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

This story first appeared in the January 12, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

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.

Older women haven’t been ignored. As they reach their late 20s, 30s and beyond, women appear to enjoy working out, in both body and mind, using video games. Puzzles, card games and brain teasers like “Brain Age for the DS,” and “Solitaire,” “Mahjong,” “Diner Dash,” “Bejeweled” and “Tetris” online can be addictive. On the Wii system, fitness games are an evolution of the workout video. For example, players of “The Biggest Loser” game by publisher THQ Inc. for the Wii and DS, can input their weight and target weight loss, and monitor their progress as they undergo a tailored fitness plan.

“The Wii…changed the whole demographic of who buys games,” said “The Biggest Loser” game producer David Sapienza, explaining the broad response to the product, which has sold some 390,000 units since its October launch, according to VGChartz. The game itself, he said, “is interactive and giving you feedback on what you are doing….People want more activity out of their video games so they are not sitting down and being couch potatoes.”

Young women who are juniors and seniors in high school, attending college and in their early professional years represent a gap in the video game market. The reasons for their absence are difficult to pin down. People who are 18 to 26 years old “start to identify social schisms between men and women.…There is a tendency to associate video games with men as a manchild,” said Leigh Alexander, news director at video game publication Gamasutra, who has explored gender and gaming issues.

Women in that age group may become sensitive to the depictions of females in many video games as hookers, babes and scantily clad eye candy. “The role or characterization of women characters in-game often reinforces the notion of women as the object of male gaze,” said Walt Scacchi, director of research at University of California, Irvine’s Center for Computer Games and Virtual Worlds.

It could simply be that the paucity of young women gamers is the result of a dearth of games that appeal to them. If so, intelligent games based on established fashion properties could pull them in.

Referring to the ‘‘Project Runway” game, DeeDee Gordon, a trend analyst with the Los Angeles firm The Gordon Unlimited, said, “I could see something like that working, for sure. ‘Project Runway’ is a great brand. It feels really approachable.”

As the video game market expands — research firm IBISWorld projects it to rank sixth among industries with the best revenue growth in the next decade — experts predict the young adult female video game gap could close soon. “I am convinced that young girls today will be playing video games for years to come,” said Williams of BMO Capital Markets. “I am not as certain that my wife will play video games any time soon.”

Certainly, as females play more frequently, have more games tailored for them, and get socialized into video gaming as children, there is a chance for games such as those related to fashion week and “Project Runway” to find responsive customers. “We all recognized that to grow this market, we need to incorporate and create games that appeal to women,” said Katie Cray, manager of entertainment and trend marketing for Nintendo. “There is a certainly an opportunity to create fashion and style games that are compelling.”

Nintendo launched the DS game “Style Savvy” in November, putting players in the role of a fashion boutique owner, and has been drawing positive reviews from females up to age 35, Cray said.

As these games multiply, openings for brands to market themselves to women via video games will mount. The fashion week and “Project Runway” games will contain messaging underwritten by advertisers typically affiliated with IMG’s productions and the television series. “I would believe that this is something that they will very seriously consider,” IMG’s Levy said.

The relationship between fashion and beauty firms and the video game industry is strengthening. Video game company THQ worked with Cover Girl on “All Star Cheer Squad” to integrate Cover Girl’s branding on stage logos, banners and billboards in the game. Stardoll, a seven-year-old online entertainment destination for girls aged nine to 17 with at least 36 million members, has lured fashion and beauty retailers and labels to have a virtual presence, including Philosophy di Alberta Ferretti, Baby Phat, Sephora, DKNY and Vivienne Tam.

H&M entered the video game world in 2007 with “The Sims 2: H&M Fashion Stuff,” an add-on to the computer life simulation game “The Sims 2,” enabling players to outfit their digital equivalents in H&M items. Nintendo’s “Style Savvy” game contained digital versions of designer Charlotte Ronson’s fall 2009 collection. Microsoft’s Xbox hooked up with brands such as Roxy, Quiksilver, Skullcandy and tokidoki to offer virtual merchandise in an Avatar Marketplace to clothe their avatars. Clothes for Roxy and Quiksilver cost from seven to 30 Microsoft points, which ranges from 50 cents to $2 in real money.

“It was experimental, for sure,” Greg Perlot, executive vice president of marketing at Quiksilver Inc., owner of the Quiksilver and Roxy brands, said of presenting merchandise starting in the fall from Quiksilver’s current collection in digital form for the Avatar Marketplace. “It is a different context and a new place to reach our audience, which is the 13- to 24-year-old guy on the Quiksilver side and the same age on the Roxy side….It is a way to show off the product line more. It is also a way to get product feedback. It allows us to see what is purchased.”

A probable next step in Quiksilver’s relationship with the Xbox is a connection with retail. “Style Lab: Jewelry Design” permits players designing jewelry pieces in the game to order them from retailer Artbeads.com.

IMG Fashion’s Levy said the fashion week game would derive revenue from outside the game, but exactly how that is going to take place is being determined. “If there is a new eyeliner that is launched as part of the game and company X is a sponsor, commerce is such that it should be seamless whether it is directed it to their own site or a retailer site,” he said.

The choices of video game advertising methods and the reach of video games to women will swell not only because of the fashion week and “Project Runway” games. Microsoft Xbox’s Project Natal and Sony’s PS3 motion controller, both anticipated in 2010, may help break the remaining barriers to female participation. Like the Wii Remote, these devices lack the maze of buttons in most console controllers. If they are as user-friendly as touted, they may turn video game consoles into general entertainment centers through which at-home users do everything from watch movies to share information with peers to play games.

“Project Natal won’t just work with games,” said Xbox spokeswoman Heather Snavely. “It is going to really change the way you interact with your entertainment and that is something that doesn’t have any boundaries.”