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.