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The Designer's Notebook: Triple-A Games for Women? Seriously?
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The Designer's Notebook: Triple-A Games for Women? Seriously?

June 5, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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 triple-A 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 triple-A 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 10 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 triple-A 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 triple-A games for women." What's wrong with the triple-A games we already have?

Brandii Grace: I wouldn't say there's something "wrong" with the triple-A 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?

BG: It means that most triple-A 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.

BG: 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 triple-A 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.)

Prom Week

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?

BG: 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 percent 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.

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Fiora Aeterna
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AAA games that focus on characters, their interactions and emotions, and have mostly-female fanbases? We already have plenty of those: the Tales of series, Persona, TWEWY... the list is endless! And they don't need to say "for women" on the box.

Even in terms of blatantly-female-audience-only games, otome games have found a successful niche in the form of companies like QuinRose and Idea Factory's Otomate division, which have made dozens of successful games for years. I only sob about how hardly any of them get translated! If "women didn't shell out money for expensive games", these wouldn't exist -- they can often run $50 or more, and even Hakuoki: Legend of the Demon Blossom was $40 on release in the US.

Game designers should be trying to fix overly gendered marketing and game design in Western games, not making the problem worse by making "games for women" to complement "games for men", perpetuating awful gender stereotypes.

David Pierre
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Gamers will play what they enjoy. Marketing helps to sell to the audience what they like. It's not a designer's job to fix marketing but to improve the level of play for their audience. Whether the game is for men, women, children, old people, blind people, or whoever.

Tora Teig
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An interesting read, thank you! And good luck to Transform Entertainment, I'm excited to see what's going to happen!

I would like to express a slight consern with games for women also being targeted to kids (like the mentioned examples of Wii and Kinect titles). Why is it that women should be left "looking after kids" in their gametime? I agree it is a bonding experience, and it might be great fun and I am a strong believer in families playing together. But what about the women who do not have kids? And are themes and messages in children's games really the same as for an audience of women?

It's not fair that men get to sit and play their games by themselves while if women want to play they have to bring the kids too. I'm not saying that's what was said here directly - I am exaggerating here to make a point.

But wouldn't studies show that women enjoy to play games that are social or kid-friendly because there are actually no other titles that fit their interest - apart from games that are suited for kids?

Say if all gamers in the world were girls, and men mostly played games with kids or just social games. Wouldn't that be because there were no games for the men?

If we look at other media (which is a little dangerous when talking about games, but just this once) the "female" themes are stereotypically (roughly) romance, drama, fashion, family life, beauty, cooking or interpersonal relationships etc. While these topics might be interesting sometimes, I think we should be allowed to think out of the box in what fields "female interests" truly exist as well. I know that's hard, and I know it's asking a lot. But typical boy's media express that male interests (generically, roughly) lie with sports, fighting/violence/war, gadgets, girls, power-tools, videogames etc. How true is that, really?

I don't think either boot fit, and I think people also try to fit into these categories in fear of being different. We are kind of being stuffed in there by media and tradition. I just want to appeal to Brandii that I hope she moves slightly away from the stereotypes and tread cautiously with the statistics about what people like and what they don't, based on gender alone.

Try something else, try something that is not pink, and not about getting babies or not about drama and looking hot. These gender steoreotypes are producing this vicious circle of shallowness. Try to get the girls to think instead, use the brains and be tactical and spontaneous or crazy and mad and... please put some humour in it. Please.

I know it'll be impossible in regards to investors to not play it safe and you will be pushed from every direction to "go with the flow". So not to be overly feminist or anything - but I hope, and I think; that you may be surprised with what you may find if you try to approach your target audience a little different from how it tradutionally have been. If we are trying to get girls to play more games then what's being done now is not right. So something must be done differently.

I just wanted to empty my brain a little. Pretty large topic to cover in a tiny box, sorry if this is entirely besides the point, but would love to hear anyone else's thoughts on this :)

George Ramirez
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You're right, and hopefully this is not what Transform has in mind either. I was thinking some sort of cooperative game would be fun--in which case social interaction would occur outside of the game between players, allowing them to communicate and work together to solve some sort of puzzle. Also, I wonder how the social element in games like Persona could be used in women-targeted games, I for one love that dimension of the Persona games. I don't think it is so much themes in games that they have in focus, but rather they want to make games with a "women first" approach in finding their core engagement. In the end, I'd like to see what they produce, it could bring a wave of fresh air to the world of games.

Joe Cooper
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About the kids, I'm also finding it a little interesting because playing games with the kids or while looking after the kids is also a guy thing. When I was small I'd play Street Fighter with my dad and watch him play games like Populous and Sim City. (A lot of console games are just fun to watch for some reason.)

Now as a parent I find myself seeing if I can amuse my baby with the iPad, and a few years back I'd wind up entertaining small children with games.

All I'm saying is that it's definitely a use-case I've ran into as a dude. Maybe all game developers should take it into consideration when appropriate.

James Coote
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You're right to look outside games on this one, but not to other media. Instead we should be looking at other arts. There are films and novels aimed squarely at men or women, but arguably the ones with the greatest artistic merit touch on something universal and shared across the human spirit.

Joe Cooper
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Sims is one of my favorite games. That they don't have any articulated real dialog shows, if nothing else, that it's quite unnecessary and beside the point. It correlates with the notion that dialog is action; something many people miss.

In any case, that we're only good at simulating X and Y may as well have more to do with the fact that 99% of the industry's efforts go to X and Y. Remember that early on these were not so spiffy; compare ZZT to Call of Duty and see what I mean.

Grace makes statements like:

"... only about 10 percent 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."

These sorts of thoughts can make people uncomfortable as it has unfortunate implications; any time one explains that women are "averse to the risk of failure" and this causes economic uncompetitiveness, they are shot down, but here the exact same line is put forth. (I'm not going into what I think about this, I just suspect that the existence of the dynamic I refer to may make people uncomfortable thinking this way.)

But this doesn't need to act as a universal assertion or tool of oppression; just needs to be true enough, enough of the time for enough people to bring in a large number of people for whom this happens to apply.

Joshua Darlington
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I play AAA RPGs with my wife and she constantly complains that the combat gets repetitious and tedious.

Complex inter-personal dynamics is one of the most exciting aspects of classic tabletop games like pen and paper RPGs. AAA RPGs could really benefit from re-exploring/incorporating this territory.

When are we going to get a dance based RPG?

Dave Endresak
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Before I make any statements, I want to say that my academic background is in women's and gender studies as well as gaming and other media technologies and I have various academic awards related to the fields. I'll also add that I wish the company the best.

Having stated these things as a preface, I have to say that this is a very sexist approach. As an analogy, it's like saying that all, or even most, female politicians share the same views about issues. No, they do not, just as males do not. The same is true in every walk of life. We are a diverse species.

You can create something that you feel appeals to people with certain preferences and tastes, but you cannot claim that such preferences are shared by everyone you choose to lump into an arbitrary category. This is why so much academic research is flawed, particularly quantitative studies, and fails when taken into real life contexts. It's also why businesses and other efforts fail when their efforts are based on such research.

An example of this would be the statement that has already been quoted (i.e., that women are risk-averse). In fact, risk aversion is a characteristic of various cultures such as Japan. This is taught in Japanese language and culture courses as well as international business and elsewhere. It has nothing to do with anyone's physical sexual identity (or psychological gender identity, for that matter).

Another example would be the worldwide success of Vocaloid Hatsune Miku. Consider how the group Supercell was signed by Sony after gaining recognition by composing songs featuring her. Sony's marketing department thought that the customer audience would be 95% male. Wrong. The actual audience was 45% female. That's a huge, very expensive mistake because you cannot categorize people and their preferences that way. It's stereotyping and discriminatory.

I'll also point out that many men happen to prefer creative works, including games, that focus on interpersonal relationships. This is the entire basis for various dating simulation games and other forms of visual novels and adventures in Japan, regardless of the intended audience (and it began with such works targeted for a male audience, not works targeted for a female audience).

My sister plays a lot of RPGs, but not Western RPGs due to the focus on combat and the poor (for her) character aesthetics. She prefers Japanese RPGs. I analyze both, of course, because I cannot afford to focus only on one area or market, or assume that some particular preference is shared by all people in a market (because it isn't if you look at what people actually play).

If I wanted to be really harsh, I would state that The Sims is guilty of negative social conditioning reinforcement (i.e., it reinforces stereotypes of what females want and do not want rather than offering choice for anyone without stereotyping). It's interesting that The Sims is always brought up but popular titles played by many females (and created by females) in other markets such as Japan are not mentioned, nor do I see Myst mentioned very often even though it was by far the top selling game prior to The Sims.

As a final note, consider the fact that both physical sex and psychological gender are not distinct, dichotomous categories but actually continuous spectra of possibilities. There are many transgendered and intersexed individuals, after all, and they are just as diverse as any other demographic market, including the fact that there is not a single set of characteristics for such individuals that define them. Likewise, there is not a single set of criteria that defines the concept of "male" or "female" or "masculine" or "feminine."

Bottom line: there are already many triple-AAA titles for any audience, including people who identify as female physically and/or psychologically. Until we stop treating anyone who has preferences that differ from our expectations as though the person is "weird" or "atypical" in some way, we cannot achieve equality and remove stereotyping and discrimination.

Joshua Darlington
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Right on.

What are your insights regarding gender and profit maximization? (From a producers perspective.)

James Coote
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The framing of this whole article is off-kilter. Even the title seems incredulous and sarcastic

There are some serious points here about how you market to those outside traditional markets and creating games to appeal to new audiences, but they seem to have become obscured in this hazy blue-pink mist

Joe Cooper
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Yeah, it's like - "Games for the womans? You can't be serious - how will they play them in the kitchen?!"

Craig Timpany
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From the outset, Ernest says he's playing devil's advocate. I liked it, it was like a Socratic Dialogue.

Chris Christow
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How about women don't play game because they have better stuff to do? (Or maybe they simply lack the required imagination)

Let's face it, despite modern day feminist propaganda: women are not equal to men, if they were equal they would be men.

BTW A most basic essence of the game is competion/combat and violence to overcome and win over something/somebody. A game is basically a teaching/training tool to teach an individual the required skills to stay alive. You can find this basic essence even in games like Poker, Monopoly and even in Solitaire. And since men are required by nature to compete for women by doing many different things, that's why maybe any games are so much more appealing to men.
It is almost impossible to find a game that is something different.
Women are much more likely to consume entertainment passively like watching TV. It is hard to find women who do not watch TV. At the same time I know lots of men who do not like to watch TV at all and prefer the real thing.

Joshua Darlington
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The root of human survival instinct comes from being a vulnerable baby, and depending on other humans to eat and etc. That is why social cognition is typically at the top of cognitive hierarchy.

Humans are small branch of fishes. If you study gender in fishes you might have a better context for understanding human gender displays.

You might also find some interesting insight into human behavior by studying cognitive biases and ingroup/outgroup behavior.
"In sociology and social psychology, ingroups and outgroups are social groups to which an individual feels as though he or she belongs as a member, or (for outgroups) to which they feel contempt, opposition, or a desire to compete."

Joe Cooper
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But women do play games. Even old lady coworkers I've had. And my wife, my Polish teacher, some of my brother's girlfriends, ... And according to sales numbers, like, millions of others.

Some people, like this woman, look at the data and suppose there's an opportunity. But others may lack the required imagination. In any case, the market will decide.

Ernest Adams
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"Women are not equal to men" -- what does that mean, equal?

"A most basic essence of the game is competion/combat and violence to overcome and win over something/somebody."

No. And please stay out of the game industry; you'll do too much damage.

Ken Nakai
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You started off well but went south real quick.

You're right, men and women aren't equal...they don't always make the exact same entertainment choices. But you could make the same argument of two men or two women. Everyone's got their thing they're into. In a general sense, sure, a lot of women (and a decent number of men) aren't exactly into butchering a lot of people. But, just like a girl can be a tomboy (and I've met and had my ass handed to me by several women who love shooters), a guy can like games that don't involve combat. I personally love economic sims and a large variety of games including puzzlers. I also can own just fine in CoD, UT, and any other shooter.

The place I thought you were going for all of the first five letters of what you wrote was that, in general, it's not easy to fashion a single game that covers a broad spectrum of gamers that includes a large percentage of female gamers. But, following that same thread, it's also hard to fashion a game that covers other demographics like age or nationality.

In the end, if you step back from your basic shooter/action formula, you'll find you can create a lot of games that'll appeal to a large number of gamers, male or female, young or old. You just have to want to do something more than following the movie industry and try to build games with multi-million dollar budgets with "guaranteed" demographic coverage (i.e. "sure thing" game development). And, even with that strategy they miss. CoD is popular but that doesn't mean you can shake-and-bake a military shooter and throw it out there to rake in millions. You know that the Sims franchise has sold more copies than the Call of Duty franchise:

Kim Pittman
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I really dislike the idea of trying to specifically target games at women. Mostly because they end up being caricatures of things the developers think they should be.

I think that there are plenty of games being made that appeal to both men and women. My mom loves tons of games out now. So do I. Invalidating my opinion because I am in the industry is just foolish.

To steal comments from two wonderful ladies on Kotaku
"Point is, while there are women that enjoy some of the "for boys" stuff out there, there's plenty of ways to appeal to women who don't - without having to pander to them - and I think that's a much better approach in the long run.

I think it's less about who the game is 'for' and more about what challenges the game presents. The major difference between what I've seen to be popular with women vs. popular with men or popular for both is the types of challenges to be encountered in the game. Let's say, for example, someone makes a game "for Chinese people" and fill it with dragons, chopsticks, kung fu, and Buddhist philosophy. How insulting is that?"

And another:
"We don't play games like God of War or Gears of War or Modern Warfare in nearly the same numbers as we play all the other games. The only thing that sets these games apart from all the other games, with their larger female audiences, is that the war games take a dramatically, almost cartoonishly masculine approach. That's not to say there are no women who play these - I've even cosplayed Captain Price, complete with glued-on facial hair - but the female share of the audience is way smaller.

You want women to play games, you want the money from our wallets? Just don't actively alienate us. That's all you have to do. You can make it a fighting game, an adventure game, a series of fetch quests, whatever you want, and we'll play it as long as the design's half decent and you're not going out of your way to fill it with more testosterone than a weightlifting league that's relaxed its steroid rules.

And then, if we like it, we'll play the sequels and buy the figurines and cosplay our favourite characters and recommend it to our friends, some of whom will also buy it. Just... acknowledge us. That's all. We don't need much."

I would love to play a game like Uncharted, but I can't stand it. Not because of the gameplay, but because every woman in the game treats Drake like he is god's gift to women and they have to jump him immediately. Watching these "strong capable women" act that way just made me sick. My husband didn't even seem to notice, but to me, it was like nails on a chalkboard. So here was an opportunity for a game to appeal to my gender that actively managed to alienate me. How are they going to get women who don't play many AAA games if they can't even get women who DO play AAA games?

(Also, the obligatory, World of Warcraft doesn't seem to have this problem.)

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matt landi
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I guess I'm in the same boat as your Husband. To me Elena doesn't come off as thinking Drake is the greatest thing since sliced bread especially in the 1st iteration of the series. For love interests their intimate moments are very few throughout the entire series.

David Serrano
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I think the barriers which Brandii believes only impact women in fact, impact all players (and potential players) not in the 13 to 23 year old male hardcore demographic to some degree.

And to those who think Brandi has not identified very real problems which directly threaten the long term health and stability of the AAA market, I'll simply quote former NFL coach Eric Mangini:

"The difference between confidence and arrogance is with confidence, you believe you can overcome your weaknesses. With arrogance you don’t even see your weaknesses.”

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Tora Teig
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The stove is the female x-box.

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Elton Britto
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For starters this idea seems good and may click as well. Wish you all the very best Brandii. Hope you pull this off. Okay so let me put down my end of what I think about games specifically for women. Firstly there is a huge market for a family based game, though not particularly targeted at women. Since I have personally seen women play hardcore RPG’s, FPS etc. and they are extremely good at it even. Though sometimes the environment they are in is really bad, just because they owned a male player. An article stating the aftermath of the ownage. Please follow the link below.

There are women who absolutely love hardcore, and will abuse the Holy Jesus out of you if need be. However there are also women playing hardcore games just to socialize and have a good time, or because their fiancé or husband plays them. For instance Diablo III, I already know a lot of women playing it. So yea separating the tomboy types from stereotypical women and getting the exact market count is going to be a hard task. That is if and only if the game is for the sole purpose of entertaining women.

Just as in real life you have the tomboys, nerds, silent types, party animals, the fighters so on so forth. This is just my perspective on things and constructive criticism is always welcome. Thank you.

Luis Guimaraes
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If games for women would be the inverse of games for men:

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Luis Guimaraes
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Just to add to the whole point, I don't think many segments of the market are really well feed anyway, whatever the player's gender.

There's just too much of the power-fantasy genre and save-the-world plot in modern games, and as much as I like it as a developer, still feel bad about it as a player.

Neil Self
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Where does she get the statistic that only 10% of women are play games for the challenge?

Tora Teig
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Yes, that'd be nice to know actually.
It sort of implies that women don't like challenges. But why does so many get married? That doesn't add up ;)

Jonathan Lawn
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I think the problem being discussed here is that you (a) spot an under-served audience (which isn't defined by gender or age necessarily, but will have biases within it), (b) create a game for it, and then (c) market it. Unfortunately, the marketeers can't work out how not to express their target in gender terms. The trick is for the game designer to make sure it's not limited to that marketing target, but to the original audience.

Sims did this right: market the game how you want, but when you play the game it's not "for girls", "for adults", etc. but for anyone who wants this type of game. Reading this article, I think Ernst and Brandii get it too, but I agree it's not made clear.

Tony Ventrice
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The single-minded passion found throughout the games industry is both its most frustrating and endearing feature.
Brandi is clearly ignoring some very obvious evidence that her project is doomed to failure, yet she's so determined to do something completely new, she forges ahead with righteous purpose. From the perspective of the consumer, and anyone who loves games, this is wonderful - I can't wait to see what she produces. But from the perspective of the investors and developers, this level of blind enthusiasm has to be devastating - I can't imagine there is much in this world harder to cope with than the spectacular failure of years of hard work.
(of course there's always a third possible result - that this is all hype towards re-framing some much more familiar type of game)

Ernest Adams
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Tell us about the very obvious evidence.

Josh Foreman
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Games based on rescuing seem like a great underdeveloped idea. I was pushing for that for a Descent sequel. Flying around a future city rescuing people from buildings being marauded by rampaging robots seems like it would be really fun.

Tara Branford
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I agree with all the people saying that overly-gendered games are not the solution. I myself am a female gamer--ever since I was so little, my dad had to lift me up to reach the controls at our local arcade. And I like a variety of things. I like "girl" games such as casual stuff (Bejeweled, Solitaire) Sims, Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon, etc.
(By the way, speaking of Sims...many of the most prolific creators of custom downloadable content for those games are men. Including the person who owns the biggest website for this of all. Funny, innit?)

I also like "guy" fare, such as racing games, top-down shooters, and the occasional RTS. I have played all different kinds of flash games, from cute puzzles, to involved RPG/strategy combos, to zombie splatterers.

And then there's the "neuter" games--RPG's, puzzlers, etc. Don't try to tell me role-playing games are only for guys--I've known D&D since I was 7 and have been playing an MMORPG for almost 10 years now. My first favorite video games included Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy.

All we ask is that you make good. Games. Complex games with good writing and well-developed characters of both genders, simple ones with good mechanics, and both kinds with thought and effort.
Do that, and gamers of all genders will flock to your door.

Tara Branford |