very interested in the Kinect because it has great potential to reach our target audience on a very deep level. Plus, I believe the audience bought the system on a promise of an experience our industry hasn't fully delivered—yet. We will deliver that experience!
One of our strategic partners is Whatnot?! Entertainment. Mark Murphy and his team of animators have been working in movies, television, games, and multimedia for years and we're insanely lucky to have them on board. We're exploring various prospects with other backers and, of course, we welcome new opportunities. So far, we've had really excited responses. Developers are excited by our designs; while business folks are excited by our market opportunity. Our potential ROI is as good as it gets for a new venture on consoles: We have a large, established market with virtually no competition that has been paying a lot, even for substandard games. Fortunately, a few games have proven that serving this audience with great products creates enormously successful franchises.
So the Xbox + Kinect is a certainty... let's talk about distribution. Women don't go into game stores much, for good reason; but they do shop at less-threatening retail outlets. AAA still tends to imply physical copies, at least for the time being. Are you thinking retail, or digital download only?
You are absolutely correct! Most women don't run to their local game store. One of the strategies we are investigating is placement in non-traditional retail outlets that reflect the market for a game. For example, if we were to make a game about cooking (we aren't), you might find a copy of the game available next to recipe books or we may setup an ad display for the game in the kitchenware section of major retailers.
I like that idea, if you can persuade them to do it. What do you think is your biggest hurdle? Apart from sarcastic remarks from old-timers like me?
Well, I don't think there exists in this world a start-up that doesn't need more funding!
Pre-launch, our biggest challenge will likely be talent acquisition and retention because many developers are hardcore gamers who want to make hardcore games. We prioritize work-life balance to attract the growing number of developers who want to make games they can share with their families and significant others.
Post-launch, I expect our greatest challenge will be brand awareness. Traditional game marketing channels won't reach most of our target audience, so we'll be focusing our efforts into new channels that specifically attract our target market.
I have been wondering if games aimed at women would start advertising in media aimed at women—Cosmopolitan, Family Circle, the Lifetime Channel—or are those all too conventional? I've noticed that games tend to be reviewed in the "guy" section of the newspaper, along with the cars and gadgets.
Absolutely! We advertise kids games in kids media; of course we should advertise women-targeted games in women-targeted media. In 1993, Sears saw a complete turnaround with it successful "come see the softer side of Sears" campaign targeting middle-income women ages 25-54. They spent millions running ads in women's home and fashion magazines and their commercials premiered during the Emmys, not the Super Bowl.
Going back to my earlier "cooking game" example—it's a horrible waste of an opportunity if a game like that isn't advertised in cooking magazines or on the Food Network. If I were doing such a game, I'd get Martha Stewart to blog about it and arrange to be a guest on her and Rachel Ray's shows where I'd invite audience members to play quick on-air game sessions with the host.
And one last question. It's a cliché that hiring managers ask you where you want to be in five years, but in the game industry that's too long. When I see you again at GDC 2013, what will you have to tell me?
Most likely, the first thing I'll have to tell you is that I'll be waiting for your RSVP to my wedding...
Next, I'll excitedly launch into details on how well production is going and share with you some of our secrets for successfully building a strong company that maintains a solid work-life balance for its employees.
Most importantly, I'll give you a sneak peek into the future of our industry! We're introducing gaming to an enormous new market of untapped players and bridging the gap between the grandmother who dabbles in Farmville and the sister who p0wns noobs in CoD. This creates a dynamic market shift which will compel our industry to focus greater attention on the growing market of female players across the entire gaming spectrum. Welcome to the new world of gaming!
Our discussion ended on a note offering more enthusiasm than hard data. But in the end Brandii convinced me that this isn't just pie in the sky. I like her game design ideas, as much as I know of them. The numbers are there and the consoles are in place. The stupid theories that Brandii quoted —" women need main characters to have 3-letter names"—seem typical of the ignorant, slapdash way the industry has approached the female market in the past. (Let's not forget the short-lived "pink box" craze of the late 90s.) So I think there is an unmet need for high-quality games that cater to women's interests without requiring them either to be a space marine or a cow clicker, and that respect their intelligence. Brandii is as qualified as anybody to meet it, if she can persuade women to spend the money. I hope she succeeds.
You can reach Brandii Grace at TransformEntertainment@live.com.