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Respecting women players without 'girling it up'
Respecting women players without 'girling it up'
October 10, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

October 10, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Social/Online, Programming, Art, Design, GDC Online

Core gamers might not think twice about the hidden object genre, but a close look behind the scenes of these explosively-popular games reveals fascinating design wisdom, and a close relationship with an audience little-understood by the traditional industry -- casual adults, most of whom are women.

With a back catalog of 3,000 titles over ten years, global casual game company Big Fish now publishes a game a day on computing and mobile platforms, and enjoys a base of loyal fans that look at games as an escape from their daily routine -- most of the company's players play between the hours of 7 and 11 PM, fitting sessions in between other obligations where they're unlikely to spend World of Warcraft-level hours.

The company's first game was Mahjongg Towers -- but now the company invests a good deal of time and attention to theme and plot. Lisa Brunette leads narrative teams who work with designers on a plot graph, and the studio has invested particular attention in the hidden object genre. Because people like story, the popular object-spotting games have quickly ramped up to include more of a narrative.

At first the games began implementing journals that fleshed out the story through text on a screen, but now games like Shiver Poltergeist include more cinematic elements. The more story Big Fish added to the fairly simple format, the better the games sold, says Brunette.

"When it comes to building story into the games, though, what we see with our developers often is that they're stretching for the themes they naturally like in their own games," says Brunette -- which means a lot of times games designed by traditional game developers end up having a harder time appealing to Big Fish's core player base of adult women. This isn't a problem that can be solved by "girling it up."

"It takes a lot more than putting some glitter and pink on something to make it right for women: It's disingenuous. If you don't start with your audience in mind at the outset, they'll know," Brunette says. Despite the perception that women like games about fashion and dress-up, a survey of Big Fish's players found fashion was actually the least-desired category, second only to sports. Western and occult themes also ranked quite low.

According to Nielsen ratings, men under 25 and women over 25 have polar opposite taste in television, and Brunette suspects something similar is at work in games. With that in mind, Big Fish players seem to want more mystery games, mature humor, drama at the level of programs like Mad Men, or supernatural thrillers. History means something more like Gone With The Wind, less like Apocalypse Now.

"The thing about fantasy is that if I perceive it's for someone else, I can't enter it myself," Brunette says.

When it comes to relationships, facial features and body types are actually not compelling reasons for players to engage in romances with NPCs, she suggests -- players like to judge characters in the game world by their personality and action. Romance may work best when it's a realistic part of a larger storyline, as Big Fish itself hasn't had much success with romance games per se.

Skunk Studios' King of Thieves was perceived as "too boyish," and nobody wanted to play as a thief. Brunette's team had to repurpose it as an espionage story, and some of the art was given a new perspective -- rather than a title screen with a masked man descending into the dark, instead a warm, tactile low-lit desk of intriguing objects was substituted. Raven's Flight was the new title. The attractive female boss was given a more mature, professional look (the previously-designed mission commander was much more traditionally sexy).

Espionage was still a risky theme, but the edits made it more likely to be interesting to Big Fish's players. The game didn't do as well as some of Big Fish's other games, but performed much better than it would have as King of Thieves, and players praised it as a good "whodunit."

"Even if you polish it all the way if you set out with a theme that wasn't going to work with this audience it's still going to hurt you."

In another case study, with Shiver, Russian developer Artogon "hit the theme perfectly for our audience," full of mystery and intrigue as the player picks up a mysterious, familiar girl who leaves a teddy bear behind in the car before vanishing, leaving the player alone in a Hitchcockian spooky town.

It goes for creepy and eerie, not spooky. "The creep factor comes from the way that the story and the player integrated, and the music and the art," Brunette says. Bloody slasher-style fear would not have played well.

It's a mistake to conceive of Big Fish's audience as mothers that will play with their kids, and players loved that all the elements were sufficiently adult. But the studio's next game ended up featuring a robot and a wizard -- to moderate success.

"I can't fault Artogon for trying to do something different, because we got really good at doing gothic horror. Our in house series, Mystery Case Files, did really well and launched a thousand imitations... however, that can only work for so long. Our players get tired of the same thing; there's a bit of a theme fatigue going on right now."

The Surface: The Noise She Couldn't Make casts the player as a psychic who enters a patient's mind to solve what's ailing her in the real world. There are metaphorical gameplay interactions that relate to what's happening to the character, a mysterious Jane Doe who's been found unconscious with a bloody knife. Developer Elephant Games had a lot of leeway with creating emotional fantasy worlds, since the worlds were inside someone's mind, and the title was incredibly successful.

Players respond poorly to anything that seems juvenile, though: "They're just as likely to object, in our experience, to a game, maybe it's a fairytale game, that looks like it was made for their daughter, as a robot game that looks like it was made for their son," Brunette notes. Adult casual players want "gender-neutral, sophisticated, mature, well-writen storylines."

Brunette's best advice is to make games that the real women you know might like to play, rather than targeting some idea of the "40 year old woman" or the stereotypes associated with things people like: think about the real women in your lives when you're making games, and pay attention to their unique needs.

"Respect them, don't pander to them, don't talk down to them, and don't give them stereotypes," she says. "Don't assume that what works for other audiences is going to work for yours. Craft strong storylines with the right themes, and don't forget to evolve."

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Chris Charla
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"Respect women players with girlying it up" may be the greatest piece of advice ever on improving gender issues in games IMHO. (I know that's not quite the headline, but it should be!)

Michael Hartman
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Great article. Our next game is going to be on Big Fish. This is our first time selling a game on their platform and we are really excited (and nervous) about it. Our lead designer is a 37 yr old woman. Throughout the process we received an enormous amount of support, feedback, and guidance from the Big Fish team. It was pretty amazing.

Our games have always been popular with women. Two examples: Threshold RPG ( 50% women. Coin 'n Carry ( 75% women.

People often wrongly assume we "girl up" our games to make them popular with women which is untrue and frustrating.

If there is a "secret sauce" to what we do it is that we make sure our games are approachable by people of different skill levels and gaming experience. But we make the games deep enough to keep people engaged and we reward people for developing skill as they play our games.

Making your game approachable doesn't mean pandering or making the gameplay so simple that it is insulting.

We also make sure our game communities aren't "sausage-fest bro-gamer frat parties" where no woman would ever spend 5 seconds.

Dave Ingram
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Thanks Leigh, for this very eye-opening article. I've been confused amidst the modern debate surrounding female gamers, because I haven't been able to actually understand what kind of games can break the mold of traditional male-dominated genres. This article opened my eyes to the possibilities that are out there in the game space for solving this issue.

What is really interesting to me is that all of the games you've mentioned that appeal to women actually sound appealing to me, too. I've never played a true mystery-solving game, for example, but now I'm compelled to try one. Tapping into the taste differences between men and women in television choices is an ingenious way to inform game design decisions, as well.

Lyon Medina
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"Don't assume that what works for other audiences is going to work for yours. Craft strong storylines with the right themes, and don't forget to evolve."

Tell it like it is.

Jason Lee
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"Respect them, don't pander to them, don't talk down to them, and don't give them stereotypes," she says. "Don't assume that what works for other audiences is going to work for yours. Craft strong storylines with the right themes, and don't forget to evolve."

Great observations and great article. I think this is advice we can all take to heart no matter who our audience is (from hardcore gamers to children to casual adults), but is especially true for the female audience. Another great example of games is the Nancy Drew series from Her Interactive, which all revolve around mystery and problem solving but also involve character interactions and very real/relatable fears and motivations. The one I put my time into, the Haunting of Castle Malloy, involved a missing fiance and between the mechanical puzzles and clue hunting were moments of speaking to your friend and hearing her fears. Did he get hurt? Did he get cold feet and freak out? Is he not ready for marriage? Is she?

Okay, the game had jetpacks too which was a little silly but I was still pleasantly surprised and learned a lot from playing it.

Jeremy Reaban
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I've often been baffled why Gamasutra has seemingly ignored the PC casual gaming business, even though you extensively cover Facebook and mobile gaming.

Nice you finally noticed.

Belinda Van Sickle
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These games are on Mac, too!

Joe McGinn
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Honestly I think the best way to respect female gamers is to respect all your gamers. Specifically, we need to clean up chat and voice-comm systems with rep/voting/filtering options to get rid of the ass-clowns.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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A simple mute-button will do.

Adam Bishop
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Disagree. If a developer is going to make me work to get rid of the jerks myself I'll just go find something else to play.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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A companies job shouldn't be to police speech.

Adam Bishop
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But I've been hearing for years that no one cares about narrative and developers should stop wasting their budgets on it!

Amanda Fitch
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Wordy narrative = no no. Story is very important for some types of games. It's best to show as much as you can through mini cut-scenes. Speaking of interesting games, there is another one on Big Fish Games right now called Dark Parables: The Red Riding Hood Sisters. The game has a bunch of "busty" heroines, but the women seem to really like them. It also does a great job of showing a story, not telling it w/o resorting to a lot of dialog.

Toby Grierson
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I think there's a lot more flexibility that one realizes, even if there are distinct no-nos like opening with a fifteen minute "in the beginning there were the four targs of targusson" lore-dump.

Curtiss Murphy
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Best article on female gamers I've seen in a while. My audience skews toward female - we focus on short content that is emotionally real and also meaningful, outside of the app.

Our female reviews are overwhelmingly positive. For the guys, it's mixed. My favorite review is: 'I'm a veteran reviewer. These 5-star reviews are suspicious.' Definitely from a guy.

Belinda Van Sickle
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The Mystery Case Files series were my favorite games ever! (Coming from a woman in the age demographic mentioned but with 15+ years experience in the game industry, mostly on AAA console titles. . . ) Sometimes I play BFG titles that seem like they were "girled" in some way with random sparkles, pink, romance, childcare stuff, and general sappy care-taking. I get annoyed!

Branden Bean
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Your average woman doesn't need to be pandered to; she just wants experiences that don't dismiss her and instead pander to men...which is what the bulk of video games do.

Most of the mainstream video games are male power fantasies with female characters that are either vapid or objectified, if there are any female characters at all. I think it's this fact more than anything that leaves many women without much to be enthralled by.

I'm a bit tired of those in the game circle acting like attracting female gamers is some sort of voodoo mystery, because it's not. Games, in general, need to start respecting women, instead of using them as assets. Realistic bodies and outfits, female characters that aren't just love interests waiting to be rescued, female characters with a variety body types beyond the stereotypical hourglass, and stories about women instead of just involving them.

If game developers provide these things, and keep providing them long enough for women to get the bad taste out of their mouths and notice the change, things will work out just fine.

The sad fact is, if women want to get many of the quality experiences that men take for granted, they have to be exposed to things that demean them. Some games are getting better at this; others aren't.

Borderlands 2, for example, is a huge step forward in many ways. It passes the Bechdel test, has a likeable, fat female character (as well as generic NPC females with "real world normal" body types), and there are a handful of times when laughably misogynist characters are painted as foolish and get what's coming to them.

However, the titles most prominent female characters are pencil-thin women in heavy makeup with large or larger breasts and plentiful exposed skin; they all have the same body type. Contrast this with the wide variety of body types had by the named male characters. Giage, a high-school *girl* with a childish personality, wears a short skirt, pigtails, has a face like a Barbie doll, and wears a loose jacket that can't hide her sizable chest. Pin-ups can be found here and there, and more than one female character makes a sexual pass at the player. Oh, and the opening movie shows a gratuitous shot of a missile barely missing the female character's large breasts as it travels towards its target - great first impressions!

And let it be told: Borderlands 2 is one of the most feminist gaming experiences there is in mainstream gaming. Which is to say, we've got a long way to go.