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Q&A: Her Interactive's Gaiser Talks 13 Years With Nancy Drew

Q&A: Her Interactive's Gaiser Talks 13 Years With Nancy Drew

January 5, 2011 | By Christian Nutt

January 5, 2011 | By Christian Nutt
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More: Console/PC

Her Interactive has been publishing and developing Nancy Drew games for a surprising 13 years, and now focuses exclusively on them.

As the book series about an intrepid girl detective reaches its 80th anniversary, the company remastered its first title, Nancy Drew: Secrets Can Kill, with new puzzles and endings.

What does it take to build such an enduring brand, with a video game franchise with 23 different PC-based installments alone that has now sold over 8 million copies -- and to capture that elusive all-ages female audience?

In an interview with Gamasutra, CEO Megan Gaiser reflects on years with an inspiring heroine, the ways Nancy has bridged gaps between parents and kids, and what it means to design for a role model.

She also shares info on taking the Nancy Drew games mobile, an interesting reflection of the way the adventure genre has evolved alongside the growing casual market, and how the team has addressed that audience.

Nancy Drew is 80 years old -- what does she mean to people today?

You probably know this, but Nancy Drew represents all of those characteristics that we aspire to: She's gutsy, she's smart, and she gets the job done. She wins in the end, so what's not to like?

What happened was in terms of women -- and I talk to a lot of women and girls and tell them about it -- usually when I say the word Nancy Drew, they first kind of bow down out of respect.

Then, secondly, they'll go on to tell me how Nancy Drew has made them the success that they are. This year, the three Supreme Court Justice females, when asked who was their inspiration, didn't say their mothers; they said Nancy Drew.

You look at role models come and go, such as Britney Spears, but this woman endures. And of course, women couldn't do half the stuff that they're doing now back in the '30s, so it really resonates with the moms. So what happened is, when we created the first game, we created it for girls ten through fifteen. That was our target, but a lot of them didn't really know Nancy Drew.

We did focus groups and stuff, and some of them kind of knew but really didn't. But the moms knew Nancy Drew, and so what happened was the moms bought the games for their daughters to inspire them like their were inspired as little girls.

Then the moms got hooked on the games, and then the moms gave the games to their moms. So it has become a cross-generational phenomenon: Aunts playing with nieces and grandmothers and granddaughters in different states and solving them on the phone and in e-mails -- this really kind of connecting experience.

I see. So you were talking about your audience, talking about different generations playing together. At this point, you have a large audience -- how much insight do you have into them?

From the very beginning, we've brought them in throughout the development of the game to give us input. At that time, I don't think a lot of companies were doing that, or at least a lot of the developers that I talked to. They were just kind of making games that they wanted. That's been our process ever since, and we do that for every game; then we have a post-mortem of what they like, the puzzles, the story, what worked, and what didn't work.

So we really have a well-oiled machine, and a formula for bringing the mystery element and preserving the Nancy Drew brand while bringing her into modern times, but also paying attention to the girls and what they're saying -- and a lot of adults, as well. What was interesting then and is kind of interesting now is that, because many adults had not experienced gaming before, they had such fresh perspectives on what games could be.

Basically they helped us to improve gameplay features rather than perpetuate gender stereotypes. [People said], if you're gonna make [games for girls], just make the game pink and they'll come... and we decided to make it unpink; and they still came.

That's normal philosophy -- the paint-it-pink philosophy.

It's so easy to do the stereotypes. I feel the same way for boys. People say all men and boys love violence -- well, you know, some do and some don't, and, really, that's insulting. There are so many different types of genres and preferences.

Just like in films; it took time to segment the market, and it was a boy's world -- excuse me -- a man's world in film, before it became more balanced in terms of genders and perspectives. Obviously, with the balance of genders, you're going to get that variety of content that is so needed. So we're in the process of that now.

Some of the series' content gets a little dark at times -- I heard one of the games ends with Nancy picking the right answers to get a gun and shoot a perpetrator. How do you approach that, and how does your audience react?

What we're doing with these games is basically, first and foremost, preserve the Nancy Drew brand, and preserve the mystery; she's always solving these mysteries. What's so interesting about mysteries is that they keep curiosity alive... it's creative problem-solving in a lot of ways with each story.

We're a very creative team, and I think one of the keys to our longevity is that we've mastered the art of creative collaboration. With a lot of these games, we have a designer, a producer, a lot of artists, and programmers, but all of them feel really comfortable to add their contributions to the game. These ideas may go in; they may not, but it's not coming from one person. It's the collective expertise and imaginations that you see resulting in these games.

Obviously, we don't want to go too dark, and some games are really light. So we try to create a different experience with each game, but also keeping that mystery formula.

How much of your staff is women?

Our staff is fifty/fifty male and female. We don't do that by design; we just happen to hire the best talent, so that just happened that way.

Can you talk a little more about how you get beyond 'making it pink' in working with the Nancy Drew mysteries?

All of us come from very different backgrounds -- mathematician, architectural, and film -- which makes the contributions from everyone really interesting. When we created the first game, there were a lot of conscious decisions in terms of how to create a really high-quality mystery experience that is true to the Nancy Drew brand.

In a good story, the characters have to be very interesting and authentic, and so we made a conscious effort to not just go for flat or whatever but to really delve into what makes someone unique as opposed to just a flat character.

Yet the player never sees Nancy in the game, right? How do you work with that?

The creative judgment from there was: let's make her real. Let's give her self-deprecating humor so that, even though she always solves the mysteries and is probably the smartest chick in the room, you can relate to her. She makes mistakes. It's human.

That was a key creative decision in terms of making it more authentic as opposed to making her this idealistic thing that nobody could achieve. That helped people to, as Nancy Drew when they play it, experience what it is to be brilliant and also funny. That was a piece that kind of enhanced the Nancy Drew brand as opposed to the books; you can't really get as much of a flavor as when you have a voice to get behind that.

That's an interesting question because it comes up in game development all the time: How much interplay is there between the player and that character? How separate or how merged are they? It's a complicated question.

It is, but I think that that kind of balance of making her more human has helped to bring the two together. Prior to that, if we kept with the perfect, perfect Nancy Drew, I don't think it would have resonated.

I think people would have felt disembodied. But it's funny, the games' dialogue. We made it very much like you see a good film or something like that. If the dialogue and the acting and all of these things are really on par, and there's a synergy between all of those elements, you're in. That's the same philosophy we have with the games. We're so committed to high quality -- from the soundtrack to the voiceover to the art to the writing; things like that.

Are all of these games internally developed at your studio in Bellevue?

Yes. The only piece that isn't is the voice of Nancy Drew, who has been our voice for thirteen years. She's out of Los Angeles. And then there's our music composer, who has been the same one, and he's, I think, out of LA as well.

You made some moves to the DS and the Wii. Did you find success there?

Megan Gaiser: You know, we learned a lot. With the Wii, we did a good game, but in retrospect we learned that we really need to design it more natively for the platform. We did a port, and that was probably not the right move. Moving, diversifying to other platforms, is absolutely a goal, and it's kind of why with the iPad and iPhone and iTouch we're making this move.

We're really looking to make Nancy Drew accessible across diverse platforms as well as the PC series. So the iPad is kind of a great move to welcome a new audience.

Even with the PC games, some people have said that they're too hard.... so we're really brainstorming to see how we can make some modifications to the PC series. We'd like to keep the hardcore audience that we have that loves the games but also welcome a more casual audience with the series. That would enable us perhaps to transfer the casual style of game to other platforms.

It's a perfect time to make Nancy Drew mobile, a portable Nancy Drew, and so what we did is basically an interactive Choose Your Own Adventure [EDITOR'S NOTE: Choose Your Own Adventure is a registered trademark of Choose Co LLC] -- choose your own mystery adventure. We've used assets from Secret of the Shadow Ranch, which was a PC game, but we transformed it into a whole different Nancy Drew experience.

When you started out down this road, I'm assuming your template was more the traditional '90s adventure game, because the casual market hadn't exploded yet. Now, you're sort of reconverging with that market. What's funny is that market is also expanding back into adventure games; you see things from PlayFirst and stuff. It's interesting to see the ebb and flow of the market and the genre.

It is. Accessible is, I think, a great word, an instant where you can feel success. One of my girlfriends who played this in DC just the other day said, "Wow! I love it because I feel instant success." And the adventure games, she didn't play after she got too frustrated; it's not for everybody.

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