Experienced Points

Experienced Points
Something for the Ladies

Shamus Young | 31 Jul 2009 21:00
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So now the game is telling two stories:

1) Male lead and female companion.
2) Female lead and Male companion.

This means we need more character models, more lines of dialog, more complex behaviors, and more voice actors. But at least we're no longer excluding women, right?

But what about gays? What about the guy who wants to play as a male, but he wants his avatar to hook up with the character normally intended for the female lead? It seems odd to offer all this gender choice and then simply restrict who the main character can romance. Well, if we're going to do that for gay men we'd better do so for gay women. Now things are getting complex:

1) Male lead and female companion.
2) Female lead and Male companion.
3) Male lead and male companion.
4) Female lead and Female companion.

Now we need four times the dialog and voice acting we needed before. The game is letting us shape the gender and sexuality of our character, but it still hasn't given us any options with regard to race. I know I'm not the only one who was disappointed in Mass Effect to find my Samuel L. Jackson version of Commander Shepard ended up sounding more like game show host Chuck Woolery. The vocal disconnect was a betrayal of the character I was trying to create. Couldn't they just have given me an option to choose my voice? Well...

1) Caucasian Male lead and female companion.
2) Caucasian Female lead and Male companion.
3) Caucasian Male lead and male companion.
4) Caucasian Female lead and Female companion.
5) African Male lead and female companion.
6) African Female lead and Male companion.
7) African Male lead and male companion.
8) African Female lead and Female companion.

This is starting to get crazy expensive, and even if we go to these lengths to offer players choice we're still likely to end up with some cantankerous Brit pointing out that they're pretty much sick of playing characters with a mid-western American accent. Didn't the British ever make it into space? Why don't aliens ever invade Canada? Don't Australians ever have trouble with zombies?

You'll notice that every option we add has the side-effect of doubling our dialog and voice requirement, not to mention the increased complexity for the coders and scripters who have to make these options work. Then there is the challenge of fully playtesting a game with so many possible permutations. We started out just trying to offer a very reasonable option for female gamers, and now we've blown our budget eight times over and we still haven't solved the problem. Expanding the storytelling aspects of your game is good, but once you start it's hard to know where to stop. And no matter where you draw the line, someone is going to feel disappointed or left out. Even if you somehow manage to make a game where you can pick either gender, any race, any accent, and any orientation, you'll still get complaints from players who want to have romantic encounters that involve more than just two people. This is a hole with no bottom.

Fable took a decent crack at solving this, although it solved the problem by making everyone in the world generic interchangeable shells, which gave us diversity by making all choices bland and irrelevant. But hey, at least they were equally bland and irrelevant!

It's interesting that some developers (mostly BioWare) are exploring this idea now, when it was a lot more feasible to do so before the arrival of 3D and voice acting. Back when games were 2D sprites and text, it would have been very easy to let us make all kinds of wild choices about race, gender, and sexuality. But for the most part nobody bothered. Now developers are dabbling with the idea, but at the current technology level that means pouring potentially millions into voice acting, motion-capture, and character models.

I'm not saying all this to defend the way some games have often pretended that female gamers simply don't exist, but just to point out that this sort of thing is annoyingly hard and expensive. Does this sort of thing keep the ladies from playing? Do females stay away because games are made for men, or are games made for men because females stay away? The debate over this question has been raging since the first time a guy made a videogame and the first gamer lamented that neither of them knew any chicks, but I'm sure we'll be able to sort it out in the comments.

Shamus Young is the guy behind this movie, this website, this book, these two webcomics, and this program. He actually did go through KOTOR as a female and made kissy faces with Carth Onasi. Make of that what you will.

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