Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Marketing: Change Before our Eyes

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 artFan vidsScreenshots.  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.


  1. Bioware is also doing this for same-sex romances in ME3.  So far they haven't said precisely how it will be implemented, but assured that it will be in there somehow.

    It's certainly nice for me and my limited budget that the games I really want to buy are the ones whose company is trying the hardest to appeal to my better instincts.

  2. Yes!  That also too, and is very exciting.

  3. I think I'll still pick this up, but Bioware totally burned themselves off my "day 1 purchase" list with DA2. 

  4. I haven't played it.  And interestingly enough, BioWare was never really on my radar at all until I promised my husband I'd let him make me play Mass Effect.

    I have DA:O but I'm really strongly averse to anything with party micromanagement so although I was really intrigued by the writing in my character's origin story (city elf female), I let it drop after about 4 hours of, to me, tedium.  I'm considering going back to it just so I can follow the conversations but first things first: L.A. Noire is due to be delivered tomorrow (it went on sale).

  5. Heh, that's funny.  The lack of party micro (at least in the inventory screen) was one of the big turns offs in DA2 for me.  That and the repetitive environments and the complete trashing of party interactions.

    I'm sure I'll get ME3... eventually.  My femshep has an adventure to finish!  I'd just like to pay $10-20 less than launch price because I feel a little ripped off by DA2.

  6. Serious question, b/c I think you view some of these things very differently than I do ...

    On inventory micro, how would you feel about a few different armor possibilities (as opposed to generic skins that are the same for all members)?  I.E., 2-4 unique possibilities for each character instead of (theoretically) 100%, but they look the same on everyone?

  7. In DA:O, a good tactics setup can go a long way to not having to micromanage, except in particularly tough fights.

    For everyone:
    (1) If health < 25%, use Health Poultice

    For Wynne/Morrigan (particularly both)
    (1) If health < 25%, use Health Poultice
    (2) If ally health <50%, use Heal
    (3) If ally health <50%, use Group Heal
    (4) Target clustered 2 (or 3)+, use Fireball

    May or may not reduce the tedium, but it will let you focus on controlling your own character.

  8. FemShep is great. :) Out of all my playthroughs, I think I like my FemShep playthrough the best. :)

  9. Just about anything would have been better than the current system.

    I think something like GW2's coming system may be the best of all worlds: you get new armor with varied stats that has its own look BUT you can make it look like any other piece of armor you have, so you can always "look" matching if you want.

    DA2 felt way more like something like Diablo 2 with henchmen instead of a "real" rpg with a party system.  Of course, not all of that is the fault of the inventory system, but it definitely contributed.  And you know, that's probably what they were going for - console market was clearly in mind.  But it's not what I want out of an rpg.

  10. Cash in hand needs to be more actively used as a weapon. If a game company is making the right choices about good games, buy the game as soon as you can afford it. If a game company makes the wrong choices and/or makes bad games, and you decide to spend that money on something else, tell them who you're giving your money to instead of them, and why. If you want Ubisoft to change, you need to actually refuse to buy the next Assassin's Creed, Child of Eden, Prince of Persia or whatever.

    Personally, I plan on being a lot more vocal about my Ubisoft boycott this time than I was when I just ignored them for 7 years. Find their twitter account and tell them whenever I spend money on some other game company, because they proved themselves (again) to be a company that isn't worth giving any money.

  11. GW2? Not familiar. Which game is that? Guild wars? (for googling purposes)

    That's exactly the opposite of how I think, especially in a Bioware game.  I like that the characters choose what they want to do/wear/wield.  I'd get rid of most of the weapons too.  If I had my way, inventory would be limited to old Sierra game style inventory for solving puzzles and plot items.

    FWIW, my platonic ideal of an RPG is Planescape: Torment. 

  12. Yes! Femshep is getting a lot more love on this time around. The trailer, the CE box - and there was a FemShep in the ME3 area of EA's E3 booth. I hope she shows up in more than four of the official screens too.

  13. Guild Wars 2. It's an MMO.  Free to play.

    Planescape was about as awesome as it gets, but it was its own thing.  It's been so long that I don't really remember how the party system worked there.  Maybe you could swap all the gear but their appearances were static?  It was its own thing though, I wouldn't want all my games to have that same engine style.  The same quality of story & attention to awesomeness?  YES PLEASE.

  14. Bioware did it for Dragon Age II, and when challenged by somebody one of their writers defended the decision vigorously.  It certainly seemed like one of the first blockbuster games to allow a male to male romance.  What's more is that in the base game, whether you can romance a character or not does not depend on gender.

    Bioware is a game company that's moving in the right direction, and it makes a lot of sense.  Why you'd want to alienate 50% of the potential fan base is beyond me.

  15. I thought that in DA:O the party system and inventory system was pretty lame.  Especially since at the end game you ended up needing to use characters that I had never bothered to put better armor or weapons on.  I also don't like how everytime I wanted to bring a character in I hadn't used in a while, I had to go searching for armor.

    The biggest issue with DA:2 is that it was far too rushed.  The armor system could have worked, with more time to give each character 5-6 different armor choices per level, each with different looks and stats.  If they didn't rush then it wouldn't have had areas repeated over and over.  It's a bummer too, because I really enjoyed the game, but six more months of polish would have made it far more like ME:2 is to ME.

  16. For the most part, no party armor.  2 companions each had 2 (very) optional armors.  Only 2 companions could you even change weapons.  At all times the appearance was static.  Even the Nameless One couldn't equip armor.  This was unlike BG1 and BG2 where you could do pretty much whatever you wanted with gear.

    I am 100% with you about the story and general awesomeness.  I agree that not every game can have PS:T's tone and such, but in my mind that's orthogonal to whether you can put armor on companions.  YMMV, of course.

  17. The party & inventory system just boils down to what you enjoy, imho.  Personally, I had no issues with finding equip for any of my party members in any of my 3 playthroughs in DA.  I kept pretty much everyone equipped throughout the whole game.

    Agree on the rushed-ness.  It was super evident.  The party/armor/appearance system *could* have worked, but alongside all the other issues I had with the game it just made it look worse.  I don't think it was a *bad* game, just not what I wanted or hoped for, given the first one.

  18. I actually just lifted my Ubisoft boycott this past year.. I was very unhappy with the overly restrictive DRM they employed with the PC version of AC2. But they recently went back and modified it as well as with AC: Brotherhood to be a little less obnoxious.

    While I still felt their E3 presentation, particularly Mr. Caffeine, was disgusting, their games are actually pretty good at presenting an even hand in race/gender. (In Assassin's Creed Brotherhood I had multiple female assassins in my guild, and a major recurring female character got made an Assassin too.)

  19. While I've played games throughout much of my life, starting with King's Quest at about five years old, I've never really considered myself a gamer. I tend to have too short an attention span to feel comfortable calling myself much of anything but "Deb," as it happens.
    Still, the subject of this entry caught my eye, and I'm glad I read it. One sentiment in particular struck me:
    But the pursuit of perfection is no reason to ignore positive progress.

    Indeed! It's praising that progress, I think, that often helps people realize change is not only possible and wonderful, but that they can be a part of it.   

    Loved this.

  20. That's true enough, and I own Brotherhood for Xbox, but personally, I can't throw the money at a company that thought Mr Caffeine was a great idea up until people yelled at them for it. Not now, at least. If they get their act together, great, but just apologizing and taking a scalpel to their E3 video doesn't strike me as especially sincere, or rectifying anything. Not when there are boatloads of other companies out there making games who are more than happy to take my money without being egregiously offensive.

  21. I guess that makes sense, ME:2 made similar itemization decisions after ME and didn't get panned for it all that much.  I remember it being a somewhat big deal at the time, and people criticized that there ere only two types of ammo, one for regular guns and one for heavy.  There was really no changing armor for any character, including Shepard.  However, since the game was overall very good despite that, those controversies faded with time.

  22. Honestly, having possibly the best female protagonist ever created in gaming and not showing her off at all is not a very bright decision. You've got good stuff, ya have to make sure people know about it.

    In general, I'm pleased Femshep was created in a way that does not make me think Bioware considers me as a retarded teenager dork who just want to fap at the computer screen, which is the impression I get most of the times from the portrayal of women in games and comics. No, they did a good job with this one. And now it looks like the marketing department is starting to catching up with the development guys.

  23. As one of those femshep fangirls, I cannot agree more. Only by supporting strong female characters and asking for more will VGs ever change.

  24. Has there ever been a video game with an openly LBGT character?  Meaning, not like DA, where it's up to the choice of the player, but an actual, hard-coded gay protagonist? 

  25. Games are getting mildly better about having it as an option, but I can't think of any I've played that ever had it as canon.  The Wiki list shows some sidekicks, antagonists, and NPCs, but not so much with the player character.

  26.  I don't think of ME as the same kind of game as DA at all, so it wasn't an issue for me there.  For me, ME is a shooter with a story and some rpg elements not primarily an rpg (in the sense of rpg gameplay, NOT in the sense of playing a role, which you certainly do.).

  27. Obviously I don't follow the industry like you do, but I can't picture a big budget game with a gay or lesbian main character any time soon. That would require more revenue sacrifice than a major business is likely to make. Good people will play as heterosexual characters; jerks (of a specific and common type) won't play as homosexuals. Trans, although often the most persecuted in real life, might come first through the magic of shapeshifters. I could imagine a story with a character who over time is sometimes a man and sometimes a woman and who has heterosexual relationships as each slipping in under the kulturkampf radar. 

  28. Shame that Bioware doesn't like FemShep enough to consider putting her in the movie...

  29. The only merchandise I'll buy with Commander Shepard is merchandise featuring FemShep, I'm not interested in default male Shepard, he looks like a standard Hollywood meathead.

    I'll be voting with my wallet in regards to the movie as well, since they're going with male Shepard I won't waste my money seeing it