Gamersinfo.net: I don't think anyone can deny that virtual sex play is as old as MMOG's are, and that over the years developers have seemed to begun to embrace this as part of their games rather than try to deny that it is happening. Games such as Anarchy Online, City of Heroes/Villains, even World of Warcraft, all have provided players with a wide range of provocative clothing and "emotes" that can be used as fuel for the imagination. Do you see this as a trend in mainstream MMO's toward embracing players' desires, or just another marketing tool? How has MMOG developers accepting and subtly encouraging such play in their games effected MMOEG's?
Kelly Rued: You're right that virtual sex play, flirting, and romances are all commonplace in MMOs. Players make a point to enjoy sex and romance even in virtual worlds that have no game content to encourage sexy or romantic play. It makes sense when you consider the entertainment value in sexually-charged encounters-- excitement, motivation, pleasure, release, feeling attractive and successful, killing time without grinding, and enhancing personal connections with other players. People will pursue this kind of fun in any social space online, and it adds a significant dimension of replayability and player-generated social content. However, I must admit that in the past 5 years I haven't seen mainstream MMOGs providing much out-of-the-box content to enhance the entertainment value that sex play adds to their game worlds.
Right now, sex play in mainstream MMOGs is predominately an emergenet activity. In fact, the reason MMOEGs came into being was to address the lack of sex play content in mainstream virtual worlds. Eventually, MMOG developers will notice that sex play isn't something that happens only in porn games on a server far, far away; sex play enthusiasts exist in every online game and community, many are gamers, and as a group they demographically skew older and more gender-balanced than most devs assume. Anyone who thinks sex play online has a target market of adolescent males needs to interact a lot more with online sex play communities. There's a lot of diversity there.
As long as mainstream games ignore player needs, there is a lot of untapped potential for indie and player-run MMOs to offer similar mainstream experiences with the added value of sex play options. A good example is Sociolotron. The graphics may be primitive compared to the latest Blizzard or Turbine effort, but the game systems are deep and satisfying for the gamer who likes the added spice of dark adult themes with traditional hack-and-slash gameplay. Sociolotron carved out a niche by building a good game that happened to have some hot sex play in it too, not by trying to emulate the mainstream MMOs. It's also important to note that Sociolotron was essentially a one-man development team (proving that mainstream MMOs could learn a thing or two about frugality from indie developers).
Gamersinfo.net: With limited time and resources for developing non-essential technology and art to a game prior to release, what styles of social clothing and game features should developers include that tend to appeal to both a male and female gaming audience interested in including sex play in their MMO game? Does less always equal more as far as clothing goes? How much does a wide range of "canned emotes" encourage this sort of activity in a game? Are there other features which would help, such as private instances or player houses?
Kelly Rued: These are great questions! For all the industry talk about sex in games, the bottom line for most developers is that they do NOT want to be pornographic. They don't want an AO rating or any of the baggage that comes with adults-only media (right or wrong, AO developers face unique challenges and limitations). This means that most games are going to have to provide clever fanservice to entertain players' natural desire to flirt, develop romantic relationships, and share sex play. It can work without being explicit or providing tools for griefers to abuse other players or defame the game world. Even in games that accept (or aim for) the AO, there are still taboo boundaries that most game developers want to respect so their virtual world doesn't devolve into the latest Farkworthy side show. ;)
First, appearance options are important so players can identify positively with their avatar. Clothing doesn't need to be any more provocative than what is appropriate for the game world, but it does need to make the wearer feel good about their avatar (for example, in LOTRO I would expect to find a gorgeous dress robe for my elf lore-master's special ocassions but it would be pretty appalling to find some shop in the Shire hocking chainmail bikinis ). If avatar appearance is completely ruled by stats and gamist considerations (which pants give me the best armor + buff) and there are no options to change into a non-combat outfit, even for a wedding, then players are going to feel powerless to preen and dress appropriately for social play. Sexy armor typically comes off more silly than sultry but many of the same players who feel ridiculous fighting in a plate push-up bra would enjoy being able to wear a comely non-combat outfit to an appropriate in-game event.
Second, in a graphical world it helps to provide some visual representation of avatar interactions. Most MMOGs have canned emote systems in place already, and while that isn't the best interface for complex animated sex simulations, it provides basic animations to enhance the mood and immersion factor for players in worlds that don't wish to be explicit or emphasize sex play. The most useful animations are quite innocent when you break down sex play activities to their most vanilla "start" positions. Consider just the emotes for spooning, lying in an embrace, passionate kissing, slow-dancing, or sitting on a partner's lap. With a relatively small, non-explicit set of animations, players could act out a huge number of erotic and romantic encounters, all while avoiding nudity and intercourse motions that might bump a game from the M-rating into AO territory. Every WoW player has come across the odd scene where someone is kneeling directly in another player's crotch... that's the basic idea here, except it might be nice to combine these actions with the next suggestion so other players aren't squicked out on such a regular basis (maybe it's just me but something about gnome-on-dwarf action doesn't sit well with my lunch). ;p
Third, (and I'm so happy you noticed this one) privacy is key. It's the essential ingredient that makes sexy emotes and provocative clothing compatible with mainstream MMOG audiences. We know there are griefers in every MMOG community, and we have seen the lengths players will go to in order to shock or humiliate one another in open-ended social worlds like Second Life. By giving players private, safe, instanced areas to enjoy sex play, developers can mitigate most of the potentially negative misuse of sexual content in their game worlds. Player housing is an obvious example (why wouldn't you let people have sex in their own homes?) but more subtle thrills can be had in other instanced areas (picture finding a beautiful instanced cavern behind a waterfall and then weeks later, surprising your love with a private celebration after a successful raid in your own instance of this exotic location in-world). Giving players private areas for sex play shouldn't be seen as shoving this kind of play into a closet; it should be seen as giving players choices to enhance the eroticism and adventure in their encounters. That it also shields players who dislike sexual content from the sex play in-progress is just a fabulous bonus. :)
Gamersinfo.net: Ok, so before we get too far into this, our reader's need to understand that though sex play will emerge in their MMO pretty much no matter what they do to discourage it, we're basically talking "sex games" here. In your opinion, though, does "sex game" have to equate with a game where the purpose is to meet someone online and have virtual sex?
Kelly Rued: Actually, there are very few sex-focused MMOs online right now. Red Light Center and Jewel of Indra are two examples of social games where the main attraction is sex play. These sex-focused games have not seen the same growth that more general purpose social worlds and game-centered MMOs have experienced so I think it's more productive to talk about sex in MMOs outside of the boundaries of a sex-focused game world. Otherwise the topic is only relevant to a small niche of players versus the millions that enjoy sex play in other online multi-user venues.
Gamersinfo.net: As a follow up, does this also always have to equate to an age restricted rating? Or is there hope out there for an indie studio wanting to make a serious game around responsible sex education in a multiplayer enviornment?
Kelly Rued: There are definitely opportunities for a responsible sex education MMO, however it is hard to imagine such a game without a minimum or maximum age restriction. Luckily, the need for sex education doesn't stop at age 18. It would be hard to implement multiplayer sex education with teens (how do you keep teen-craving adults out?). The Sex Ed Game, by ISER Games, was developed as an interactive tool for teachers and parents to spark a dialog with teens about sex and coming-of-age issues, but the key component in that design was that it is NOT a salacious or edgy view of sex (the fun side that you would need to attract teens to play the game on their own) and it assumed a trusted adult was playing the game with the teen or moderating the game play in a classroom setting. It was essentially an interactive text-book that allowed parents and teachers to select which facts and categories they were comfortable discussing with their teens. Putting a sex ed game online for teens and adults to randomly interact in would need a lot of care in the design to discourage misuse. I think we'll sooner see interactive sex education environments online for adults to explore (most likely on a prefab development platform like the Multiverse Network or Second Life). I also know of a sex ed game in development now that targets a young adult market (18-25ish) but they are purposefully avoiding multiplayer features so the service doesn't become a hook up destination.
Gamersinfo.net: In my experience most of the adult games out there are designed to appeal to the heterosexual male. This leaves rather large gap in the "people who play MMO's and have sex" market, however. Is is possible for developers to appeal to the female market, or homosexual market in the same game, do you think?
Kelly Rued: Massive, irrefutable proof of concept for successful sex content aimed at markets besides heterosexual men is already playable in Second Life (and anyone who thinks SL sex play is limited to men-pretending-to-be-women... these are the same people that probably think women never look at porn, aren't as visually stimulated as men, and a number of other popular misconceptions about female sexuality). The best advice any game designer can follow is to do your homework if you are developing for a target market which you yourself are not a member of; if you're making a WWII game and you aren't extremely well-versed about WWII and warfare in general, you hire a subject matter expert-- sex games require the same planning and the world has no shortage of sexperts and sexologists who would be happy to share the real dirt about human sexuality. A lot of what passes as common knowledge is a bunch of bullshit where sex is concerned. The myths about female and GLBTQ sexuality are part of the reason why sex games haven't serve these markets well, but education is available (and players themselves have stepped up to show developers what kind of content they enjoy). If devs think gay men like swishy hairdresser characters in pink neckerchiefs and that women aren't visually stimulated (or that men are ONLY visually stimulated) then all of those markets get stuck with some outrageously bad sex games (or nothing at all).
Not only is it a problem for sex game devs to think young hetero males are the primary (or only) market for sex games, but it's also a problem that mainstream game devs think "real gamers" don't overlap with those pervy cybersex people. Those people play Second Life, not EVE or Pogo.com, right? Wrong. There are people hooking up in EVE sometimes, and there are people hooking up on Pogo, frequently (and what's less pervy than a brightly-colored casual game site focused on middle-aged female players?). Face it, the people who like sex play are a much more diverse market than the uninitiated presume them to be. Luckily, there are game devs researching these emerging markets and one notable developer, Brenda Brathwaite, even wrote the definitive book on the subject of sex in games. If you're curious, the information is out there now. Gamers, especially casual and MMO players, overlap with the demographics that like to cyber and it's not helping anyone for the hardcore gaming pundits to deny that sex play is a common part of any multi-user environment, even one focused on "real games" without so much as a bare nipple to fan the flames of cybersmut.
MMOs and social play experiences naturally attract a lot of people who enjoy sex play online but it's just been a slow idea to catch on (hampered enormously by the counter-productive habit of asking gamer friends "who the hell cybers in MMOGs?" only to get a bunch of slightly embarrassed gamers claiming no one does it except the adolescent males who get scapegoated for pretty much every social ill in any MMOG). Sex is a private affair so be wary of ad hoc anecdotal polls on the subject. Many people cyber. Not just in porn games, but in YOUR games. These sex players are not just perverts looking for sex-sex-sex, they are YOUR players who occasionally want to explore different types of relationships and experiences in the virtual worlds they already play in. I'm hoping my roundtable at IMGDC helps build interest and awareness among indie developers for supporting anything from vanilla romance to explicit sex play. Mature, adult-oriented entertainment can give their world a unique selling point to distinguish their player experience from the bland big-box MMOs that have no choice but to play it safe when it comes to adult themes.
Gamersinfo.net: There is a growing trend in MMOG's to add voice chat to the game's interface. What issues does the "emergent sex" trend raise when considering adding voice chat to an MMO? Are the issues different when considering adding voice chat to an MMOEG raise? And how do you think it would affect the appeal of an MMOEG with voice chat? Would it be "worth it" to an indie developer to include?
Kelly Rued: That's a heavy issue and no designer could make a blanket recommendation for all MMOs, adult or not. It really depends on the gameplay and the target market. If you support transgender players, sexual experimentation, role players, furries, age play, or any group whose play style would suffer with ubiquitous voice chat in a game world, then obviously developers need to weigh the potential advantages for some players versus the potential problems it would cause for other players. Whether you're an indie dev or a big corporate dev, voice chat is only worth it if it enhances the entertainment value for a significant population of your players. There are plenty of non-adult games that would be less fun with voice chat. I think that a less literate target market is going to appreciate voice chat more than a heavy role play group with text chat proficiency and an appreciation for players who give good text. ;)
Gamersinfo.net: It has always felt to me as though one of the things missing from adult MMO's out there that "regular" MMO's have down pat is character development and storyline development in the world. Are there lessons that you think the makers of adult MMO's should be taking from makers of MMO's in general?
Kelly Rued: Yes, there is an unfortunate dearth of "real games" with sex play as a major mechanic and as a result there are very few sexy games that feature the quality experience gamers have come to expect from a professional video game. But do regular MMOs really have character development and storyline down pat? If character development means grinding levels and getting epic gear... then yeah, they've all got it down. I honestly think that many of the most brilliant people in the MMO space are still working to improve the shared storytelling and character development aspects of MMOs.
The only difference I see between MMOEGs and MMOs is that MMOEGs rarely hire game designers. That probably sounds weird but if you consider that everyone thinks they can design (it's a lot like writing in that sense), you see that the producers and programmers are more than happy to create sex sims that "play" like web site interfaces (click this button to do this action... there, you did that action... what, you want more?). Just because something has interactive buttons and some content that's interesting the first time you see it, that doesn't necessarily mean equal fun entertainment software (and it certainly doesn't approximate a virtual world people will pay a monthly subscription to explore). There are definitely lessons that MMOEGs should be learning from successful non-erotic MMOs, but I also think erotic games can learn a lot of the basics from single-player games (everything from The Sims to the Civilization series exemplifies the difference between an application that is merely interactive and one that serves an entertainment purpose).
As mentioned, it would help if sex game companies hired game designers, or at least game players, to improve their gameplay (even non-traditional game genres have mechanics, balance issues, reward ladders, and many systems that game devs already have studied and at least tried to solve). The game industry is a misnomer anyways-- much like the railroads believed they were in the railroad industry when they were actually in the transportation industry, game developers are in the entertainment business. Sex games and mainstream games compete head to head for player time and money. Once people take a broad view of the business they are in, it's a lot easier to see which "game" properties benefit from the extra spice of sex and romance. The adrenalin rush of violence isn't the only visceral reaction you can enjoy in a game, it's just the most overused of the lot.
I think of adult games as a sub-classification of all other types of games on the market (there is really no genre that can't be made into an adult entertainment product). So a lot of times it isn't a matter of adult games learning from non-adult games or vice versa: they all have to be fun, well-balanced, entertaining experiences built with stable, accessible, and easy to use software. The same elements that make a good sports game or fantasy RPG will enhance a good sex game (though obviously each genre has its own special design problems and unique market needs). And the social and sex play features that work in a sex game might be just the thing to enhance a game world that isn't 100% focused on sex.
When you look at romance novels (just as an example), they are the best-selling backbone of the American paperback fiction market. But these books aren't just sex scenes glued together with a few lines of transitional plot between them; most of them are regular novels with broad themes, fully developed plots, a myriad of settings and character archetypes woven between effective threads of romance, relationship drama, and sex. If romance novels were just cover-to-cover sex, they would have a much smaller market (although well-written erotica that is cover-to-cover sex has a thriving niche market among female and male readers too). If a romance or erotica book has to also be a pretty good read, a decent book, regardless of the romantic or erotic bits, then I think a key lesson for sex game developers might be to make sure a game or virtual world is fun, almost regardless of the sex content. A great sex scene usually can't save a bad film or a crappy novel, so why would some hot sex animations salvage unplayable software with no compelling choices or reward structure to entertain the players?
The key to making better sex games is to strive to make a good game (or software toy)-- a legitimately good entertainment experience, regardless of the sexual nature of the content. That doesn't mean that a sex game needs an FPS or RPG meta-game grafted onto it, but simply that the play mechanics, user interface, and social features need to be developed to the same standards of quality and entertainment value that players have grown accustomed to in more established genres of gaming. No cutting corners, and no assuming that the sex game market is dumber, less mature, or full of adolescent males who'll pay a mint for anything with naked boobs in it. It's that kind of thinking that is limiting the growth of adult themes in all games. You can't develop mature sex content if you don't have a mature attitude toward sex in the first place (many devs think of low-brow disasters like BMX XXX when they hear "sex in games" before they would ever consider the bitter end of the sexual and romantic relationship at the heart of the Facade storyline). Sex in games doesn't need to be explicit or even erotic to be effective, it just needs to be appropriate and well-executed.
Ironically, it may be the players themselves who beat pro developers to the punch by serving their own underserved market with engrossing sex and romance themed content. Low-cost development tools like the promising Multiverse Network (a full-featured MMO platform) and Realm Crafter (an easy RPG creation suite) have lowered the barrier to entry to the point that indie and player-run virtual worlds are really in the best position to deliver a lot of the high-risk niche content needed to create great sex games. Adult games are considerably better now than they've ever been in the past (Virtually Jenna and Virtual Hottie 2 represent the state of the art in single-player sex games today) and I'm looking forward to seeing what the next generation of sex games brings with more multiplayer and persistent world technologies available to small companies and players.
The “glory days” of computer gaming for me were when games like Spectre Supreme, Pirate’s Gold, the Might and Magic series, the original Prince of Persia… those sorts of games were coming out on a regular basis. Back then I owned a Macintosh and was a die hard Mac fan. I was one of the first in my area to buy an iMac and on it learned the joy of playing games on the internet like daily crossword puzzle and “mind bender” type puzzles. My first online RPG was given to me for Christmas the year EQ was released, and I was hooked from day one. I played EQ for about a year. I started playing DaoC during late alpha testing, and was hooked on it.. well, to be honest I still am. I’ve tried pretty much every MMORPG I can get my hands on, from big names like EQ, to more obscure ones such as Underlight. I’ve been writing for IMGS since the first DaoC guide, and find I love the challenge of learning a game and presenting what I’ve learned (and sometimes my opinions), to other players.
I’m not a very strong player as far as learning PvE or quick reaction times, so I tend to stay away from games where I’m pitted against someone else in a way that requires physical (rather than mental) response. I still enjoy story and puzzle games, and in a way that’s how I still approach online games. I would much rather spend hours working through a quest than 5 minutes in combat against another player. I still get lost in simulation type games, obsessing over them until I’ve gotten them beaten. And I like being able to sit down at the computer when I’ve got less than half an hour and playing through a few levels of a puzzle game. I tend not to like first-person shooter type games, or anything with person to person violence, so I steer away from them unless they are fantasy based settings. All in all, I enjoy computer gaming so much that my life feels incomplete somehow when my computer is down.