“Because Money, That’s Why”

Last week I wrote about my disappointment over the initial Wildstar character options and their overuse of broad-chested guys and big-chested ladies (and ladybots). Someone suggested to me via Twitter that the reason we constantly see “hot chicks and cool dudes” as character models is that they’re the most economically successful choices. We, the gaming public, like to be sexy and cool in our video games.

No slight to the fellow on Twitter, but man, as a whole I’m starting to make a face whenever a current game development habit is defended purely for being the profitable option.

First, that response neatly removes all responsibility from the marketplace and places it all on the player. If we’re overwhelmingly offered the option to play generically sexy humanoids, to use an example from the Wildstar post, is it really surprising that people overwhelmingly play generically sexy humanoids? And what about marketing? Player preferences certainly seem less organic and democratic when you consider that close to a billion dollars* is spent each year by the game industry in the hopes of influencing our playtime decisions.

In fact, while games featuring only male protagonists sell 25% better than games with both male and female character options, on average the latter game will get a smaller marketing budget. Apparently having a female protagonist in an action game is “tough to justify”, but is this the will of the people, or a self-fufilling prophecy?

I also have concerns about money being a grand arbiter of game development and publishing because it seems like a slippery slope that historically we are not good at avoiding. Bioshock Infinite is downplaying both the character of Elizabeth and its unique retro steampunk vibe in its advertising to appeal more to the “frat boys” because that’s where the big money is apparently, and while on its surface that might not seem so bad it also seems to set a boundless precident.

When the driving question is “what will appeal to a larger market”, the answer can almost never end. What if the Bioshock Infinite folks took out a bit of story in the middle and put in another shooting level? What if they put Elizabeth in a bikini on the front cover? No wait, what if they got rid of Elizabeth completely and instead gave lead character Booker a posse of wise-cracking white dudes with big guns? Hey, the market gets what it wants, baby!

And exactly how small does a gamer market segment have to be to not earn the attention of developers and publishers, anyway? Perhaps generically pretty character models do statistically attract the most players, but at the same time approximately 32% of Guild Wars 2 characters are the tiny dog-faced Asura or weird giant cat Charr. Shortly after it launched, roughly 21% of WoW players played a decidedly unsexy gnome. Heck, Star Wars Galaxies had one human option and a bunch of weirdass aliens and it still hit 200k subscribers at its peak, which is not an amazing number but certainly not peanuts for 2004.

Developers and publishers can probably wring the most profit out of their game by avoiding innovation. So what? Once you factor in things like the industry’s own marketing efforts, the (lack of) availability of alternative options, and fact that games that offer something different have an existing audience and receive higher critical scores.. well, I don’t think “because money, that’s why” is a reasonable argument.

 

* That’s an estimate based on the fact that game marketers spent 824 million in 2008, the only hard number I could find.

Author: Jessica Cook

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6 Comments

  1. I can understand that maybe sexy sells more and that people generally like the “attractive” (attractive being subjective) option but as you pointed there is a sizeable portion of the population that does not. So then question then is who does it hurt to have options, a less bulky maybe even tubby male, a less buxum more athletic female.

    In the end you would be appeasing a greater piece of the market and so solely having stereotyped characters doesn’t even make sense from a business perspective. I think it is more an outdated thought of gaming culture that keeps getting perpetuated by the industry .
    J3w3l´s last post: Enter the Elementalist

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  2. I think it’s more a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” rather than the market demanding character models as such. It could just be my general disdain for the lack of imagination and effort that it seems like many marketing groups (including the company I work for) look like they put out but that’s how all markets work. Apple products: we’ve sold 5 generations with basic white plastic and people buy it so why change. Beer: show pictures of hot women and 4 guys having fun together. Cars: wash it and have it drive through an empty city. Reality TV: you seriously suck and I hate that you get more ratings than anything else. It’s so much more simple to reuse old work and be lazy than come up with new stuff and its also why people get blown away by any funny or original commercial and will talk about it for weeks .

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  3. I think in truth these sex/beauty sells arguments are highly overrated. all it takes is a look at popular games with unattractive characters (the entire ES franchise is such a wonderful example of this) to understand that IF a game is great, players will play “whatever characters are there”. of course it’s always nice to give options and variety, but it’s erroneous to associate overall success with character models. gameplay, longevity, overall design, social mechanics etc. are still where its at – especially in MMOs that need to capture players longterm.

    so what does this mean? as you suggested, a lot of responsibility and in fact freedom lies with the developers. they’re the ones that can ultimately choose how much variety they want to offer in their game’s character creation. if they stick to the one-dimensional beauty path then that’s just the lazy way out. it takes a lot more effort to create unique, intriguing races and character looks, especially less humanoid ones, than just aiming for mainstream fashion beauty. that’s why GW2 is such a brilliant contender in my eyes; you have these dollfaced humanoids, but at the same time amazing asura and charr that are some of the most accomplished “beastly races” I have ever seen in any MMO. however, together with the Sylvari they actually took the longest to develop. it is hard to create a unique race outside the box that feels believable in an MMO and not like another human with different skintone.

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  4. Sooner or later the games industry will realize that there’s money in bravery. It certainly started that way.

    Risk-management and the complacency of “what works” is certainly frustrating at times, but right now this industry is being disrupted from multiple directions: Mobile, F2P, Indie games, etc.. The risk-averse approaches are being confronted.

    We will soon see more games that push the envelop on both sides of the coin. Unfortunately that means some overt sexism, because (and I don’t even watch Mad Men) marketing is still sometimes a sexist boy’s club. We will also see entirely different games that exam gender roles and the psychology of our social interactions– .And eventually I believe it will settle down into the kind of balance that I think many of us have been hoping for, for a long while now.
    Rog´s last post: Rog Dor

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  5. I wanted to illustrate a parallel to your topic here, Liore. I don’t think it’s completely related but maybe some of the logic from here might transfer over a bit. I don’t know. I started reading your piece and it just reminded me of an explanation that Kelly DeConnick (comic book writer) gave on why there aren’t more female heroes.

    http://www.reddit.com/r/comicbooks/comments/134f6k/i_am_kelly_sue_deconnick_writer_of_ghost_captain/c7184q1?context=1
    Matticus´s last post: Challenge Gold: Scarlet Monastary

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    • Huh, neat link. Thanks for posting! There are certainly parallels, and I totally agree with the underlying premise that we need to make our consumer dollars count.

      I think one of the huge differences is that the comics industry is waning and slow to adopt digital distribution, while the game industry is still expanding and of course crazy about DD, so I feel like games have a lot more room to be brave.

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