I have been playing through Assassin's Creed: Revelations and I love it, but I keep looking for an apothecary to sell me a Geritol potion for Ezio. The story puts him at over 50 years old, and for the Renaissance that's downright antiquated. He's not alone. In the last couple years some very high profile titles have come out with some very grizzled leading men. Even that bastion of juvenile humor, Duke Nukem, is over The Hill.
This trend been noted before by more people than me, but I always wrote it off to the vagaries of the particular story and society in general. I don't think The Expendables, for example, would have done nearly so well back in 1998. Or maybe this is just me self-selecting data due to my own encroaching need to tell people to get the heck off my lawn.
The characters may seem old and creaky to the whippersnappers’ end of the market, but in real life, I'd like to think that these characters aren’t really all that old. Snake's math-teacher-style lip ferret is iron grey, but his birthdate puts him four years younger than me. But him just being there and in the lead role — his mere presence — is part of a huge shift. Compare and contrast eight years before. While playing Final Fantasy X, supporting character Sir Auron catches all sorts of crap about his age in the dialog of the game. He's grumpy, but he didn't seem all that grey to me. Still, the 17-year-old snot-nosed lead refers to him as "old man" all the time. As you play through the story, you find out he's 35 (if you count the 10 years he's spent wandering around as an unsent ghost).
I decided this topic needed more, uh ... research. That's what the cool kids call “hanging off buildings and shooting things” nowadays, right? But as fun as it was to replay some of these games to get story information like dates and times, some good old-fashioned hitting the books came up with some intriguing indications.
I got out the heavy Google-fu, and it seems like the shift from the young punks to the old fogeys is following the age curve of their lead developer/producer/director. Back when the gang at id, Valve, and other influential houses were in their 20's, all our heroes were young. Now that those same men are pushing 40 and 50 (along with the average gamer),their leading men seem to be following suit.
In 2005, the International Game Developers Association put out a very useful report on the demographic makeup of the game industry. They list the average age of game industry developers at 31 (pg 16, fig 7). But that doesn't tell the whole story. The curve over time is skewed strongly to the left, peaking sharply between age 20 and 30 before dropping off nearly vertically before tapering into a long, thin tail off towards the older, right side. But add in hierarchical position to the numbers, and everything shifts. As a developer or designer gains in experience and authority in the industry, the average age rises. By the time you're running your own projects, it corrects to match the rest of the software-development industry average of 38, and often exceeds it. This is expected, and reflected across other technical fields. But outside of good old Clippy, Microsoft ® Office doesn't have a character to age. Games do.
All the big names seem to be aging right along with the rest of us. Here are just few examples of what I mean (where I could find the information publicly). Gabe Newell of Valve recently turned 49. Michel Ancel of Ubisoft just turned 40 in March. Ken Levine is 45. Heck, Derek Smart has a grey beard now (according to the pic on his Google+ Page. It's not just American developers; Peter Molyneux turned 52, Yoshinori Kitase is 45, and Shigeru Miyamoto turned 59 last year.
When you map the age of developers with the lead characters they've created (making sure to count in the date of the actual game story in your calculations), it starts to show a pattern pretty quickly. Here are a couple examples:
Metal Gear series
|Character: Solid Snake
|Creator: Hideo Kojima
(born August 24, 1963)
|Metal Gear Solid|
(story set in 2005, game released in 1998)
Snake's Age: 33 Kojima's Age: 35
Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
(story set in 2014, game released in 2008)
Snake's Age: 43 Kojima's Age: 45
|Character: Duke Nukem
(born April 9, 1967)
|Creator: George Broussard
(born May 31, 1963)
(story set in 1997, game released in 1991)
Duke's Age: 30 Broussard's Age: 35
Duke Nukem Forever
(story set in 2010, game released in 2011)
Duke's Age: 43 Broussard's Age: 48
I thought maybe it has to do with our growing tendency towards sequels. Particularly in some of the longer-lived series, the stories have been around long enough to get grey hair of their own. But even with some serious temporal gyrations, the correlations still seem to hold to a startling degree. Metal Gear Solid has bounced around in the timeline over the course of the series. In 2004, they went back to 1964 and then 29-year-old Big Boss (birthdate listed only as 1935) for Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. But for Metal Gear Solid 4, we came back to Solid Snake as he turned 43 on the game's launch day in 2008. That keeps him right in line, two years younger than Kojima.
A minor factor here is people realizing the main character couldn't have his professional pedigree and still be that young. When the original Deus Ex came out, the protagonist J.C. Denton was 23. When Deus Ex: Human Revolution came out, Adam Jensen (its protagonist) is 34. That's partly because before he came to his current job for Sarif Industries, he was a commander in Detroit SWAT, and you don't get that job right out of college.
Another factor is the ever increasing average age of the players themselves. Last year, the ESA released their traditional annual report on gamer demographics, and it details that the average gamer is 38 years old. That whole "I hope I die before get old" thing goes right out the window at a certain point, and the concept that the average gamer couldn't go take out the bad guys at their current age is far more likely to scorch egos than drive sales.
I was tootling along with my theory when I ran smack-dab into a couple outliers. You'll note that good old Ezio doesn't follow the pattern all that closely (though it takes some extra math to do the digging). Jade Raymond is 36 and took care of the first two games, and Alexandre Breault who took over for our really grumpy old version of Ezio in Assassin's Creed: Revelations is a similar age (33 if you do some math on his LinkedIn info). Splinter Cell: Conviction (story set in 2010) has a 53-year-old Sam Fisher (born March 25, 1957) for a lead, and he gets matched up with Ubisoft's Alexandre Parizeau, who just turned 36 on April 14th.
I found a common point pretty quick: All of my outliers came from Ubisoft. That started me looking at other factors to find a clue and that brought up another interesting twist — gender.
Oftentimes, when people decry the situation with minorities and women in games, people point out that there aren't many minorities or women doing the work, and maybe figuring out why and bringing more in would improve matters. This usually doesn't get anyone anywhere. It degenerates into volleys of discussion about how you don't have to be the same as your character to write about it. And that's the side of the church I tend to sit on, particularly on an individual basis when it gets down to specific cases.
But this is a more complex situation. Writing isn't the only telling factor. Producers, marketing, and other deciders are also part of the equation. And as they age, things are shifting. They're green-lighting projects with older characters in a way they never have before. And when women are in those positions, you get even more diversity. Whenever the topic comes up of good examples of games that broadened the demographic, Beyond Good and Evil bubbles up to the top of the list, and that's an Ubisoft property. Maybe Jade Raymond's effect on Ubisoft in general and the Assassin's Creed and Splinter Cell series in particular are more important than we think.
There is a lot more here than meets the eye, but there are other cases to study. It does make me wonder if maybe the strong characterizations of the female supporting characters in the Mass Effect series (and, in part, the percentage of gamers who prefer to play FemShep) may have a lot to do with the influential work of the female lead gameplay designer, Christina Norman. She just moved to Riot Games. I don't expect them to suddenly explode with diversity, but I'll be watching their next releases with a certain interest.
It's not simple causation by any stretch of the imagination, but this discussion isn't started from supposition — this is a look at the facts and figures to go along with what is actually happening. I'm not making any judgement calls on what I think should happen here, but I think this raises a question about the makeup of an industry, a question that deserves a closer look from people with more expertise and resources than I have.
Looking at the situation from the angle of age shows that there may be some factor in the makeup of development teams that affects the representation of the characters in concrete ways, like their age. That may also hold true for other metrics like gender. Or to put it simply: When you get more kinds of people in there in positions of authority, you really do get more kinds of characters. And I'm willing to speculate that if we could get more females and minorities in positions of leadership in the industry, maybe we'd start seeing more of that effect in other endeavors.