CD-ROMs FOR THE PONYTAIL SET
Viva doesn't think she's as pretty as the other girls in school. Darnetta frets that mom likes her sister best. And Miko believes she has to hide how smart she is from her friends. They are among the characters populating the new Secret Paths in the Forest CD-ROM from Purple Moon, a Silicon Valley company producing software for preteen girls. The game's fictional characters are based on the personality profiles of actual 7- to 12-year-olds. They will be ''as real to girls as their best friends,'' says Brenda Laurel, Purple Moon's vice-president for design. ''This is a good game to build teamwork,'' notes Leigh Arnold, 12, one of several preteen girls who evaluated new girls' software titles for BUSINESS WEEK.
Purple Moon, along with such aptly named software developers as Girl Games, Girl Tech, and Her Interactive, is trying to quash the notion that only boys like computer games. They are rolling out a bevy of girl-friendly entries this fall, most in time for the Christmas rush. ''Girls love a good game as much as the next guy,'' says Robin Raskin, editor-in-chief of FamilyPC magazine and a mother of two daughters.
Indeed, while some computer games have enjoyed cross-gender sales--Oregon Trail from MECC, Carmen Sandiego and Myst from Broderbund, and SimCity from Maxis leap to mind--bloody shoot-'em-ups, car racing simulations, and sports offerings carry an unmistakable male edge. Not surprisingly, the male-dominated software industry has seemed clueless about how to attract girls. Purple Moon Chief Executive Nancy Deyo expects sales of girl-targeted CD-ROM games to amount to $60 million this year, only 3% of the total PC entertainment-software market.
The new gamemakers say designers have failed to grasp that boys and girls tend to play differently. Boys generally want to annihilate an enemy, rack up points, and graduate to the next level. But girls find the Dooms of the computer world boring. Janese Swanson, CEO of Girl Tech, a game developer that also publishes a fine Web site for girls (www.girltech.com), says that when girls play video games, they can more often name the characters, describe story lines, and correctly indicate the relationships between characters than boys can. What's more, girls tend to socialize while playing, while their brothers are too busy jousting with the machine. Some girls dislike having characters die, and they prefer more than one way to win. No wonder many young females lose interest in computers as they approach adolescence.
TALKING BACK. Mattel gave the girls' software business a boost in 1996 with the launch of the enormously successful Barbie CD-ROM series. Barbie Fashion Designer (ages 6 and up), which asks players to create wardrobes for the doll, alone sold more than 1 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling software products of any kind. ''What Mattel did with Fashion Designer was validate the market,'' says Roberta Furger, author of the upcoming Does Jane Compute? (Warner Books, $10.99). ''The differences between girls and boys carry over to software.''
Barbie isn't resting on her laurels. Mattel has her diving underwater in the forthcoming Adventures with Barbie Ocean Discovery CD-ROM, an animated 3-D game for girls 5 and up. Another new title, Barbie Magic Hair Styler CD-ROM, lets girls cut, curl, and grow Barbie's locks on the computer screen. The most compelling new product is the $90 Talk With Me Barbie Doll. It can be programmed to move the doll's lips, say its owner's name and birthday, and speak about various subjects on the child's mind (boys, makeup, shopping). It comes with a CD-ROM and a miniature computer that connects to a full-size PC. When a girl types in her name or a topic, the mini-PC beams the information to an infrared receiver in the doll's necklace and the doll begins talking.
HISTORY LESSON. Fresh on Barbie's coattails, a bevy of girl-targeted computer products will reach stores in coming weeks. Purple Moon's Secret Paths CD-ROM game lets players choose which of the characters they most identify with, then wander through a forest solving puzzles and searching for the secret stones that provide their onscreen pals with love, confidence, and creativity. Purple Moon, which was spun out of a research group funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, also plans to bring out an episodic CD-ROM adventure called Rockett's New School. The game features a strong-willed young photographer named Rockett Movado who is trying to fit in at Whistling Pines Jr. High. Rockett needs a pal in the worst way, but she stumbles after meeting a popular girl named Nicole, the snobby leader of an eighth-grade clique. Web surfers can also interact with such characters at the company's site (www.purple-moon.com).
Meanwhile, Learning Co. is launching a CD-ROM based on the popular American Girls Collection line of books and dolls from Pleasant Co., for 7- to 12-year-olds. Players cast one of the five American Girls characters, each representing an era in U.S. history, as the lead in a computerized play. Felicity, for instance, depicts the colonial America of 1774. Addy embodies the Civil War period of 1864. With the main character in place, you can add a period set, music, sound effects, props, and a supporting cast.
Several companies are taking advantage of other licensed properties. Cosmopolitan Virtual Makeover CD-ROM from SegaSoft and Hearst Magazines, targeted at 16-year-olds (on up to 45), lets you scan in a photo, then test a variety of hairstyles, hair colors, and lipsticks. For younger girls, Her Interactive is releasing titles based on the Vampire Diaries books, on top of an existing interactive movie title called McKenzie & Co. in which girls assume the role of characters who shop for prom dresses, date boys, and so on. Creative Wonders is going after the preschool and kindergarten crowds with edutainment programs featuring the French character Madeline. The company is reaching out to slightly older girls with the recently released Baby-Sitters Club software line, based on the Ann Martin books. The Baby-Sitters Club Clubhouse Activity Center, for example, lets you make greeting cards and posters, create an address book, and send electronic postcards over the Net.
In October, Girl Games in Austin, Tex., is coming out with a sequel to a game called Let's Talk About ME!, billed as the girls' interactive handbook to the 21st century, distributed by Davidson/Simon & Schuster. The original title let users click on answers to personality quizzes that are supposed to make them think about what it's like to be grown up. Example: ''I walk fast, talk fast, think fast, eat fast, oops, gotta run. Super slow people make me crazy.'' Girl Games has also designed Sabrina the Teenage Witch (also distributed by Davidson/Simon & Schuster), due out in 1998, and a title based on the Clueless television series (distributed by Mattel), scheduled to appear this fall.
TYPECAST? The focus on female-oriented titles is relatively recent, so there's lots of room for improvement. Critics contend that many of the games are primitive and move too slowly. Furger says she was not a fan of the McKenzie program from Her Interactive because of its overemphasis on clothes and guys and shopping. ''You don't want to see stereotypically girlie stuff,'' she says.
One thing that many males and females can surely agree on is that the software needs to be more intuitive and easier to use. ''There should be better instructions on what you have to do,'' complained 11-year-old BUSINESS WEEK tester Ariel Aaronson-Eves, while trying out Secret Paths. Tester Leigh Arnold thought that the icons used in The American Girls Premiere program were ''a little confusing.'' That kind of consumer input is strictly gender-neutral.
Edward C. Baig
Updated Sept. 18, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.