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Selling Sex

How can developers of erotic games get their products to consumers?

Scour the shelves at your local games store, and chances are you won't find many games about sex. That doesn't mean they don't exist, though. Sex-based games are actually on the rise. Attendees at last June's Sex and Video Games Conference saw everything from high-tech 3D simulators to sex on mobile to MMOEGs (massively-multiplayer online erotic games). And an even larger Sex and Video Games Conference is being planned for this year.

The problem is, games like this don't get sold in stores (can you imagine them somwhere between Kim Possible and God of War?), especially not with the negative sex-and-violence rap the industry already has. So where can developers sell them? It's a big issue, one that IGDA Sex special interest group chair Brenda Brathwaite brought up at a GDC sex and games round table.

It's a tricky situation, says Brathwaite. "Console manufacturers won't allow Adults Only-rated games on their systems. This takes out a huge part of any potential market that your game has."

At the same time, "If you decide to go PC-only, no EMA member stores will stock AO-rated material. So this leaves out most of the big box stores and smaller, but still powerful, chains."

Brathwaite is now a professor of game design at Savanna College of Art and Design, but she worked on a sex-based title of her own a few years ago - Playboy: The Mansion. It's a Sims-esque game that lets the player, as Hugh Hefner, manage a whole house full of photo shoots, hot tubs, and Playboy bunnies. While it's about as mainstream as a sex game gets, Brathwaite says even Playboy never made it into big-box stores. "I'd bet the sales were hurt because of that."

Despite her frustration with conventional retail, Brathwaite is sure things are looking up. "Our limitations will soon be our strengths," she says, pointing to the alternative sales method most sex-game developers have turned to: online distribution. "As sales of games become more and more digital, the pseudo-censorship of retail is losing its foothold."

In addition to the growing accessibility of broadband, Brathwaite points to independent game publishers as the leaders who'll help support new sex games and open up the potential of the online market. One such publisher is Manifesto Games, started by Greg Costikyan. Manifesto is making an entire business out of online distribution for games that fall outside the mainstream. They even have a sex game in their catalogue, the MMOEG Sociolotron.

"It's not that we're focused on sex games," says Costikyan, "But we're happy to offer them... The whole idea behind Manifesto is to offer edgier products that address... subject material that the conventional industry isn't able to address."

According to Costikyan, that means they're up for just about anything. "Not everything needs to be a blockbuster," but even niche games deserve viable distribution.

There might even be some advantages to selling sex games through a company Costikyan calls "not an 'adult outlet' per se". For example, he says, "We offer exposure to an audience of people who might be interested in games of this type but who might not otherwise encounter them." All that Manifesto asks in return is an affiliate percentage.

But is distributing through a company like Manifesto really the best bet for sex games? Patric Lagny, head of Manifesto-listed Sociolotron, says the affiliation with Costikyan's company has been an especially smooth one - but it hasn't actually generated many new game subscribers. Even Costikyan admits using Manifesto to sell Sociolotron hasn't been a huge success.

In the past, says Costikyan, "Where we've been most successful is where we have a strong catalog of related games." As the company builds a longer list of adult titles, Costikyan says he believes their success with them will grow as well. People will know to go to Manifesto for sex games. But before that can happen, Costikyan needs more sex game developers to set up affiliations.

In the meantime, Lagny says most of his subscribers hear about the game by word-of-mouth. As a result, the Sociolotron community is relatively small. Not only is that all right, says Lagny, that's actually just the way he likes it. Less people means less concerns about infrastructure and/or minors accessing adult content.

But Sociolotron is a special case. Most sex-game developers want their games to reach as many consumers as possible. Take VirtuallyJenna, a Jenna Jameson-themed sex sim with regular online updates and a monthly subscription fee. Brad Abrams, the head of development for the game, says he also relies heavily on word-of-mouth for PR. But in addition, he's taken the distribution bull by the horns and set up his own affiliate program.

The program, called 'Fake Sex Real Money', lets web site owners sign on as "marketing partners and online retailers", says Abrams. It's online distribution at its best, and Abrams says he wouldn't have it any other way. Forget old-fashioned retail. Heck, forget old-fashioned porn. "DVD, magazines and online picture galleries don't cut it anymore," Abrams says.

Using the Internet isn't just a matter of necessity, it's also a matter of convenience. "The beauty of it is, as we get more and more high speed connections in place, we don't have to go through adult stores, retail game stores et cetera," says Abrams. "We can get our products directly into the hands of credit card bearing customers."

But don't sex-game developers miss the big-box stores, where titles get so much visibility? Abrams isn't worried. "People will find our sex products anyways," he says, citing that trusted motto, "Sex sells!" Besides, he wouldn't switch to selling in traditional retail for anything. "The boxed product model is just an expensive dinosaur," Abrams concludes.

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