The Future Of Video Games? That's Easy -- It's Women
Saturday, August 13, 2005
Kelly Zmak, the new chief operating officer and senior vice-president of Vancouver's Radical Entertainment, doesn't need a crystal ball to see into the video game industry's future and where he wants his company to go.
He wants it to go for the largely untapped female game-playing market. He wants it to create entertainment for a consumer base whose average age is 28 and expected to get older. He wants it to exploit the hand-held and mobile markets. And he wants it to expand into other media.
"The female audience has an enormous, untapped potential," said Zmak, from his office at Radical's Terminal Avenue headquarters.
The male-dominated video-game industry has begun to evolve toward including female gamers, a trend which Zmak wants Radical to explore.
"There's a huge market for mysteries, particularly with females, and yet no one has been able to deliver that in an electronic medium to a female audience that has worked yet," says Zmak. He agrees that Radical's CSI games come close, but they operate in a traditional PC-based medium, and he thinks Radical needs to expand to non-traditional media such as mobile phones.
He feels more women will become artists and developers when the industry "is more in line with the games [women] want to play."
He thinks Radical consumers will continue to play games as they pass into their 30s and 40s.
"We're now targeting this older audience, and that realization will change the way we approach our games and our development process," says Zmak.
"It's clear to me that consumers are looking for a realistic environment. Artificial intelligence will play a key role in the way the game feels. The online component will also change what we predominantly feel is a first-person experience. All of the new platforms are coming out as broadband-enabled, and that will lead to a much higher online game-playing ratio [where gamers play one another]. If the consumer's focus is on an online, social environment, then we'll have to accommodate that."
Mobile entertainment is another area Zmak would like to take Radical, once the North American market sets a standard format. Unlike Asia, where countries have one or two mobile phone providers, North America has multiple providers and phone models, making it difficult to develop entertainment that will fit each format.
He sees the hand-held and mobile markets growing, and he wants Radical to make material that "goes beyond traditional gaming."
Says Zmak: "Other companies make games, but heading into this transition, we have the people in place, the products in place, the IPs [international properties] in place, we're poised for the next round. We're ready for the next-generation software -- PS3, X-Box 360, Nintendo Revolution, handhelds as they come out, the next round of mobile overseas.
"We're looking at taking our intellectual properties and exploiting them outside the games business as a true interactive media. We're not going to be satisfied staying within the games industry. We're looking at television, movies, interactive DVD, mobile, handhelds, episodic content, online components.
Zmak, an American who just bought a house in Cloverdale, has been in the games business since 1985, when three people working in a basement could put out a game cheaply. Since then, he has worked at just about every level of the business -- production, design, product development, publishing and team management.
In this business, workers must be prepared to embrace change.
"When we look to the next-generation platform, we look to the next-generation technology," says Zmak. "That's an enormous hurdle, because we're not just dealing with a new box or a new machine, we're dealing with what will eventually what will be three or four new machines.
"Great games sell the box. If we can focus on how to innovate and create the best games for each of those platforms, those games will sell that hardware."
The games industry today is "a mass-market entertainment business" says Zmak.
"We've become something that, in the old days, we didn't want to be. In the Apple 2 days, we used to take three guys, probably $150,000, make a game and ship it out in a Zip-loc bag with a white sticker that was hand-written. "Now, we spend millions of dollars on marketing to launch a product we spent millions of dollars creating. It's a totally different market."
Radical, which always operated as an independent studio, was bought by Vivendi Universal Games (VUG) in March. Zmak, a former vice-president, product games for VUG, says the transition is not a rocky one.
"It's not a battle," says Zmak. "Vivendi wants desperately to preserve the culture of success that is here.
"The average age of employees here is 32. We're mature employees who are focused on life-balance issues. We work hard. We play hard. We take tremendous pride in what we do. We want to be successful, and Vivendi wouldn't have acquired the studio if they didn't see that passion and that success."
His perception of the studio before he arrived here was a good one.
"You judge a studio by the games they make, and Radical was an amazingly successful studio, creating fun games that play right, look right and feel right."
Since coming here, Zmak says the place has excelled in all the important areas: operationally, games innovation and culturally.
"They've managed to allow for an air of creativity and innovation, but still hitting their marks for operational profitability."
Asked what his favourite game is, Zmak cites a competitor's product, Ubisoft's Splinter Cell Chaos Theory. He likes it because the graphics, sound and total game experience pull the player into that universe. And even though it's a single-player game, when he plays it on his 60-inch television set at home, his wife and two daughters -- who also play the game -- can watch it like they're watching a movie.
"When making a game [the success] is really about creating a total experience for the consumer," says Zmak. "This is relatively new to our industry, the entertainment experience. We're no longer just making a video game, we're making something more than that. I don't know what it is yet, because I think it's being defined by the consumer."
In closing, Zmak sees Radical at the forefront of the games industry.
"This organization is so well-poised for the future," says Zmak. "That's the reason I joined Radical."