When most people think of gamers they think of the teenage kid sitting in their living room playing a game on a console or squired away in their room fighting digital foes on their computer. The real truth is that statistically speaking the average gamer is more likely to be a middle-aged woman than a teenage. I recently got the chance to talk to Jessica Rovello, the chairman and Co-Founder of Arkadium about their new website that caters to female casual gamers.
GamingNexus: Can you tell me a little about your company and it’s history?
We started the company about five years ago in 2001. We originally started as a skill based gaming website so we allowed people to play skill based games. I don’t know if you are familiar with that space or not but companies like World Winner, King.com, and SkillJam that basically allow people to compete for prizes in tournaments. We originally thought that was going to be the next wave of gaming’s future and then quickly realized that people weren’t as interested in playing for prizes or money as they were interested in playing for free and using gaming as a way to get their minds off of their everyday stresses.
In the last couple of years the company has evolved. We have three divisions in our business. One is the Agency Division which provides advergamers to both agencies and large brands directly. For instance we recently did a game for Dunkin Donuts and that just allowed people to keep visitors to their website by offering sticky content in the form of games. Also it allows them to introduce new products to the market through casual gaming. I would say 90% of what we do is strictly in the casual space.
We also have a division that deals with casino type games. For the most part we deal with offline casinos with games like that. We have a poker platform, backgammon, and things along those lines.
Then we have the division of our company that offers destination websites and consumer products. We have a destination Casual game website that is aimed at women gamers who are 35 years plus and it’s called GreatDayGames.com.
GamingNexus: How did you get into the gaming business?
The truthful answer is that my husband and I founded the company together. We were working at a dot com and it was going through a rough phase around 1999-2000 and we had grown up in arcades and loved play games. We had kind of gotten away from games as we had become adults because we didn’t really understand the systems as much for the core games and we didn’t have them but we were gaming and starting to play games online. We were always bouncing ideas off each other on interesting companies and whether we should start one or not. We finally said “Why don’t we take a shot at this while we are still young and before we have a family and see if we can make a go of it.” So we decided to start a games company. It just kind of happened like that. There was one incident that kind of made it come to fruition. One night we were talking about how we had spent a lot of time in the arcade growing up and I told him that I was a much better Ms. Pacman player than he was. We had never played against each other and he kind of challenged me and we went home that night to try and find a site where we could play a game like that or a similar game and compete against each other and we couldn’t. So we said “Hey, maybe this is an interesting idea for a games company”.
GamingNexus: Obviously GreatDayGames is going to compete with the other casual game sites out there, how do you differentiate yourself from everyone else?
There are a couple of ways. Number one, we target squarely the core casual gamer. The core casual gamer being primarily women 35 years or older. We do that in a couple of ways. One is through site design which I think is friendly to that demographic.
Number two is through the types of games we offer. We really pay attention to what the core casual gamer is looking for in terms of play. Study after study shows that the categories they prefer are puzzle, strategy, word type games, and slot type games. So the majority of the games you’re going to see on our site will fit into one of those categories. We don’t really have a huge amount of arcade games or shoot ‘em up games, it is mostly puzzle and strategy games. Whereas if you are looking at sites like Yahoo, MSN Zone, or Pogo they are really covering the entire market and focusing on a broad spectrum of games that are out there. So that’s one way.
Another way is that we know community is important to our users. So we’re building up a community of casual gamers through forums, leader boards, and a trophy and reward system that our users are really, really into. We offer badges if you will but they are trophies for now only how well you do in a game score wise but how much time you’ve spent playing that game. We have users who may not be the best Mahjongg player in the world but they love to grind it out for ten hours and they are going to get rewarded for that.
We also have a rewards system, kind of like a frequent flier miles program but for gaming which is called “Treats”. This also goes back to the demographic and what they are interested in. The longer you play and the higher score you get the more Treats you earn. Then you can cash in those Treats for entries into sweepstakes. Our sweepstakes also target the demo. Instead of offering 50” flat panel plasma TVs we’re offering Godiva Chocolates and Bed, Bath, Beyond gift cards, and Walmart gift cards and things that the people who play our games tell us they want.
GamingNexus: Where do you see the line between casual games and hard core games?
For the most part our games, and I’m going to generalize here but I think this is how a lot of people in the industry define it, are gamers that you can learn in under 30 seconds. So you don’t really have to spend a night reading a manual, you don’t need to learn cheat codes, and they are very simple to learn. In a lot of cases, with the strategy and the puzzle games they take a long time to master but you don’t need to take a thesis course to figure out the game play. I think a lot of people who older are a little bit intimidated by what’s considered the core market right now in terms of the learning curve they have to go through to just to be able to engage the game they are playing.
GamingNexus: Do you see the market changing at all as the average of gamers gets old. Do you see the age of your demographic shifting up or staying the same?
I think it is going to shift up. I think there are tons of core gamers now who are eventually going to make up the bulk of gamers in the future and they will shift up the casual gamer to maybe even a little bit older than they are right now. You’re definitely going to have forty and fifty year olds who in ten years who are still playing their PS3 or Xbox 360 or whatever the equivalent is going to be ten years from now. We see the service we are providing in the market we are providing it to as being very, very big and very, very strong. We don’t see it going anywhere and it’s interesting because a lot of people who define themselves as gamers are just the people who have a game system in their house or play World of Warcraft or who play what we consider to be more core games. But if you go into any office and you look behind the majority of women’s desks, you’ll see Solitaire half the time. Those women are playing upward of sixteen to twenty hours per week so for us that’s pretty hard core, even though they are playing casual games. The amount of time they are spending is a lot.
GamingNexus: Is there any kind of conversion from your audience to the core audience or does it pretty much end with the casual games. For example, do you see people who started playing Mahjongg and have migrated over to World of Warcraft?
That’s difficult for us to track because we aren’t offering the more hardcore games so we can’t see how that progression would take place. I think it’s there and I think it is evidenced by what you are seeing now in Xbox Live Arcade. That there are people who have game systems in their house now who are women that have sons who are playing on the Xbox and when they realize they can get games like Bejeweled and play them on the Xbox then they are already getting one step of the way there before moving on to games that are a little more serious and a little more hardcore.
GamingNexus: You talked about designing for women, do you specifically design a game for women or do you look for a great game that you think women will enjoy?
I think that we look for great games that women will enjoy. It is difficult to talk about this because I believe in what we do and I believe what we do appeals to women specifically but at the same time I feel that what we do really more broadly appeals to the casual gamer as opposed to a woman casual gamer. I see people in our industry who look to make games that they are “Targeting to Women” and a lot of times those games have cartoony characters or they have ponies. They have things that might appeal to an 8 year old girl but they are not appealing to a 35 year old woman. So I think what we are trying to do is appeal the core casual gamer in our design. So it’s light and it’s airy and it’s fun because what the casual gamer is looking to do is de-stress, have a good time, and forget about everything else that is going on around them.
GamingNexus: Do you have any thoughts on the Nintendo Wii and what they are trying to do with the system?
I think it’s really interesting. I don’t have a Wii yet but I do have a DS and I use it a lot. I think that it’s a great step forward in terms of the industry and how they are looking to target different gamers that those who are playing the Xbox 360 and PS3. It’s kind of a new generation of gamers and a new segment of gamers to get them interested in video gaming whereas they might not of in the past.
GamingNexus: What games are you playing now?
Hmm, gaming is my job so a lot of the games that I play every single day are the games that we have on our site. So I mostly play causal games, so the games we’re putting out on our site which are free online games like slot games, puzzle games, and word games. I play a lot of games like backgammon and I play all of the new casual games that hit the market that are in the downloaded space which we also offer on our site. Games like Travelog 360 Paris, Diner Dash 3, Slingo Quest, Mystery Case Files, and anything else that is in the casual game space right now.
GamingNexus: Do you have a favorite game of all time?
Definitely, Ms Pacman. As old school as that is I could play it all day, every day.
GamingNexus: Ssafe to assume that all of your games are ad-supported then?
Yes, on GreatDayGames it is an ad supported model. We are going to look to expand potentially into some subscription in 2007 for ad free games because our community has been asking for it. Poker seems to be doing a good job with that.
GamingNexus: Where do you see the site a year from now?
Where we see it going is into casual games to the next level in terms of community and customization. Allowing users to not only benefit from playing our games but giving them the tools to create games of their own and then market them to the community and get other players on our site to play them. So not so much as you’ll have to be a programmer and you’ll have to create a game and submit it to us but more games we can create and offer to the user with an interface that allows them to customize it and make it unique to them.
GamingNexus: Most of your games are single player experiences then?
Yes, right now they are single player. We will also probably be adding multiplayer games in 2007. Right now our community walks a fine line in terms of knowing that other people are on the site and knowing that you are competing against them, being able to personalize the level of competition you have. You can personalize your leader boards so that you can only see your friends as opposed to everybody on the site. We have a list of people who are currently online so you can see what’s going on and there are people talking in the forums.
However we don’t have live chat right now and we don’t for a reason. That is because from what we’ve heard from users from our past experiences, especially with the demographic that we are targeting, people like knowing that they are part of a larger experience but they still have a certain trepidation about having strangers talk to them and not wanting to feel like they have to engage in conversation with them, and not feeling like someone is going to try to pick them up like they were on Myspace or something along those lines.
GamingNexus: You recently released some interesting statistics about the casual gaming audience, are 58% of the casual gamers really women?
I think that’s pretty much in line with a lot of the market research that has come out in the last couple of years. Maybe two or three years ago it was a real shock to people that the majority of the people playing online games were mature women, because everyone just assumed it was teenage boys. Our stats are really inline with what is going on with the free online casual industry as a whole.
GamingNexus: What percentage of all gamers is the casual gaming market?
I don’t know that off the top of my head. I know that it’s something like 350 million people consider themselves to be “gamers”. While I don’t have an exact number I know that it’s a fairly large percentage.
We’d like to thanks Jessica for taking the time to answer our questions.