In a recent interview I did with Paul Thelen, the founder and CEO of casual and social gaming company Big Fish Games, I asked him what separated his company from the multitude of online game developers out there. His response was simple: women.
Women, mostly aged 25 to 75, he said, make up around 90% of the company's four million PC users, and six million mobile users. Women playing casual games were the driving force behind Big Fish's success.
And it all happened by accident. When the company was founded in 2002, he told me, its original intent was not to cater specifically to any demographic.
"We started as a digital distribution platform with a lot of different kinds of games," he said. "The ones that happened to do well just happened to be those that women liked to play."
These turned out to be "saga and adventure games, which have more to do with stress relief and relaxation, rather than competition," he said.
And, by focusing on women, Big Fish has become a major player in the online gaming community, posting $220 million in bookings last year, up 20% from 2011.
The role of women in gaming
So why is it interesting for a gaming company to declare that is it focusing almost exclusively on women? Because, sadly, it is still a very rare phenomenon in the gaming industry for a company to recognize the opportunity that women present to them. In an ideal world, Big Fish would be a model, rather than an anomaly.
The issue of women in gaming has been a thorny one, to say the least, and one that has sometimes brought out the worst in the men who run the industry.
At best, women were simply ignored for years. At worst, they have been victims of pretty disgusting sexism.
For example, there is Brenda Romero, co-chair of the International Game Developer’s Association (IGDA). She resigned in March after IGDA teamed up with gaming incubator YetiZen to throw a party that featured half-dressed female dancers as entertainment.
Then there was Meagan Marie, community manager at gaming company Crystal Dynaimics, who blogged about her refusal to put up with sexual harassment in the industry, following an incident at the gaming conference PAX when a journalist asked if a group of women felt like “knowing that none of the men in this room could please them in bed.”
In response, she was called "one of those oversensitive feminists” and told that “the girls were dressing sexy so they were asking for it.”
(I really hope that this guy was drunk. Obviously that would not excuse his behavior in any way, but I hate to think that anyone would say anything so unbelievably stupid while they were sober. Oh, who am I kidding?)
And then there is the way women are portrayed, and the overwhelming abundance of female characters who are design to wear as little clothing as possible, with proportions that would make them fall over if they were real people.
Even Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the wife of Lieutenant Governor of California Gavin Newsom, called on gaming entrepreneurs to start creating strong female characters, rather than portraying women as highly sexualized characters.
“We have an opportunity in gaming to teach young boys to value women — to not perpetuate these extremes of masculinity,” she said in a panel at the Game Developers Conference in March.
So, yeah, it's easy to see why women don't always feel welcome in the gaming community.
Things are changing, but slowly
Not catering to women would seem to be a terrible business decision, as there are a large number of female gamers out there, and the numbers are growing fast. In fact, 47% of all players are women, and women over 18 years of age are one of the industry's fastest growing demographics, according to the Entertainment Software Association's 2012 report.
Adult women actually represent a greater portion of the game-playing population than boys age 17 or younger, 30% to 18%.
Yet, there are still very few companies out there that are developing games specifically for women, and only a few big gaming companies that seem to have come around to understanding that there is a pretty big underserved market out there.
There are a number of reasons that the number of games for women remains woefully small.
The biggest, and most obvious one, is that the industry is still so male dominated, Brenda Gershkovitch, CEO of Silicon Sisters, told me in an interview. Vancouver-based Silicon Sisters tailors its games for a female audience and is the first Canadian video game studio owned and run by women. The company released its first game, School 26, in April 2011
"Games are made by those who are passionate about them," she said. "Making a game is hard, intense, time consuming work."
So, given that the industry is still 90% male, games designed for women and girls do not rank high on the priorities list. In turn, the quality of the games has suffered.
"They are simply not valued," she said. "Games for women are considered to be lesser-than."
One solution to that problem is to get more women to be game designers, so that they can shape the games that they would want to play. That only works, though if companies have the desire to hire them. And, more and more, that is actually becoming the case.
While most designers are still men, Gershkovitch has noticed that this is starting to change, as some companies, like EA, Maxis and Bioware, are beginning to develop teams to design games for women,
In fact, she has recently had a few of her female designers stolen from her by EA and Microsoft.
"Women are good at being producers. They keep the team moving because of their understanding of social mechanics," said Gershkovitch. "Now I tell women, 'don't be a producer, be a designer.' They are becoming a hot commodity."
More female designers will lead to more games for women. There is another catch though. Smaller studios, which generally would be the ones developing female-centric games, have to contend with: access to capital.
Male dominated studios with "terrible business plans" will get easier access to capital from VCs than a studio with a good business plan that caters to women, Gershkovitch said.
But, despite all of the roadblocks, things are getting better.
When Gershkovitch first entered the industry in 2005, she was actually afraid to hire women. It was such a "fraterniity setting" that she thought she might get sued.
But now people actually care about this issue, and it's not just women's voices speaking out, but men understanding that a change needs to come as well.
The industry is going through a time of change when it comes to women, she said, and things are getting better. But it may take another 10 years, though, before things can truly become balanced in the industry.
So, as of right now, companies like Silicon Sisters and Passionfruit Games, which makes games for women by "transforming romance novels into interactive entertainment.," are the exception, and definitely not the rule.
More women in charge
Despite the lack of companies marketing female-driven games, there is one very encouraging sign: there are a multitude of game companies that have been founded by women.
For example there is Kabam, which was co-founded by Holly Liu, has raised $125 million, most recently $85 million in a fourth round of funding from Google Ventures, Pinnacle Ventures, Performance Equity and SK Telecom Ventures.
OUYA, a new video game console powered by the Android operating system, which was founded by Game industry veteran Julie Uhrman. The company raised $8.6 million on Kickstarter.
Then there is direct deal mobile advertising marketplace Chartboost, which was co-founded by CEO Maria Alegre. The company offers a platform for mobile game developers to connect and buy advertising from each other directly, meaning that they can skip the mediation and the cut taken out by an ad network. It has more than 300 million monthly active users devices, which power six billion game sessions ever month. The company currently powers over 12,000 games
In January, the company raised $19 million in funding, brings its total funding to $21 million.
Ultimately, for the industry to begin to change more rapidly than it is now, this may just prove to be the most important change of all.
(Note: Paul Thelen will be one of the keynotes at our Splash LA event on the evening of May 30 at the famed and swanky Hollywood Roosevelt hotel. As always, our Splash keynotes share their lessons learned from the challenges they face building their startups. Register to get your Spring Sale tickets!)
(Image source: http://fpswin.com)