Wanted: Game of their own

Industry hopes to harness girl power

Can "High School Musical" and "Hannah Montana" finally take girl gaming to the next level?

While most of the attention of teen and tween girls tonight will be focused on the premiere of "High School Musical 2" on Disney Channel, Disney Interactive is hoping that interest eventually bears fruit in the gaming aisles of retailers nationwide.

Beginning with "High School Musical: Making the Cut" for the Nintendo DS, Disney Interactive is bringing out four titles based on the two licensing juggernauts in the coming months.

"The demand for both the 'High School Musical' and 'Hannah Montana' games has been enormous among retailers," Disney Interactive GM Graham Hopper said. "I think the industry is starting to wake up to the fact that girls play games."

Getting that female audience into video games, especially consoles, has long been a holy grail for publishers, and there have been encouraging signs. According to the Electronic Software Assn., 38% of game players are women or girls, and a Harris Interactive poll this year found that tween girls spend up to 10 hours a week playing games, compared with 16 hours a week for tween boys.

"The industry is still dominated by the male side, but we're definitely seeing not just more female players but older gamers as well," said Beth Llewelyn, senior director of corporate communications at Nintendo of America. "We've had success with DS titles like 'Nintendogs' but also with the 'Brain' games — 'Brain Age' and 'Big Brain Academy' — that are definitely skewing more toward females."

The problem has been that girls and women tend to be among the most casual players, interested in easy-to-pick-up social games but not consistently shelling out $30-$50 for more complex fare.

"The real key is to get girls to begin obsessing over games the way they might obsess over a boy band or shows like 'High School Musical,' " said Jessica Chiang, marketing producer at Her Interactive, which has carved out a niche making PC games based on the "Nancy Drew" license. Chiang said the way to achieve that passion seems to be the right license, noting, "If they already like the TV show or dolls, they tend to want to get the game."

Added Hopper, "We already know that girls will play on the Nintendo DS and Game Boy Advance hand-helds," he said, touting the previous success of Disney Interactive titles for hand-helds based on "Lizzie McGuire" and "That's So Raven." "But there have not been a lot of examples of huge successes on the home consoles, though we've got the two properties this season to see if that's about to change."

It also is going to take the right platform, and Nintendo might have more of those answers right now.

"They're justifiably quite proud of the way they're growing the market, and they have lot of information to back up the fact that they're really starting to get the female gaming audience," said Sarah Handley, senior global brand manager at THQ, which this year is bringing out a game based on "Bratz: The Movie."

Other companies, most notably the now-defunct Acclaim, had some solid sales in the past with games based on the Olsen twins. But they also might have done more harm than good because many of those properties lacked the thing that keeps girls coming back, which is good gameplay.

"This has to be more than just dropping a license on a box," Hopper said. "That's one of the issues this industry needs to get away from." Hopper said the "High School Musical" game for the Nintendo Wii will be among the first to feature a microphone, while the upcoming "Hannah Montana: Music Jam" for the DS will allow up to four players to play various wireless instruments together.

"We didn't need all the guitar features in 'Hannah,' but we did it because want to create a great game," Hopper said. "I think the success of 'High School' and Disney Channel has done a wonderful job in creating a mass-market phenomenon. But we look at it as a starting point, where we can move forward with game innovations and permanently expand the girl and tween gamer market."
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