A friend of mine - and I hope you don't mind my using you as an example in a general-purpose essay - came over to my house last year to check out some of the newer video games that are on the market. New at the time, that is - the most recent one I'd purchased was Grand Theft Auto IV. She expressed a lot of interest in seeing the games and was surprised that GTA wasn't the anti-woman hooker-killing simulator that it's advertised as on the mainstream news.
My friend is a woman in her 50s, but an avid sci-fi fan who loves role playing games of the tabletop variety. She showed a lot of interest in Portal and in Mass Effect. I bought her Mass Effect for her birthday, but as far as I know she's still too intimidated to play much of it, despite the story and the setting being right up her alley and the fascinating world it creates.
She plays a lot - like a religious amount - of Plants Versus Zombies.
She would play Mass Effect, I imagine, but there is a problem, and the problem with Mass Effect for people like my friend is you gotta do a lot of shooting at dudes.
People think that women have a problem with violence in games. Or that they don't mind violence but hate "pointless violence." I submit that this may be true for some women but is much less true than you might assume. There is a certain category of women - my friend among them - for whom the shooting at dudes isn't so much offensive as it is frustrating and repetetive, not to mention "sorta hard." And, when you play these games, the dudes shoot back, and you die like 18 times, because you just aren't very good at the part of the game that's the shooting of the dudes.
Then you put in Plants Versus Zombies.
I was reminded of this again recently watching another friend try and fail to play Alpha Protocol. We had assured him that SIE was really cool and there was a part where you could banter with her and that was pretty fun. But he didn't manage to get through Saudi because of all the frustrating shooting-at-dudes parts of the game.
It would be great if there was a game exactly like Mass Effect or Alpha Protocol in the sense that you got to take a director's stance on telling an interesting story in a compelling genre by choosing dialogue options, but it didn't have any shooting-at-dudes parts. I think this would appeal to casual gamers who are interested in story by offering a compelling and interactive story that you can affect, and would not need to have a lot of shooting segments to make it a proper game.
There are some genre experiments in this sense. A big one is Heavy Rain. I'd play this if I had a PS3, but, as of now I don't, so when it came out I just read all the spoilers. As a game experience, I think it's sort of close to what I'm talking about, and it's great in the abstract that it made money, because it shows that this kind of big-budget genre experimentation can in fact be worthwhile. On the other hand, the game experience I'm talking about would be a little more interactive than Heavy Rain was, since that game, without discussing the spoilers too much myself, seemed pretty linear in a story sense. Plus not everyone wants a bleak story about a serial killer; some people want a fun story about heroics with all the highs and lows that that implies (instead of just lows stacked on more lows).
Dragon Age is also on my to-buy list, but as I understand the game it just replaces the "shooting at dudes" problem with the "swording or throwing magic at dudes" problem. It's not really just "shooting" but having to have fast reflexes and having to "try and die" a lot to get to the next story beat that is the problem here.
JRPGs, I think, used to fill this niche. I know when I was young I couldn't beat a lot of the NES games my friends were playing. But I was good at basically all the games made by Squaresoft during the SNES era because they were menu-driven combat that didn't require really fast reflexes. And if for some reason I wasn't doing well at the menu combat I could pretty easily just back up, go level a bit, and try again. I feel this may be missing from current games. For one, a lot of the American RPGs for all their advances in story and action, don't really allow a "grind and try again" sort of approach. Either they have the innovation of enemies that level up with you (a la Oblivion), making leveling meaningless, or they have a leveling system gated by accomplishing story beats instead of allowing you to substitute time for skill in order to tackle a new challenge. The Japanese RPGs, meanwhile, have evolved in to having confusing and nigh-impenetrable combat systems that you need to play the game ten hours just to understand, while the story concepts haven't really evolved. There are a few good ones out there - many of my friends who are interested in JRPGs are gravitating to the Persona series which has a fairly classic approach to combat and dungeon-crawling on top of some unique stories. The World Ends With You had a great story, but I can't reccommend it to a causal player without reservations because that combat system is pretty nutty. If a casual player had a DS and wanted RPG reccommendations, I would give them the same ones I would give fifteen years ago: Final Fantasy IV and Chrono Trigger. Apparently Obsidian would reccommend Chrono Trigger as well.
I think people might play Mass Effect - might even like it better -without the shooting segments. I know of at least one person who would. And I know I'd play Chrono Trigger again today if it were offered to me, as long as, you know, there weren't a lot of sloppy tacked-on shooting segments.
(In fact I'm imagining it now. Lucca's Dark Future, the grim and gritty FPS-RPG. With your trusty upgradable pop-gun and fire-from-the-hands. Can you survive the world after Lavos? ...OK, I'm joking around but also forced to confess that this sounds like an FPS with a female nerd as the protagonist and for that reason alone I would play the shit out of this game.)
While I'm posting, I'll mention that my currently-playing title is now the new Transformers title, on the 360, since I'm a huge fan of the franchise. That is, I'm "currently" playing it as soon as I can set aside time to do so. I've also picked up the indy title Breath of Death (VII) since I'm such an SNES-era RPG sort of fan and figure it should appeal to me. I haven't exactly given up on Deadly Premonition, but was borrowing the game and came to discover that it's a lot deeper than I originally realized, so if I decide to tackle it again it will warrant a purchase.