Game Industry's Brass Ring: Female Player
SAN FRANCISCO - Engrossed in her Nintendo DS hand-held on the bus ride to work, Melinda Whitehouse looked up and realized she had missed her stop - again. For months she's been getting high on ''Wario Ware: Touched,'' her latest pickup in the hyperkinetic puzzle-game series. But her video-game addiction doesn't stop there. She plays ''Kingdom of Loathing'' on her PC at work, then heads home to log an hour of "Animal Crossing'' on her Gamecube console before switching over to ''Ratchet and Clank: Going Commando'' on the PlayStation 2 in her bedroom. The San Franciscan is bent on reserving early copies of ''Nintendogs'' and ''Zelda: Twilight Princess'' at her local Gamestop later this year, and she plans on taking a day off from work when ''Animal Crossing'' arrives for the DS in November. Whitehouse, 35, says she plays for about three hours each day. She is a ''hard-core'' gamer, and the avid collector of ''Hello Kitty'' T-shirts is also evidence that the fickle video-game industry, which has made a mint catering to the 18- to 34-year-old male demographic, can rouse the women's market. It's a bet that has flat-lined in the past, but clever new games, new platforms and targeted marketing campaigns are the latest evidence that, this time, a lucrative market of female gamers will emerge. One thing we can be sure of: The women's market won't grow on the back of testosterone-fueled blockbuster franchises like ''Madden NFL,'' ''Grand Theft Auto'' and ''Halo.'' Rather, bets are on fresh titles like ''Nintendogs,'' ''The Movies,'' ''Bratz Rock Angels'' and ''NeoPets,'' as well as forthcoming versions of established franchises like ''The Sims,'' ''SSX'' and ''Dora the Explorer.'' Like Whitehouse, many female gamers got started with simple yet addictive arcade, puzzle, card and strategy games both in game rooms and on their PCs. Now a bevy of titles is beckoning them to hand-held devices such as the DS, the PlayStation Portable from Sony and even mobile phones. But the industry's ultimate hope is to whet girls' appetites for console gaming, where multimillion-dollar-budgeted games account for 70 percent of the industry's software revenues. ''To sustain the industry's growth rate, the publishers need to develop the kind of games that turn the casual female gamer into a core gamer,'' said Anita Frazier, an analyst with NDP Group. ''The casual female gamer is underserved; the challenge is to convert them.'' This conversion could eventually be gravy for video-game publishers' revenue figures and stock prices, which have largely languished this spring amid an ongoing transition to the next generation of console hardware. But a respectable foundation on which the industry can build the ranks of female customers appears to be in place, as 43 percent of all gamers now are female, according to the Entertainment Software Association. The average female gamer over the age of 18 logs 7.4 hours a week, a number that's closing the gap on male gamers, who play for an average of 7.6 hours a week. That growth, however, does not appear to be occurring on the console, where IDC reports the percentage of women as the household's most active gamer has remained flat at 30 percent since 1999, a time spanning the entire current-generation console hardware cycle. Whitehouse, the 35-year-old San Franciscan, says she doesn't play ''shooter,'' ''action'' or many sports games - categories that represent 57.5 percent of all games sold for consoles, according to NPD. According to Virginia McArthur, senior producer of ''The Sims'' hand-held titles at Electronic Arts Inc., women are buyers of games with smart, immediate rewards and engaging play that gives them a certain element of control. ''They choose to play again because the game rewards them and not because they got killed, lost or were taken back to same screen over and over again,'' said McArthur. ''The Sims'' - arguably the most engaging franchise of all time for female gamers - boasts a following that's more than 50 percent female, mostly on the PC. But the franchise has since expanded to the console, DS and PlayStation Portable (known as PSP), selling over 54 million total units since 2000. When Electronic Arts introduced its original version for the PC in 2000, women accounted for 40 percent of the game's registered users. Within a year, the split evened out to 50/50. EA began its marketing strategy targeting the male gamer on MTV and Comedy Central, but then - sensing a trend - took out ads in such female lifestyle media outlets as ''Teen People'' and the WB network, and it started placing product at Hollywood parties. This year, publishers are unleashing a spate of games that they hope can finally hit the sweet spot. EA is upping its ante for the October release of snowboarding game ''SSX: On Tour,'' as female gamers grow increasingly keen on the upstart sport. The game allows players to customize their rider's hair style, hair color and body shape, and they can even apply makeup - and outfit them with clothes and accessories available in stores this snowboarding season. EA says it's expanding its ad buys in female-oriented magazines and programs for the fourth iteration of the franchise, as well as offering Web logs on the popular social networking site MySpace.com. Take-Two Interactive Software Inc., which has risen to prominence due to action and sports games, thinks it has a couple of female category winners on its hands later this year in ''Dora the Explorer'' for the PS2 and the ''Civilization'' series on the PC. THQ Inc., which has a lengthier PC game lineup than most rival publishers, has also benefited from women playing console games ''SpongeBob SquarePants: The Movie'' and ''Finding Nemo,'' according to surveys from NPD Group. This summer THQ Inc. brings to the table ''Bratz Rock Angelz'' - a game based on the popular line of fashion dolls - for the PlayStation 2, Gamecube, PC and Gameboy Advance. THQ hopes to benefit from a $50 million marketing campaign targeting girls between 6 and 12 - as well as their parents - to sell the game, dolls, accessories, home video and a music CD. Even as publishers develop an assortment of new titles, research reveals that action and horror franchises have cultivated an ongoing appeal among women - especially when those titles have a female protagonist. Gamespot Trax, a new service that taps into the interests of more than 6 million users, reveals that games in the action/horror category, such as ''Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly,'' ''Silent Hell 3,'' ''Resident Evil'' and ''Buffy the Vampire Slayer,'' have fared disproportionately well among women. Further, focused research from NPD reveals that racing games such as ''Grand Tourismo'' and ''Need for Speed'' and the skating game ''Tony Hawk's Underground'' have been popular among women.