"We love the little girl. However, she is not a perfect fit for a casual or kids' game. In case the girl is mandatory we can't have a deal."
This is an excerpt from an email exchange with a publisher, one of many very similar interactions that I've been part of the last few months.
Tara, the protagonist of Bird of Light, is a character with whom I (and the rest of my team) have a strong emotional connect. The primary point of 'casting' a girl shorn of any hypersexualization, was to demonstrate that a girl can kick it as well as any boy. I spoke of it at length in this article.
The core of the issue, like it or not, is deep-rooted gender stereotype. A male character is perceived as superior to a female and therefore the preferred choice. While it is probably true that males are, on an average, physically stronger, there is no reason a little girl couldn't do what Tara does.
The fear of emasculation is very real; as an eight-year old, I remember hiding from my male friends that I had a bunch of girls as neighbours with whom I enjoyed playing Cowboys and Indians; I also remember diving into a bush when I spotted my squad cycling by during one of these play sessions.
Marketing Bird of Light game has made me realize that same fear permeates the boardrooms of the Game Industry. One question is: how justified is this fear?
To support my game-making habit, I teach Creative Software at schools; my students double up as willing and happy game testers. I've had a chance to closely observe their reaction to Bird of Light. The boys in my class showed a flicker of apprehension when shown the game character for the first time that evaporated as the gameplay started; in a short while, the gender of the protagonist was forgotten as they immersed themselves in solving puzzles and running around the game world.
Given the current state of content over-saturation in the game industry and Mobile in particular, developers and publishes alike have become extremely cautious with theme and characters that they perceive as risky. While it is true that the absolute number of female lead characters is on the rise, males are still the overwhelming majority of protagonists on mobile games that aren't specifically targeted at females. Got a big old chunk o' change to throw at marketing? Sure, take a risk and make your lead character a girl. If you're a small outfit with limited (or no) resources, you're asking for trouble casting a female lead in your action/puzzle adventure game.
Another school of thought sees this as a harmless indulgence-"You've gotta give the players what they want." I argue that males are really not that averse to playing games with female characters; that fear of the unknown, rather than fact, drives developers, publishers (and players) into this spiral of fear, gender bias and misogyny.
Female foeticide is very real where I come from. Boys are seen as assets and girls as liabilities; millions of female foetuses are destroyed every year without a chance at life, for no reason other than their gender.
As I read another publisher email that issued an ultimatum to change the character's gender, I suddenly empathized with the woman pressurized to abort her unborn girl perceived as a liability by her society.
"Not this time, Tara. You're a girl and this is your game."
We already knew around 50% of the stuff that came in the form of feedback from our beta testers; we just wanted to confirm it.
Top of that list:
It really sucked to pick up ALL the eggs and then die two meters from the castle gates. In short, a mistake meant that all your hard-earned progress in the level was lost. This was sure grounds for a Rage Quit.
To be fair, there are a lot of players that don't mind that sort of thing. Like me. I have no problem with dying horribly dozens of times during the course of a game level, as long it is my fault.
Unfortunately, I have realized that I'm making a game on a casual platform for a largely casual audience.
Almost every free runner out there gives players the 'Save Me' option on game over. Problem is, Bird of Light isn't a free runner. The Ways Are Many, if you haven't heard that yet.
So I put my brain to the sword and came up with a simple solution: Check points.
I place them strategically all over the levels; players who run over them save their status (timer, eggs, key, feather tokens) and are given the option of restarting from the last checkpoint (for a small fee, of course mwahahahaha). That might even help the monetization.
Players can watch a video ad or buy unlimited restarts to resume running from a checkpoint.
Implementing this broke a few other things, as can be imagined, but at this point I think we have fixed those.
Apart from this, I have made a bunch of other tweaks to the levels, mostly to reduce the difficulty and bring the game closer to a mass-marketable casual level.
Did it work? Keep watching!!