Amazon Games has issued a statement to Eurogamer that responds to various criticisms about how the Smilegate-developed ARPG Lost Ark portrays its female characters. In the statement, franchise lead Soomin Park makes promises to improve wardrobe and class options for the game's female characters, but also offers some absurd reasoning for why it's retaining some sexist design decisions.
Those sexist design decisions have been called out by players and critics alike. The core issues have to do with a strict gender divide for the game's different classes, and imbalances in the game's wardrobe and animation options for male and female characters.
Instead of offering any transparency for why Smilegate RPG chose to limit its female characters to sexy wardrobes, Park offers a defense of players who prefer "the original Korean version" of Lost Ark as an appeal to authenticity.
Female characters in Lost Ark are largely locked into outfits that seem to be designed with sex appeal in mind, and have character models and animations that tack in the same direction (community editorial coordinator Holly Green, who's spent some time with Lost Ark, described one of these animations as a "horny sailor moon transformation sequence"). Male characters have wardrobes that seem designed for fantasy warfare, and do not have the same animations.
The gender divide for the game's different classes is also suspect because they seem to map onto conventional gender stereotypes. There are only male characters for the game's Warrior class, and only female characters for the Mage and Assassin classes--men are allowed to exhibit physical strength, while women are locked into displaying intellect and guile.
The Gunner and Martial Artist classes do offer some gender parity, but a glance at Lost Ark's website shows how the male characters receive practical, battle-oriented armor and physically strong character poses, and the female characters are still designed with sex appeal first.
Soomin Park addressed the unusual gender class divide by stating that Smilegate is prioritizing the addition of new gender-based classes to even out the discrepancies (the next class to be revealed is the Berserker, which will be limited to female characters).
However when responding to questions about why Smilegate couldn't create new gender options, for classes like Warrior and Mage, his response sounded a bit like Ubisoft's classic "women are hard to animate" comments from E3 2014. "Classes are tied pretty closely to their character models in terms of function and animation, so bringing opposite gender characters to a class takes more work than just making a differently gendered model available," he told Eurogamer.
Park did not address the fact that it is only in this situation because it opted to create such wildly different character models that needed different animation sets. He did say Smilegate will create more counterparts for gender-locked classes in the future.
Starkly different wardrobe choices
Amazon Games and Smilegate are planning to release new wardrobe options to give players more choices for how they'd costume their female characters. Park also made clear that the original, revealing outfits would not be removed. He said that "more revealing options" would no longer be presented in marketing for the game or in the character creator, but the original wardrobe options would be quickly attainable as combat loot.
The core motivation behind these changes is apparently to manage the "balance" of fans who "want a Lost Ark experience that is close to the original Korean version," and "new players who may not like the current [armor] and costume options."
Adding more options for players uncomfortable with the game's current offerings for female characters is a step in the right direction, but the stated motivations are absurd. Casting the differences in views about Lost Ark's character design as "those preferring the original Korean version" versus those who don't masks the core design decisions as being a question of different cultural tastes.
It's innacurate to say that creating clear gender imbalances is some essential part of Korean game development culture. Though many MMORPGs from the region feature similar gender imbalances as Lost Ark, plenty of Korean players have voiced frustration with this trend. Unfortunately, such criticism often faces heavy backlash.
Smilegate itself has given into some of this backlash in the past, removing illustrations from its games by artists who voiced support for Korean feminist group Megalia.
Park's statement on the future of Lost Ark presents well-intended changes that don't address how it got here in the first place. It's adding "choices" for players who want different wardrobe options without addressing that the core ways female characters were designed was with sex appeal first, costume variety second. Character art for the upcoming Beserker class seems to only reinforce those decisions.
It's also somewhat suspect that Amazon and Smilegate's plan is to hide its currently existing costumes from the marketing and character creator, rather than commit to more even options for both genders. That only seems to sweep player complaints under the rug, not take them as sincere critique.
With all the advancement that's come in video game character creators in the last half-decade, that have even allowed players to explore a wider spectrum of gender identity or just inhabit a wider variety of body types, Amazon and Smilegate's strategy here is exhausting to rehash.
Developers, players, and critics have been vocally asking for better options for female characters for decades now, and the makers of Lost Ark had plenty of time to consider those requests before launching the game.