Vague Patch Notes: So why do MMO developers gender lock?


Last week’s Vague Patch Notes on MMO lore and its impact on design decisions produced a lot of good comments along with a smattering of bad comments, as is usually the way. But there was one reader who essentially asked for another column by asking a very specific question: If gender-locking and all this are bad things (and they are) and lore doesn’t excuse it (and it doesn’t), why do developers still do it? Why are these restrictions in place in the first place if the reasons don’t hold up?

It’s a good question! Unfortunately, it’s not a question with just one answer. It actually has a lot of answers, but I’m going to spend this particular column breaking it down into three general categories of answer, from the most defensible to the least defensible on the list. I want to note that none of these reasons actually changes the fact that as previously mentioned, this is bad and not a good action; it’s just that these are reasons all the same.

Lo Stark

Everything costs money

Here’s a truism about literally every big project that involves a whole lot of creative people working in tandem: Every part of it costs money in some way. This is as true of MMOs as it is true of movies or TV shows or anything else. It costs money to model and animate something, it costs money to code things, and it costs money to develop gender options in a game. And no game has an infinite development budget.

But it’s not right to just claim that these things cost money because they also cost time, and time is in and of itself a cost developers have to worry about just as surely. It’s going to cost a certain number of development hours to add something to the game, and the people in charge of a project have to decide whether that added development time is worth it or not. Nothing winds up being free; it’s just either more or less expensive.

This is, in many ways, the simplest and most understandable reason things wind up locked to one gender or one race or whatever. Instead of having to design multiple different animations, you can develop one set and tailor it specifically to one model instead of several. That saves time and effort, and it can sometimes result in animations or outfits that are more detailed than if you had to make sure they’d fit everyone. You don’t have to like it, but it is a reality. Animations take time and effort, and there is a variety of reasons why a developer might decide that more specific and better animations are a worthwhile trade for gender locking.

Obviously I don’t agree with that decision, but that is a valid decision process just the same. It a decision being made not for lore purposes but for development purposes. Freeing up time is a choice to be made at times, even if you may not agree with it.

But of course, that still raises the question of which gender you lock things to. And therein we start realizing how the next issue affects all of this.

More yay, but also less.

Appeal to your playerbase

So, why did we get lady Viera in Final Fantasy XIV with no promise of man-buns to come in the future? (Yes, male Viera were added later, but they were specifically not promised when Viera and Hrothgar were added.) The answer isn’t obscure; the team wanted to have a monstrous race for players but players had requested Viera extensively, so by limiting Viera to one gender, Square-Enix ensured players could get what they had wanted and expected.

After all, when players thought of Viera, their previous appearances had all been women. Players expected it. There would have been no shortage of consternation if players couldn’t make lady Viera, so when faced with the limitations of having time and space for either one new race with both genders or two new races that were monogendered, the developers picked the latter to fulfill players expectations.

You can see this play out at a variety of different levels. If female characters are wildly more popular in a game – for example, (TERA) – they might easily get most of the new class options just because, well, it’s what players have shown they want to see. Or if the lore of a pre-existing IP suggests that only one specific gender tends to be something, well, just make that diegetic for the game and gender-lock it to save some time (Warhammer Online). It’s basically a justification act, taking things that people are either assumed to want more and using it to justify what you already plan to do.

Now, the more astute of you might notice that I slipped in the problem right there in the initial explanation and with the example chosen. It turned out a lot of people did want male Viera after all, to the point that the developers were so inundated by requests that we did get them, and we’ll be getting lady Hrothgar at some point in the future. Because therein lies the problem of trying to predict what players will want: There’s always a contingent of players who have desires you aren’t anticipating ahead of time.

This is who you are.

That’s just what we wanted

And here we have what is, at least to me, the ugliest side of things. This is when developers are doing something mostly for the simple reason that this is what they want to do, and they’re creating justifications after the fact to defend the decision they already made. It’d be nice to pretend this was omnidirectional, but it almost invariably comes down to games that just didn’t bother to give you the option to play a lady because the developers didn’t care and they don’t see why you care either.

In all honesty, this is also the usual dark territory where “well, it’s justified by the lore” comes up. It is, as you might have gathered, pretty weaksauce as justifications go because far from being the act of taking responsibility, it’s an abdication of it. The developers don’t want to justify themselves, so they’ve just gender-locked things and later written a lore reason that insulates them from admitting “we just didn’t want to allow you the alternative.”

You’ll also note that this one has the least justification allowed for it. The money and time it costs to develop something is very real. Trying to match to what players want is understandable; if you have a game in which 90% of your players play something, you can probably ascertain that this is where you should focus your energies. But this is just a matter of wanting to do something without having to admit what you wanted in the first place. It’s weaksauce.

Obviously, a certain amount of subjectivity always comes down here. There’s always a certain amount of overlap between what players expect to be available and what developers make available, for example, and you could easily argue that if you’re allocating budget for animations part of that process is making sure the animations can cover more than one gender. But hopefully this at least gives some insight into why a developer would make these decisions, because the majority of the time it’s not just dogged fixation on personal interests.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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