By  on January 12, 2010

Get ready for Michael Kors and Heidi Klum, video game heroes.

They don’t carry Uzis, kill monsters or zoom along city streets in souped-up hot rods. Their game focuses on something that can be more dangerous and filled with intrigue:fashion.

Kors and Klum are figures at the cutting-edge of an emerging effort to tap into what is seen as a major new frontier for the $20 billion, testosterone-driven U.S. video game industry: 18- to 25-year-old women.

Games based on Lifetime’s “Project Runway,” featuring Kors, Klum and Tim Gunn, and on IMG-produced fashion week events will go stiletto-to-stiletto this year.

The products are being introduced as the male-dominated industry — double the size of the U.S. music business — has awakened to the power of the female consumer, including the possibility for brand marketing if women can be convinced that video games are credit card-worthy. Analysts said Nintendo’s Wii and portable DS consoles, and online sites, have shown women respond to video games if they are reasonably easy to understand and free of gore.

Although some fitness, music and puzzle games have been gender crossovers, as well as commercial hits, it is unclear whether fashion-themed games can score big financial returns.

A key test is near. Interactive game producer Atari Inc. has signed a licensing agreement with The Weinstein Company for a series of games based on that firm’s “Project Runway” series that are being developed by Tulsa-based Tornado Studios for the Wii.

The partners believe they have a formula to attract tween, teen and young adult female consumers. The initial “Project Runway” game, set to launch March 2, leverages the television program, incorporates its stars and engages gamers with familiar challenges to create winning designs and beautify models with hair, makeup and accessories.

“I don’t want to get in the business of comparing it with a ‘Grand Theft Auto’ or ‘Madden’ [among the most successful video games], but it is such a powerful brand….We are going to set the bar for fashion gaming sales,” said Jonathan Anastas, vice president-head of marketing at Atari.

Development of the fashion week-inspired video game is in the conceptual stage. Peter Levy, senior vice president and managing director of IMG Fashion, organizer of New York’s Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, said makeup artist Pat McGrath and partner Noel Gordon approached IMG more than a year ago with an idea for a game. IMG teamed with them, and video game publisher 505 Games signed on to help formulate the proposal.

“A game is almost not what it is,” said Levy, who confirmed the product is to come out this year, but didn’t pinpoint a date. “What we are doing isn’t somebody wins and somebody loses. It is more of a simulation. We are trying to do something that isn’t just a commodity, but that is very relevant and embedded in real personalities.”

The 505 Games company has seen first-hand the resonance of fashion in video gaming. It produced “Fashion Week: Junior Stylist,” which was released in June and aimed at eight- to 12-year-old girls who are DS users. The game enables them to take on the role of a fashion designer and make clothing and accessories.

“The intersection of fashion and women and gaming is continuing to grow,” said Jeremy Barnett, 505 Games vice president of marketing and business development. With the fashion week product, “We think we can bring a game that provides the experience of fashion in an interactive environment….It brings us to a more sophisticated level of game play.”

The maturation of fashion-themed video games could put them on the radar in a market in which they’ve been a blip. A search of video games with the words “style,” “fashion” and “runway” on VGChartz, a Web site that compiles data on video game sales, reveals the Ubisoft game “Imagine: Fashion Designer” for the DS has tallied the most unit sales for the genre with 2.7 million globally since its release in October 2007. Nintendo’s “Style Savvy” for the DS, which hit Japan in October 2008 and the U.S. market in November 2009, is runner-up with 1.45 million units in worldwide sales.

Those numbers are modest compared with “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2,” the video game industry’s biggest launch, which sold more than six million units last November alone, its first month on the market, according to research firm The NPD Group. Other top video games in November also had a male orientation: “Assassin’s Creed II” sold almost 1.25 million units, “Left 4 Dead 2” tallied 744,000, and “Dragon’s Age: Origins,” 362,100.

Male gamers are the most potent force in the business. But the presence of Wii titles — Wii Sports is considered the most widely disseminated game with almost 58 million units sold since late 2006 by VGChartz’s latest count — is evidence that much of the recent growth of the game industry has been spurred by Nintendo’s drive to get families into the mix.

Launched in 2008, Nintendo’s pivotal innovation was the Wii Remote fostering freedom of movement — it can be swung like a tennis racket or golf club — without the complicated button controls that can turn off novice gamers. Nintendo also lured female gamers with a pink version of its hand-held DS device, starting in 2007, and a DS ad campaign with Carrie Underwood and America Ferrera.

Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime estimated at a recent industry conference that Nintendo captured nine million of the 11 million primary female console players in the Americas, a figure that doesn’t factor in females who are secondary to their brothers’, sons’, boyfriends’ and husbands’ video gaming. In total, the Entertainment Software Association estimated females constituted 40 percent of all video and computer game players in 2008, and 48 percent of all game purchasers.

“What the Nintendo Wii has done has opened up the door to bringing video console games to the female demographic far more so than any one of the other consoles have done prior to the Wii,” said Edward Williams, a senior research analyst at BMO Capital Markets covering interactive entertainment and leisure. “There is still a lot more work that can be done in creating games that engage the female demographic.…The market still is really more about potential.”

Although efforts to woo female consumers are in their infancy, NPD Group data shows the number of game titles geared to girls jumped to 223 for the first nine months of 2009 from 111 in the same period of 2008.

Video game producers and publishers Ubisoft and Electronic Arts, known as EA, have been pioneers in console games for girls, including those with fashion and style angles.

EA’s Play Label has games for girls under the Charm Girls Club and Littlest Pet Shop franchises such as “Charm Girls Club: My Fashion Mall” and “Littlest Pet Shop: City Friends” that allow girls to customize charms, accessorize pets and interact with other players. The demographic sweet spot for these games is girls aged seven to nine, said Jeanene Steinberg, a senior product manager at EA.

Ubisoft has been particularly active on the fashion and style front. Its “Imagine: Fashion Designer,” which was released in 2007 and simulates the life of a designer from photo shoots to crafting apparel lines, is considered the first console game in the fashion space.

Ubisoft has built its “Imagine” series, reported to have sold more than 11 million units worldwide and to be the number-one brand for games targeting girls 6 to 12 years old, with games such as “Imagine: Fashion Designer World Tour” for the DS, “Imagine: Wedding Designer” for the DS and “Imagine: Fashion Party” for the Wii. In 2009, Ubisoft added to its fashion and style portfolio for girls with “Style Lab: Jewelry Design” and “Style Lab: Makeover,” which let players design their own jewelry and experiment with hair and makeup, respectively.

“Things that women and girls especially like are games that center on creativity, a little bit of customization and socialization,” said Ann Hamilton, Ubisoft’s senior brand manager for the Imagine and Style Lab brands. “Girls like designing and building things, and boys like blowing up things.”

Although video game-specific retailers such as GameStop were initially skeptical of Ubisoft’s products for girls, Hamilton said, “They are finding that this is a big draw.”

There are wide distribution avenues — mass market retailers including Target and Wal-Mart — for games intended for girls. And there are some retailers — those with a young customer base like Toys ‘R’ Us and Claire’s, which began a promotional campaign with “Style Savvy” last August — that might be less willing to get behind a violent, male-themed game.

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