Or; When little boys become the focus group for adult games…
A lot has been made recently about the need to attract and appeal to more women in the gaming landscape, both as gamers and as professionals.
The problem is this; how can you appeal to a woman – heck, let’s expand that in the interests if sexual and social equality – how can you appeal to an adult audience of men and women if all you ever do is chase around the young, agile little boys and their Call of Duty? Seriously. Fuse – a game which when we first saw it was a wry, bright, cartoon-like world where things looked bonkers and crazy things happened. We recently got the game – and then also learned that they changed it, dramatically so, to a more realistic, grizzled, ‘mature’ title. The end result was a more serious, sweary, stupid affair. Even if the game was never going to be great, Insomniac took a neat concept and ruined it. And part of this, it transpires, was that the game was focus tested on a group of twelve-year-old boys.
This is also evidenced in other areas. Ken Lavine, of BioShock Infinite, didn’t want to put Elizabeth on the cover because they had asked a bunch of frat-boys in the States what they wanted to see, and the answer was a bloke with a shotgun. Never mind that Elizabeth is 95% of the whole freaking game and easily the biggest star of the show by a country mile, the guys wanted to see a guy on the cover because buying a game with a girl on the cover is ‘gay’ and somehow makes them less manly than usual. I’d say the fact they think buying a product with a girl on the cover will make them somehow more girly is not their greatest problem in life – more likely that will come later when they actually try to find a girl who wants them and their stupid 1950’s sexist attitude – but I digress on this point. It’s why Dontnod had such huge issues getting Remember Me made, again because the focus groups they tested consisted primarily of men who thought playing a game whose lead was a woman was somehow offending their masculinity and being seen to play as a woman in a game could possibly make them homosexual (Welcome to the 21st Century. With people like that, we’re boned!). It’s why it took until the third game to get a Femshep on the cover of a Mass Effect game; despite the reality most of us played as a Femshep (because Jennifer Hale’s voice acting is awesome and I will hit anyone who disagrees over the head with a crutch!), it seems once again when they went to find answers to the covers, they asked – of all people – young men who seemed culturally incapable of admitting the fact that they do indeed oggle Femshep and any suggestion to the contrary is a lie on a similar level to “I did not have sexual relations with that woman…”.
This is immaturity at its most base level. Basically, we can boil the focus testing of the industry down to this; they are effectively doing everything they can to market their games to ‘little boys’.
Is it any wonder then that adults are getting bored and questioning the value of the products they buy? Is it any wonder there are so many questions about the state of the industry in relation to women? Like a certain religious organisation, it has spent years quietly running around after and trying to appeal to little boys and it is only now, as we begin to peel back the layers and layers of bullshit that have coated the most promising of titles and forced them into places we otherwise wouldn’t have expected them to, that the cold harsh light of truth is beginning to shine on the decidedly dodgy practices of the market, and we’re left bewildered and disgusted and repulsed by the whole notion that this has been going on at all. That our games – the games we buy – aren’t explicitly being made for us.
The thing is, let’s take Fuse as an example again. We know they focus tested it on twelve-year-old boys. So, you’d think this game is going to be an age-rated 12 at maximum, right?
Wrong. It’s an 18 certificate.
This means that this is a game that can only be bought by those over the age of 18. But, if we are to trust the focus testing, it was in part at least influenced by a bunch of twelve year old boys. And, in reality, it shows. Fuse is exactly the sort of game I loathe to play because it feels like the kind of hollow, cynical title that can only have been created by completely and utterly missing its target audience by a country mile. It’s a title that has swearing, violence and nasty things going on for the sheer sake of it, for no other reason than hey, it looks and sounds kind of cool, right? Right? Except, I’m in my 30’s. I swear, but I don’t always like to hear swearing. I like watching Law and Order. I recently got into The Fall, and I have reached that point where I look at the music charts and I think, “Why does anyone buy this crap?”. I am, according to my sister, “Officially grown up.” I am out of that phase of all this being naughty and cool and into the firm territory of finding excessive vulgarity and stupidity to be more childish and immature than anything else.
But I’ve been feeling this way for years. I said once before that part of the joy of these age ratings is that when I was younger, it was dangerous and naughty and exciting to get into a movie on a false ID, or slip in through the side unnoticed. Staying up until 2am on a Saturday Night/Sunday Morning so I could watch the grown-up super-violent movies and Manga anime on Channel 4 was thrilling and naughty because it was a constant game of having a remote near me, so if my grandparents stirred in the next room, I could switch the screen off quickly and pretend to be asleep. To a twelve year old buy, the idea of all this violence and swearing does indeed sound very grown up, very adult, very cool. I totally understand that. I couldn’t wait to grow up at that age either, it’s a constant societal pressure to grow up as quickly as possible so you can take on your share of the responsibility in the world. It’s not fun being a kid at times. I get that. I sort of remember those feelings too. I was so glad to get out of my old school and move on that I dropped my pants and MOONED the schools security cameras on my final exam day.
But when you hit 18, the danger is gone. It’s legal. Legit. That, or it comes with more serious social consequences in many cases (I think mooning a security camera these days would be frowned upon), and the novelty value in the sex and violence and nastiness of late night movies has all but worn thin, because you can watch it now and it’s normal. Once you hit the point where things are legal, the mystery is either already long gone or about to fade very rapidly. Excessive swearing and stupid violence no longer looks grown up – it begins, slowly and surely, to look very childish and hark back to those times when you thought it was cool and fun and hilarious. The older we get, the more stupid and immature it becomes. The very nature of growing up in this market is that by the time we’re at a legal age to actually enjoy this stuff, more of us are actually starting to turn it off and expect more.
And this is one of the biggest problems with this inherent focus on young boys. The majority of the market is not made up of little boys. We are mostly adults with our own money and if a game isn’t good enough, we’re going to sell it back to the shop for another game, thereby providing the market with a cheaper version of the game to buy so the developer sees less money overall. A study last year showed the average age of a gamer these days is in their mid-thirties. My sort of age. It also suggested that 46% of people who buy and play video games are women. It’s an almost 50/50 split now. The market has changed – dramatically so in recent years, and the industry has chased and is chasing a small and incredibly niche section of that market in the vain hopes of getting the sales figures of Call of Duty, because heck, it’s what kids want for Christmas every year so why not go for that market? It makes sense to aim for the largest target group and ask those who buy into that target group why they buy into it!
Thing is, kids are far more susceptible to “Brand Bias”. This is where they focus almost devotedly to one brand – or the most popular brand in order to conform to their peer group. Which, in this case, tends to be Call of Duty. They ask their parents for Call of Duty because that is the brand they are attached to. Battlefield may be the more adult and technically superior game, but EA’s drive to change it so it appeals more to that market only serves to alienate the adult market it already has in the fruitless pursuit of a bunch of pre-pubescent boys who think big guns and head shots are somehow the hight of cool, adult entertainment. They haven’t even started to learn what adult entertainment is at that age. Adults don’t always have this; they can, and usually will, detach from a brand when it stops pitching to them.
And again, this young teenage market, the one everyone is trying to get in on, isn’t the biggest market at all. It accounts for about a third of the Christmas market sales – which is a lot, to be sure – but that means there are two thirds left, crying out for attention, who could be serviced with content that is more appealing to them. There are huge chunks of the market left to capitalise on; and rather than chase these arguably blank pages and scrawl over them, and create content in places where none currently exists, they have become focused on one part of the whole, one piece of the puzzle and to hell with everyone else. To hell with the grown ups, gaming is immature and stupid and we shouldn’t be doing it at our age anyway, right?
Except the age restriction means the only people who can legally buy your immature game are the adults who may not really be all that interested. If your focus groups largely consist of teenage boys, your game will appeal largely to teenage boys. If said game is age restricted and legally out of their reach… the market you focused on cannot buy it, therefore the game in question cannot reach its full potential. Which means your focus on that market is questionable at best, and professionally suicidal at worst.
This is not the most complex of facts to grasp.
It’s a problem that the market needs to resolve as it pushes onwards into the next generation; because, at an estimated £500 per console and £60 per game, the market that is going to buy these snazzy new consoles are not the children, but the adults. The responsible, grown-up people with jobs, lives and kids of their own who if they touch it without the adults permission may find their hands being rapped on the back with a ruler and grounded for the rest of the year. Male and female, 18 to 80, of all walks of life and all colours and creeds. The next generational leap is going to be more financially weighty than any other jump so far, which means less games may be bought overall. This means you have to know your audience, know the market that is buying the machine and give them a product they want to use on it, want to own and would be willing to spend their money on in the first place. This means you need to focus your attention on the market you know will be buying it, and buying the product.
But that said, games are still by many suited executives seen as toys for little boys, and inherently children and teenagers are easier to manipulate into saying what the company itself wants to hear.
I am reminded of a study last year where it was said that “everyone polled for this study professed their adoration for (a singer)”. It was obviously a music study in order to gauge the popularity of this person in the market for some reason or another. So where did they do this poll? On your average high street? In a record shop? In a supermarket? No. None of those. They asked people who were attending a concert by this person. They asked people who had paid money for a ticket to see this person who their favourite singer was. And yup, the answers were pretty unanimous. This was reported widely at the time, but the majority of the comments in response were not from fans – but people who saw through the bias, the very fallacy of the notion of the study, and actively questioned its validity. Sure, everyone loved this singer who was asked. But you asked everyone in a place where the only people available for comment were people who loved the singer.
Sometimes you will get the answers you want, because that’s the only person you are asking and you’re only asking one question. Everyone else, on the other hand, is inconsequential, in spite of the fact they outweigh the sample poll considerably, and it is the further alienation of this market that creates tensions and problems. The more you push everyone else away, the more secluded your market becomes and when a bubble bursts, and your market runs off to the next bubble, you’ve moved far away from everyone else and no-one stops to care.
If you design a game for frat boys and tweens, then that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with aiming games at this market – they are a market, after all, and to deny such is foolish. There’s no reason to not make games for that market, which is still of a considerable size. But they are not the majority, and they do not represent the majority. They are a small portion of the market, a small corner of a large 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. There are thousands of other cliques and social circles to cover, many tens of millions of people out there who could be targeted.
Let’s talk about it this way. A lot of these games sell around 4 million units as an average. There are about 250 million home console sales and last theory I heard was roughly 180 million households that were estimated to have had one or more consoles in it. So we have 4 million sales, and a theoretical 180 million potential customers.
That, in a percentage, would be 2.2% of the whole market. Call of Duty and it’s 25 million sales would account for a considerably small 13.8% of the market. Even if you simplify this down to 100 million (Wii market), your average game sales would account for around 5% of the market. Some games like Call of Duty would account for up to 25%. But that is still not a majority. It’s a large portion; but there’s an even larger part of the market still not being catered for.
Once you break it down to these percentages, you have to wonder why everyone is chasing small fractions when there is still, by and large, a huge market that isn’t even being tapped properly. But the industry still thinks, for some reason, we’re in the late 80’s, where games were seen primarily as the refuge of the male nerd, alone in their bedroom with images of Princess Leia in that gold slave bikini. It still thinks the largest and most influential part of the market are the children, the little boys from ages 12 to 16, for whom they can pester their parents for something. Perhaps it is that old late-80’s audience that now sits in positions of power in the industry, unable to move on, unable to adapt to the modern world where the gender divide is more evenly spread and where my 80-year-old grandfather was playing Everquest and asking at the till for Dead or Alive: Extreme Beach Volleyball on release. A world which no longer entirely conforms to stereotypes.
The market has grown up considerably in the past twenty years or so. And yet it bases a lot of assumptions on specific numbers and a stereotype that hasn’t existed since at the latest 1995, when the PlayStation came in and captivated a whole new audience and created a whole new social scene. One of the biggest games of that generation was a little something called Tomb Raider, featuring a lead character called Lara Croft who, last I checked, was assumed to be a woman – a character that came to define an era, and be its greatest legacy on the world (for good – Anniversary – and for bad… Angel of Darkness. *shudders*). The market, and society, has rushed onwards into this bright new future, only to look back and realise that the creepy industry is still focusing all its efforts on selling their digital candy to the little boys who aren’t of legal age to buy their sodding games anyway! And the market – you and me and millions of other people – have had to stop and look back and tap our feet impatiently. It’s hard to move on when the industry hasn’t really been keeping up…
The industry wonders why with so many consoles out there, so many households with games consoles and PC’s, why it still in most cases struggles to break the 5 million sales barrier. Why do so many games struggle so?
Perhaps the very first question that it could start with is why a game with an age-restricted 18 certificate is being focus tested on twelve year olds in the first place.
It’s not like they can buy your game in the first place…