The Young Female Audience
In a previous column on some trends I'm tracking in the free to play space, a couple that I listed were the coming of familiar franchises and expanding the overall player base by aiming at groups other than hardcore gamers. Hello Kitty Online clearly falls within both of these since Sanrio's property is enormously popular among younger females around the world.
The game will also be in commercial service here in North America fairly soon. The regional closed beta finished just yesterday, so the open phase and the full launch seem likely to happen within the next few weeks. Considering this timing, I was pleased that Aeria Games let me pick Grant Wei's mind about the title's nature and target audience, focusing on whether it's a female release or a casual one.
This distinction can be rather convenient, but it's artificial and thus only accurate to varying degrees. In the case of HKO, quite a few people automatically classify it as for girls solely on the basis of its brand. With the vast majority of Sanrio's customers and fans being female and young, it would be pretty foolish for the game not to aim for this demographic. However, this is often taken to mean that it's also casual. In reality, as Wei points out, the extent to which this is so primarily depends on its mechanics, not its target audience.
That said, there's no denying HKO is a girl game, which naturally leads to the question of what makes it so. "While many casual games are certainly female friendly," says Wei, "they are not specifically designed for girls." He cites The Sims as a franchise with a predominantly distaff fan base, stating that although it leans in the casual direction and has dollhouse-style play rather than immersive, it wasn't necessarily developed just for this particular audience.
Speaking about games in general, Wei is well aware that the ones designed specifically for girls typically have core subjects that are secondary, incidental or not present at all in male-oriented offerings. As examples, he names relationships, shopping, fashion, ponies and weddings. Further, there aren't many female protagonists. In this regard, I'll add that when we do find them, they're nearly if not completely indistinguishable from their masculine counterparts except for how they look.
Further, even where small attribute differences do exist, such as one gender (guess which) having slightly higher starting strength and the other a corresponding boost to intelligence, they don't affect the play - certainly not in the sense of the respective characters having different mixes and balances of activities. Males and females undertake the same quests, travel to the same locations, have the same conversations with the same NPCs, fight the same enemies, etc., etc.
Relating this to MMOGs, is it any surprise that the players are predominantly male? While some might, I don't think 10 to 20 percent females is much of an achievement. Girls and women play games. However, they tend to gravitate toward those with focal topics and activities that fit their personalities. This means they have far fewer from which to choose, which raises the likelihood they won't pick any at all.
Is there a good answer to this quandary? Wei probably wonders, as do I. He puts forward a couple of hypothetical scenarios that might help test brand and subject as key factors in making girl games. "First," he asks, "if Hello Kitty Online (a female brand) was designed with fast-paced and competitive mechanics but set in the high-stress fashion world, would it still attract a significant female player base? Or would it simply wither away and die?" Then, taking the opposite tack, he questions whether a game based on the 300 comic and movie property with dollhouse mechanics and focusing on the character relationships could attract a feminine audience, a masculine one or neither.
Hello Kitty Online isn't likely to provide definitive answers to such dramatic inquiries. However, I'm definitely curious to see what we'll be able to learn from it. Does the implementation truly capture the basic essence of the property and have the mechanics that will allow it to attract and retain a sizable, heavily female player base? In this respect, since I'm not a Hello Kitty person myself and have no young girls in my household or close circle, it's difficult for me to form much of an opinion. So, I'm rather keen to see what kinds of reactions and feedback will follow the closed beta, and also what information and impressions the next few weeks will bring to light.