Margaret Wallace, CEO of video game developer Skunk Studios, represents the kinder, gentler face of her industry. With her vivid dyed-red hair and hip wardrobe, Wallace looks anything but the typical corporate executive. That's no accident. Skunk's four male co-founders put her in charge partly because Wallace, 39, embodied the demographic they were trying to reach. The company's so-called casual games, with their simple graphics and short learning curves, are more akin to early Pac-Man than to violent, complex shoot-'em-ups. "For so long, developers and designers focused only on one segment of players," says Wallace. "It's as if Hollywood only made action movies. It's fun to make video games for the rest of us."
While Grand Theft Auto and other celebrations of bad behavior make headlines, Skunk's 15 employees turn out titles based on pastimes such as tennis and mah-jongg. Skunk's most popular title is Gutterball 2, a cartoony bowling game with alleys set in the Arctic and in jungles. It has been downloaded 128,000 times from the Skunk site alone. In September gaming news site Next Generation listed Wallace as one of the most influential women in video games, proof that the $10.5 billion industry has taken notice of the $2 million company. "Having a woman in charge can help make sure there's a more diverse group of people making games for newer audiences," says Eric Zimmerman, CEO of gameLab, another casual-game developer.
Casual titles are distributed online, so they can be less risky to develop than games for consoles such as the Xbox. Production typically takes from six months to a year and costs only about $200,000. Best, says Wallace, "There's more room for innovation."
Wallace isn't new to casual games. In the late 1990s, as a digital designer, she worked with artists Jason Calderone and Thomas Estess and programmers Kalle Wik and Joseph Walters at Shockwave.com, an online game developer. The quintet shared a vision of writing games for families. They got their chance in 1999, when all were laid off and founded Skunk.
The company has made good on its goal of reaching a different demographic. Some 60% to 70% of players of Skunk's games are women in their 30s and 40s. Skunk is in an industry sweet spot: The average age of frequent purchasers of computer games is 40, and female gamers over 18 far outnumber male gamers under 17, according to the Entertainment Software Assn.
Hanging on to that turf has required some savvy moves. One of the first small, independent casual-game makers, Skunk now competes with both industry giants—Electronic Arts, Microsoft, Yahoo—and independents such as PopCap Games and Sandlot Games. To boost visibility, Skunk partnered with RealNetworks in 2004, allowing it to offer casual games from other developers on its site. Downloads from Skunk's Web site have since jumped 565%.
Then there's the challenge of protecting intellectual property, a formidable task in an industry where competitors often rip off characters or riff on a popular concept, such as Skunk's Arctic bowling. Wallace starts with a simple e-mail. If that doesn't work, she calls the offender. "I try to reach out warmly," she says, "because these game developers might one day be colleagues." If all else fails, it's time for a cease-and-desist letter. Even the kinder face of video games sometimes needs to play hardball.
By Reena Jana