Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

19 June, 2007

Diversity and design
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 9:06 PM

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?







7 Comments »

  1. Diversity. I could be wrong here, but isn’t that an old, old wooden ship?

    In all seriousness, you’re totally right about the gender-related design stuff. Uh, random note– I assume that the “more women playing than men” in online games comes from casual game services like yahoo and msn? Or are we talking more women than men play fantasy and sci-fi MMOs? Does that number include multiplayer FPS games and Xbox live?

    Comment by Cameron Sorden — 19 June, 2007 @ 10:01 PM

  2. I think your point is entirely valid in that you don’t have to be a woman to make a game for women. You don’t have to be a man to make a game for men…

    That said, diversity in any work environment is good. When we look at the game developer sphere as a whole, there are a whole bunch of men, mostly white, who do game development. So there is a large gap in terms of diversity, and it’s an opportunity for any company to explore. There are some companies started by women breaking new ground in terms of diversity, but that does not ignore the general lack of women in prominent development positions across the industry as a whole.

    I’m a huge fan of competence over any other qualification for a person to get a job, but in a creative industry diversity is an essential mandate. You need input from as many different directions as possible, and a strong leader to take in all the input and focus it into a game that’s actually fun at the end of the day.

    Comment by Grimwell — 19 June, 2007 @ 10:28 PM

  3. Cameron Sorden wrote:
    I assume that the “more women playing than men” in online games comes from casual game services like yahoo and msn?

    Yeah. There are a lot of women playing the “casual” games. It was a bit surprising when I first learned about it. But, as Jeff points out, casual games are still very dominated by male designers and developers. So, this is an indication that good designers can build good games for any audience, regardless of gender.

    Comment by Psychochild — 20 June, 2007 @ 1:38 AM

  4. I think that your ability to get information from others can help here. I don’t know what the trend is in game design: do designers largely just sit and imagine things up, or do they go out and actually find out from research sources. I’d imagine it’s a bit of both.

    In any case – to design for an audience you need to understand it and one way to understand the audience is to go out and ask.

    I don’t think, “hey you, what do you want in a game?” is the best approach here, but it’s more things like “what did you find fun in [a similiar game]” , “Here’s a list of animals, choose the top three you’d be most likely to buy.” It’s basic market research really.

    In the above case surely someone could just have gone off stereotypes: Little girls want pink and ponies and dolls. Except those few who want an army man.

    Design sometimes also about forgetting what the existing paradigms are : take Viva Pinata… the idea to build a garden of pinatas is great, but they still put fighting in it, they still had nasty things in it. It didn’t really need those things to keep it fun, they just seemed to be obeying existing ideas. It even deterred some people I know: “Well, I wanted to try and get a [rare pinata] but while I was trying, one of the [required pinata] got sick and i didn’t heal it in time so the [bad guy] came and killed it.”

    Comment by Jpoku — 20 June, 2007 @ 3:20 AM

  5. What fun is a blog if nobody challenges it, right? =)

    While I agree with you in general, it should be noted that there’s a big difference between (1) designing a casual game for an audience you don’t relate to and (2) designing an RPG for an audience you don’t relate to.

    Many of those casual games that were designed by men were probably not successful with women because of research or even intent to appeal to women. They were successful because there’s a lot more crossover of appeal between different audiences with casual games. It’s more likely that a developer of a casual game will happen to enjoy the same gameplay.

    I’m not saying it’s not possible to design for the opposite sex in depthful RPGs. But it’s certainly much less natural, and I doubt we’ll be seeing figures that suggest otherwise anytime soon. It’s not simply a matter of research. If that were true, it wouldn’t be common for people who have been married 20 years to still have trouble sharing perspectives.

    Comment by Aaron — 20 June, 2007 @ 9:47 AM

  6. There’s nothing sacred about RPGs. If step one in making a game which appeals to people outside the usual group of RPG fans is “Don’t make an RPG” – that strikes me as a perfectly valid solution.

    Given the history and historical audience of RPGs, the right thing to do might be to forget everything you know about RPGs and reinvent the genre from the ground-up to be more appealing – not just to women, to PEOPLE.

    Either way, it’s not a question of which sexist stereotypes are applicable to which groups of people, but rather of how obnoxious it is to apply those stereotypes to individuals.

    And “Guys don’t get it, so you need to hire a girl to tell them what to do” is insulting beyond measure. Certainly worthy of being exhibit A in the discrimination lawsuit.

    Comment by Jeff Freeman — 20 June, 2007 @ 12:41 PM

  7. Weekend Design Challenge: Bad game ideas

    [...] Market research has shown that girls play games and girls like ponies. We’re going to use this amazing facts to create a next-generation game that combines these two elements. Using the beloved nature of the My Little Pony brand, we will make a First-Person Shooter (FPS) game. In this game the players will take control of colorful ponies with charming names and put them in a no-holds-barred deathmatch arena. Weapons will include the sawed-off shotgun, the rocket-launcher, and the always favorite: BFE-2000 (Big Fancy Equine-2000). To meet ratings requirements, there will be no blood, ponies will disintegrate immediately upon death, only to respawn with only the basic weapon. [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild’s Blog — 6 August, 2007 @ 12:56 AM

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