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Q&A: Her Interactive Sleuths Out Nancy Drew Success

Which video game series has now topped 4 million copies sold, despite relative anonymity from the video game press? That would be Her Interactive's Nancy Drew adventure game series for PC, and Gamasutra quizzed marketing producer Jessica Chiang about the
Founded in 1995, Her Interactive released its first game later that year: McKenzie and Co., an interactive CD-based adventure aimed specifically at teenage girls. The company pushed further into this market in 1997, after securing the license for the Nancy Drew series of teenage detective novels from publisher Simon & Schuster, and has since released 16 games in the series, with a 17th, Nancy Drew: The Legend of the Crystal Skull, due out in October. Aside from a brief foray into Game Boy Advance development in 2000 with Nancy Drew: Message in a Haunted Mansion, Her Interactive has stuck to the PC format, and has sold over 4 million games in total on the platform. We spoke to Her Interactive Marketing Producer Jessica Chiang recently and asked about the teenage female gamer market, the effect of mainstream press coverage of the games, and the company’s possible plans to return to handheld gaming. How did you get the Nancy Drew license, and what drew you to it? Nancy Drew interested us because she is an icon and positive role model. She is an inspiration to girls who read her books and yearn to solve mysteries, find ill-gotten treasures, and defeat bad guys. She was the first female action hero and ahead of her time; her gutsy, resourceful and intelligent nature make her a great heroine for the adventure game genre. Her Interactive secured the Nancy Drew license from Simon & Schuster in 1997. When we first started in the industry, we looked around and saw very few games made for girls. We were surprised, but we realized an opportunity so we created our first PC game and took it to the publishers to put on the retail shelves. All of them turned us down. They said girls and women would not play video games because they were computer phobic. It was an unbelievable comment, and yet it was pervasive in the industry. Our tagline quickly became “for girls who aren’t afraid of a mouse.” So, we did what any spurned entrepreneur would do – we self published on Amazon. They wouldn’t let us in the front door so we went around back. Soon after those same publishers came back to do a deal in retail. We hope that our games have helped to level the playing field for girls and women. Who would you say your audience is, generally? I think the market for females of all ages - girls to women - is growing and will continue to grow. Our core Nancy Drew fans are 10 to 15, which has been somewhat of a niche segment in the market in the past. How large is this market at the moment, and what kind of growth are you seeing? The gaming market in the US is worth $10.4 billion dollars - according to the Price Waterhouse Cooper Global Entertainment Outlook Report, June 2007 - and is predicted to grow to $12.5 billion by 2011. Coupled with the ESA’s study finding that 38% of all gamers are female, there is a huge potential for growth. What kind of sales figures are you seeing for each title? We have sold over 4 million games to date with each title out-selling the previous one. Our most recent game, Nancy Drew: The White Wolf of Icicle Creek launched as the number one selling PC game. Who do you see as your main competitor when it comes to targeting teenage girls? How do you feel about the other games developed for the audience, like, for example, the Bratz titles? Do they underestimate the intelligence of the audience? Her Interactive’s Nancy Drew PC adventure game series has been the number one PC adventure game franchise, in terms of total units sold, for the past three years – outpacing such classic, high-profile games as Harry Potter, Myst and Lord of the Rings – our primary adventure game competition. In terms of competition for teenage girls, we compete with a lot of other things besides games for their time. A lot of teenage girls are playing The Sims on the computer, chatting on the phone, updating their MySpace friends online, and gaming and surfing on the web. We’re just lucky they’re good at multitasking. Bratz and Barbie games skew slightly younger than our target audience – and are great for a younger audience who are still developing their logical reasoning and problem solving skills. The Bratz and Barbie games are based on their respective brand attributes, and our Nancy Drew games are based on Nancy’s brand attributes, so the resulting games are simply different genres and game experiences. What kinds of assumptions do you make about the game playing and problem solving abilities of the audience? We try not to make assumptions about our audience and instead test each of our games with our advisory panel to gauge the difficultly and appeal of the puzzles. They play through the entire game and let us know if we need to make changes to the logic or give extra hints. How has the actual development of the series changed since 1998? After nearly 10 years of creating Nancy Drew games, we’ve streamlined the process to an art. With two releases a year, we keep our schedules tight and continue to focus on our core strength – telling a good story. We’ve learned a lot about creating efficient processes for version control, asset creation, and scheduling. How important do you feel it is for the company to keep pushing forward technologically? How much of a priority is that for your audience? A little confusing. It is necessary to keep up with technology, but not essential to be at the top of the line, especially for our audience. While we don’t need the latest hardware for our games, our software still needs to be compatible with the majority of systems in the market, hence the upgrade to DirectX 9 and Windows Vista. Our games are 2D-point–and-click games, so they seem clunky compared to the latest first-person shooters and RPGs, but our engrossing story, quirky characters, and rich environments allow us to keep up and satisfy our audience. Recently, we have also started digitally distributing our games through online publishers like Big Fish Games, Pogo and Real Arcade. We also recently expanded into digital distribution and simultaneously launched our newest release Nancy Drew: The White Wolf of Icicle Creek as a digital download on our website with great success. In addition to the software technology, we also update the content to keep Nancy Drew contemporary, so Nancy is fluent in using the Internet on her laptop, GPS, and a cell phone - and sometimes a camera phone, depending on the game. Nancy is also environmentally responsible, oftentimes involving herself in protecting endangered wildlife such as whales and wolves. In fact, this is demonstrated in The White Wolf of Icicle Creek. Why did you only develop one title for Game Boy Advance, and why have you elected not to produce titles for any platform other than PC since then? Most females are still on the PC because they’re not as interested in purchasing a machine that only runs games. The Game Boy Advance was an experiment, and we learned that our current, story-based game formula is more suited to the PC platform. How important is the community to Her Interactive, and what role do they play in the way you develop your games? Our community is one of the most important assets at Her Interactive. With 40,000 members, our message boards are constantly buzzing with information about the latest games, game hints, and reviews. We monitor the board closely for their feedback and strive to incorporate their suggestions. They are our direct link to the consumer. To supplement the message board, we also send out monthly newsletters and maintain a blog. How important is the recognition from publications like Good Housekeeping and Parents' Choice? What effect do you believe this has on sales? We value recognition from publications like Good Housekeeping and Parents’ Choice tremendously for a few reasons. Nancy Drew is a 77-year old icon and therefore appeals to women of all ages. In fact, our games have created somewhat of a cross-generational phenomenon, where girls, moms and grandmothers are playing together. So we definitely benefit from the parental seal of approval, the awareness that it helps generate, and positive affect on our sales. Since moms are purchasing the majority of the games for their daughters, it is important for to catch their interest and gain their trust. Our Nancy Drew games are all rated ‘E’ and are very family friendly. We know moms value the wholesome brand and challenging game experience. What effect will the movie have on your games, and how are you capitalizing on it, if at all? Her Interactive teamed up with Cotton Incorporated and Warner Bros. for a 15-stop, national mall tour in a multi-faceted program, entitled Nancy Drew and the Cotton Caper, educating young girls and women about cotton while generating excitement for the theatrical release of Nancy Drew in June. Our game, Nancy Drew: The White Wolf of Icicle Creek was a sales incentive during the promotional time period and as part of an overall sweepstakes prize package. In conjunction with other cross-promotions we did with Warner Bros., we believe the film helped refresh the Nancy Drew brand and generated greater awareness of our games. What effect has your move into digital distribution had on sales? Digital distribution has had a very positive effect on sales! It has given us a new and efficient way to distribute our games while reaching a previously untapped audience. Although game portals had reservations about casual gamers downloading extremely large files, as they’re used to 50MB download compared to nearly 1GB for the Nancy Drew games, the success of the Nancy Drew series has all but banished those fears. In fact, we recently launched our own digital store, the only place where all the available games in the PC series can be downloaded. Do you see the company moving into console or back into handheld development in the future? We continue to seek new avenues for growth in the female gaming market. With the development of the Nintendo DS and Wii – both female friendly gaming devices - there are certainly more opportunities to explore. Are there other licenses that you would like to work with? We’re just concentrating on Nancy Drew right now, but we’re always evaluating licenses that would fit our target market and translate to quality, wholesome and fun games. We do, however, include the Hardy Boys in some of our games as a natural extension of Nancy’s world. The most recent game the Hardy Boys were featured in was our October 2006 release Nancy Drew: The Creature of Kapu Cave. What other plans does the company have for the future? We are also releasing our first DVD game in August, Nancy Drew: The Curse of Blackmoor Manor, where Nancy travels to England to investigate a series of mysterious events at a 14th century mansion. Then in October we will release our 17th PC game, Nancy Drew: The Legend of the Crystal Skull, which sends Nancy to New Orleans with her best friend Bess.

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