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.