SOBE by David Sobeski

Women and Gaming

July 30, 2014
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Gaming companies traditionally identified as “hardcore” or “Triple A” (AAA) studios have longed asked the question about the female gamer. I have spent over three years at the Walt Disney Company looking at this issue. While nobody has been able to consistently produce a sustained franchise of hits aimed at the female demographic (with only rare exceptions movies, television and publishing have not cracked the secret formula) there are some lessons that can help one build games targeted at the female gamer.


Before we get into the various techniques, I will say that I have gained valuable insight by being part of Disney Animation and Pixar. What we learned is that an animated movie will only make its money back by appealing to all demographics. We needed to attract kids and parents of both genders to animated movies to justify the studio’s investment. An animated movie typically has a larger budget than a Hollywood blockbuster movie. Budgets in the range of $200m to $300m (before marketing) has become the norm. The studio enjoys profits when they offer products the consumer wants to see in repeat viewings especially in multiple formats — i.e. through the purchase (not rental) of digital downloads and BluRay.

During pre-production of the animated feature film Wreck It Ralph, which takes place entirely inside of various video games, we needed to create a story and elements that would appeal to girls. We accomplished this by creating a young girl, Penelope von Schweetz, who behaved like a tomboy while clearly retaining her femininity making her overall character relatable. We also created a tough-as-nails commander, Sergeant Calhoun, voiced by Jane Lynch. In the process of creating the various video game worlds we knew the Hero’s Duty world would appeal to boys. By contrast we made Sugar Rush full of bright colors with a different type of shading on objects. (A movie typically doesn’t employ two or more drastically differing art styles but in this case it worked well.) While the marketing of the movie was targeted at boys and focused on big explosions, including Penelope and Calhoun in the story made it possible for both girls and boys to relate to the movie.

Another example happened during the planning stages of Frozen. We knew that men and boys would be turned off if we showed characters who burst into song in the trailer. Likewise, if we emphasized the plot line of the two sisters the males would not even consider the film. Consequently, all the marketing material was focused on the comedy and adventure aspects of the film. You saw Olaf, Hans and Anna but you did not see the kingdom. You saw snow and adventure but we showed just enough of Anna to get girls excited. In addition, when drawing and setting up the palettes, we were very concerned about using light blues and friendly colors.

Original trailer:
Trailer #2:

Social Games, Playdom

Before arriving at Disney our start-up Playdom became one of the top three social gaming companies. Looking at Playdom’s demographic quickly revealed that the majority of playing time was done by women, 45% of which were in an age range from 35-50. Women in their early 40’s accounted for the highest levels of in-app purchases.

Why did social games work for women? Well, I hypothesize it is because social games are played over an extended time. That is, FarmVille’s gameplay, building a farm, gathering crops, are all done at various, disparate times. This ends up lending itself to the way that women play. Unlike their male counterparts that may play Call of Duty or GTA V for 2+ hours at a time (!) women consume content in very short interruptible, increments. In fact, we noticed that a game would run in a browser for several hours but actual game interaction could be measured in minutes with extremely long pauses between gaming activity. You can surmise from this (taking into consideration the time of day) that women where playing when they got a free moment.

For example, a person working at a hotel front desk would play a social game, then when a customer or their manager was around they would ATL+TAB to their corporate application. Or an administrative assistant would quickly perform a few tasks inside the play of a game during downtime between working on expense reports or scheduling a trip for the manager they support. Our CFO would be crunching numbers, attending hectic meetings, doing everything a busy executive would do, then, during her day, she would find moments of time to play our games or other games for a few minutes at a time. I compare that to another busy executive where he would spend 30 minutes to an hour on a game.

The fact that the games where long running and you do not need to sit and give instant feedback worked insanely great for the female gamer. We would see spikes when she got to work at 8 am and again at lunch with the longest engagement being the time after dinner or a family event - such as watching TV together, giving the child a bath and putting them to bed or what have you. When we looked closer at the “Mom” demographic we noticed that her game playing was mostly done on the couch at night. We also noticed the majority of purchases happened during this time. After a day of play, she would make the purchase when she had time to be more engaged with the game.

Look and Feel Matters

In 2010 Playdom won Best Social Game of the Year with Social City. At our high point, we were earning about $12m per month with over 20 million MAUs. We focused on friendly looking content when we built this game. We were also hyper-focused on color palettes. I found that if you presented the color palette of Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty with their dark tones to female test subjects they were instantly turned off. In fact, you would only attract the hard core (female) gamers. We did a test looking at Lara Croft games in which females did not respond well to the game not because they thought the animator’s where sexist toward women with the LC character but because they didn’t respond well to the environments. The dark palette was a turn off whereas the aspects of puzzle solving had broad appeal. But female players never got that far because of the look and feel of the game.

We created another game at Playdom called Gardens of Time which garnered another Game of the Year award. This game doubled the revenues of Social City bringing in about $24m per month. The genre of this game could be called “hidden object meets a farmer builder.” The player solved hidden object puzzles but was then taken back to their garden to buy things and decorate. The lessons from this game where informative. While women responded very positively to the decoration aspect of the garden, they did not like the hidden object and puzzle solving sections despite the narrative revolving around a love story. I noticed that our first 10+ hidden object boards where on a very darkly lit train. We did a quick test by adding a sun and lightening all the game boards. The result: the number of female players of Gardens exploded.

In summary:

  • Colors and a sense of light brings approachability and invites excitement to the game
  • The game can not have long engaging sequences, it has to be consumable in small morsels of gameplay that can be easily interrupted and picked up again later
  • More than men, women love to spend time configuring the environment (e.g. decorating, arranging)
  • Women tend to spend time accessorizing (e.g. costumes, color schemes)

Club Penguin

At Disney, we were lucky to have the Club Penguin asset. More than a game, it is a social network for kids. Once again, as we saw in animation and social games for adults, the same pattern emerged. The girls who played Penguin where more social (had more friends). They were attracted to bright colors and would play mini-games that where colorful and quick. They would decorate their igloo and they would buy more content than their male counterparts.


As we look at any gaming for women, we really need to understand what we are targeting for play. I tend to break the market down as:

  • Birth to 6 years of age
  • 7 - 12 years of age
  • 13 - 16 years of age
  • 30 - 50 years of age

What I have observed is that females practically vanish from the gaming scene for up to 15 years. Around the age of 16 games are just not cool and they have other interests and events in their lives that take precedence. As they settle into a quieter life at home and career track at work they come back around age 30.

Creating games from birth to six is for specialized companies such as LeapFrog or Age of Learning. If you don’t want to educate then it is best to avoid this space.

When it comes to 7-12 I have found that girls engage in a small number of games but they are highly engaged. We see girls attracted to Animal Jam, Club Penguin and Moshi monsters. Girls seem to be highly attracted to Pokémon at this age. They do engage in creative content generators on iPads such as picture makers or horse and grooming type games. You also see strong ties to TV content and games. For example, a girl will play My Little Pony or Adventure Time simply because they watched it on TV.

It is interesting to note that all the kid games that I have mentioned use bright color palettes and are mini game focused. Even Pokémon is short bursts of play. The player walks around, enters a battle and once done she can save and leave. But there are clear goals in beating gym leaders and interesting collectibles - that is: she collects Pokémon by capturing them. She even strives for long term goals by finding legendary characters.

The 30-50 demographic is dominated by women playing games like Zynga’s Farmville, King’s Candy Crush and casual to mid-core games. What we have seen is that typical AAA titles do not appeal to women in this age range. They simply don’t have time to sit at a console and play a game. Most of their game playing time has historically come from a PC/Mac and lately from iPhone or Android mobile devices. Again, you can quickly play a level or two of Candy Crush or you can sit in a Casino Game and do a few rounds of “slots” in a few minutes. You need to be able to make games that are consumable in small increments.

When it comes to genres of games we found that women love:

  • Casino games, namely slot games
  • Match-3 games such as Candy Crush or Bubble Witch Saga
  • Dragons, dragons and more dragons. Women tend to play games such as Dragon Story
  • Time management games such as Simpsons, Smurfs, Farmville, Social City or any city builder

Gender Roles

A fact that we don’t always want to talk about is that (even today) we live in a male dominated world. Many times female characters in games are second to male characters. Even when a female character is brought to the foreground, sexuality or some other factor continues to make the female character seem inferior in the eyes of women (Lara Croft).

If you look at games like FarmVille or Social City and movies that cross genders (such as Wreck it Ralph), you will notice that they provide an escape from the male dominated society in which we live. Women play as equals, they can see the world through their view. Candy Crush is brilliant at making their worlds acceptable by everyone. You have the main character with his monocle, the little girl with her candy cane and a world where the user is simply in control.

Women want to be entertained. They want to play games. Their play patterns might be different, but it doesn’t mean they are less engaged or less of a consumer. In fact, the way women play games you could argue that they are highly engaged as they play in shorter snippets all day long.

I think a great game to look at continues to be the Pokémon series. This game provides adventure, it provides a world where men and women are equal and no one gender seems to rule. In this game you have collectibles by capturing your Pokémon and looking at everything you accomplished by reading your Pokédex. You also have nurturing as you level up characters and get them to have new skills and eventually to evolve the characters. This simple game gives you so much insight on how to build content that has broad appeal, engages both men and women and continues to have a formula that makes the franchise unique and indispensable.

Games for Women

Games for women are about easy color palettes, concrete, self-contained bits of consumption and the ability to quickly play during the down time of their day. Unlike men who will schedule time every night or Saturday mornings specifically to play with their friends on Xbox Live, women will pick up a game whenever they have time.

I have found that word-of-mouth networks work best for women. No matter how many trailers you put on YouTube or channels, women find games via Facebook and other social circles. You need to focus all your energy on where the woman is to get them to consider your game. A woman isn’t watching E3 highlights or caring too much about the next big release from Ubisoft. Once something hits with their kids or friends they will try it out. For example, Frozen Freefall (which is just a Candy Crush clone) is making about $20m per month via Apple’s App Store. It would have been dead-on-arrival if the Frozen movie did not do well. Since Frozen became a world-wide hit this game started to get traction. First by 10 year olds downloading and playing the game, then quickly followed on by moms doing the same.

Another interesting phenomenon is taking place with App Store. Kids ask Mom for a game, Mom buys it on junior’s device and then magically, because it was purchased with Mom’s iTunes account to avoid paying for it more than once, it appears on Mom’s iPhone and she will inevitably try it out. That form of marketing is untapped and unrealized at the current moment.

As we know with any game, building sustainable franchises is a hard, hit-driven business with a high level of unpredictability. You can reduce the risk by using proven insights derived from key observations and build franchises that can and will attract women gamers, hopefully for the long term.

©2014 by David Sobeski