SAN FRANCISCO--They might not think of it this way, but the designers of adult-oriented video games are a little bit like nightclub owners: they're always trying to figure out how to attract women as the ultimate lure for larger groups of male customers.
That dynamic was one of the major topics of discussion here Wednesday at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) during a roundtable on the business of sex in video games.
"Right now, the (adult video game) market targets mainly straight white guys," said Brenda Brathwaite, chair of the International Game Developers Association sex special interest group. "And straight white guys aren't the only ones having sex."
Indeed, the developers of several leading adult online games said that there are major design problems built into trying to please multiple market constituencies, and that as a result, they have tended to focus on the straight male market.
"Right now, the market targets mainly straight white guys. And straight white guys aren't the only ones having sex."
One of those design problems, said Noah Dudley, the producer of Naughty America, an online adult game that will launch later this year, is that women don't approach sex in games the same way men do.
"When we started, it was pretty much sex land," Dudley said. "You could have sex anywhere you wanted. Our marketing people said, 'We can't sell this to women.' So we cut way back on the sexual content. Now you can have sex pretty much in your apartment. This shows that it's a lot more appealing to women."
These days, the number of adult-oriented video games is growing, but they are overwhelmingly aimed at straight men. Among the titles on the market or expected soon are Playboy: The Mansion, the Leisure Suit Larry series, Virtually Jenna--which licenses porn star Jenna Jameson's likeness--Naughty America, RedLightCenter and a few others.
There are also the virtual worlds Second Life and World of Warcraft, which, while not overtly about sex, make it fairly easy for users to engage in sexual activity.
"If you see two avatars (lying) down (in World of Warcraft), they're not just tired," said Brathwaite, who moderated Wednesday's roundtable discussion.
There has even been a Sex in Video Games conference, which was held here last June.
But while the video game industry appears more ready than ever to take on adult content, it still is grappling with how to get women interested. And it's not just an altruistic or gender equality
equation: marketers want women involved because women attract large numbers of male customers.
Brad Abram, the president of XStream3D, which publishes Virtually Jenna, said his game's user base is actually around 50 percent women. He said the company has achieved that by building in more story, albeit erotic story, into the game.
"We're evolving story like Penthouse Forum, and you finish it off, so it gets more cerebral," Abram said.
Despite some advances, it still seems that there is a long way to go, particularly because many sexually oriented video games are geared to giving their male audience what they really want: a way to almost instantaneously have sex.
And that doesn't go over well with some women.
"I want to be me when I'm in (an adult game)," Heather Rothwell, a writer for GamersInfo.net, said during the discussion Wednesday. "I want to do more than log in and have sex. If I want to do that, I'll log on to a sex site."
Brathwaite agreed and said that adult game designers need to take such sentiments into consideration. They must, she argued, build in a way for women to achieve the arousal they desire before they engage in sex, even virtual sex.
"It's the thrill of the chase," Brathwaite said, making a somewhat awkward analogy. "When the animal just (lies) down dead and says take me, (it's not erotic). No, I have to kill you first. It's really important. Women want that degree (of erotic advancement), that chemical whatever that builds up over time...
"'Make me think I'm hunting'--every woman I talk to, that's what they say," Brathwaite said.
Of course, women are not the only demographic that adult video games have trouble reaching.
Several participants in the discussion said that gay men and women are also underserved. And one main reason, it was agreed, is that because straight couples have different body movements when having sex than do gay men or women, there's often too much animation work required to satisfy those markets.
"Everything we want people to be able to do has to be animated separately," Dudley said. The way that men interact with men differs from how men interact with women. So if we're going to deal with gay sex, which we do, then the amount of work we have to do" skyrockets.
Abram said that Virtually Jenna allows players to highly customize their characters, including giving those wanting men with different size genitalia the ability to get what they want.
The same goes for what Abram called "ass physics," essentially the firmness of the male buttocks.
"I guarantee you, 'ass physics' has never been said at GDC before," Brathwaite said.