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'Fewer Smackdowns, More Cuddling'
Image In the February 2004 issue of Gaming Industry News (publication has since shut down, but site is still active), Jason published an article about the tentative growth of romance content in gaming, and asked several industry figures, including Bioware's David Gaider and Troika's Tim Cain, why there isn't more of it.
The published version differs only slightly from this, the original draft.

Entertainment media tells love stories every day, in countless novels, poems, songs, plays, musicals, television shows, and films. What's the gaming industry's contribution? There's a new Leisure Suit Larry sequel coming soon.
A slight exaggeration, perhaps, as the RPG genre in particular has been tentatively weaving romantic involvement into games for years... More...

Entertainment media tells love stories every day, in countless novels, poems, songs, plays, musicals, television shows, and films. What's the gaming industry's contribution? There's a new Leisure Suit Larry sequel coming soon.

A slight exaggeration, perhaps, as the RPG genre in particular has been tentatively weaving romantic involvement into games for years and Max Payne 2 fancies itself a Bogart film on LSD. 2003's consensus Game Of the Year, Star Wars: Knights Of the Old Republic (KOTOR), prominently featured two potential love stories and even a muted lesbian flirtation. Yet "More Romance!" has not become a bullet-point on the back of any boxes. Fear of the unknown, and of a backlash from the teen male demographic, have largely kept the mushy stuff out of games.

The evidence is mounting that this is not simply outdated thinking, but invalid on its face. Never mind the fact that the testosterone-heavy Xbox user base snapped up KOTOR like it was going out of style. "Most of the sixteen year old guys I knew in high school cared more than a little about receiving the admiration of women," says David Freeman, president of game consultancy The Freeman Group.

To some, that's no secret. Japan has long done brisk business in "dating sims" with a heavily male audience, and players wax poetic about the relationships in various Final Fantasy installments. KOTOR studio BioWare has made it a calling card, with strong romance threads in four other titles since 2000 and plans in place to keep the trend rolling in upcoming releases.

All the while, publishers fret that they haven't done enough to expand their outreach to female gamers. From feel-good to hanky-soaking, women buy love stories by the gross in other media. The gap between games and emotional storylines isn't technology—titles that made a conscious effort to have an emotional impact have been making players laugh and cry for over 20 years. "One problem involved in pulling something like this off is that it requires that the writer has skills equivalent to those evidenced by those of the best writers in film and television," Freeman says.

The real hang-up comes from the devil on every publisher's shoulder, threatening that taking a risk on a game meant to evoke Valentine's Day will instead conjure up April Fool's Day. We heard several voices in the industry terrified of being burned by a "chick flick" mentality that sends men to another aisle and still fails to rope in the more casual female market.

While the upcoming Advent Rising includes subplots with the protagonist's fiancée, "I'm not going to tell you we put that there to woo women," says Ken Gold, marketing VP at Majesco. Majesco is choosing to stick with safer, better-charted territory to appeal to women, such as puzzle games for Gameboy Advance.

Despite the hesitation, The Sims is a solid reminder of the potential to capture a female audience. "No one suspected it would appeal to so many women, because there was no precedent for a gaming having that kind of feminine draw," says Freeman. And draw it has, pulling legions of women to play a game that is, fundamentally, about building relationships.

Still, studios aren't beating down publisher's doors with romance subplots, because in the main, they're not being asked. "It's hard to convince a publisher that there are a lot of people out there who would be buying this," says Tim Cain, joint CEO of Troika Games.

Even with its time-tested experience selling romance in its games, BioWare won't promise that more love equals more sales. ESA numbers put the female gaming population at 39 percent of the whole, but in the fantasy RPG space BioWare plays in, the company puts the numbers closer to 10 percent—and holding. "We're aware for a portion of our player base that our romances are really important, but I don't think it's a selling feature," says David Gaider, senior writer.

As romantic stories do creep in under the radar, the industry will have to feel out the boundaries of acceptable content. Enough games have featured strippers and prostitutes to work out rating and retail sensibilities for the seedier side of love, but no one is entirely sure if Bentonville will stock a game that gets much more intimate than The Sims: Hot Date, and Wal-Mart didn't answer our hypothetical.

And don't forget that just a few weeks ago the "family entertainment" of 90 men smashing into one another was scandalously marred by the appearance of a bare breast. The same moral sledgehammer awaits a publisher who pushes the boundaries. "Who wants to unnecessarily exclude large groups of potential buyers by giving a higher rating to a game just for the sake of one or two moments?" says Freeman.

Given the negative press games such as GTA Vice City have received for less-than-nurturing relationships between men and women, a unique opportunity exists to establish higher ground and a better example with games that project more traditionally caring relationships. Just don't expect the sea change to be immediate. "The six o'clock news is not going to run that story," says Michael Goodman, senior analyst at Yankee Group.

Further out on the curve lies the prospect of including a fully-developed same-sex relationship in a mainstream game. To date, most game romances have toed a traditional hero-and-princess or male-hero-and-female-sidekick model. While KOTOR put a crack in that particular plate of glass and older titles such as Fear Effect 2 provided girl-girl interaction for a voyeuristic audience, once again the market seems willing to sit back and let EA scout and win new ground. The Sims 2 is very on-the-record about enabling same-sex relationships, in screenshots posted and breathlessly re-posted 'round the world.

The romance question can be summed up quite simply. How long are publishers willing to consider romance an occasional gimmick or a niche phenomenon, then sit back in slack-jawed amazement when another Sims installment pockets untold millions by further allowing players to create close, personal relationships?

Sex sells, but in the main, the gaming industry has steered clear of the cuddlier aspects of sex and gone straight for the jiggle. "The jiggle has proved to sell much better," says Billy Pidgeon, senior analyst with Zelos Group. "But unsurprisingly, it's the new, original things that break out of the pack and become hit games."

When we called one major publisher, two of its reps simply swore up and down that it had no games in its lineup with a barest shred of romance and declined to elaborate. James Ohlen, director of design for BioWare, points out that there is no setting, no market, no audience too rough and tumble to embrace a little companionship. "Even Conan the Barbarian has romantic interests."

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