Female characters, marketing, and consistency of design

22 January 2015

Hi all! Dave here back with another edition of blog. Today I’m going to talk about something that’s not terribly current, but should always be relevant.

Last summer, Ubisoft caused a bit of a kerfuffle when they announced that there wouldn’t be a female playable character in Assassin’s Creed: Unity’s co-op mode. Their reasons? It was too much work and it wasn’t worth it. This led to many great debates and discussions about female representations in video games, none of which I will get into here. I know this is very old news, but please bear with me. Suffice to say, I have been asked several times about my position and opinion on the whole “female characters in games” thing. So after hemming and hawing about it for awhile, I have decided to finally address this topic.

First of all, why is my opinion so important? It probably has to do with Blackwell, our flagship series. As you probably know, the protagonist of Blackwell is Rosa Blackwell, who is – *gasp* – a woman. Going by what the AAA industry would have us believe, this should have killed the series before it even began.

In all honesty, I did not set out to create a female character. I just wanted to create a character. I set out to create a quintessential New York type of person – intellectual, neurotic, perhaps a bit aimless – and that’s what I did. I created Rosa Blackwell, paired her up with Joey, and The Blackwell Legacy was the result.

This game launched in 2006. I won’t say that the original game was a huge seller, but it was reviewed nicely and sold well enough to pay all my bills and keep me in business. There were five games in the series (the last of which was released in April of this year), and each installment sold better and was reviewed better then the last, despite having a woman (a sensibly-dressed woman no less) on the cover. So… yeah. Way to show those AAA marketing people, eh? They obviously don’t know what they are talking about, right? Who says you need a male protagonist in order to sell?

Let’s shift gears a bit. In 2011 we took a break from writing our own stuff and published a game called Gemini Rue. You might have heard of it. It was the biggest seller in the history of our company. It was the first game of ours to be featured at the IGF. It was the first game of ours that caught the attention of major “hardcore” sites like Kotaku and Giant Bomb. It was the first game of ours that really put us on the map. It was the first game of ours to break us out of the adventure gamer niche and into the mainstream.

Oh, and it was also the first game of ours to feature a serious-looking white male as the protagonist. One who is unshaven, speaks in a growly gravelly voice, carries a gun, and is several hundred shades of cynical and grim. So… yeah. Basically the epitome of the AAA mass-marketable character.

So what did this teach me? Were all those AAA marketing people right? Was I shooting myself in the foot by making not only a game starring a woman, but a whole game SERIES? Okay, fine. Blackwell was selling fine – flourishing, in fact! – but maybe they would be selling exponentially better if the games starred a man instead? I mean, maybe those big companies knew what they were talking about. They have bigger resources then me. They have whole teams dedicated to learning this stuff. If they spent all that money, sorted through all that data, and came to the conclusion “male characters sell better,” who am I to argue?

I admit this caused a bit of an existential crisis for awhile. I was in the middle of working on Blackwell Deception, and I was terrified. Did I make a huge mistake back in 2006 when I started this series? I had come this far, and I was beginning to doubt myself. It would have been SO EASY to leap to the obvious conclusion (that male characters sell better) and leave it at that, but I wanted to find out for myself.

So I went to the fans directly and asked the obvious question: “So why did you choose to play Gemini Rue instead of Blackwell?

The responses were… interesting to say the least.

  • I just love cyberpunk!
  • I don’t want to commit to an entire series. I just want one game.
  • I played the demo of the first Blackwell and I didn’t like it much.
  • Ghost stories don’t interest me so much.
  • Gemini Rue just looked more my thing.

There were many more responses then this, but they were all various offshoots of the above. And only a negligible few said anything about the characters. Barely 1%. Hardly anyone cared that Azriel was a “badass”, and hardly anyone cared that Rosa was a woman. That didn’t seem to be the issue. At least, not enough to make a significant difference.

It was never about the gender of the protagonist. It was about the game.

On the one hand, you’ve got Gemini Rue. Here are some screenshots that were used heavily in the marketing:

GR_screen6 GR_screen16
GR_screen11 GR_screen8

You look at those, and you know what you’re getting. It’s a dystopian future. It’s raining. There are spaceships. There are guys in trenchcoats. You know it. You get it. You might think of Blade Runner or Cowboy Bebop when you look at those screenshots. Those things are very popular. There’s a very good chance you like them too, so you are willing to take a chance on liking this.

Now, for comparison, let’s look at the first Blackwell game:

bl_screen1 bl_shot2
BL_shotd bl_shot3

So there’s a redhead lady. And a ghost. You might think of TV shows like Medium or Dead Like Me. Popular enough in their way, but very niche. There they are in a living room. And some kind of park? Oh, and you get to feed a dog? Is that what you do in this game? The locations are… well, kind ordinary. Nothing interesting is happening in them. There’s one shot where they are in some kind of otherworldly place that could be kinda cool, but it’s so out of place that it becomes an exception rather than the rule. You’ll probably give this game a glance and move onto something else. Maybe you’ll read a review of the game later and it is positive, so maybe you’ll give it a try. That is, if you remember.

I am being my own worst critic here. But the truth of the matter is that a game like Gemini Rue totally sold itself. It was EASY to sell that game, because it compressed well. You got the “message” of what it was about very quickly. Blackwell was… less so. I had a very concrete idea of what Blackwell was – it was a dark urban fantasy! – but my inexperience as a designer and a marketer prevented me from really getting that across. As a result, nobody knew what Blackwell was.

It took me several years before I figured this out. And it is no coincidence that Blackwell Epiphany (the latest and last game of the series) was designed from the ground up to make the “message” of the game crystal clear:

BE-shot7 BE-greenwood
BE-michael BE-shot1

So you’ve got snow. Not just snow. COLD. We wanted you to feel it when looking at it. You’ve got urban environments and decay. An otherworldly atmosphere pervades over everything. The magical glowy effect on the lower left? It doesn’t look out of place because the whole game has a consistent magical feeling. This game might not remind you of anything specific, but you take one look at these screenshots and you know exactly what you are getting: a dark urban fantasy, which is exactly what Blackwell is.

The message was clear. And was understood. And sure enough, the sales reflect that. Blackwell Epiphany’s one month sales figures were higher then all the other Blackwell’s one month sales figures put together.

So what’s my point? Gender has nothing to do with a game’s sales performance. It has everything to do with how a game is designed, presented and (yes) marketed. Turning Rosa into Ray would not have helped Blackwell magically sell better, but digging down and making a better designed and consistent GAME? Yes. That’s what matters.

In any case, I’d love to hear if my thoughts echo your experiences when it came to buying our stuff. Please let us know in the comments!

-Dave

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17 Responses

  1. Rob on 22/01/15 @ 1:35 pm

    Great post!

    I think it is very easy and common for new developers to forget about the “business” part of getting people to play their games. I think it is a great shame since theyve done the hardpart and finished making a game. You touch on a great point that you need to tell the story of the game in a lot of different ways, and AAA developers have the money, knowledge and team to be able to do this without fail no matter what pile of recycled garbage it is. However , as you have illistrated, it is very easy to do with a bit of planning and thought. I find that indie titles have a richer story, world and characters to explore than the majority of major titles today. In my book that these games should be the ones that get the attention they deserve, especially with others who aren’t very involved in the gaming scene.

    I really hope your post will speak to some of newcomers about to release their games commercially for the first time!

    • Dakota on 22/01/15 @ 7:01 pm

      my experience with Gemini Rue wasn’t the pictures, but i received it in an early Indie Royale bundle. possibly the first or second not sure. The name peaked my curiosity and when i found out it was a point and click adventure i was hooked. (i didn’t know it was when i installed it.) I think the story is what hooked me into the game. love the atmosphere, and although having someones memory erased and finding out who you are isn’t anything new but it made all the other characters that more interesting as whos who. It was a home run from beginning to end to flow of the story to action and twists. Thheeeennn i played blackwell. Im a huuuuge fan of Wadjet eye and will play any game you put out. I just couldn’t get into rosa. Although im going to give it another try and just think to myself that the story will get better as the game progresses. Since its your early works, it can be forgiven of a few things. I want to play it because it was your flagship game but i just got to get motivated.

      So meh im just babbling love your work and hope you can take my post for what its worth.

      looking forward to technobabylon (will pre order as soon as its available)

      • Robert on 27/01/15 @ 1:54 pm

        Well writen, Dave!

        Dontnod Entertainment (devs from Remember Me and Life Is Strange) has told that there were publishers, to whom they offered Life Is Strange, suggested to change from a female protagonist to a male one. This is nuts. As a man I really like to play a female character. Not only because I find them more attractive and asthetical appealing than men. Because it gets boring. I think women do undergo great adventures just like men do. And since I’m thinking that there is no real life Bruce Willis from Die Hard it’s not more credible seeing him doing that action stuff instead of a woman. Maybe Tomb Raider did over-sexualised her a bit but it have stepped into the right direction (tbh, ribbed and hard boiled male characters are also “over-sexualised” but no one’s seems to got a problem with that, I don’t hear any men complaining about a heroe’s muscles). Maybe we just need those stereotypes to distinguish fiction better from reality in order to escape better from that reality. As long as we get more female characters im fine with that. For now at least.

        • Jess on 27/01/15 @ 2:20 pm

          I’ll admit that when I first got the Blackwell games through a Steam bundle, I played the first one, thought it had it’s moments, but didn’t get hooked. I wasn’t an adventure game player at the time, and I think you’re right that atmosphere is key. The first game is just sort of finding Blackwell’s voice, and the right atmosphere doesn’t always come through. Also the story is just a little weak, it doesn’t go anywhere that felt new or thought provoking (a problem that was rectified in all future Blackwell games).

          But fast-forward maybe half a year, I see Gemini Rue on sale and impulse buy it. As a woman, I’m definitely not going off of the gritty male protagonist, in fact the cliche of such a character almost turns me off. But I get it for it’s cool, gritty future look and for the possibilities that I think such a story can have, and immediately get sucked in. I love the atmosphere and mystery and I quickly look up the game company to see if they’ve made any other games. When I see that Blackwell is your flagship series I go back and give it another go. The first game is better on a second play-through, and each subsequent game just develops a stronger and stronger sense of atmosphere and richness of character. I was deeply moved by the struggles of Rosa and Joey, and ultimately found the series even more meaningful and thought provoking than Gemini Rue.

          Thank you Dave for creating and investing in a very real feeling and relatable female character. And thank you for explaining in this article why excuses not to do this are just that… hollow excuses. Of course not every game needs to have a female protagonist, or even pass the Bechdel test (something that Gemini Rue does, even with it’s tough masculine protagonist). But game designers should realize that the ability to see something of ourselves reflected in the characters that we play and interact with is a powerful draw.

          Your games are beautiful, keep up the good work!

          • killerog on 11/02/15 @ 3:32 pm

            Hey!

            I think I agree with your view on the differences on the types of games and how they are marketed, but for me it’s mostly the other way around.

            I’m not sure how I heard about you guys in the first place, it might have been through Gemini Rue as the Blackwell trilogy bundle was already out as wel as Deception.

            But in contrast to Blackwell which I totally adore, and still do, I never really enjoyed Gemini Rue that much. There was just too much action-based sequences in it and the story was pretty standard dystopian as wel as the characters.

            Than came Resonance which was much better for a story, but still those annoying action sequences that I needed to do over and over again to progress. I’m really bad at those.

            For Primordia I didn’t even get past the demo, I just didn’t get what to do.

            So I did follow the last Blackwell, but I ignored the rest you’ve done pretty much up until Technobabylon, after I noticed it’s based on the old AGS games that I played a long time ago (which are sadly taken down now).

            I guess the point I’m trying to make is to ask you to please diversify your offers, if you don’t want to lose me and maybe other followers of the first hour. While action-adventures have a market, and likely a much bigger one, there’s still people out there like me who like the classic ones much better for one reason or the other.

            Please keep making those too!

            • Pangolin on 16/02/15 @ 1:23 am

              Am I too late? Long-time adventure game player here.

              I think you’re definitely onto something. Gemini Rue was the first game I played by WadgetEyeGames. I had seen the Blackwell Bundle before on GOG, but the screencaps and a description I read turned me away. Episodic games about putting the spirits of the dead to rest? No, thanks, not my style. I didn’t get the sense that there’d be a real story from that. I just expected some corny plot like an oft-canceled paranormal broadcast network show.

              Then, later I saw Gemini Rue, and the page for that (on Steam) made it look great. I bought it then and played through it. It was pretty good (though I didn’t think “great”) and put WadgetEye on my radar. Afterward, I decided to give the Blackwell Bundle a shot, and—wouldn’t you know it—those games became my favorites. I also played Primordia and Resonance as they were released; I loved both of these and am a major sci-fi fan, but the Blackwell games remain undoubtedly my favorite. I’m super happy I gave them a shot. In fact, I’d put Epiphany up there on my top 10 adventure games of all time, with the likes of Curse of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Grim Fandango, Gabriel Knight 1, etc.

              So, yeah, I think the presentation on the store pages means a LOT. It was weak enough to dissuade me from chancing Blackwell when I first saw it before you’d won me over, and intriguing enough for me to impulse but Gemini Rue.

              Honestly, your company revived the genre for me. Before I found WadgetEyeGames, it was just occasional replays of good old stuff like the LucasArts classics, Myst, Zork: GI, etc. I’ve since also discovered several other indie developers also doing great work, e.g. Amanita Design. It’s quite nice to see the genre start to grow (thrive, even?) again.

              Can hardly wait for your next game!

              • Dave Gilbert on 16/02/15 @ 10:35 am

                Nope! Not too late at all. 🙂 Although I will correct you and tell you that it’s “Wadjet Eye” not “Wadget Eye.” A common mistake. 🙂

                • Momomomo on 16/03/15 @ 11:21 am

                  I remember knowing about your games from the AGS forum back when there was only B.Legacy, Puzzle bots and a few others, but I didn’t buy then until they were on GOG (it’s there where I have all my digital games). Nowadays I buy everything that you do or publish as I know they will be quality games (even with the limitations of beeing an indie developer).

                  Talking about female characters and marketing… well I prefer Gemini Rue vs the Blackwell saga, not because the starring gender, but because… noir scifi vs ghost story?

                  I’m not really into ghost stories, and yet, I enjoyed the Blackwell saga thanks to both Rosangela ^^ and Lauren… GREAT characters, realistic and well written.

                  And it’s not that Gemini Rue is perfect… Joshua Nuernberger did a impresive (and smart) work. The atmosphere is perfect, and it covers most of his weakness… the only drawback I found were the action sequences. They should have been optional. They up the bar to a place you don’t want when dealing with adventure game pacing… although I understand they are there just for showing the stress of the situation.

                  So… I couldn’t care less if the character is male, female, or whatever (Primordia :P)… I like well written characters, dealing with a well written adventure on a well written world.

                  I’m looking forward to your new games, and iPad ports of the rest for my wife 🙂

                  PS. If I may give a few advices… on your games (even the ones you didn’t develop) there seems to be a clearly abuse of keyboard entries. Bad practice 😛

                  Just try with mouse only interfaces (+keyboard if you want). But no more text entry on computer “wikipedias”, action sequences, google searching, etc… You’ll make your wife happier when porting on tablets, and my wife will not ask me to take over the game just for dealing with that part hehe 😛 (she loves Gemini Rue on iPad, but she can’t overcome the action sequences)…

                  And careful with real world vs in-game knowledge… like the email/address password cracking from The Shivah. I’m a computer engineer so I could figure it out, but the old Rabbi? who clearly stated he didn’t know a thing about computers? he couldn’t have solved this puzzle, so it seems it’s out-of-character.

                • Rise of the Indie Game Publisher on 17/03/15 @ 7:26 am

                  […] Studio aus seinen Erfahrungen als Publisher lernt und diese auf seine eigenen Spiele anwendet: In diesem Artikel erklärt Gilbert wie er es schaffte, dass sich der letzte Teil der Blackwell-Reihe besser an den […]

                  • […] to collate data, study it, compare it, and then come to the absolute wrong conclusions. I’ve discussed this before, but there are several other instances of me being SURE I cracked some kind of code and then […]

                    • ET3D on 15/09/15 @ 3:48 pm

                      I just got a link to this blog post from a GOG forum post, so I’m months behind, but it’s an interesting subject, so I figured it’s worth responding to.

                      I think that gender does have a lot of effect on the game, and often comes naturally out of it. The decision to use a woman for the protagonist of Blackwell and a man for the protagonist of Gemini Rue came naturally from the stereotypical ‘action = male’, ‘drama (emotional content) = female’. (There are other stereotypes that are often followed. For example, if someone wants a silly character, someone incompetent or someone wisecracking, that is likely to be a man.)

                      It’s always possible to subvert the stereotypes, but it’s more natural not to. The question then is not whether a man or a woman sell better, but whether they sell better given a specific story or game type. If Blackwell was a man, would the game have worked just as well?

                      There are tons of female characters in gaming. Most hidden object adventures features female protagonists. I believe that there are more such games than AAA action games, so the female characters might even have a lead. These games are naturally aimed at female gamers.

                      At the end of the day, I believe that a large part of the issue is just that both content creators and content consumers find it easier to work with stereotypes. I also think that these stereotypes come don’t come out of nowhere. Men do like action more than women; women (in general) do care more about emotional content; the wisecracker of the gang is more likely to be a guy.

                      The other part of the equation is who the developer and publisher aim at. If the target market is more female oriented, you’ll see more female protagonists, and vice versa.

                      Why this is making big headlines is IMO purely political. Having female protagonists is not what’s putting many male gamers off hidden object adventures, and having male protagonists isn’t the main reason women are a minority of FPS gamers.

                      • Laura on 14/01/16 @ 7:48 am

                        This was a very interesting read. Blackwell is easily my favourite game series of all time, so I’m probably a bit biased, but when I first looked at Gemini Rue I shrugged it off and chose Blackwell instead. I saw that Gemini Rue had received more attention around the interwebs, but when I discovered Blackwell it struck me as the gem that I had to get my hands on.

                        It might just be personal interest, but you see the cyberpunk world with a gruff, rogue white guy so often these days. Blackwell looked…different. When I played it, I discovered that it centered on ghosts, an awkward bookish girl (which female gamer doesn’t relate to that?) and Joey, who is pretty much the most awesome game character ever. I suppose I liked Blackwell for the same reason I liked the show “Ghost Whisperer” (before it got super weird in the later seasons): it focuses on human stories, flawed and beautiful, on doing something meaningful even when no one accepts who you are and judges what you do, on asking the bigger philosophical questions about life and our existence.

                        I do agree that marketing and game design play a vital role. Legacy served as more of a tutorial and introduction to the series, and it doesn’t have as much of the art, banter, investigation and cool jazz music that the other games have. So yes, I agree that that’s probably why Gemini Rue did better. However, this is all excusable due to the fact that it was the first game. Blackwell really came into its own by the end of the series and Legacy was a vital stepping stone that made all that possible. In the end, Blackwell was a journey. And an amazing one at that.

                        • Dave Gilbert on 18/01/16 @ 10:56 am

                          Oh yes, this is all true. I often call Blackwell Legacy the game where I made all my mistakes. There’s SO much I did wrong, but people still managed to see past all that and become fans. I’m very grateful for that.

                          • Simon on 06/02/16 @ 11:00 pm

                            Great read – I’ve been following this blog (in it’s various forms) for years now. It would be awesome to see a list of “lessons learned” across the various projects.

                          • Mr. Polecat on 13/03/16 @ 9:32 pm

                            Good evening, sir.

                            I just wanted you to know that I really (I mean really) loved the Blackwell games. I was sad when the series ended, but that’s how it goes, right? Heh.

                            As I write this, Shardlight is downloading from Steam. From the demo, I think I will really enjoy this game, too.

                            I feel like there is something very authentic about your female protagonists. If you want my uneducated opinion, that is more important than following some kind of mediocre AAA cook-book. You are an indie dev, selling to a niche market anyway. So if female protagonists are what you like, then I say go with it and rock it, you know? I can say with alacrity that I am certainly a fan.

                            Keep up the good work, and thanks for doing what you do.

                            • Dave Gilbert on 18/03/16 @ 5:25 pm

                              Thanks! We’re sometimes asked about our female characters, and what our thoughts are on inclusion. I wish I had an intelligent answer for them, but in all honesty we don’t think about it very much. We just write what we like.

                              • ET3D on 13/04/16 @ 1:34 pm

                                Came back here looking at old tabs, and noticed that my comment didn’t mention at all that I enjoyed the Blackwell series. I played it all on my Android tablet, using AGS for Android for parts 4 and 5 (which wasn’t that much fun, due to frequent crashes in certain parts).

                                I didn’t get far into Gemini Rue. I didn’t like having action parts (like gun combat) in an adventure game.