Her Interactive’s Nancy Drew Games Help Solve the Mystery of Girl Gamers

6/8/09

On a desk, two magnifying glasses lie atop a small stack of books bound in a style reminiscent of a stately Victorian library. In any other video game company’s office they might seem out of place, but Bellevue, WA-based Her Interactive makes video games based on the written adventures of girl detective Nancy Drew, whose adventures have been published since the 1930s. So magnifying glasses and old-fashioned books seem as appropriate as the computers on company president and CEO Megan Gaiser’s desk.

Her Interactive is one of the fastest-growing computer and video game companies you’ve never heard of. Its product line—nearly 30 games for three platforms (with five new releases this year), and 7 million units sold in 11 years—comes from making the most of an oft-ignored niche in video games: girls and women who want interesting games that don’t patronize them. It’s a sound strategy, judging from the 20 percent of the adventure-game genre market Her Interactive has captured, according to market research firm NPD. The company grew from 25 to 55 employees in 2008, aided by the 1.6 million games sold last year, and has been profitable since 2002. “Each new game outsells the last,” Gaiser says.

Her Interactive was originally a division of American Laser Games in Albuquerque, NM, and was the only part of that company to survive bankruptcy, relocating to Bellevue in 1997. Gaiser joined that year as creative director, before becoming CEO only a year later. Gaiser had first moved to Washington in 1994, after 11 years of film making, to work on multimedia projects at Microsoft.

At first, Her Interactive had trouble getting games into the market. In 1999, when Gaiser attempted to sell the first Nancy Drew computer game, publishers told her, “Girls will never play video games because they’re computer-phobic.” Unable to get a publisher to accept the game, Her Interactive took the difficult leap and published games on its own, distributing them through Amazon.com, which was relatively new but rapidly growing.

That first Nancy Drew title has sold 30,000 copies, and after a brief run with a professional publisher, Gaiser has published all of the company’s products in-house. “It was so absurd, so crazy, not to let the game be published because of the prejudice that girls don’t like video games,” Gaiser says.

Her Interactive now develops two games in its flagship Nancy Drew Adventure series every year, the last four of which were number one or two of the best-selling PC games in North America when released.  It also recently started a new Nancy Drew series for more casual game-playing, has adapted one of its recent adventure games for the Nintendo Wii, and is developing a Hardy Boys (allies and guest stars in several Nancy Drew games and books) Nintendo DS game.

Despite differing platforms and genres, Gaiser says she tries to make every game true to the nature and style of the original books. “I was a fan of Nancy Drew growing up. She’s a timeless role model and represents a lot of characteristics [girls] aspire to,” she says. For the games, this means that while the graphics have evolved and new features like mini-games have been added, the structure and style remain stable. “We try to preserve the integrity of the Nancy Drew brand,” she says.

Distribution methods for the games have progressed so that they can be downloaded straight to a computer either from the company’s website or other portals. This will be one way the next Nancy Drew game, Ransom of the Seven Ships, will be sold when it is released July 14th (see below right).
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To make sure it stays competitive, Her Interactive tests its games with an advisory board of 70 females ranging in age from 10 to 80, Gaiser says. Frequently, mothers buy a game for their daughters, try it for themselves, and enjoy it enough to share it with their own mothers. Gaiser has heard from grandmothers who say they connect with their granddaughters through the game because of their shared love of Nancy Drew. Not that the male market is ignored—between eight and ten percent of the company’s customers are boys.

Gaiser says she has continuing plans for the expansion of the company, both in developing new games and in distributing them overseas. French and Russian versions of some of the games already exist, and future games may also have a German translation. It seems that video game developers underestimate the female market for video games just as so many crooks and criminals took Nancy Drew’s sleuthing skills too lightly. “In the end, she always wins,” Gaiser says.

Eric Hal Schwartz was an intern in Xconomy's Seattle office. Follow @

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