Player democracy, the FemShep dilemma, and why do we have unpopular classes/ races anyway?

So Bioware recently decided to put a female version of their lead character on the box art for Mass Effect 3, and held a poll on Facebook to let people vote on how she should look. The long-haired blonde won by a large margin (I think my fave was number 3), but that isn’t the point. The point is that they decided to do it in the first place. Not so much the voting – brands have been doing that on Facebook since (it feels like) forever to drum up customer interest. But that they decided to switch the advertising to show off the female version of the character.

I guess it can’t hurt in a world where sex sells product to have a pretty blonde woman with boob-enhancing body armour on the front of a box either.

82% players can’t be wrong, can they?

Last month, Bioware discussed this decision and revealed two interesting statistics. Firstly 18% of Mass Effect players use a female model for their character. And secondly, 13% of players go with the default (male) option and don’t tweak it at all.

So the question is, if they know that only 18% of their players pick a female version of Shepherd, does that really justify that cost and time involved in putting in all the extra female animation and voice work? Wouldn’t it be more cost effective to just not bother? This is a question that I predict we will see more often with respect to F2P games. If it’s part of the ethos of F2P designers that they provide more of whatever customers are willing to pay for, then surely the majority choice must get more attention unless the minority is willing to pay more for their wishes to be taken into account. After all, time is money.

This will be even more marked in SWTOR, because there is that much more voice work. And how many female bounty hunters and sith warriors do people really think there will be? There must be a level on which Bioware decided that offering diversity was worth it, which is one of the reasons that I love them.

Another point is that yes, lots of people are not interested in spending time customising their character, even just to pick one of the several basic settings. This implies to me a UI issue because even people who don’t care how their character looks could manage to select something in a Facebook poll. And I do think it is of value to get people to show a preference or two during character creation, it can certainly make the character feel more personal. The Facebook poll type of character customisation is much closer to how WoW presents character generation. You have to pick one option for face, hair, etc but can’t customise it beyond that. There’s a ‘select random’ if you really don’t care, and still you’ll find that some faces in particular don’t show up much among the player base (which implies that most people weren’t just hitting the random button.)

Race and Gender popularity in WoW

mmo-champion published some data about relative popularity of race/ gender options in WoW recently. There’s nothing new here to surprise anyone, the least popular options are Orc female and Dwarf female and female characters are less popular across the board than male ones with the exception of Draenei (I hope some lore writer is going to portray them as a matriarchal race to reflect this ;) ). Blood Elves are probably the race with the least dimorphism (ie. the females and the males don’t look so different) and their ratio of male: female is roughly equal.

But other than the Draenei and Blood Elves you might be excused for wondering why Blizzard do spend all this time on female models (including new dances etc) when a new race is brought in. Remember all the fuss about worgen females? Only 20% of the worgen players picked them. But sometimes, percentages don’t tell the whole story. And if those female models weren’t there, maybe those players would simply not have picked the game up at all …

So if I am not overly enthused about player democracy in games, it’s because I know that I am in a minority and I don’t trust the majority to vote with my interests in mind. It makes me glad that there are devs who won’t give them the option.

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22 thoughts on “Player democracy, the FemShep dilemma, and why do we have unpopular classes/ races anyway?

  1. I don’t understand this lack of popularity with female dorfs. I think they’re great, and I was reet happy when I found out they could be shamans in Cataclysm.

    Is it jus that they’re not tall, slender and ‘sexy’, or just that rather than being unappealing, the other race/gender combos are more appealing?

    • @Andy: Personally, I play female characters because I find them more aesthetically pleasing than males. I enjoy looking at a female figure that triggers my sense of beauty and dwarf females just don’t do that. I don’t look for a realistic representation or identification with my character, nor does my personal ranking of game character attractiveness reflect the way I view women in real life. A character in an game is (to me) nothing but a shell I get to fill with my actions. And I prefer that shell to be nice to look at.

      I would guess that many other male players who choose to play females think along similar lines, accounting for the difference in popularity.

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  3. Data from the WoW Census website is also very interesting. The rise of the Blood Elves who replaced the Undead as the “human” species of the Horde also show a general player preference towards human and beautiful races which isn’t limited to WoW. I found it very interesting that there are more female Draenei than males (actually no wonder – unlike their male counterparts they are rather beautiful), not surprised that there are so few female dwarves and personally thought there would be more female Night Elves than males.

    I think it is also the game that influences which gender people play. While I would like to play a male char in Guild Wars 2 it seems that very much like in Guild Wars 1 I find the males rather unappealing while the female models are damn sexy. I even spotted the first sexy plant I have ever seen in my life yesterday.

    But I think it is important to give players choices to also create “ugly” characters and give them lots of options in general. The bias towards lingerie models only is very strong in Asian MMOs. Games that allow almost unlimited customization on the other hand allow the creation of the typical Aion monsters, either giants or micro-sized beings with longer arms than legs and pumpkin heads. So maybe some restrictions make sense… :)

    I quite didn’t understand the fuss about the ME box art. FemShep will only be visible alongside the male version on the CE cover after all and who voted for the blonde stereotype anyways? Mostly males.

    • @Longasc – these days you don’t see many ‘freaks’ in Aion, and if you consider the giant sized characters as GW Norn and the smallish characters as Asura then Aion certainly fits in with any other fantasy game, especially as the only race is really just human (with manes and claws for the Asmodian side), so the large and small chars add some much needed variety. I am pleased GW2 will be using some of the Aion character design flexibility, but with much better limits. Aion has too many options and some that shouldn’t have been allowed at all.

      As to gender, I usually go 50-50, mainly so I have access to as many armor designs as possible. I see them more as characters in a book, with me as the author, rather than ‘I am this character’. I actually did start out with a female character in Mass Effect, but then switched to a male character once I got into the story. I’m not sure what it was, perhaps the story just felt wrong with a female, almost as if that had been tacked on as an afterthought.

  4. Draenei are Velen-archal, not matriarchal.
    However, demon-temptress appeal of female dreanei is irresistible. Everyone has a female draenei alt.

  5. As a female player, would you want to play a male character, especially in an MMO? I would be very annoyed if I was forced to be a male – I want my character to reflect me! I can’t play a dwarf in LOTRO for this exact reason – I know that technically the females look the same as the male ones in the lore, but I can’t get past it, as much as I’d like to play one.

    Maybe I am just pushing my own worldview forward, but I imagine there will be plenty of female sith warriors and bounty hunters – I was thinking about being a bounty hunter…

    • Oh I far far prefer to play female characters. I have played guys but it’s not usually my first choice. The reason I picked those classes is that they’ve just been presented as fairly macho so far so I think most female players will prefer the castery or sneaky types. (I also suspect more women will pick Republic.)

      I do find sith warrior quite tempting but I have some reservations about whether I’ll like the story they want to tell, which is actually something I was planning to write about tomorrow :)

    • Tallying up the women I know who play MMOs, one plays mainly male characters, one plays exclusively female characters, and the rest play a mixture – depending somewhat on what the character models look like. Of course, most of the guys I know play a mixture, too. (And one plays all female characters.)

      For myself, even though I tend to play a mixture, I don’t think I’d pick up a game that restricted some classes to one sex. Maybe if there was a really, really good lore reason and there were both female only and male only classes. Maybe.

  6. It’s definitely worth having “unpopular” classes and races because the mere existence of variety is a selling point too. I see this at work all the time (I work in retail/sales) and it fascinates me. Yes, a considerable majority of customers will end up buying our most popular product, but only a small minority will do so straight away – most of them will spend a fair amount of time browsing and comparing first and will then feel all the more validated in their final choice (even if they end up picking the “default” option in the end) for having made the comparison.

  7. I finished ME three times and ME 2 twice so far, first play through I use the standard Shephard and take all the Paragon choices, second time I play FemShep and take all the Renegade options. I’m looking forward to seeing how my choices pan out in the final installment.

  8. I’d be curious to see Blizzard’s internal statistics as to how many players converted a character from one gender to the other and which way the switch went.

  9. For me it’s definately about variety/choices. I’m a female player and between two accounts I have:

    1 Male Gnome (banker @ level 2)
    2 Female Gnome (1 banker @ level 67, 1 warlock @ max level)
    1 Female Dwarf (banker @ level 58)
    3 Male Human (1 max level, 1 level 56, 1 banker @ level 24)
    3 Female Dranaei (to me they are THE sexiest race – all max level)
    1 Male Dranaei (max level – had to make him ‘cus they have THE best dance)
    1 Male Nightelf (max level)
    2 Female Nightelf (both @ max level)
    1 Male Worgen (level 43)

    I have created horde toons (one of each race/gender – never tried Goblin) at one point or another to “try” them out and found that I only like two of them – Male Tauren & Male Orc. I don’t play horde side often, and most toons I did create never made it to level 20, so that is more than likely the reason why I’m not crazy about them. The only horde I have left is a Male Tauren. He’s a banker now but did make it to level 24. hahaha

    Since I started playing WoW back in ’07 it’s never been “I want this race because it’s who I want to relate with/represent me”. It’s mostly been about what mood I was in at the time I created them. My first toon was my Female Gnome Warlock. I just thought it would be hilarious to have a cute, little female gnome, with pigtails of course, as a dark & dastardly character….hahaha. However, I can honestly say that I will NEVER create a Female Human….I just loathe their dance. Not sure why I’ve never tried a Male Dwarf.

  10. The MMO Champion data was only for level 85 characters. Some of the numbers might be different if they looked at characters of all levels.

    Also, the female Worgen numbers may be low because Blizzard didn’t get the model to look right, so people don’t want to play them as much.

  11. What if Bioware knew that players would organically choose to play bounty hunters as male 99% of the time? Say they expect to lose money by creating female character models, voices, art for SWTOR. That’s certainly an argument for not including them in the game.

    But if they did that, the message to all players is that you can play any class you like if you choose a male but your female characters have fewer options just because of their sex. In any game where players can choose male or female characters, offering anything less than perfect symmetry sends a strong message about how the developers consider gender equality.

  12. Well the reason there are so few female worgen characters is that they changed the model to something so wildly unpopular. IMO.

  13. I think having female models available it is also to do with immersion. You need female NPC anyway so the “extra” effort to animate the player model is not that great. Immersion is very important for WoW. I haven’t played since Feb but I have played lots of other MMO’s since and none of them get close to WoW when it comes to wanting to be in the world and keep playing. I think this feeling is created by all the small immersion details that are everywhere and have been built up over the years (NPC, critters, the environments, the lore, nostagia, familiar names and characters, the jokes, the art style). Azeroth would be a lot less “sticky” if the developers were to start cutting even more corners based on popular player choices.

  14. Two things.

    1) The more interesting question, IMO, is how many gamers would choose the male Shepherd if the female Shepherd was the default model? Personally, I tend to play plot-centric games the way I imagine the designers intended the game to be played. In games like Fallout or WoW, the game is 99% the same no matter what you do, so I go for aesthetics. In Dragon Age though, I went for aesthetics (picking a female character) and ended up in the strikingly bizarre position of seducing a man only to have to later convince him to get another party member pregnant. Had I just picked a generic dude, I could have cut out the middleman and got her pregnant myself, making the event far less creepy and much more emotional.

    I know nothing about the plot of Mass Effect, but I do know you can have sex with aliens. Ergo, I will choose the male Shepherd on my first playthrough.

    Seriously though, that Dragon Age experience probably messed me up. Just remembering the frustration in navigating Alistair’s romance dialog while shouting “I would have had me at ‘hello!'” paled in comparison to the horror of what I realized I was doing when he shirtlessly faded-to-black… with my female dwarf.

    2) Even if only 18% of gamers chose the FemShep, the question should not be “is it worth money to record all that dialog/etc?” The question should be “how expensive is it going to be versus the chance that any of that 18% choose not to pick up the game as a result?” If Bioware comes out ahead profit-wise as long as 5% of gamers choose one particular model, it is worth including that model by definition (up to a point, obviously). There is also the psychological benefit of having choices, even if you pick the same thing every time.

    • With the question about the default model, it will be interesting to find out. I suspect the answer will be fewer because of a) lots of players will be importing their old Shep and b) the game has romance options so just as you experienced in DAO, even people who don’t bother to customise will click the button for getting the gender they feel more comfortable with.

  15. I always play female characters in mmos/rpgs, probably because I spent my childhood waving my Game Boy Colour at my parents and shouting “why do I have to be a boy!?”. I don’t mind playing male characters in games of other genres – Assassin’s Creed? Final Fantasy? Portal? (Although I guess the situation is kind of reversed in Portal’s case) – but if a game features a protagonist whose personality or decisions are shaped by the player, as in the case of Mass Effect or Dragon Age, a female option should be available.

    Regarding the Facebook voting for the new default femshep: I think it’s nice to see Bioware upgrading her default look. Sheploo has a very high quality model compared to his female counterpart, who was just made with the character creator. I think the move is less likely to garner additional profits than it is goodwill amongst pre-existing ME fans.

    I find it rather sad, though, that people are calling the BlondeShep the “stereotypical” or “racist” or “teenage boy” option. There was a thread on the Bioware forums a little while back in which people were posting pictures of actresses they thought would make a good model for the new FemShep, and the vast majority of the actresses were of vague ethnicity, but generally with dark hair and amazing cheekbones. What is it about Shepard’s character that makes people (or at least the vocal forumgoers) think she can’t be blonde? Are blondes somehow less badass than brunettes or redheads? (I myself am blonde so I might be a little bit biased. A little.)

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