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The Great Girl Gold Rush

How EA Casual is fighting for female gamers

The rapid growth of the apparently pigtails-puzzles-and-pony-loving part the gaming audience of late has been documented ad nauseam in the media. But setting aside all the detailed metrics, painstakingly researched studies and fancy graphs, surely nothing illustrates the power of the purse in videogames quite like the release schedule in the past weeks and months.

An uninformed observer casting a lazy eye over new releases in the UK a couple of weeks in either direction would be forgiven for thinking the games market is in a sorry state, such is the paucity of notable titles on offer.

Such a dramatic clearing of the decks by games publishers is, of course, almost entirely owing to Grand Theft Auto IV's release on April 29, the single biggest gaming release in history and one that purveyors of traditional titles have accepted would dominate gaming, and gamers, for some time.

But before that another anticipated blockbuster was launched noisily into the market. Nintendo's Wii Fit was the only major title that dared stand up to Rockstar's entertainment colossus. And that's because it isn't standing up to it at all. Nintendo knows only too well that as far as its target audience are concerned, it's no longer a case of either/or.

Flick through the kids' TV channels and the chances are you'll stumble upon one of those impossibly twee, hyper and unremittingly pink ads for girls. Very often now they're for a videogame; Pony this and Pet that. It's big money and, crucially, new money.

Girls, of all ages, are at the heart of this new gaming gold rush. And it's their cash that all major games publishers are now scrambling to secure - not least EA, whose dedicated Casual Entertainment division is now a year old.

EA projects that Casual will become a USD 1 billion business by 2010. And it's no coincidence that this division is dominated by women. Former Activision exec Kathy Vrabeck joined EA last summer as president of Casual, and the CV of the senior team she has been assembling ever since is anything but typical.

"She brought in a lot of people who aren't from the gaming industry," reveals Russell Arons, head of Casual marketing for EA. "I used to be the general manager of Barbie; she brought in people who know the consumer or the audience more so than necessarily the games side of the business. By virtue of that we're trying to fill a need rather than just make games."

"I used to work at Hasbro and other toy companies," chips in Jennifer Donahoe, marketing director for EA's Hasbro range - part of a huge deal inked between to the two companies earlier this year. "We know how to market to kids."

A Casual Affair

Arons and Donohoe were chatting with GamesIndustry.biz at a busy event in London showing off EA's Casual range, from boxed PC and console releases, through gaming portal Pogo.com, to EA Mobile.

Inspired perhaps by a similar initiative undertaken by Nintendo to mark the launch of Wii, EA has rented out a generic trendy town house in London's Covent Garden, scattering its various brands around the rooms to show, in Arons' words, "the way people play them". So in the kids' area there's Littlest Pet Shop and the Steven Spielberg-designed Boom Blox; Pogo.com distracts in the home office; there's Monopoly in the family room; Harry Potter is working his magic in the home cinema area; and there are mobile phones in the bathroom - because 10 per cent of EA's users play games on the toilet, we are enthusiastically informed.

The mantra for EA Casual is games that are "quick to the fun".

"You don't have to play for three hours to get to the first battle," explains Arons. "It's low time commitment - you can play for five minutes and have a satisfying experience." She defines the rather opaque term 'casual' simply as "games that are easily accessible".

"We're really looking for the non-core gamer; as I jokingly say, games for everybody else. Now, I believe gamers are going to get into some of our games, but right now we're really looking to target kids and women and families who really could be brought together through gaming."

The Hasbro deal is at the forefront of this mission. The giant toy maker is a USD 3 billion company with some of the biggest brands in the business, and despite existing agreements with other games publishers, EA is keen to trumpet the strength of the relationship with its new best friend.

"Our deal is a long-term deal with Hasbro that started in August of last year," states Donohoe. "What's fantastic is that we have 39 products in active development. Atari has Dungeons & Dragons, Activision has Transformers - we have everything else. Hopefully, one day when one of those properties opens up, we definitely have the first right to talk to Hasbro and take that on."

Animal Magic

While Hasbro properties have been turned into games for years (Hasbro Interactive enjoyed considerable success in the mid-to-late 90s before being sold to Infogrames in 2001), in a market transformed by the new gamers Nintendo has attracted via DS and Wii, its female and family-focused ranges now offer the greatest potential.

"Littlest Pet Shop is the fastest growing girls brand across the globe," Donohoe adds. "It's huge in the States and huge in Europe as well. We believe [it's] going to be a top five DS title throughout all of Europe. In the States we think it's going to be a top 20 title. That one for us is the next generation of Nintendogs.

"It really allows us for the first time just a female audience with EA. We're making the game for little girls - every month they come in and they're like, 'yeah I want more accessories in!' We put more in. 'I want to buy stuff!' We put that feature in. We're making it for them."

This point is key. There is at present an uneasy relationship between publishers of casual games and specialist critics. Both sides have a reasonable point. The games press argues that a great deal of casual games are cheap, generic, lazy knock-offs designed to ride in on the success of a popular brand, and often either savages or simply ignores them. The game makers argue that reviewing a casual game in the same terms as a Halo or a Grand Theft Auto is fundamentally flawed and, besides, casual gamers don't read the specialist press.

The wider point is that this creates a serious procedural problem for the likes of EA Casual. How can the quality of their games be externally, independently assessed? Arons accepts this notion: "If we say Metacritic is not going to be the be all and end all of how we evaluate quality, how are we going to have assurance that we're making good games?" The solution has yet to be nailed, but they're working on it.

"Part of it is through not waiting until the end of the process, but doing a lot of consumer insights along the way," Arons offers. "An example right now is all the work that's being done on Littlest Pet Shop - once a month there's a panel of 100 girls who've been coming back and helping them."

"We've been struggling with that," concedes Donahoe. "Metacritic for years and years and years has been the only measure of quality in the industry. And as you know, Metacritic doesn't necessarily correctly gauge the sales ratio. We talk to the consumer and make sure all along the way that [they are] telling us what we're doing is the right thing for them."

Employing focus groups is, of course, common practice in the games industry and widely used across all genres. But as an internal process, publishers will always be liable only to hear what they want to hear. And given the nature of the target audience, a casual title's success or failure could be as much to do with marketing as quality. Again, EA is acutely aware of this and promising to take action.

People Power

"Parents and word of mouth are really the killer in this whole game," argues Arons. "So we're really trying to figure out how we can maybe have a parent panel or a kid panel and bring that in as another measure of quality."

"Our consumer insights person is putting together a quantitative and qualitative measure that's going to help us measure quality," reveals Donohoe. "So we're actually actively looking at the casual Metacritic."

As an example of how EA Casual is already learning, Arons cites the performance of last year's music game Boogie. "I think Boogie's a great example of something that was a little unfocused on who its consumer was; a good germ of an idea that now under a casual philosophy and a really tight focus we're going to hopefully advance even further," she reveals.

Arons maintains that the Wii version "did pretty good", with projected sell-through of 700,000 units this year. But the DS and PS2 SKUs performed poorly, despite a big marketing push.

She adds: "When we took a step back and said what worked, what didn't, actually the marketing of Boogie was to families, to everyone. And we were very quick to realise, who likes to sing and dance and basically make fools of themselves? Teen and tween girls. That's who's into that social play. We're going to refocus what was good about that game and bring it into the future."

So whether it's Pogo or Potter, or indeed FIFA or Battlefield, EA hopes it can attract every gamer by appealing directly to their distinct, diverse tastes. "What you're going to see a shift in is, as opposed to saying, let's put every title on every platform, we're going to be more selective to match who the consumer is," Arons concludes.

And with the rest of the publishing community already evolving in pursuit of the purse, it's a belated but healthy acknowledgement that, when it comes to gaming, girls and boys just wanna have fun.

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Johnny Minkley

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Johnny Minkley is a veteran games writer and broadcaster, former editor of Eurogamer TV, VP of gaming charity SpecialEffect, and hopeless social media addict.

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