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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.)
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.