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How to Pick Up Women: LimeLife's Kristin McDonnell on Female Gamers

In this interview, Gamasutra chats with Kristin McDonnell, CEO of VC-funded mobile game developer LimeLife, Inc regarding 'virtual girlfriends', avoiding Purple Moon's mistakes, and the type of environment that appeals to women video gamers.

Frank Cifaldi, Contributor

January 23, 2006

10 Min Read

Kristin McDonnell is the CEO of LimeLife Inc., the Menlo Park, California-based developer and publisher of mobile content geared specifically toward females. The firm received Series A financing of $5 million from Rustic Canyon Partners, U.S. Venture Partners, i-Hatch Ventures, and Monitor Ventures in August 2005, and has so far released two games: Girls' Night Out Solitaire and Word Heaven.

In addition, LimeLife has grand plans for the future, including a promotional tie-in with makeup brand CoverGirl. Gamasutra sat down with McDonnell to hear about LimeLife's plans for 2006 and to find out what, exactly, draws women to gaming.

Differing Demographics

LimeLife's current line-up is broad in its appeal, though later titles, says McDonnell, will be more targeted towards a specific age group. "Girls' Night Out Solitaire is out there on Sprint and Cingular, and that is more of a 15-40 year old type of game that appeals to a pretty broad demographic. Word Heaven, which is coming out in February, is even broader, although we don't intend to go this broad. My six-year-old daughter loves it, and I could imagine an 86-year-old woman loving it. Later this year, we'll be coming out with games that are more oriented to 15 to early 20s, probably like 15-25. It just depends upon the game, and the gameplay…if we're working with a major brand or celebrity, what audience does that brand or celebrity appeal to?"

McDonnell continued: "But if you look at the female gameplay preferences, they are very consistent across ages. So, women who play games, if they're kids or even in their 40s, they like to have short play sessions, especially in mobile. They like frequent rewards, they like learning modes, they like to be able to interact socially, they like to be able to customize the experience. And so those types of gameplay benchmarks are really consistent across the ages, and it's really kind of the game mechanic that you might put on top of it."

"Our product development team comes out of PC development software," continued the CEO. "The design team had four number one hits in the female demographic before coming on to LimeLife. So they're very familiar with female play mechanics. They also come out of online gaming." A number of LimeLife employees, including McDonnell herself, were involved in Sierra Online's ImagiNation Network, often considered the first online casual games network (the service was in beta testing as early as 1989). "And it was an over 50% female audience," she said. "So we knew from those experiences. It was a lot from our own personal experience that we knew the female play patterns that were successful, as well as doing a lot of research on our demographic."

Attracting Younger Ages

But what draws in the youngest of the female demographic? McDonnell comments: "Typically, women in general like puzzle, card, and word games. When you go younger you might go into more puzzle and word, and college more oriented toward card games – especially casino-type. But there are pretty universal play patterns and mechanics that women like, it's more the branding that varies. You may have noticed on Pogo, there are a lot of games in what I call the 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' theme."

"I think it appeals to maybe the cruise line crowd? It's a lot of archaeological ruins, I don't get it. I think that appeals to an older demographic, whereas dating, hanging out with girls, make-up and clothes and fashion are more appealing to that younger demographic. And celebrities are huge, pretty much regardless of age, but especially in the younger demographic."

Other Female-Centric Publishers?

LimeLife is, of course, not the first software publisher dedicated specifically to the female demographic. Her Interactive, for example, makes a lucrative business out of adventure games based on the Nancy Drew license. Another publisher, Purple Moon, was formed in 1996, was even backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. That company published a number of CD-ROM based titles for the PC, but their original IP, a feisty young girl named Rockett, failed to compete against the likes of Mattel and its Barbie franchise. Is LimeLife avoiding Purple Moon's mistakes?

"I think PC software on CDs around that time was difficult in general," said McDonnell. "I think that the distribution channel was typically a channel that females were not visiting, and so it wasn't something that a lot of girls thought of doing, and neither rwere moms. And I think that – and this is just kind of my recollection of the timing – it was before a lot of the educational software that was pretty successful. So if you think of things that our co-founders were in – Barbie, Dora – and those were extremely successful at retail because the market had matured to that point, and women's relationship with the PC had evolved to where buying CD-ROM wasn't foreign to them."

"Also, [Purple Moon] tried to create their own character rather than taking one that females knew from another medium, so it was just kind of a double whammy of getting people to go to a retail channel they're not used to for media they're not used to for a brand they're not used to. I think we're overcoming these hurdles, in that 60 million women have phones capable of downloading and playing applications. We are educating them on how to download stuff, so we know the market is still small, but that's kind of the hurdle we face is educating them. And we are working with play patterns and brands familiar to women."

That education process, McDonnell says, comes in the form of a press tour this year. "We're basically going to all the places that we know women are already reading and visiting on the web, the brands that they're already consuming, we're doing a retail promotion with a major brand that women buy all the time. We're putting all those points where women are already touching those media properties, and putting the message out that there's content for them on the mobile phone."

On Virtual Girlfriends

Research shows that women gamers heavily favor social interaction and cooperation to competitive gameplay. However, a number of factors – bandwidth, and user interaction, to name two – make community play difficult on cell phones. LimeLife's middle ground solution lies in Girls' Night Out Solitaire's Virtual Girlfriends.

"The Virtual Girlfriends are within the game itself, they're not other players," said McDonnell. "So there's a whole host of girlfriends who, depending upon which moves you make, will pop up and make witty or sweet or sarcastic remarks, depending on their personality. And you can rename them to have names of real-life friends. So it feels social, which is something that women really like, even though it's really just an AI with these 'girlfriends.' And then at the end of the game you can play truth or dare, and that's something where we do encourage that you interact with real friends."

Online communities are, however, in the pipeline. "There are many more community tools coming in titles later this year," said McDonnell. "Almost all of them have game lobby integration, so there is that posting of scores factor. There's sharing that can go on, refer a friend, all those types of things that are more characteristic of community. So it's less of the multiplayer head-to-head, which is especially difficult in mobile."

Visually Compelling Shades For Women

LimeLife's research shows that women like: "Visually compelling environments, geared toward a female audience." We asked McDonnell to clarify.

"Not using a lot of brown, black, sand," she said. "There's a health club in Palo Alto catered toward women, and you can tell when you walk in – with its shapes, curves rounded edges – it just very much feels like 'this is a chick workout place.' There's just certain colors and shapes women respond to, upbeat kind of themes, also icons and characters oriented toward things women like. There was a study out of Scotland that said women liked curved, soft colors, and men liked hard straight lines. They like blacks and reds, and deep greens, but women go more toward nice blues and softer colors. There is just a different orientation toward visuals that women like to have a certain way."

"So if you look at a lot of card games on mobile, a lot have that four-screen background. Cards are normal suits, very little is playful, and it's all kind of serious feeling. Girls' Night Out has lots of blues and purples and upbeat kind of colors, and card suits are customizable, so you can put on purses and shoes and martini glasses, so it's really upbeat and fun. It's a 'Hey, this is like a fun girls' night out on the town' type of application."

And this gravitation toward different visual stimuli happens early in age. "If you think of how Barbie looks versus Power Rangers, it's a very different visual effect," continued McDonnell. "At a very early age, the two genders gravitate toward different visual elements and settings and…I don't know why. I have three little kids, and it's so strange to see even at two, the difference in how they gravitate toward different environments and play patterns. There's nothing overt to make them feel that way, it's just in the genes."


And finally, we asked McDonnell to tell the rest of the industry how to bring more women into gaming. "Bring a lot more female designers into the industry," she said. "It would be extremely difficult for me to make Doom, and for our designers to do something like that would be difficult. There are so many nuances to the creative endeavor and creating games that would make it appealing to a male versus a female, but there just needs to be a lot more females creating the designs that females would enjoy."


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About the Author(s)

Frank Cifaldi


Frank Cifaldi is a freelance writer and contributing news editor at Gamasutra. His past credentials include being senior editor at 1UP.com, editorial director and community manager for Turner Broadcasting's GameTap games-on-demand service, and a contributing author to publications that include Edge, Wired, Nintendo Official Magazine UK and GamesIndustry.biz, among others. He can be reached at [email protected].

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