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Why a female lead character is not 'bad design'
by James Marsden on 09/30/13 09:12:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Lt. Kai Tana - saviour of the galaxy, pilot of the teleporting Quarp Jet and master of the humble jump - is female.

 

One of the few benefits of internet anonymity permits us to use this comment from our YouTube page without repercussion for the person who wrote it:

"I was excited about this 'till I realised it doesn't a have male lead character, the female protagonist is a huge turn off and deal breaker. What were they thinking when they designed this? An otherwise solid game suffers for bad design like this."

At the Eurogamer Expo we were asked many times why we'd chosen to go for a female lead character in our upcoming title Velocity 2X. The simple reason is that it's a sequel to Velocity Ultra, in which Lt. Kai Tana was the pilot.

However, we are also asked very often to release illustrations of Kai Tana in bathing suits or more revealing clothes. We always refuse, but now seems a good time to explain why that will never, ever happen:

When my father died at age 63, I was a 15yr old boy who had no clue who he was. I was confused and frustrated about life and death, but my mother was incredibly strong and resolved, and went back to work immediately to continue providing for us both. She set the example, and I followed. I threw myself into my passions with a clearer understanding of how precious and finite life is. 

Independent strength and resolve is very common among the women in my family, and looking back it's likely that which attracted me so strongly to characters like Ripley and Sarah Connor. They reflected the truth about the females I knew, and as I grew up I found myself far more attracted to independently minded girls than those dependent on males for validation. My first real job cemented my already deep respect for women as it was a wonderful place to work that felt like a family, all because it was under careful balance by a strong, independent woman. 

Kai

So when I first met my girlfriend, it was the fierce independence and mental strength that caused me to fall in love within hours, and to move in within days.

When Velocity was in development, I decided to base the lead character on my girlfriend, giving photographs of her to the artist responsible for the illustrations. I did this not just as a romantic gesture, but also to pay homage to the strong female characters in science fiction that have inspired me, and of course the females in my life. Hell, I even named the character after my niece, who had the guts to make incredibly frightening life choices for the better.

Kai Tana can teleport. She is therefore very cool.

Kai Tana can teleport. She is therefore very cool.

For me, women have always been inspiring, strong, powerful and magnificent, so I find it morbidly fascinating to hear people like the YouTube commenter believing that choosing a female lead is bad design. Claiming bad design is an objective statement, not an expression of personal preference. That kind of thinking is so out of date it's almost laughable, but it's tragic because it highlights a severe lack of empathy, and it's lack of empathy that is at the heart of all humanity's problems.

This article is a small attempt at steering out-of-date thought in a better direction.

Finally, for the record, Lt. Kai Tana was not inspired by Samus Aran, as I've never played Metroid.

[UPDATE: This line about Metroid is irritating some people. I played a ton of Turrican 2, Super Probotector, Flashback and of course Sonic the Hedgehog. I had a lifetime of inspiration in those games. I will get around to playing Metroid of course, but not whilst we're making this game. We designed Velocity without playing modern shoot 'em-ups like Ikaruga or the Cave bullet-hell shooters because we wanted to focus on the mechanics we had, and not be swayed by what other games are doing. This interview has the most straightforward reasoning as to why:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9qtW-Melnk&feature=youtu.be&t=7m48s]

Kai Tana can run faster than you can.

Kai Tana can run faster than you can.

Kai Tana can shoot a rifle with more style than you can.

Kai Tana can also shoot a rifle with more style than you can.


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Comments


Ryan Leonski
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Really glad you stuck with her design, I probably wouldn't have played it if you were pandering with the skimpy revealing clothes. I'll have to get the game when it comes out.

Amir Barak
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I think you're giving people (especially on YouTube) wayyyyy too much credit as to the validity or relevance of their statements.

James Marsden
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Hello! We're not giving them any credit, but we do read comments as we learn a lot by doing so.

This article is in response to countless people asking us why we've gone with a female lead character. When I get asked the same question more than 5 times, I write an article about it to save time (so I can link people to the article in future).

Simone Tanzi
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I think you went too far trying to justify something that didn't really need to be justified.
You don't really need to have a personal history with strong women examples to appreciate them.
As you said, sci-fi is full of great examples.

Also, judging by what I see of the game, I honestly think that a male character would not fit in Kai Tana role.
She has a kinda feminine fighting style.
She looks strong and fairly muscular but not bulky.
She's more relentless than imposing.

Also, I read the following statement in a game and it immediately resonated with my love for female characters.

"Frankly, the power struggles of men are uninteresting. The ballad of a powerful man is so wrapped up in justice, justification and ego that it becomes tedious and overwrought. The stories of uber-men fighting to the death and re-hashing their past become an allegory for something bigger. It fails to stay personal."

And that's exactly what I see in the big picture of Kai Tana you posted here.
In her stern face I don't see Honour, or duty.
She may have that but what I see is determination, a woman who has been crossed, a woman that maybe may fight for justice, or to save the galaxy, but first and foremost fights to get even.
I don't know her yet as a character but that's what I sense from those images, and that gets me hyped.
No Kai Tana shot in bathing suit would enhance that.

BTW... if you didn't realized yet Lt. Kai Tana just gained a new admirer today.

Toby Grierson
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I think it looks rad. It is rad design.

Dane MacMahon
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I always make female characters in games that allow me to, mostly RPGs. It balances out how male-focused most games are.

I lump people uncomfortable with female protagonists in with RPG fans who demand traditional fantasy settings. I think it's a weird comfort zone for them that they don't like messing with. I doubt it's sexism as normally defined, just ignorance.

Joshua Pickard
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Male or Female does not affect the gameplay. It only matters to story. It's a sprite! It's a block of pixels made to react to input. This game could easily be about a teleporting quantum robot with just a palette swap of the main character. So it's the story where the gender matters and this story has a strong female lead. I don't see any problem with the design or story choices here. Immature sexist kids will be immature sexist kids.

Mike Murray
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I agree with Simone in that you're justifying having a female protagonist when you don't need to justify it. Just do it! It feels like this article was written as if female protagonists haven't existed before. There have been plenty of them in the past and in some recent games, and they weren't hyper-sexualized, either.

Alex Boccia
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This 1000 times. Why was this article written? The character looks great, I don't care what the sex is, as long as it's cool and fresh. You don't need to justify any of this to anybody and the article comes off as incredibly self important. That Youtube comment looks just like something a forum baiter would say - ignore them.

You should definitely play Metroid/Castlevania, they are great games.

James Marsden
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Hello :)

One of the reasons I wrote the article was in response to being asked the question why we'd chosen a female lead over and over again.

When I saw the YouTube comment, I was stunned in disbelief, and decided that an article on the subject would give me a shorthand answer to others in future.

Alex Boccia
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Yeah I get what you mean. I wish Gama wouldn't push the "feminism, sexism, whatever" debate all the time. We know it's a problem in games, we know it's a problem worldwide. It's appropriate to discuss the topic, but this stuff is literally on the front page every week and it just brings negative feelings and vitriolic behavior in to these communities and shifts the focus away from making and talking about cool games.

By the way, the game looks fun, and I like the style. I'm sure it will do well.

James Marsden
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:)

Chris Hendricks
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I agree with the above, but I'd like to add a comment to this:

"However, we are also asked very often to release illustrations of Kai Tana in bathing suits or more revealing clothes. We always refuse, but now seems a good time to explain why that will never, ever happen:"

Let's be frank... this is the Internet. If your game is popular enough, it doesn't matter if you do or not, because hundreds of illustrations of this nature will exist anyway.

James Marsden
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It does matter though, doesn't it :)

E Zachary Knight
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"Let's be frank... this is the Internet. If your game is popular enough, it doesn't matter if you do or not, because hundreds of illustrations of this nature will exist anyway."

There is a huge difference between that kind of stuff happening and the designers creating and/or encouraging it. It is a given that Rule 34 will be applied to everything, but that doesn't mean that the designers have to support it.

James Marsden
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'Zackly, Zachary :)

Michael Ball
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@E Zachary Knight
OOOOOR the designers can choose not to dignify such requests with a response of any kind, just keep on keepin' on, and completely avert the possibility of a huge anger-fueled media explosion in the first place. After all, it's the GAMEPLAY they need to sell consumers on, not the characters.

James Marsden
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Or we can have a voice :)

Michael Ball
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You are not accountable to ronrey neckbeards, you have no obligation to explain Lt. Tana's CHARACTER DESIGN, of all things - especially when it has little to no bearing on gameplay.

Giving such idiotic requests as "lel not sexy enough eksdee :)" a serious response gives the idea that they have a single shred of legitimacy worth acknowledging.

Joshua Pickard
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But there's no such thing as bad press, amirite?

It's possible that a flamewar would help sales instead of hurting them. It's not acknowledging their legitimacy... it's marketing! Just as long as James doesn't take it personally, he is poised to come out ahead in that scenario.

Michael Ball
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...Yeeeeeah, I'm pretty sure I'd prefer him market the game based on its actual gameplay features over, you know, intentionally using internet drama for the sole purpose of selling a game at the expense of the well-being of the gaming community.

For the record, while I am unconditionally for more non-sexual female protagonists, I feel the issue should not be centered around gender, but around raising the bar for character development and video game writing in general. Not simply "LOOK AT MY TORTURED, CONFLICTED, 'i cri evertim ;_;" CHARACTERS AND 2DEEP4U CINEMATIC WALKING TOUR" (slightly hyperbolic, I know), but actually crafting the story in a way that it is told through the game world and game mechanics, and much less reliance on verbal exposition

James Marsden
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Sorry man, but we actually do believe that it's worth speaking up about our design decisions, not exclusively in response to a single commenter on YouTube, but in response to many.

If you take a look at our blog, you'll see that we're quite open about sharing our experience making games, the ups, downs, rights and wrongs. This is just one aspect of developing and publishing a game that I felt deserved writing about. Mainly because when we showed the game at EGX lots of people brought up the fact we had a female lead character.

I keep saying that in response to comments here and it seems few are listening :)

James Marsden
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Hello Michael!

I'm writing about my experience. I've done that since I started making games a few years back. You can read about all the things I've shared on the FuturLab blog. We talk about mechanics, art (not just game art but Art with a capital A), design, music, publishing, success, failure etc. We share anything that we feel might be helpful to other developers in future.

This is just one aspect of our game, and believe me, I will be using our unique mechanics to sell the game when the time comes next year, but for now I decided to write about the female lead because our team were repeatedly asked at Eurogamer Expo why we'd gone with a female lead (and I was gobsmacked reading that YouTube comment).

I had no idea that people like yourself would label this 'internet drama', I simply wrote about our design the same way I've been doing for years.

Someone said our game had 'bad design' because it starred a female. I thought that was worth addressing. If you disagree, fair enough :)

Tais Fantoni
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Thanks man. I would play your game after read this. She looks so badass! <3

Reuben Smith
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Responding before reading article (Danger, Will Robinson!), but my gut reaction to the title was "Why should it be?"

Ray Dahlia
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Awesome character design and a great looking game. I just wish there was a PC version.

A lot of people feel the need or desire to project themselves into the games they're playing. *The avatar is them*, hence why we have so many games with "generic, grizzled, brown-haired, caucasian military guy" as the protagonist. It's young male fantasy wish fulfillment.

If these games were novels, every one would be criticised for having a "Mary Sue" protagonist.

Heliora Prime
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So true, I love playing Raziel (Legacy Of Kain), Max (Dark Angel) or any Transformer. But won't play Kratos or that dude from Uncharted. Than again I don't mind playing that meathead from the Gears of War game, and I don't mind letting him get shot to pieces. I have more sympathy for the grey people actually.

Mike Higbee
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It's sad you have to justify having a strictly female lead. It's also sad that people have to justify having just strictly male leads now.
Somewhere along the line creative vision and good gameplay fell to the wayside of what makes a game to some people.

Josh Stratton
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It's sad the author felt a single youtube comment justified a full justification of agreeably cool character design.

James Marsden
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Hiya, it's not just a single YouTube comment, it's a bunch of people all asking the same question, and me giving the same answer over and over. Writing an article gives me a short hand that I can link people to :)

A bit like this article when people ask for tips on game design:

http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/JamesMarsden/20130629/195334/Desig
ning_An_Awesome_Videogame.php

Hope that makes more sense...

Kristian Roberts
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I find it reassuring that you modelled the sprite after your girlfriend. As a RPG-junkie that is constantly making versions of his wife to smash/zap/poke holes in various enemies (usually as some manner of ill-tempered, yet well-meaning elf), I'm glad to see that other people express their admiration of their partners in this way.

Also, the game looks super-fun, so kudos on that.

Joe Klemmer
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I don't understand the comments that James shouldn't have written about his inspiration for the character. It's as valid a perspective as any. *Should* we have to defend the inclusion of non-sexualized female protagonists? No. *Do* we have to defend the inclusion of non-sexualized female protagonists? Unfortunately, yes. At least until the gaming world starts becoming rational. (i.e. Forever)

Michael Ball
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"*Do* we have to defend the inclusion of non-sexualized female protagonists? Unfortunately, yes."

No, you really don't need to defend it, just let the bloody game speak for itself. If there's anything in the last few years that has been made abundantly clear by both sides, it's that people with an ingrained mindset are not receptive to someone with an "out there with something to prove" attitude.

Besides, if someone is asking for sexier characters as if that's a determining factor in whether or not they will buy, chances are that's not a person you want in your game's fanbase anyway.


I sincerely apologize if this comes off as jerkish/blunt/insensitive/etc., that is not my intent at all. I just feel that if you really have faith in your game, you should be willing to step back and let it stand on its own two feet, no matter how well or awfully it is ultimately received. Save the explanations for the postmortem, and all that.

I mean, look at Metroid Prime; all the way up to release people were acting as if it would be the death of what the series was known and loved for. Fast-forward a decade later, and it is universally regarded as one of THE greatest games of all time, not to mention the fact that it remains incredibly faithful to the series' core tenets.

Sebastien Vakerics
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I like where you're coming from, but you have to pay attention to small details when you have a female character, not just say "I respect women, my character is a woman. And a damn strong one!"

It's good that you have a female protagonist, BUT she still has a variant of boob-armor. That's one of the premiere cliches in bad character design. The poses for idle and shooting are generic leg-out glamour shots. I'm assuming she knows how to fire a weapon, so she would at least bring the gun to bear and aim rather than keep it waist level in a cheesy pose that also happens to expose her breasts through the boob-armor. I don't want to sound harsh, but if you want to make a statement you can't let these things slip through the cracks.

James Marsden
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:)

Wes Jurica
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Good point Sebastien. I understand this is fantasy but it makes it pretty difficult to take the character seriously. Watch things like http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z3_0BVKcjIA and it's easy to see that men and women warriors are hard to distiguish from one another. They certainly aren't posing and they are holding their weapons like they were trained to use them.

Edit: the game looks great BTW.

Heliora Prime
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Haha, very true. It still feels weird to me to shoot at women in games but it shouldn't. I mean, I've killed a few thousand men over the past years.
I don't hate men, I love men, in a platonic way of course :P

Simone Tanzi
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ok let's not get overboard here.
One thing is to not oversexualize a female character.
Another is to completely desexualize them.

Don't get me wrong, the second is not "wrong" but is not right even, is not what we, as an industry, should strive for.
The idle pose is a little odd, I agree...
But on the boob armor, I do not agree.
First of all I don't see anything wrong on the concept of "boob armor" per se in a fantasy or sci-fi game. As long as is not a variant of a Bikini mail.
Having giant holes on the navel, thighs and above boobs, that would be wrong.
that aside , it is a suit. Aside from the upper torso and left arm I don't see much protection value.
And as suits go Kai Tana's doesn't look that revealing. A more tight-fitting suit would be absolutely justified but that's not the case. the suit is pretty padded
Frankly, I don't see how a woman could wear a suit like that and feel objectified.
also, the way she shoots it may be unrealistic, but is the way hollywood educated us on heavy weaponry. Images of rambo shooting two heavy machine guns at waist level comes to mind.
The funny thing is, it doesn't really shows her boobs, she actually covers them even more in that pose.
I think that "bashing" (I don't think is your case, but there are some cases) on perfectly good characters in the long run will be more harmful for female inclusion than the usual bimbos as developers will take female characters out of the picture completely being afraid to offend someone no matter what.

Kujel s
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I don't get why some people have an issue with what gender they play in a game, I play male and female depending on my mood (if given a choice) but in the end it doesn't really matter because the player character is just a vehicle into that world and gameplay is all that really matters. Now I must admit that if I'm playing something third-person I do prefer to play female just becuase if I have to stair at someone's ass I prefer it to be female as I'm a striaght male but I don't base my buying decisions on the lead character's gender.

It's sad you feel the need to defend your choice of protagonist from people who care too much about their gender :(

I watched your trailer and if I had not read your article I would not have noticed the gender of the player character, I did notice some decent looking gameplay but I won't be playing this very likely as I have a policy of not supporting sony at all.

Anyway as your title says female lead characters are not bad design.

Leonardo Ferreira
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Congratulations on your marketing skills.

James Marsden
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Ha!

Heliora Prime
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Interesting view on strong women.

However.
Human males are built stronger and more aggressive. So, men in general are more suitable for combat.
That doesn't mean all women won't do well in combat, just a lot less relatively.
Having said this. I also think that if a women is armored up to the eyeballs and killing about 75
aliens each mission, not saying anything, than it might as well be a guy, or a robot.
The whole omg chills for Metroid is totally misplaced, you see a freaking robot the whole game.
And Chell as well, it's just a bland avatar.

I love strong female action hero leads in games and always choose a female character in rpg's.
But I also get why some cavemen guys dislike it. I think the problem is that it's mostly only 1 important character and all the others are boring side nobodies. If there was some sort of a team, or 4 people you could choose from things would be more balanced out.

Kris Ligman
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"Human males are built stronger and more aggressive. So, men in general are more suitable for combat."

And absolutely no humans teleport, or have magic powers and absurd physics-defying strength and regenerative abilities. I really think it's time we retire this one as among our rationales for why game characters are or are not a certain way. Not only is it highly gender essentialist and incorrect, even if you're bringing it up to argue against, it's nothing but a derail.

Heliora Prime
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Good point.

What I think I meant is. Lady with skinny arms punches just as hard as beefmonky dude with arms like tree trunks.

It's more about believability, even in an absurd universe.

James Coote
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I think you're mis-reading the term "Strong women", which does not refer to their physical strength, but rather, the strength of their character and conviction (Read strong-willed-women)

Certainly on the modern battlefield, it's generally accepted that absolute physical strength is a lot less important than intelligence and stamina. So long as the soldier is fit enough to carry all their equipment, having a strong sword arm won't make you shoot more accurately.

This is part of the logic behind the US army's recent changes to their rules to allow women to fight in front-line combat roles: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-21172033

Now, if you had a game that was set in past military conflicts, and purposely sought to explore the discrimination women faced in days gone by, that might be interesting

Jennis Kartens
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How about starting to make strong character driven games?

I really couldn't care less what gender any sidescrollers character with purely mechanical/visual/feedback value has nor is that genre particular worthy of making a female hero.

If you want to empower women more in games follow these two steps:

Make a game with intelligent content, writing and social interaction
Give the lead role/player character a female protagonist

Without the first step howerver, nothing will ever change.

This one dimensional feminism really doesn't bring the industry forward.

James Marsden
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One dimensional feminism, that's one for the CV! :D

Seriously, I didn't intend on starting such a debate on here. I wrote about our design decisions because we were asked a lot at EGX.

And you're right, we didn't set out to create a character driven game, we're making an action game, but the questions still came, so I answered them. It doesn't go any deeper than that.

I suppose the fact this post was featured on Gamasutra somehow suggests that it's important in some way, but it's no more important to us than the other posts on our blog:

http://www.futurlab.co.uk/1-tip-for-success-keep-your-word.html

http://www.futurlab.co.uk/designing-an-awesome-video-game.html

http://www.futurlab.co.uk/futurlabs-bullet-proof-definition-of-ar
t.html

http://www.futurlab.co.uk/futurlab-pitch-to-sony.html

We just like sharing our experience with others.

Velocity 2X: One dimensional feminism on PS Vita & PS4 :D

Jennis Kartens
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@James Marsden

Haha :D

Yeah I get what you're saying. It is just as many pointed out that these kind of articles getting more pushes here on Gama so it may seemed more biased as your intend was :)

Great style in any case and I hope for you that it will be successful!

Heliora Prime
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True,

But at times I just want to walk around as a big breasted woman with bikini in a game, or as a He-Man like dude in lioncloth. Just smashing monsters with way to big weapons.

I'd like to play a game with 2 of these characters and still have a good story and have them believable. Also good gameplay, because that's actually the most important thing imho.

James Coote
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Damn! I just started making a similar-ish game, but yours looks really polished and slick. Hopefully can get mine up to the same level of shininess by the time it's finished :)

I think the important point is you chose to make a character (in the personality sense) first, and that the gender is an important and integrated part of that character, but not as a replacement or instead of other traits (i.e. not a man with boobs, nor a woman for the sake of it)

James Marsden
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Ah, cool. Is it a top-down shooter and side-scrolling platformer?

James Coote
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More hardcore fast-paced sidescrolling, but that kinda makes it sound boring. Need to work on my elevator pitch as well :P

James Marsden
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Hardcore fast paced side-scrolling sounds awesome enough to me :)

Remy Trolong
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Are you serious? People say it's bad design because of female lead character??? Mouahahaha dumb can be dumber than I ever thought. That's really strange considering other examples of strong female (non bikini) hero character, like Samus (well, I'm still trying to find other in my head, I'll edit if I do >_<)

Your story is nice, your choices reflect your experience, and like others I'm happy you sticked to your ideas and convictions. I saw your trailer days ago, i'm pleased to learn more about the project and its origins. And, seriously, it's GORGEOUS! Keep up the good work!

Heliora Prime
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Never let negative internet trolls dictate your design.
Keep it close to your heart and passion. That's the way to make great personal games.


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