Patterson pursues video game murders most casual

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To some, the author James Patterson is known for the 50 mystery novels that bear his name, while others might recognize him from the three movies and five TV shows -- including the current "Women's Murder Club" series on ABC -- that have been adapted from his books. But, come the end of May, he is hoping that gamers will know him, too, from his very first casual video game, the first of many, he says, depending on their popularity.

To Patterson, who was once the chairman of advertising giant J.W. Thompson, casual gaming is an opportunity that his company, James Patterson Entertainment, simply can't ignore.

"Look, it strikes me that the video game area is an incredibly lucrative niche market," he explains, "one populated by a small number of boys -- and grownup boys -- who like to shoot things and spend a lot of money. But that excludes most of the universe. What I love about this project is the chance to widen the boundaries of what people can do on the small screen, sort of like what the [Nintendo] Wii is accomplishing. We're going to give people who don't want to shoot things ... who prefer to use their brains ... a chance to solve a really good mystery. This will open up a whole new arena to a lot of people who don't play games now. I believe that market is huge."

Patterson's first game -- an adaptation of his six (soon seven)-book "WMC" series -- is being created, ironically enough, by a developer also better known for her endeavors outside of casual games. To mature gamers, Jane Jensen will always be remembered as the force behind the popular Gabriel Knight adventure series released by Sierra Online in 1993. Today, however, she is co-founder of the Seattle-based Oberon Media, a 5-year-old casual game developer/publisher whose most recent successes have been a duo of Agatha Christie puzzle titles.

"After doing five full-blown adventure games for Sierra, I left the business and never thought I'd go back," Jensen confesses. "But then I got a call from someone who had a project for an experienced game designer to work on their casual game business, and I started to get excited about the demographics which are basically 52% female and largely people in their late 30s. Our challenge at Sierra had always been to try and reach that audience with our adventure games and it was tough."

The project soon turned into Oberon Media where the idea for a series of Patterson-inspired games was hatched.

"We met with Patterson and his business manager and presented the initial game proposal," recalls Jensen, "and they simply loved it."

Patterson provided outlines of the "WMC" books and how they were transitioned to TV, and Jensen used them to create a 40-page story outline for the game, which Patterson reviewed.

"He's had a lot of input into making sure that the game stays true to his concept," Jensen adds, "and he signs off on everything we do."

The game, tentatively known simply as "Women's Murder Club," features Jensen's original homicide mystery plus hunt-and-seek gameplay with challenges to uncover clues and solve puzzles.

"We are sort of baby-stepping our way towards a full adventure game while still keeping the elements that I believe are really good about casual games," she says, "meaning that it has to be immediately intuitive with no barriers for entry and it has to be immediately rewarding."

Jensen's team of developers, most of whom are based in Eastern Europe, began the project in August and expect the sizable game -- which contains almost 40 "rooms" of puzzles and clues -- will be concluded in nine months, just in time for it to be released at the end of May.

Jensen is keenly aware of what critics say about games based on licenses -- "that a lot of them are crap," she says -- but she believes that Oberon "did a very respectable job with the Agatha Christie games and really added something to the Agatha Christie world; we intend to do the same with the Patterson world," she maintains. "All I can say is that I, as a company co-founder, am working on this project full-time myself. I wrote the story for it myself. I'm designing everything myself. And I'm closely monitoring the project as creative director. So it's not like we took the Patterson brand name and tossed it onto just anything."

Jensen believes that the "WMC" license will be particularly strong as it will appeal "not only to the core casual game audience but also to people who are familiar with the name 'Women's Murder Club' and to people who aren't necessarily casual gamers but who are James Patterson fans."

Patterson is confident that it will.

"Look at the book business," he says. "The audience is 70-something-percent female. My readers are 70-something-percent female. And the majority of people who play casual games is the same. So I think the market for what we're doing -- games that are more sensitive and are centered on character, not shooting -- will be monstrous. I have a huge audience ... which is something ABC discovered when 'Women's Murder Club' debuted and it was their biggest premiere on a Friday night in four years."

But does he expect the game to be successful because of the gameplay -- or the license?

"My name is going to help ... and so will the name 'Women's Murder Club' ... but if the game isn't fun to play, the word will get out," he says. "This game has almost unlimited potential, especially if they do a great job marketing it. If we do this right, we can continue doing it until the cows come home.

"Look," he concludes. "This is very exciting. It's not the money; I can't spend all the money I have. But I look at the game and I think about the fact that the majority of people are excluded from games like these, and I go 'Wow! Big, big opportunity!' "

Paul "The Game Master" Hyman is the former editor-in-chief of CMP Media's GamePower. He has covered the games industry for more than a dozen years. His columns for The Hollywood Reporter run exclusively on the Web site.
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