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Ask GR Anything: Do boobs actually sell games?

Ask GR Anything is a weekly Q&A column that answers questions submitted by readers (as well as questions we're particularly curious about ourselves). Got a burning question about games or the industry? Ask us in the comments below and you may just get it answered!

Our question for this week’s Ask GR Anything comes from deep within the dark recesses of our own gray matter. What we’ve been dying to know for ages is whether the ever-present boobs and pseudo-sexual imagery in the videogame industry are actually helping sell the games, or if they’re just a stale result of the ancient mantra “sex sells.” Does strapping some boobs onto your ad campaign still work? Or is that just an old belief held over from the days when the average gamer was a male teenager?

Our own investigation turned up different results, indicating that perhaps sex isn’t as hot a selling point as many videogaming advertisers think it is. Ms. Lara Croft may be the single most poignant example that one can point to in this case.

Tomb Raider is one of the bestselling franchises in videogaming history, having moved 35 million copies over the last two decades. On the one hand, Lara Croft is near-universally regaled/mocked as the sexiest thing gaming ever came up with, and her ridiculous chest adorns practically every Tomb Raider cover. But the sales patterns of the Tomb Raider games suggest that has little or nothing to do with the continued sales of the Tomb Raider games.

The first two games in the series sold extremely well, and for good reason: they were awesome games for their time. But after Tomb Raider III, sales declined rapidly. Tomb Raider III: The Adventures of Lara Croft was the high point of the series in terms of sales. The following games never matched the high point of 6-7 million copies sold (even as the PlayStation installed base grew exponentially and offered many more potential customers).

Lara’s cup size never changed, so what was the difference? Well, gamers got sick of the series. The game originally became popular mostly because it was an incredible third-person action game way back on the original PlayStation – which was, to say the least, exceedingly rare. Maybe Lara’s iconic jubblies helped push the series to that original high, but the rise and fall of the series corresponds very well with its rise and fall in quality.

By the fifth game, the experience was phoned-in and rote, and gamers responded by abandoning the series by the millions. More than a decade later, Tomb Raider still hasn’t fully recovered.

When we talked to Professor Laurence Minsky of Columbia College Chicago’s marketing department, he seemed to think that trying to sell a product with sex or sexual imagery is a pretty poor way to go about your business, rejecting the idea that boobs give guys a warm fuzzy feeling and thus increase sales. “The way to make people feel good about a product is to create a good product, and then talk honestly about it,” Minsky said.

Minsky went on to mention something that rang oddly familiar in the wake of Namco’s racy Soulcalibur V ad featuring Ivy’s rack at the expense of… well, everything else in the game:

“The first job of any packaging is to grab the attention of the shopper – to get him or her to pick up the box. I believe Proctor & Gamble calls this ‘the first moment of trust,’” Minsky said. “But it must do it in a way that accurately conveys the contents of the packaging; otherwise, people will feel cheated. So in the case of gaming, the packaging/cover needs to convey something from experience – to set the drama, or at least introduce us to (or remind us of) the characters. In other words, it needs to be relevant. If not, it could create a backlash and will certainly destroy the franchise and any follow-up or related products.”

While the ad probably won’t destroy the long-running Soulcalibur series, Minsky’s comment pretty directly mirrors what has happened with that ad: it’s gained Namco more angry letters than pre-orders. It’s nice that more people have seen the ad because of the controversy and, uh… male interest, but it may have created a backlash that results in a negative for Namco Bandai.

It seems the best way to introduce a certain sexiness to your product is to figure a way to make that sexiness integral to the experience. Nobody thinks twice about a half-naked woman licking a lollipop on the cover of a GTA game, for instance. And that’s because it’s a big part of the whole sleazy, prostitute-laden tone of the GTA series. It'll be interesting to see what kind of promotional art will come out of the upcoming GTA 5.

If it seems out of place, though, you can expect pretty poor results. So it was with Southpeak’s cacophonous flop Velvet Assassin in 2009, which included, as part of its marketing campaign, pictures of its heroine – based loosely on a respected World War II secret agent – in a skimpy nightie. To be fair, it probably didn’t help that the game was considered terrible irrespective of its attempts at sexiness, but sex doesn’t seem to be enough to sell good games, either. Take Bayonetta, for example: for whatever reason, its brand of sensuality made sense in Japan (where it sold very well), but didn’t resonate as well with Americans (who didn’t buy it in huge numbers).

More often than not, the games that seem to use sex-driven marketing the most are the ones that are truly wretched otherwise (e.g. BMX XXX or The Guy Game). In those cases, we can definitely see sex helping them sell; after word of mouth and poor reviews have killed the product, you might get a couple horndogs here and there who can’t control their impulses enough to realize what they’re really trying to buy is porn… which is much more easily attained through means other than GameStop.

Submit your own questions in the comments (or Tweet them to @sciencegroen) and we may tackle them for a future Ask GR Anything.

40 comments

  • Ravenbom - January 25, 2012 11:22 a.m.

    How much do companies pay for exclusives and timed exclusives?
  • BENNYwins4 - January 15, 2012 1:15 a.m.

    Yes
  • KidKatana - January 13, 2012 5:18 a.m.

    Question: in Infamous, Cole dies if he falls into water - the explanation given is that he's electric, so presumably his body would fry in water. But the very fact that he's electrified (that, and the fact that we frequently see him sucking the electricity out of appliances) suggests that he's completely immune to damage caused by electricity. So, technically, shouldn't he be able to swim while electrifying everything in the water within a mile radius? Also, if that's not the case and he actually would die if submerged in water, doesn't that mean that he'd never be able to wash?
  • gamingfreak - January 13, 2012 6:27 a.m.

    I think it's the water (it's very conductive) sucking the electricity out of him that causes his pain, not being fried from it
  • Dmancapri - January 12, 2012 8:26 p.m.

    Whenever I hear talk of a game, developers and execs always say words like "Unreal Engine" and such. What are these engines, and what distinguishes one from another?
  • Letter11 - January 12, 2012 4:15 p.m.

    I had a question: How does Guild Wars avoid subscription fees and still manage to keep their servers afloat? The initial payment for the of game/add-ons can't completely offset the continual cost of server maintenance can it? Also why do you think other companies avoid this model if if can be successful?
  • Bones96 - January 12, 2012 2:17 p.m.

    How the hell does Sonic the Hedgehog not get dizzy from spinning so much?
  • quincytheodore - January 11, 2012 11:46 p.m.

    There are so many things that affect selling, if you argue hard enough you can contribute it to boobs, but that doesn't mean it so. Say FF XIII, plenty of haters, but it sold well. You can say it's Lightning's boobs that sold it, if you're persistent enough. On the other hand, CoD sold tons without boobs at all. I think you should ask, "Do boobs sell games, more than it should have without them?" Boobs should always be additional reserve, never go "All in" with boobs. If you must, create character that is sexy not slutty like Elika or Chell. If you must go slutty, do it with style like Catherine. Quality sells more than boobs, but that doesn't mean quality will sell, Okami. In this case, go for boobs, no one will blame you. But then again quality and boobs might not sell after all, Shadow of the Damned. And I wrote this while looking at Serah's boobs, strategically placed on the edge of your page <-----------------
  • pin316 - January 12, 2012 12:05 a.m.

    "never go "All in" with boobs." I think you're post was spot-on with everything apart from this statement. I make it a point to go "All in" with boobs at every opportunity...it's just more fun that way
  • CitizenThom - January 11, 2012 8:15 p.m.

    It is neither quality, nor boobs that sell games, but rather it's quality boobs.
  • Bercilak - January 12, 2012 7:47 p.m.

    Well said, sir. Well said.
  • gopikmin - January 11, 2012 8:05 p.m.

    Are there things like Pikmin in real life ( like some sort of fungus or plant living off an animal in a similar fashion)?
  • Sinosaur - January 12, 2012 4:42 a.m.

    There are all sorts of fungi that live on things (like athlete's foot), but the most interesting one in relation to Pikmin is probably the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, a fungus in some tropical forests that enters certain types of ants and starts to eat them from the inside. What makes it even more interesting is that is this process goes on, it hijacks the ant and causes it to climb up stems to position itself in an optimal position for the fungus to release spores from. Of course, while doing this it kills the ant and grows out of its head.
  • D0CCON - January 11, 2012 7:23 p.m.

    Why is orange Gamesradar's theme color?
  • Mooshon - January 12, 2012 1:59 a.m.

    In design colour theory orange is psychologically associated with 'technology'. Bit of a go-to colour.
  • EwoksTasteLikeChicken - January 11, 2012 6:50 p.m.

    Would Master Chief's suit ever be possible in real life, or would it be impossible to make? I'm talking about his actual regenerating shields and stuff, not just the costume.
  • Defguru7777 - January 11, 2012 7:15 p.m.

    If you get into the expanded universe, then there's even more that seems impossible to make. It's about half a ton yet somehow allows Spartans to move fluidly and with grace. Also, there's nanotechnology in it that allows it to upgrade itself (which I'm pretty sure is what they're using to explain why the Master Chief's armor looks so different in Halo 4). If they went in-depth, it would probably be a fascinating read. But I'm pretty sure the end-answer would still be no. :P
  • Kinnolo - January 11, 2012 7:37 p.m.

    **HALO expanded universe spoilers** They're looking into something called cold plasma. And they think it can replace glass for windows on space craft and better protect them from objects in space. So I'd say that if they figure it out then the suit shield wise is very possible. But as far as the heightened reactions strength and speed... In the books the suit killed any normal person using it because the bones couldn't handle it and they would pain reaction keep jerking around, the pain ultimately killed them. So Maybe half of the suits abilities.
  • onetimebuster - January 11, 2012 6:05 p.m.

    Why do mullets only look good in mgs games?

Showing 1-20 of 40 comments

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