Ask GR Anything: Do boobs actually sell games?

Ask GR Anything is a weekly Q%26A 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.