I recently and popularly lamented a major way in which game marketing went very, very wrong. And indeed, there are so many instances of badly gendered or outright sexist messages in game marketing that I could have fresh fodder every week just based on those messages.
But sometimes, someone gets it right. And sometimes, sustained customer input can make a difference.
I'm talking about BioWare. Yes, for the millionth time this month. Mass Effect is Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2 is Mass Effect 2, and Mass Effect 3 will be on store shelves in March, 2012.
On May 23rd, a few weeks before E3, Twitter suddenly became deeply invested in the one and only #FemShep. The way Twitter trends do, it took on a life of its own and for a few intense hours, she was the center of attention.
David Silverman (@dsilvermanea) is director of marketing at BioWare, and he's a good example of Doing It Right as far as player outreach. In responding to another user's direct question, he asked:
And the internet answered, in the torrential way that only the internet can. Links came pouring in: fan art. Fan vids. Screenshots. Players' ME3 visions. Hundreds and thousands of encouraging and hopeful statements. Praise for Jennifer Hale's voice acting, for the ME universe, and for the games. Male and female players both, talking about their Commanders Shepard, and who she was. The day wore out, but player input and the #FemShep tag did not.
So far, BioWare is making good on these promises. There will be an official trailer coming out this summer featuring a female Shepard, they have promised, and recent comments from Silverman and other members of the BioWare team have indicated that the project of creating the trailer is well under way. And then there is this (I've highlighted the relevant part in red):
I'd already promised my spouse that when a collector's edition was announced we could upgrade my pre-order to it, if he wanted. (I pre-ordered the game last Christmas as a gift to him.) But what made me go to Amazon and switch before he expressed an interest was this: I can have my Shepard on the box.
The point of this entry is not that I am a hopeless Mass Effect fangirl, although I admit that I seem to have become one despite my best efforts. The point is this: speaking up has an effect, and customer input really can make a difference.
When we settle for misogyny in marketing, when we settle for terrible female characters, when we settle for an entirely white and straight fictional world, and when we settle for the same old -- we get the same old. Silence is tacit acceptance, and cash-in-hand is active encouragement. BioWare can listen to the players because collectively, they've sold at least 5.75 million copies of the first two games.
I know that there are so many more strides to be made. I know that gamers of color are still severely under-represented in marketing and that characters of color are severely under-represented (and often still very problematically represented, when they show up at all) in games. I know that there's a ridiculous amount of work to be done with any variation of an LGBT character in games. And I know that game developers far and wide are discounting my existence, even while they happily count my money.
But the pursuit of perfection is no reason to ignore positive progress. We who are dedicated to seeing game diversity reflect human diversity (and gamer diversity) can cheer the small steps while acknowledging that there are many more to go. We can call out what we see as problems, and we can cheer on what we see as solutions.
So thanks for listening, BioWare, and thanks for giving a damn about who your customers are and what they want. Sure, the FemShep devotees might be a minority -- but they're a loyal, passionate minority and it doesn't cost very much to appease them and earn lifelong fans and public accolades.
And everyone else? Take notes. It pays not to alienate customers.