19 June, 2007
An interesting little tidbit showed up last week that seemed not to gain too much attention. SOE announced some new MMOs they have had in the pipeline for a while. One game in particular, Free Realms is going after a more casual market and focusing on attracting women to the game. The challenges of doing so were mentioned in this quote from the above linked article:
“I just can’t explain to a 30-year-old single male why 10-year-old girls like horses,” [John Smedley] said. “We were trying to figure out what pets to put into Free Realms and before, the lead designer was a guy and he definitely wanted things that could fight. And when we got more women on the team, it was like ‘No, no, no. We need puppies and horses in there.’”
In this (likely oversimplified) situation, the problem isn’t that the lead designer was male: rather, it was that the lead designer was not properly doing his job.
As I have written before, a game designer’s job is complex. Note that in that post I say that part of a designer’s job is research. That means you have to understand the game you’re building and the intended audience for that game. If the goal is to attract casual players and women, that means the designer has to understand what that audience wants. This has nothing to do with which set of reproductive organs you formed in the womb, but rather about doing your job.
For example, before I started coding on text MUDs in college, I had played them for less than a year. Yet, I was able to understand the inner works of such games and really dig into them. I was doing good work coding basic systems soon after I started coding. When I started working on Meridian 59, I had very little experience working with online graphical games, but I was able to learn and adapt. As I work on more games, I hope to work on new types of games, too. I hope that the online medium allows us to create entirely new types of games that people had not thought of before. In this case, I will have to learn and adapt; I won’t be able to just rely on the gameplay systems I have already been familiar with in the past.
Now, I do admit that if the designer is part of the target audience, in this case a female designer working on a game intended for women, you do tend to have an advantage. This is not always the case: even though I’m currently a male in my early 30′s, I’m not the designer you want for your licensed football game due to my general disinterest in professional sports. But, there is nothing stopping a male designer from realizing that cock fighting isn’t as interesting (in general) for women as having cute puppies and horses to take care of. Of course, you can’t always make generalizations like this; my better half loves horses, but she likes ones that can kick ass more than she likes pink fluffy ones. (Of course, she also asked if she could have a pink, fluffy horse that could also kick ass when I presented her with that scenario.)
The ever clever Jeff Freeman wrote a blog post hidden as a comment about this topic, too. Jeff says the same thing I do: having reproductive organs on the outside of your body has nothing to do with the inability to understand that young girls, in general, like puppies and horses. Rather, it shows a poor understanding of the audience by the designer in question. He also points out the general stupidity of thinking that only women can design women’s games and vice versa with this wonderful quote:
There are already more women playing online games than men. And those are games made by teams with the same smurf village demographic as the rest. Why aren’t they reaching more men? Do they need to hire some really manly men? Or hire men to replace the women who are working in those parts of the game industry where male customers are grossly under-represented?
(I have to admit, I love the phrase “smurf village demographic” when discussing game development teams. ;)
But, don’t take this as an excuse to exclude women from game development. Just as men can figure out how to make a game women will play, women can figure out how to make the guns bigger and the explosions cooler as well. In fact, I agree with Jeff in that we could use a bit more diversity because that’s how we get really good games: by combining a variety of viewpoints and considering how they impact the game. If you only get the hardcore developers making hardcore games for the hardcore players, well… eventually you get just a bit too hardcore. A new viewpoint can breathe some life into the same old concepts the industry has been recycling for years.
In the end, I hope a more diverse team does help make Free Realms something new and interesting. But, it doesn’t take a woman to make games for women. Instead, it takes a good designer that knows how to design good games for a specific audience. And, really, any good designer should be able to attempt that.
What do you think?