Games with exclusively female heroes don’t sell (because publishers don’t support them)
Video games are an art form where, in the general sense, male developers create games with male only heroes for an often overwhelmingly male audience. It’s rare to find games with a female hero, to the point where games often seem like a parade of titles starring a white male with stubble and a little bit of facial hair. I wanted to find hard numbers about games with only female heroes, and to see if there was a reason they were so rare. I called Geoffrey Zatkin, the Chief Operating Officer of EEDAR, to see if he would be willing to let me peek into his vault of data for answers. We described how EEDAR gathers data about video games in a previous story about the power of review scores, and Zatkin had given a talk about games with female heroes around a year ago. The data he collected he was fascinating, although it seems the very idea of a female-led game seems so toxic to publishers and marketing that there is barely enough examples from which to draw conclusions. What we did find is that almost no games with exclusively female heroes exist. Those that do are almost always sent out to die due to limited marketing budgets.
“We looked across many genres, but not many genres make your protagonist super apparent. When you’re playing a racing game, you can’t usually tell the gender because you’re the car. So we limited our data set to action, shooter, and RPG genre games.” Zatkin showed me data from a talk he gave around a year ago, so the data was slightly older, that looked at those three genres in the seventh-generation console cycle. Looking at a sample of 669 games that had protagonists with discernible genders, only 24 had exclusively female protagonists. Action had the most female protagonists, shooters had even less, and role-playing games had exactly one game with a female only hero. In all three genres, a little under 300 games gave the option of a female lead. That includes games where you can choose your gender or create your own character. EEDAR also compared three months of sales data for each game. The three month interval was deliberately chosen: it negates the effects of games released at the end of the month, and captures almost all of a game's initial sales. If a game was released in the final days of a month, you still have the following two months to track things. Games have a short tail, meaning older titles rarely sale in large numbers, so you can gain much information by looking at the first three months of availability. “If you look at the first three months, with the smaller quantity of female-led games, they did not sell as well. The ones that were male-only sold better,” Zatkin explained. There are some more interesting bits here. Games that allow you to choose your gender are reviewed better than games that offer male-only heroes, but the games with male only heroes sold better. In terms of pure sales numbers, in the first three months of availability, games with only a male hero sold around 25 percent better than games with an optional female hero. Games with exclusively male heroes sold around 75 percent better than games with only female heroes. By looking at these trends two things become clear: games that give you a choice of gender are, on average, reviewed slightly better than games with male-only heroes, but the games that sell very well are almost all led by male heroes. If you’re funding a large-budget game and you see these numbers, you see that you lose sales by adding the capability to choose a female hero, and you lose significant sales by releasing a game with a female hero. “You look at unit sales, and if you look at unit sales by platform, you can see that it holds true except on the DS,” Zatkin said. “For some reason on the DS female-optional sells better than male-only. But for every other console, including the PSP, [male-led games sell better.]” So the conclusion is easy. If you want to make money, you can’t have female heroes leading your game, right? Not so fast…
Marketing is important
We know from our previous article that marketing spend is one of the few, if not the only, things that can overcome negative reviews. Television commercials, ads in magazines, and even shelf space in stores are all for sale, and the more you have to spend the better your game will sell. Games with only female heroes are given half the marketing budget as games with male heroes. That’s an enormous handicap that cripples their ability to sell well. “Games with a female only protagonist, got half the spending of female optional, and only 40 percent of the marketing budget of male-led games. Less than that, actually,” Zatkin said. So is this a self-fulfilling prophecy? Do publishers send female-lead games out to die without proper support? “I think it might be, and I think in some cases, though this is a guess, that these games may be considered more niche, and you advertise niche games less,” Zatkin said. It’s also hard to draw many broad conclusions from this data. There are so few games with exclusively female heroes, and those few games are given such a small marketing budget, do we even know how well a large-budget, marketed game with a female hero would perform? “We’re still only looking at 24 games in that grouping that came out. We can tell that almost nobody does games with only a female protagonist. They’re scarce. It just doesn’t happen often. Therefore it’s noteworthy when it does. It gets called out, it gets noticed by reviewers and press, and it’s a conscious decision. That’s something you can take away from this,” Zatkin said. The problem also comes from marketing departments. There is a sense in the industry that games with female heroes won't sell. “I think that there is general feeling from marketing that it’s hard to sell a mass-market game that’s a female-only protagonist,” Zatkin agreed. “This may be changing greatly with mobile and social, where you’re expanding the audience, but in core console land, there’s a lot of marketing thought that it’s hard to sell a game with a female-only protagonist in a core genre. The question is, is this something that really doesn’t happen, or do marketing budgets get gimped?” With under 30 games with exclusively female protagonists, and those games receiving much smaller marketing budgets than games with variable genders or male leads, it's hard to draw any conclusions about the impact of gender on sales or reviews. Female-led games do find an easier path to get covered, simply due to their novelty in the market, and reviews tend to almost as strong as male-only games. You can find games with female heroes, such as the Tomb Raider or Portal series, but there simply aren't enough female-led games with strong marketing budgets to see if gamers are willing to pay attention to games that tell stories with women at the center.