Will women drive game growth at last?
Engrossed in her Nintendo DS handheld on the bus ride to work, Melinda Whitehouse looked up and realized she had missed her stop -- again. For months she's been getting high on "Wario Ware: Touched," her latest pickup in the hyperkinetic puzzle-game series.
But her video-game addiction doesn't stop there. She plays "Kingdom of Loathing" on her PC at work, then heads home to log an hour of "Animal Crossing" on her Gamecube console before switching over to "Ratchet and Clank: Going Commando" on the PlayStation 2 in her bedroom. The San Franciscan is bent on reserving early copies of "Nintendogs" and "Zelda: Twilight Princess" at her local Gamestop later this year, and she plans on taking a day off from work when "Animal Crossing" arrives for the DS in November.
Whitehouse, 35, says she plays for about three hours each day. She is a "hardcore" gamer, and the avid collector of "Hello Kitty" T-shirts is also evidence that the mercurial video-game industry, which has made a mint catering to the 18-to-34-year-old-male demographic, can rouse the women's market.
It's a bet that has flat-lined in the past, but clever new games, new platforms and targeted marketing campaigns are the latest evidence that, this time, a lucrative market of female gamers will emerge.
One thing we can be sure of: The women's market won't grow on the back of testosterone-fueled blockbuster franchises like "Madden NFL," "Grand Theft Auto" and "Halo." Rather, bets are on fresh titles like "Nintendogs," "The Movies," "Bratz Rock Angels" and "NeoPets," as well as forthcoming versions of established franchises like "The Sims," "SSX" and "Dora the Explorer"
Like Whitehouse, many female gamers cut their teeth playing simple yet addictive arcade, puzzle, card and strategy games both in game rooms and on their PCs. Now a bevy of titles is beckoning them to handheld devices such as the DS, the PlayStation Portable from Sony and even mobile phones.
But the industry's ultimate hope is to whet girls' appetites for console gaming, where multimillion-dollar-budgeted games currently account for 70% of the industry's software revenues.
"To sustain the industry's growth rate, the publishers need to develop the kind of games that turn the casual female gamer into a core gamer," says Anita Frazier, an analyst with NDP Group. "The casual female gamer is underserved; the challenge is to convert them."
This conversion could eventually be gravy for video-game publishers' revenue figures and stock prices, which have largely languished this spring amid an ongoing transition to the next generation of console hardware.
In the game industry, the term "hardcore" refers to repeat buyers; currently, male gamers buy more games per month by a 0.95-to-0.67 ratio, according to IDC.
But a respectable foundation on which the industry can build the ranks of female customers appears to be in place, as 43% of all gamers now are female, according to the Entertainment Software Association. The average female gamer over the age of 18 logs 7.4 hours a week, a number that's closing the gap on male gamers, who play for an average of 7.6 hours a week.
That growth, however, does not appear to be occurring on the console, where IDC reports the percentage of women as the household's most active gamer has remained flat at 30% since 1999, a time spanning the entire current-generation console hardware cycle.
Furthermore, NDP Group reveals that, while overall software sales among women have grown, that market segment's contribution in the U.S. -- pegged at $880 in 2004 -- has remained flat at 15% to 16% since the beginning of the decade.