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I’ve recently dug up an article that was in the New York Times in 2007 in that John Smedley talked about SOEs new corporate strategy.
2007 was an important year for SOE because back then Smedley decided to give SOE a whole different direction and as I see it, they went on with it since then. Back then Free Realms was their new upcoming title.
The point I find interesting is the new target audience they are aiming for and the measures they took to appeal to it.:
At the same time, Mr. Smedley said he wanted to diversify his customer base, which is 85 percent male and 32 years old, on average. Women have become the major driver of the casual games business (games like Bejeweled and Bookworm), and Mr. Smedley wants a piece of that action.
“We want to get our average age lower, probably into the low 20s, and I’d really like to see the gender breakdown go to 50-50 or even slightly more women than men, to reflect real life,” he said.
To reach out to girls, Mr. Smedley realized he had to hire more women. The creative director and art director on the game are now women.
“I just can’t explain to a 30-year-old single male why 10-year-old girls like horses,” he said. “We were trying to figure out what pets to put into Free Realms and before, the lead designer was a guy and he definitely wanted things that could fight. And when we got more women on the team, it was like ‘No, no, no. We need puppies and horses in there.’ ”
I think Smedley makes it very clear that SOE is not interested in the hardcore crowd anymore. At the moment we don’t know what EQN is going to be like, but it leaves me asking: How much Free Realms will there be in EQN?
SOEs strategy sheds light on the question why they chose that specific cartoony art style for EQN. If teenage girls are their target audience now, it only makes sense to make the art style look kind of girly.
I know I’m walking into a minefield here. I’m well aware that women like all sorts of things, but I do think that this art style is an attempt to appeal to female players. And I think it is no coincidence they brought over a good portion of the art team from Free Realms to EQN.
It is true, female players are a growing demographic and they are very important to build a good community, because most women are socializers. I was playing a MMO with my girlfriend for several years and I was amazed how she was holding together the whole guild pretty much single-handedly.
Nevertheless, I believe trying to market a game to female players by making it cute and casual is actually an insult to women. This is the route that leads to Hello Kitty online. Somehow this sounds to me as if the owner of a football club would say: “We noticed that the majority of our fans are male and we will address this by painting the whole stadium pink."
It is alarming that Smedley somehow thinks MMOs could appeal to people that exclusively play games like Bejeweled. I see that 2007 where the hey days of Facebook gaming and Zyngas stock value was going through the roof, but if the Farmville crowd doesn’t want to play your game you can’t address this by making it more like Farmville.
I’m worried that SOE is falling into a very common trap here, many companies fell for before. Some bigwig at Sony noticed that SOEs customer base was growing older and that they weren’t growing in a new emerging market. This made them panic and they wanted to realign the company immediately by switching all their affords towards a new demographic, abandoning their brand essence and completely ignoring their very loyal existing customers. They thought that they could acquire a whole new customer base just like that, completely ignoring that it took them years to acquire the one they have. In some cases this might work, but more often then not the new demographic will not really bite into it or turn out to be much more fickle then the old one. So in the end this strategy will often turn out to be a failure, especially in a business that requires long term investments like the MMO genre.
I don’t even see how it is a bad thing that the average player is 32. This only means that they are reaching players of all ages.