Is it time to stop making MMOs for a hardcore male audience?

I’ve seen a couple of surveys on female gamers recently.

  1. The big Nielsen study, which is summarised here on RPS. This shows that female players are in a slight minority on the PC, although most of them play solo casual games like Free Cell. As it happens, the majority of male players also play solo casual games like Free Cell (so if someone invented a Free Cell dating site, it would probably be very successful!). It also shows that although more men than women play WoW, it’s not by as much as most people think. 39% women vs 61% men. So in a standard 5 person group, 2 on average will be female players.
  2. This is another survey looking at single men and women and their appliance buying habits. Yes, women buy cool and useful gadgets even when not being nagged by a partner, who’d have thought? You didn’t think that Motorola released all those gutchurningly pink mobiles because they liked the colour? But despite outnumbering the guys in their take up of digital cameras, and being within a few percent for MP3 player and DS/ PSP ownership, women do buy significantly fewer non-handheld consoles.

So, the big thing that comes out of this is yes, women do play computer games. In many cases, we even play (and presumably enjoy) the same sorts of games.

Hopefully people, and media in particularly, will stop acting like it’s actually unusual to encounter a female player. (To be honest, even when it was more unusual, I don’t remember ever finding anyone who wasn’t able to adjust after … ooo … 5s which is about as long as it takes to say, “Really? You’re a girl? Haha, never guessed.”)

The RPS article notes that women play far fewer shooters than men, a result which surprises approximately no one. And it’s for the same reason that hardcore raid guilds probably have fewer female members than the averages might suggest.

So, are women less hardcore?

When a marketer talks about selling to the hardcore, they don’t care about that time you played Tetris for 8 hours straight or were in a server first kill of Kil’Jaeden. The marketing definition of hardcore is all to do with how people consume products.

They’re usually the early adopters that want to get the latest version of something, and they’ll be the ones that put it through its paces the hardest and give us all kind of feedback and tell us what they like and don’t like.

– Charlie Scibetta, Nintendo

Hardcore gamers are people who buy a lot of games. They probably own several consoles. They are predominantly male. They like shooters and anything that references WW2. They don’t always finish the games they buy before moving on to the next one. They often buy based on hype and like to play whatever is hot (i.e.. they buy games as soon as they come out). It is not surprising that gaming companies and their marketers love the hardcore. They represent a large percent of the profit.

By this definition, women are a lot less hardcore. They make up a tiny percentage of the hardcore market.

This is an old interview with Tina Kowalewski, an executive with a vast amount of industry experience in Sony and Interplay, talking about the hardcore.

GameSpy: First off, what is your definition of a hardcore gamer?

Tina Kowalewski: Hardcore, in terms of a gamer, is typically male between the ages of 14-34 who spends most of his leisure time playing video games over any other form of entertainment or activity. Much of their expendable income is dedicated to buying the latest, greatest games and gaming technology; whether it’s the newest gaming console or upgrading their PC.

And it’s because of the ‘hardcore gamer’ that so many shooters are released into the market. But since the Wii and DS were launched, something strange happened to the gaming charts. Week after week, we see Wii Fit and Brain Training top the UK sales charts (no, I don’t know why Brain Training either, although God knows I meet enough people whose brains could use the help so I’m down with that). Occasionally a popular new shooter will take over the top spot, but that will be a flash in the pan.

And now, catering to the hardcore might not actually be the most profitable way to target new games. Or rather, we’re seeing the rise of a different type of hardcore. A more female variety.

If you market your MMO to a hardcore male audience it will fail

I noted in passing the other day that Age of Conan wasn’t targeted at women. That was an understatement. The much vaunted maturity of the title was based on the digital boobs and blood that were scattered generously throughout the game world. The boobs were very nicely rendered, I’ll give them that, and it is a very pretty game. I honestly have no objection to boobs in games, and I’m as fond of a kickass death animation as anyone.

But it is difficult when playing not to feel alienated every time the game does something to press the point home that it was designed to appeal to a market that wasn’t me. The conversation options that don’t work well for female characters. The fact that all the female characters who chat you up are gorgeous whereas the male ones are all using it as a way to threaten you.

I really don’t dislike AoC from what I’ve seen so far, it’s quite fun. But I felt the same way about Warhammer. It’s a fun game, as far as it goes, but hard to pretend you don’t notice that it is aimed squarely at guys.

Yes, of course we should just play what we like and not care about these things. But the games that show me that they were designed for me (or at least don’t actively put me off) are the ones that will win my heart. Does it really surprise anyone that the most popular MMOs are not shooters, do not particularly cater to the 14-34 hardcore male gamer audience, often feature female-friendly design features such as cute pets and pretty costumes, etc?

They do also feature lots of other types of activity. You get to kill stuff. Act like a badass hero. Be as hardcore as you like. And so on. I think that the strength of an MMO is in the variety of playing styles it supports. So a game that cuts out a lot of the social fluff is always going to be a game that lacks a piece of its heart.

It’s not because you need women to make games work, that’s silly. But in virtual societies, just like in RL ones, social players (who include both genders of course, but are often female) bring the skills and interests that knit groups together. Design your game such that they won’t want to play it, and you’ll never get the community that you need. This comes back to Dr Bartle’s work. The social players are often underrated, because they’re not hardcore (at least, not in the way hardcore is usually defined), but they are the glue that holds our virtual worlds together.

If you design your MMO for the hardcore, all you will get is just another hardcore game. And what people forget about hardcore gamers is that they shift allegiances as soon as the next hot thing comes out.

Despite all this, I’m really looking forwards to seeing Jumpgate Evolution later this year because … omg flying around in spaceships and shooting stuff!! Rar! But I don’t expect to make it any kind of a virtual home.

18 thoughts on “Is it time to stop making MMOs for a hardcore male audience?

  1. I wonder if there is any correlation between the games that females are more inclined to play, and the games that males are more inclined to stick around in.

    In other words, would as many males stick with WoW if the game didn’t appeal to such a large female audience? How much of the achievement mentality in WoW is driven by what is essentially a sublimated peacock display?

  2. If you put as much time rendering the male avatars as the females, you might be well on your way to enticing more female gamers. But that would require the graphics designers to spend way too much time around virtual male buttox.

    Argument for more female (or gay male) graphic designers in the games industry right there.

  3. There is no reason why quests, for example, can’t easily be dependent on the character you are playing.

    “While wearing the tuxedo, kiss a player wearing the dress..”
    Nothing wrong with a male Orc running round Dalaran in a dress, but how hard for the quest to say
    “While wearing the dress, kiss a player wearing the tuxedo..”

    I can see the blatant sexism in “Put the bunny ears on any female of level 18+..”
    Apart from preventing everyone rolling unpopular characters simply for this event, I wonder if there was a need to make the ‘legal age’ reference so plain?

    Anyway, the more femal gamers the better. It makes me feel less like a sad male stuck in the basement.

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  5. Yes it is a massive mistake to target only male hardcore gamers with an MMO, as we saw with AoC, Warhammer, and Darkfall. One of the main keys to WoW’s success is it’s appeal to women. No, it’s not exactly living up to some feminist ideal, but:

    -every race has males and females, and they are statistically identical, and they even get the same armor (rather than a pink version)
    -it’s possible to go about your business without needing to constantly defend yourself
    -the art direction is a bit cartoonish and more general. Not to say that women like cartoons, but that an extremely violent setting isn’t as appealing to them as it is to an angry aggressive insecure frustrated young male. People like Disney and Pixar for a reason, and those people are just as often men as they are women and children.

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  7. Of the MMO’s I’ve played that aren’t so male oriented in function – EQ, EQ2, LoTRO and WoW would be on the list. Its also where I’ve played with a higher number than normal of women.

    WoW though – wtf is it with the costuming? Can’t we be pretty without looking like a ‘ho? My friends have laughed on numerous occasions about my ‘armor’ that appears different on the male characters. I resent as a woman the idea it has bows and is pink so you must like it, right? attitude. No – I’d just like my armor to not be hot pants and a midrift halter top sometimes!

    As for AoC/Warhammer, definitely demographically aimed at men – but then more men are inclined to read the books too. I’ve read a few Warhammer books – describing a type of munition, etc., in minute detail – pass.

    FreeRealm will likely appeal to many women that like the social aspect, its easy, fun and definitely not all Epeen.

    In FPS – I keep trying them but can’t play as they given me motion sickness all the way back to Wolfenstein for MSDOS – take some dramamine to play those! I like them – but my tummy does not!

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  9. I have great hopes for TOR in this regard. The Star Wars licence has generally had strong and interesting female characters, especially the novels. Star Wars: Galaxies was interesting to many women back when MMOs were a much more male preserve than they are now. And the fiascos of boy-centric titles like Age Of Boobies and Warhammer may lead the more discerning games executives to the conclusion that alienating 50% of the population before you even reach Alpha isn’t a business model to aspire towards.

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  11. I think the opposite is equally true. As a male in my late 20’s I don’t want to play a game that allows me to have 50-100 pairs of shoes. Okay granted that is probably extremely stereotypical and I apologise but you get the idea. Extremes are bad in all things so designing a game with excessive feminine inclined aspects is likely to alienate males.

    I think I’d prefer games to be gender neutral and have aspects of gameplay that cater to both. Bizarrely enough I suppose it boils down to the utopia of freedom of choice in a game world. I don’t want certain things decided for me or thrust down my throat.

    I would hate a game that demanded I play a female avatar but equally I would hate a game that made me run around in a world where every woman was a prostitute wearing little to no clothes.

    I can sympathise with female gamers who feel alienated by games but equally there are plenty of female gamers who congregate in to Girl power gangs in games which are themselves alienating.

    AoC did some great marketing by giving itself the “adult” name the breast thing hit the gaming news in a big way but honestly, honestly how many people actually notice the breasts after the first 2 minutes of the game? Other than teasing the people I play with about their breasts on the odd ocassion I have no interest in the “assets” of an online persona. We all find it rather childishly amusing in it’s attempt to occupy the stereotypical teenage male. Why bother……

    • I think you are right on the money with this. The more I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion that the big strength of an MMO /should/ be the wide range of choices and gameplay that it supports.

      It’s not impossible to imagine a game that has extensive combat options as well as extensive crafting options. One where you could play dressup or house if you want, or you could go and kill more foozles with a vehicle-mounted SMG, or could run a successful in-game business. I think the most successful and influential MMOs have kind of stumbled on that sort of setup.

      I hope the games can find a way to return to their roots because if the alternative is Free Realms forever, I’ll be looking for a different hobby.

  12. This isn’t just an MMO issue, it’s a game industry problem (and to a degree, an “entertainment” problem across many industries). That said, MMOs should be especially sensitive to actual population dynamics, since they require many people playing together to maintain a critical mass.

  13. The way I see it, it isn’t so much about me saying ‘stop making games for those guys’ (although sure, I’d like devs to make games for me personally but so would everyone!) as ‘hang on, that hardcore demographic you are chasing is the exact same demographic who will try a game and then move on to the next best thing. Is that really the core audience you want for a successful MMO?’

  14. Indeed. It’s fine for the latest “God of” or “Gears of” War because those are consumed and tossed out for the next one. MMOs have very different dynamics.

  15. The only MMO that is likely to maintain my attention is one that naturally evolves but natural evolution is difficult for devs. I imagine it is like launching their game over and over again and in some respects it should be.
    If your game is not evolving it doesn’t matter who your audience is they will move on. We humans are fickle and tend to be easily bought by something that appears better or new.
    The key to longevity and evolution has to be diversity though, right? I don’t think any game should close doors unless it absolutely has too. Each door closed is just another limitation however you have to be careful about diluting your concept. A game has to have a concept otherwise it has no foundation so how can you build on it?
    It’s certainly a balancing act and devs won’t always get it right I think the important thing is how they respond when they clearly got it wrong. Lets face it we all remember the times they got it wrong, how often do we remember when they got it right?

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