Adult Themes in MMOs – Selling Point or Limiting Factor?

Psychochild has an interesting article up this morning dealing with the problems of sex in MMOs. Essentially, it boils down to America not being ready to accept sex out in the open; we’re too prudish to accept and express our sexuality, so any game emphasizing it is destined to fail.

I wouldn’t argue with this, but, obviously, there’s a perceived demand for something to push these limits. Take Age of Conan for example. The fact that you can remove the top from a female avatar spawned quite a bit of buzz in the blog-o-sphere. Check YouTube and you’re sure to find a video of someone fighting totally nude in-game.

Uhh... Evony? Someone stole your ploy.

It’s also interesting that, though we’re skiddish about explicit sexuality – and, no, I wouldn’t want it in my game, either – we still buy into the whole sex theme. Look at this ad for Allod’s to the right. Heck, look at almost every major release with character art on the box. There’s a good chance it will be a scantily clad female. I personally don’t see much sense in it – I’m not playing an MMO for a sexual thrill. What do I care about some artist’s rendition of a fantasy creature in nothing but bikini armor?

But, the fact remains: sex sells. That’s been true in every entertainment field since it became acceptable for women to show more than elbows in public.

And it’s not the only adult theme the industry has been exploring recently, just the most risque. We’ve also seen more games emphasize gratuitous violence, which, as Psychochild points out, we really don’t care about in America. Age of Conan comes up again with its “You never forget your first decapitation” ad campaign.

But, do these themes really add anything to the games? I don’t think so. Actually, I think they do more harm than good.

Let’s start with violence. At best, a good fatality might be satisfying – if you catch it. Most of the time, it’s just gimmicky. Take Dragon Age: Origins (non-MMO but stay with me) for example. Before release, people were excited by the prospect of huge blood spatters and heroic death animations. In practice, it became a joke. Characters would go through dialogue sequences completely covered in blood. It might have been funny once or twice but the joke gets old fast.

Then there’s sexuality. To date, I don’t think we’ve pushed this past nudity in any mainstream game (not counting Second Life). Nudity is often introduced under the guise of realism, ala Mortal Online. The end result, however, is a bunch of 14 year old boys going about their business totally naked. Women wind up getting harassed. When I logged into the beta for MO, I quickly came across a female avatar completely boxed in by naked men. Because of hit detection, she couldn’t move to escape. She had the choice of taking her clothes off or logging out.

Honestly, I wish MMO companies would worry less about pushing the envelope and more about making good games. Virtual boobies and red paint don’t entertain anyone for long. The fact is, we’re in an age where pornography is readily available to anyone who wants to find it. Why would people turn to video games to get their thrills?

The way I see it is this: adult themes should be a feature not a selling point. If a company is leveraging blood or butt over solid gameplay, their MMO is probably lacking. The most successful games out there don’t reign because of their mature aspects. They’ve won their spot because the game is fun to play. Everything else is just window dressing. And that’s exactly what adult-themes should be.

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