Dear Lady Gamers: What Do You Want From Me?

i was about to begin this article by saying “all my life, i’ve tried to make sense of the opposite sex”, but it sounded too trite and cliche. The truth is, i think – i honestly do think – that i have a pretty good grasp of women. i grew up the only child of a single-parent mom, and have lived a pretty estrogen-infused existence. i know what it is to toll paint. i have stenciled. i’ve knitted. i’ve made a macrame owl. These are things i can not unlearn.

Macrame Owl

Or unsee.

A very interesting conversation very nearly broke out on Facebook today, when i made the wild claim that our upcoming game, Spellirium, is for the ladies, and that i think “chicks’ll dig it”. The game was designed from the ground up to be female-friendly, in ways i will enumerate shortly. But something was eating at me: recently, when i made that same claim to a colleague, he said “Women will enjoy it, eh? Why? Does it have any romance in it?”

The blood drained from my face a little. We’re still not too late in the game to pivot, but no, Spellirium does not actually have a romantic thread running through it, nor does it have a female lead. i wondered: would these two shortcomings doom it? Would women not be interested in my game because the lead character is a young white male who doesn’t romance it up at any point in the story?


Help me, Fabio. You’re my only hope.

Chick Magnet

First, a brief primer. Spellirium is a graphic adventure game, which means that the gameplay and the writing go hand-in-hand. It’s set in the future, after a cataclysmic event has left civilization buried under a thousand feet of earth. It tells the story of a young apprentice tailor named Todd living a sheltered life in a society where reading and writing have been outlawed, on pain of death. But Todd and the other tailors have a secret: they’re actually Runekeepers, secret curators of an underground library filled with forbidden writing. A short time after the Runekeepers set off on a mission leaving Todd alone, one of them turns up dead. Brother Todd sets out on a quest to find out why.

Spellirium Runekeeper Cottages

Spellirium was originally designed to be a casual downloadable game, the kind of title that a portal like Big Fish Games might carry. When we were making a case for the game to our funders, we had to demonstrate that Spellirium would be a hit with a female audience, because Big Fish and their ilk cater primarily to older female customers.

Here are the pro-female elements we felt the game had going for it:

  1. It’s story-driven. If we compare games to porn, they say that women prefer story and character development, while men just enjoy visceral close-ups of gnashing genitalia. If Gears of War is analogous to visceral, visual man-porn, something like Spellirium is far more gentle and female-friendly, with a focus on why the pool boy is visiting on that particular day.

    Porn pizza boy

    Did somebody whose boss just fired her under suspicion of corporate espionage order a pizza?

  2. It’s a word game. i’ve actually been warned against admitting this – indeed, Big Fish Games and friends dumped all over Spellirium at Casual Connect two years ago because it’s a word game. Some of the portal reps called it “too cerebral”, and others cautioned that women don’t like to think when they play games – they just want to sit down and zone out (hence 50 different flavours of bubble-popping, jewel-matching and hidden object-finding on those sites).

    But i can’t deny it: Spellirium is all about making words, Scrabble/Boggle-style, to solve puzzles. And my intuition was vindicated when we brought a very early build of the game to the Toronto Comic Arts Festival two years ago; every guy who swung by the booth said “my girlfriend/wife/daughter would really enjoy that”, while every girlfriend/wife/daughter who passed by did a double-take and stopped to check it out. And that’s when it was purely a word game, with no sign of plot or character development in sight.

    Spellirium Alpha

    Women to letter tiles: like moths to a flame.

  3. It’s dark fantasy. Fact: women enjoy this genre. They like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal and Pan’s Labyrinth and City of Ember and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and His Dark Materials and the Spiderwick Chronicles and Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and (perhaps unfortunately) Twilight. Women read those huge 10-book-long fantasy chronicles like Dragonriders of Pern. In particular, i think there’s something about dark fantasy that women prefer over straight-up elf-ridden high fantasy. Women are drawn in by stories that have an air of mystery, seduction, evil, or … for lack of a better word, purple.


Quoth the raven, “Enter your credit card number.”

But It’s a Straight-Up Sausage Party

The two main characters in Spellirium are male. One is a young man. The other is a big blue monster. The third member of the group is a woman – a hard woman they call The Hunter, who dresses in the pelts of the animals she kills and skins. She has a big red scar through her left eye, because i was self-conscious about making her too pretty. She’s self-sufficient and vindictive, and is motivated by revenge. She doesn’t take any crap from the main character. i wrote her this way because i wanted a strong female character who isn’t subdued by the boyish charms of the male lead, and who doesn’t succumb to his wily advances, and who will put a bullet up his nose if he tries to come any closer.

Spellirium: The Hunter

Three concept sketches of The Hunter. We went with the one on the left. The blunderbuss was non-negotiable.

Will women like her? i have no idea. Will they still enjoy the game, even though the two leads are male? No clue. Will they be less interested in Spellirium because there’s no love story? i really don’t know. That’s kind of why i’m writing this article. i want to hear from women who play games. Is any of this stuff important to you?

The only other significant female character is The Mystic, who is an old fortune-teller, which i do realize is the female equivalent of the Magic Negro. Part of the fun of Spellirium is that it breaks the fourth wall on a regular basis; any time i (the author) introduce a stock character, Todd and company are going to call me out on it in the game dialogue.

Indie dev Michael Todd introduced me to the Bechdel Test today while we were discussing this. In order to pass the test, your script has to have:

  1. at least two women in it,
  2. Who talk to each other,
  3. About something other than a man.

As currently scripted, Spellirium fails the Bechdel test at point #2. Women: have i fallen out of your good graces, or is there still a chance that you’ll play this game and others like it?


Sign up for the Spellirium Newsletter. The newsletter contains new screenshots and juicy game gossip that you won’t find anywhere else. Tuesday is Ladies’ Night.

20 thoughts on “Dear Lady Gamers: What Do You Want From Me?

  1. Daniel Steger

    I think this is a bit of a trick. The problem is just by asking someone a question of this nature will colour the response. No one wants to think of themselves as so predictable as to fall into a template for their entire gender, so they will be willing to be receptive of the idea of a different path. The question becomes are you confident enough in your abilities to be able to effectively go beyond the stereotypical paths that are used based on market research, and reach a level that’s still accessible to the audience.

    There’s also an idea of abstraction that I’ve been pondering over recently. Ask a person if they like a game, and they will usually respond fairly positively, because games are in general fun, and on top of that they may know your relation to it. But at the same time even if its a good game, they’ve already been forced into playing it by being ASKED to play and give an opinion. It may be good, but no more or less compelling than any other games they’ve played mindlessly out of randomly finding it online. So the idea comes up, what if you asked them if they would recommend the game to others? I think this is part of the sign of games that are undeniably good. Games that people were so moved by they feel compelled to share it with others, so that they have someone to share the experience of knowing about the game with. This is why things go viral, because people WANT to share them with others. It’s the difference between a story that will satiate their attention span, and one that will make them remember the story they are going through.

  2. Sasha B

    I don’t think I’m sold on the relevance of the “Bechdel Test”. I think it is an interesting framework to consider, but the most important part is #3 – where the focus is not about men. And by that I mean, not the obsession that drives the story. Usually female characters in entertainment media are presented as incomplete without men in their life. Weak princesses waiting for Prince Charming’s kiss which makes the world happily ever after. Not that women don’t like romance, but the days of accepting objectification are over. But if they are strong, smart, sexy women not running around in a bikini, who are able to stand for themselves, you still have the aspirational element that can be related to and respected by lady gamers, whether you chose to include romantic undertones or not.

    Maybe it’s me, but it isn’t that important to have to ensure the women interact with each other. I think its because I have seen so many badly scripted woman-to-woman interactions that feel awkward and unnatural. Women communicate. A lot. Even more with each other. What is important to know and understand is that women communicate with more than words – also with intonation, body language, etc. There is a reason why many creatures in the animal kingdom have mating dances – because women read that as part of the communication process. Male peacocks strut as they do because their lady critters read the body language as part of the crazy dance. So if you are going to make a game where the women are to talk to each other, you have to ensure the conversations are natural, body postures are relevant, etc.

    My random 2-cents.

      1. Sasha B

        beyond animation, its also in the dialogue writing and in the performance (if there is voice). this is why I encourage game designer/developers, if they have the financial resources to do so, to considering hiring professional story writers and professional voice actors for their games. game designers know how to design a fantastic experience. game developers know how to make it all work properly. but when it comes to a human authenticity, why not bring in the people who know that?

    1. C. Addy

      As a woman, I take offense to the generalities that women a) won’t like games set in the future, the games that have been just aren’t right, b) require fluffy sheep in order to make something acceptable, and c) the idea of anyone following Harlequin guidelines to make a game.

      Please note this is why some women might peg a guy’s understanding of women as unimaginatively harebrained or why your friend assumed you meant you game had romance.

    2. Ryan Henson Creighton

      Yeah – point taken about the future. But this isn’t a cyborgy techy future. It’s a future that looks like the past, because civilization’s been wiped out. But not in a Mad Max kind of way.

      It’s tough, because as soon as you say “post-apocalyptic” or “future”, people have preconceptions and biases. As soon as you say “word game”, same problem. Just as the plot of the game itself fights against convention, i have a hard road ahead changing people’s notions of the apocalypse and of word games.

  3. C. Addy

    I should admit two things up front. 1) I’m not your average woman and 2) I hate word games. Not that I hate the concept of word games, I’m just no good at them. Those two things aside, I’d say you are headed in the right direction.

    The words, story-driven, are music to my ears. Women really do respond to a good story, preferably something with a little depth and emotion. Let’s look at a couple of real world examples of that fact. I’ll assume you know of the TV series Firefly. When you think cowboys in space, you generally don’t think it’s something likely to attract a female audience. Yet when the creators first took the pilot to the networks, they found that the women were far more drawn to the series than the men. Why? Because they focused on story and character relations. Not to say you need to write a story like that, but it is quite a striking example. Also, take a look at the old Sierra games like King’s Quest. Puzzle/adventure games wrapped up with humor and a story that progressed with each game. I can’t name statistics of female to male players but consider the fact that the games were designed by a woman. Even made at such an early point in computer games, they still hold appeal to anyone who can look passed graphics.

    As far as those portal reps you spoke with, they need a serious wake-up call. Women may buy the crap they sell, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want more. They’re more likely to lose their female audience in the long run if they stick to that line of thinking.

    Lastly, the response that brought you to this mini-crisis, I think your friend was pulling your leg. Generally, when a guys say “chicks’ll dig it”, the chicks have to assume he means either that he wouldn’t like it, or that he has some unimaginatively harebrained idea of what women like. Just think about those portal reps again.

    One way or another, I wouldn’t worry. There are plenty of games out there that people that did quite well even though they were a shot away from the norm. If you never put it out there, how are you supposed to know? Besides, the game industry really needs more people who think outside the box. Cheers!

  4. Amanda

    I always get hooked on games that require problem-solving skills. I find that MEN are the ones who are more likely to use gaming as a way to zone out. I love words and language – boggle is my fave board game. And putting a plot to this style of game is great. The ladies love a plot (as opposed to gratuitous anything).

    1. David Barnes

      Mitchell — your most recent blog post. YES! The fun of adventures is seeing how the game responds when you do things wrong, or just silly things.

      Gradually discovering all the funny things the developer had put into the game was most of the fun. You could even say Lucasarts-style adventures were whole games composed entirely of Easter Eggs.

      Ladies — sorry.

  5. sab

    women are just as particular as men are – i mean what I like compared to another woman might be totally different – I like games/books/films set in the future – in fact this is one of my absolute favourite genres I do not like fluffy cute sheep (unless you’re talking about the real things in a field) i can’t stand FPS games they make me feel dizzy but I love RPGs in fact I’m rather enjoying Battle Hearts on me Ipad….so you’re never gonna please all women just as you wouldn’t all men – not sure why this is always overlooked?

  6. Chris Harshman

    Honestly, back when you first released that test page (a very early version), I showed it to the female side of my family and they all loved it, and that came from people who are scrabble and boogle champions, people who in boggle say when I play against them, even if I double my score and and take a 1/3 of theirs on top I still lose 90%, lol.

    I really think that there is a stark difference between the men sitting behind deciding what women would like and what they will actually like when you put the game in front of them.

    1. Chris Harshman

      I should add, I have been keeping them up to date as I can with anything that you post, and it has only increased they interest in the game.

      Small sample as it may be, they are very much your target demo.

  7. Nat

    I hate “chick games” and I don’t understand companies trying to figure out what female gamers want and catering to them – games are games and gamers are gamers – who cares what sex they are? And I’m sorry, but just because someone’s girlfriend plays “The Sims” that does not make her a “gamer”. Why try to make something you *think* that person will like if gaming isn’t a regular part of their life? How would you know that they would ever bother to play any other game based off the fact that they’ve played *one*? And I am REALLY tired of the stereotyped female gamer that only plays word or social games – my favourite game type has always been survival horror.

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      Why try to make something you *think* that person will like if gaming isn’t a regular part of their life?

      If you have something to sell, it’s in your best interest to sell it to as many people as humanly possible. In the 50’s, men bought cars, so car advertising was aimed at them. But as times changed, car companies needed to identify ways in which they could effectively sell cars to women, too. What sort of a car does a woman want to drive?

      Why try to make something you *think* that person will like if driving isn’t a regular part of their life? How would you know that they would ever bother to drive any other car based off the fact that they’ve driven *one*? And I am REALLY tired of the stereotyped female driver that only drives hatchbacks or scooters – my favourite car type has always been a Range Rover.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.