“No Girls Allowed” – Chicken or the Egg?

I wanted to comment on the recent piece “No Girls Allowed” by Lydia Heitman over at Kotaku. Heitman is a woman working in gaming PR. Her take on the PR side of the business in light of the sexism that still goes on made some refreshing points. For all the insistence that gaming is male-dominated and that’s where companies should focus their marketing, it becomes a chicken and egg question. Do women not play as much in certain categories because they’re uninterested or do they not play as much in those genres because they feel unwelcome or are simply not marketed to?

That holds true for recent controversies over not just Duke Nukem Forever, but Brink, which touted its extensive character customization options but featured no female character models at all, supposedly because including them would’ve half-assed the development on all customization options. The message there was simply, “You’re not worth it to us”. Unfortunately, not all signs of being unwelcome are so blatant nor communicated with gamers at large.

There are also focus groups for which women are never even considered for invitation. I understand that there are target demographics for different games, and the audience is not necessarily the same for Hello Kitty Online as for Age of Conan (though in my case, they are). But as far apart as those extreme examples are, they are just that: extremes. Somewhere in the middle, there are many games and potential game ideas that could have much wider appeal than people think at the concept and marketing stages. Developers and publishers are throwing away potential money by ignoring the needs of customers and potential customers. Blatantly saying female avatars aren’t worth the development sink is a slap in the face. It turns me off to anything developed by Splash Damage. Brilliant marketing work there, isn’t it? Any company that says to me, you are not worth even considering isn’t worth considering when it comes to where I send my money.

The default marketing target is usually a young, white male customer. According to the EGSA, the average gamer is now 37 years old, and women comprise over 40% of the audience. There is still a sense of elitism and an insistence on looking down on those one might not consider “real” gamers among pockets of the community at large. If that’s the case when the audience numbers are actually heading toward parity,  when most developers are still overwhelmingly white and male, perhaps there are remants of similar biases among them. The example Heitman uses about the party illustrates that facet of things well.

My sister is seven years old. Whatever she chooses to play shold be open to her, with devs and community willing to listen and respond positively to their female audience members. But the issue is not just applicable to current customers. Games are art to me, but they are also a busess. Part of running a successful business is drawing more customers into the fold. And as Heitman’s piece and examples like Brink illustrate, there are still a lot of blocks to that, whether because those in charge of marketing the games can’t wrap their head around women’s interest in their titles, lingering culture issues, or both. On a somewhat brighter note, most girls now grow up playing games, so the importance of acceptance by devs and by gamers is hopefully something that will be less of an issue in years to come.

Welcome 2010!

Happy New Year, and welcome to the overhauled and relaunched blog. There’s still some dust that needs to be settled, but that will come together soon. I had to delay for about a month since December was a productive month, and I planted some seeds that I anticipate will bring a nice harvest in 2010 to work with for me. fingers crossed, of course.

Just a couple of quick items of note:

I recently made my debut as a contributor to MMORPG.com with a look at recent developments in Final Fantasy XI.


Why Not “Imagine” Non-stereotypical Games Instead?

Member of the FragDolls and Ubisoft employee Valkyrie posted a rant on her blog regarding the reception of the company’s Imagine series of games, which are aimed at young girls. What follows are my comments on the matter that I posted as a part of the discussion happening over there.

And lets not forget that before these games are even produced the companies set up focus groups to find out exactly what their target audience wants in a game. So it’s not like these companies are pushing these games on girls; they’re creating a game based off the little girls wants, feedback/suggestions.

A few of these games are localized versions of games that have already come out elsewhere. And also, one point that this argument doesn’t address, is one brought up by Alice Taylor over at Wonderland Blog:

Research is a funny thing. If you say to someone, what’s your favourite food, they’ll list three things they love. If you then say, you didn’t list chocolate cake, don’t you like chocolate cake? They’ll say, oh SURE! I love chocolate cake! I just didn’t realise you were asking about chocolate cake.

I’m curious just what these focus groups are like. Are they suggestive, or do they let girls just name what they like? I used to say things like lawyer, pediatrician, and president when I was little and asked about careers. Where’s Imagine:President?

As a woman who got into gaming very early (around 3-4) and loves playing to this very day, it’s almost a slap in the face to even try with these games. They’re so stereotypical. Where’s our Imagine:Science Teacher? Imagine:Archaeologist? Imagine:Lawyer? And whatever happened to just making good games, games that will appeal to those who are interested in the genre they represent, games with good stories, strong characters, or just overall well-made games? Why should there even be an artificially created “need” to plum this niche other than pure $$$? Telling people to blame society is a cop out. Sure, these stereotypes are a product of society, but there’s no need to reinforce them. It’s the same whether it’s Imagine: Babyz or the toy mop and vacuum set that my cousin received as a gift.

The problem is with society, but we are free to speak out on the things we feel might be contributing to the problem. Why artificially separate and  [i]other[/i] young girls by basically saying these games are for you and by doing so, sending the implicit message that ‘these other games are not’?

After all, we did just fine finding our love for gaming without everything being cherry-picked and separated out.

The Alice Taylor blog I was referring to is located here.

As the FragDolls are Ubisoft employees, I don’t think it’s really allowed for them to speak badly of their company’s games, so I doubt that a truly honest discussion can take place over these Imagine titles they had to shill at GameX.

But I’m willing to be proven wrong. While I don’t doubt that playing a game that caters to a girl’s interests (or a boy’s, for that matter) can be a segue into gaming for life, but the question is how do these Imagine games reflect those interests? Is it a checklist, are they suggested to the girls in the groups, is it the matter of the neglected chocolate cake? And if they do such a good job as they claim, why are the subjects they cover so narrow and stereotypical in scope?

All this said, I don’t think that games aimed at girls or boys specifically are necessarily bad. However, being well-made and progressive, without falling into the pit of stereotypes would help. HerInteractive tends to do a good job. I also fully understand that video games are a product, and that they need to sell. And in a world where so many are safe bets and sequels, I know it’s a lot to ask, but I believe good games that don’t stereotype and appeal to young kids are possible.


Sony’s Marketing Dept. Gets it Right in PS3 Ad

At the gym last night, I settled onto the elliptical with a magazine from the community rack. I’m not a regular People Magazine reader, but as I was flipping through this issue from late September, I saw a PS3 ad. The ad features a teen boy who looks to be enjoying himself and a middle-aged woman as his mother next to him, also looking to be enjoying herself. Both had controllers in their hands and looked to be having fun playing.

The tagline that accompanied the ad referred to the recent price drop but also served to be really inclusive. Unfortunately, I don’t recall the exact content, but I believe it was something about the PS3 being at a price that suits everyone.

People‘s demographics skew very female, and range through various age groups, so this was a pleasant surprise. To see gaming not only marketed as something women of any age do, but without the usual attention being called to her as a female playing games. (See the PSP’s recent lavender release with its ill-considered “Girlz Play Too!” tagline and obvious lineup of Hannah Montana and other similar games). Surely there would be some sort of division in the games, right?

Nope. The game selection at the bottom wasn’t even divided into obvious gender targets like so many other ads are. The games were titles like Batman: Arkham Asylum and others. Not a puzzle game or fitness coaching game in sight.

Even though that lavender PSP stuff is still fresh in our minds, kudos to Sony’s marketing department for this great ad!

Band Hero Features More Female Vocalists

When reading through gaming news on Monday afternoon, I read that the whole setlist of the tracks in the upcoming Band Hero game had been released. I went to take a look to see what songs had made the cut, and was pleasantly surprised to see names of female singers or bands with female vocalists over and over throughout the list.

About one third of the songs in the game are sung by women, and they represent a variety of musical styles. Corinne Bailey Rae is there, as are Janet Jackson, No Doubt, Pat Benatar, and Taylor Swift, among others. While I enjoy playing Guitar Hero and Rock Band, most of the default songs in the game have always been from bands with male vocalists. But in the past few years, these titles have been at the forefront of social gaming, and found fans among both genders. Yet it wasn’t until now that there was a respectable number of songs there from female vocalists. Before, it felt a bit like tokenism. Perhaps seven or eight tracks out of fifty or sixty would feature women. It made it more difficult to find something in one’s vocal range if singing that round.

Maybe they realized the game appeals across gender lines. Maybe it was developers realizing that adding more songs by women wouldn’t alienate or weird out the male players. Maybe licensing came more easily this time around. Whatever the reason, I consider it progress and look forward to playing the game.

Farewell to The Matrix Online

The game was released buggy, like many MMOs. Yet at the same time, the devs tended to be receptive to feedback. Regardless, the game underperformed in the end, despite the love that went into The Matrix Online. Sales numbers were not as predicted or hoped for, and the number of retained subscribers  dipped very low.

The game had a ton of faults, and a lot of missed potential, but when it comes to who dropped the ball, I would have to place more blame on Monolith/WBIE for selling the property off to SOE. Now that said, SOE put effort into the game but it was never treated as a star property. One might say, with good reason, noting the underperforming history as above. They had to keep profitable.

But MxO was Monolith’s baby and the devs and designers there worked hard on it. They had a good launch strategy, and the first four or five months after release were truly great stuff. Live Events were plentiful, characters would drop in and greet you outside mission areas, the story was immersive and included the players in the action. There were three factions fighting for control, as well as splinter groups. Updates were pretty frequent and robust at first: full cinematics voiced by the original film actors. The events that they held and the LET appearances really helped tie the community together. One really felt like a part of something. But of course, back to those numbers again — it just wasn’t financially sustainable.

The sale to SOE gave the game a longer life, but also a slow death. Fully rendered cinematics gave way to comic book format animation and, finally, to some drawn, barely animated storyboards that were hard to make out. Major characters were killed off or otherwise removed (likely as a way to save money), and there were few development updates.  There were some new spawns and gear, but items from past events or storylines, such as a helicpoter dropping propaganda papers, were left in the game long after the missions for that chapter were over. For the most part, the game just hung on as something for Station Pass holders to jump into now and then.

I doubt there will be another like it for some time — urban, smart, featuring an abundance of modern clothing options and styles, and filled with a mix of philosophy, supernatural elements, lots of places to enter and secrets to uncover, and a very unique playerbase full of extremely dedicated individuals. And in the beginning, the Live Events team played it well, and created the most memorable MMORPG experience I have had so far. It was fun, but sadly, the game did not realize its potential at all.