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What women want

What women want
When I left the security of a big publisher to start my own studio last September, I needed to try and understand much more about what female gamers liked and disliked (the majority are female ‘casual’ gamers).

According to surveys last year by RealNetworks and Popcap, around 76 per cent of casual gamers are female, most of these aged over 40. That’s an awful long way from the typical 16-25 male audience we’ve been trained to design for. And it’s not just the growing casual games sector.

Take a look at the percentage of female players on the DS or Wii compared to the GBA or PS2, and you’ll see the change happening across the mainstream console world as well.

My key finding was the importance of focus testing and research, which I now use far more than ever before.

Nothing can give you a clearer indication of what is going to work than trying it out on your target audience. As a thirty-something guy, I’m never going to know innately what a 40 plus middle-American female casual gamer wants.

Hopefully I’m getting a little better at second-guessing, but nothing will ever replace actually asking my potential customers directly.

Do you know what? I suspect that as an industry we are so used to knowing exactly what our young core male audience want, that we’ve become a little lazy and forgotten how to interact with our customers. I suspect that many of us don’t carry out as much early testing and demographic research as other industries.

And now, as the demographics are shifting – thanks in no small part to Nintendo’s fantastic ‘disruptive technology’ as well as the rise of digital downloads and online games – some companies are nervous. People who assumed that the PSP and PS3 would dominate this hardware cycle are finding themselves in a different world.

I don’t claim to have the answers or even a special understanding of what women want (although, damn, I wish I did…)

But I do know that if you want to make games for a female audience, you need to talk with them and try to understand their gaming needs (and guys, this doesn’t just mean your wife or girlfriend, who is likely to have a non-typical point of view due to being in a relationship with someone in the industry; hopefully you). It’s easy to say, but when was the last time you sat in a focus group full of middle-aged women?

There isn’t a magic formula. I guess one bit of advice that has come through again and again from our focus tests is the importance of characters and relationships (and I don’t particularly mean romantic relationships – just the general relationship that every one of us has with everyone else.)

The relationship between two different people can be fantastically intricate, and games like The Sims, Animal Crossing, World of Warcraft and even Nintendogs are all based around relationships, even if it’s with an AI-controlled puppy.

Touch wood, our unique story-based casual game, Venus Redemption, will launch next spring. I’m fairly sure that male gamers are going to hate it. And I think that’s a very positive sign….

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