Do Female Protagonists Really Hinder Game Sales?

I was all poised & ready to write my review for Devil May Cry 2 when I came across a video by the Escapist Magazine’s Jim Sterling on the growing debate about whether or not having a lead female protagonist hurts game sales.  This debate has been growing rather rapidly & receiving game media attention, so I decided to do a sort of recap of the issue for those who haven’t seen the news as well as genuinely getting other gamers’ opinions on the matter.  Don’t worry, I’ll get DMC2’s review up tomorrow.

If you haven’t seen the various news stories about the issue, I’ll sum it up shortly: Basically, a lot of publishers have been taking flack about discouraging developers from making games with female characters as the lead playable character.  According to the various articles, publishers are afraid that having a female lead will hurt the game’s sale.  Thus, they strongly encourage developers to change the leads in the male characters.

There have been a lot of stories about this within the last few months.  The first time I heard this argument was when Chris Perna, art director for Epic Games, was quoting as saying, in regards to making the lead in their future Gears of War games a female, “That’s certainly interesting but I don’t know.  If you look at what sells, it’s tough to justify something like that.”  But looking back, I can see that the debate was starting even before this.  When Irrational Games released the official box art for Bioshock Infinite, a lot of fans were upset at the decision to have the player character (Booker) on the front of the box while relegating Elizabeth to the back of the box.  At the time I didn’t think it was too strange a decision, given that Booker is the character you play as.  But when you consider how important Irrational Games has made Elizabeth in both the game & their marketing campaign (seriously, we knew what she looked like before we knew anything about who we were playing as) it does seem odd to not have her somewhere on the front.  According to Irrational Games, the box art was based on market testing with various groups to see what design they found most appealing, but with all of this attention on publishers saying women don’t sell, it makes you wonder.

20121203_bioshock_infinite_cover

Most recently, during an interview with Jean-Max Morris, creative director for Dontnod Studies, Mr. Morris spoke about the difficulty the studio had with getting a publisher behind their upcoming title Remember Me.  If you’re unfamiliar with the title, Remember Me is an upcoming cyber-punk game where you play as an amnesic memory hunter named Nilin (who is a female) who must recover her memories as well as the reason why she erased them in the first place.  During the interview, Mr. Morris stated that Dontnod had a hard time getting a publisher to back the game.

“We had some that said, ‘Well, we don’t want to publish it because that’s not going to succeed.  You can’t have a female character in games.  It has to be a male character, simple as that.'”

Please excuse me while I smack myself in the face a few times.

Really?  Did a publisher just flat-out say that gamers won’t buy a game with a female lead?  Does Metroid still not continue to be a popular & successful franchise, not in spite of the fact that Samus is female but because people love the character so much.  Yeah, I know no one knew she was a women in the beginning, but it’s kind of established fact now.  Is Jill Valentine not one of the most memorable characters from the Resident Evil franchise?  Did FemShep not become so popular among Mass Effect fans that BioWare created a whole promotional campaign with her & include her on special edition cover?  Not to mention games like the Tomb Raider series or Bayonetta.

Samus Aran   Jill_Valentine_by_RYaNrYe040x  mass_effect_3_femshep_sentinel__2012__by_redliner91-d5dg5l7

… Just watch Sterling’s video while I compose myself.

http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/jimquisition/7044-The-Creepy-Cull-of-Female-Protagonists

Okay, I feel better now.  But Mr. Sterling does a good job of summing up my thoughts on the matter, as well as raising some good questions.  Are the publishers right?  Does having a female lead turn gamers off to a game?

The whole thing comes off as a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Publishers don’t think games with female leads sell well, so they don’t invest as much in their promotion (or when they do, they sexualize it to the point that it’s ridiculous, just turning women off to otherwise good games).  Lack of promotion means fewer people know about the game & fewer people buy it.  Take Remember Me as an example.  Before this interview made the news I’d never heard of it, so even the publisher that did finally agree to pick it up (Capcom) doesn’t seem to have much faith in it.  Fewer people know about the game to buy it, thus resulting in lower sales, thus confirming the publisher’s initial fears.

Thankfully, not all developers are buckling under the publishers’ demands.  Dontnod stuck to their guns, specifically stating the story was designed around having a female protagonist.  Other studios, like Naughty Dog, continue to support the importance of the female characters in their games.  Unlike Irrational Games, when pressured to remove young female lead Ellie from the forefront of the box art for The Last of Us, Naughty Dog refused.  Ellie, while not the character gamers will play as, is a crucial part of the game & Naughty Dog defended their decision to keep her in the focus.  “I believe there’s a misconception that if you put a girl or a woman on the cover, the game will sell less.  I know I’ve been in discussions where we’ve been asked to push Ellie to the back and everyone at Naughty Dog just flat-out refused,” said creative director Neil Druckmann.  Good on you, Naughty Dog.

I’m not saying every game needs to have a female lead.  Nor am I saying you should buy a game just because it does have one.  I wouldn’t buy a Gears of War game just because they added a female lead because that’s not my kind of game.

What do you guys think?  As a women I’m a little biased.  Would you not buy a game just because you wouldn’t be comfortable playing a woman?  Let me know.

And just so you know, I’ll probably be buying Remember Me even if it sucks just to prove the other publishers wrong.  I’m prone to doing things like that on principle (or spite) because I’m very passive-aggressive & some messages are worth sending.

– GamerDame

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Do Female Protagonists Really Hinder Game Sales?

  1. Bert Schnick

    It shouldn’t matter what sex the main character is, just as long as its a fun game. I think.

    • This is how I usually think of it. For most characters the gender doesn’t matter. You could switch them & it wouldn’t impact the game at all. Not many games are created in a way that requires the PC to be a specific gender.

  2. Capcom seems to have no problem marketing ‘Remember Me’ as having a female protagonist, judging by the box art (usually, as I understand it, a publisher decision) that so prominently features her rear-end. It’s sad that this is all they can think to do with their female lead. It’s even sadder that the art says absolutely nothing about the game (which looks pretty good).
    As far as gender not being important as long as the game is fun, I completely agree but I would love to see a game where gender does matter and is an integral part of the experience. A few come close, but I think they can do better. If they’re brave enough to try

    • Yeah, that’s a constant problem with games with female protagonists. Actually, when you think about it most female characters themselves aren’t sexist. A lot of people want to say that Lara Croft is sexist (I used to be one of those). But when I really stopped to think about it, Lara as a character is the opposite of sexist. To say that a woman can’t be independent, intelligent, capable AND attractive is sexist in itself. It’s the way they choose to market her that’s sexist, clearly only focusing on the physical aspects. Marketers apparently can’t get past the whole sex sells angle even if it doesn’t make sense (like those idiots advertising for Hardy’s/Carl Jr’s). It would be great to see a game that tackles gender-related issues in a mature & compelling way, but given that they can’t even portray women as anything more than a walking pair of breasts there for the male protagonist’s enjoyment half the time, I think that times a way off. But supposedly Remember Me specifically choose to make a female protagonist because if fit the story they wanted to tell, so we’ll have to wait & see how that turns out.

  3. This is more of a case of gamers just have to grow up and buy good games as opposed to worrying about whether a character is female or male. If a game is good, it shouldn’t matter who the protagonist is. But since gaming is a business, most companies are going to try and make games that will make them the most money — and I’m going to guess more money comes from the male side of things. Hopefully this mentality will change, we’re at the point where lots of people are interested in videogames.

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