"Come play, my Lord", the ad beckons. "Save your lover!" it cries, as two seductive porcelain-skinned women lean into each other. "Start your journey now, my Lord", says another ad, this one featuring a busty, blonde bombshell in the process of removing her clothes. Any of this ring a bell?
The year was 2009. Ads began appearing on the internet for a game called Civony, later renamed Evony. They started innocently enough – "Free Forever" one banner ad claimed while an image of a knight wielding a sword took up half the ad. Then a woman appeared. "Start your journey now, my Lord!" this ad said, an attractive woman dressed as a fairy standing to the side. Over the next few months, the ads became progressively more risqué, first featuring CGI women displaying ample bosom, proceeding to real models undressing. Eventually the medieval theme of the ads was abandoned and replaced with models in lingerie.
The internet was buzzing with criticism over Evony's advertising. Many people were upset that such sexualised images were being used to market a game, with claims being made that it was a poor Civilization clone that wasn't worth anyone's time. It was a controversial ad campaign that attracted criticism from both the game development and game playing community alike. It was also a successful one.
Do You Come With The Car?
"Initially, the goal was to get the game in front of as many people as possible," says Darold Higa, a lead producer on Evony who joined the company in 2010.
"The ads were very successful in bringing people to the website. I understand there was a lot of criticism about them, but I remember even before joining the company I looked at the criticism and thought it was a bit hypocritical because there are a lot of other games that do that."
Higa isn't far off the mark. Numerous games use sex to sell, with female characters often being over-sexualised and leaving little to the imagination. There could be an argument for the fact that none of the models in the Evony ads actually have anything to do with the game itself, but he believes the team behind Evony were simply doing what was best for the game.
"The whole idea with a browser-based free-to-play game like Evony is to put it in front of a large an audience as possible and say ‘Here you go, try it for yourself'. That was the end message: ‘Look at this'."
And look at it they most certainly did. After the beta went live two years ago, Evony – a free-to-play a massively multiplayer real-time strategy (MMORTS) set in medieval times - currently has 27 million registered users, although the figures on active users were not made available to us. Evony currently runs on 250 servers that are active 24/7 and the game has been so successful that the team behind it launched the game's second age, Age II, an upgrade on the first, last year. At beta the company had a handful of permanent staff with contractors. Now the company employs more than 170 people in publishing, marketing, programming, level design, and production, and all these roles are being supported by the one game, Evony.
The Game Behind The Ads
So what is Evony?
In 2009, having read the criticism and dismissive comments, I wanted to see the game for myself. Clicking through one of the ads, I arrived at Evony's homepage where a CGI woman, eyes closed, cleavage on display, instructed me to sign up. I did. I then clicked to "Play Now". I followed the in-game tutorial and read the live chat-feed of others who were playing on my server. They were planning some sort of attack on a colony; they were discussing resource management.
I began clicking away at this game, which reminded me of other city-building games I'd played in the past. It wasn't quite a Civilization clone, but I couldn't put my finger on what it was, either. The game offered micro-transactions; you could play the entire game for free, but small payments would buy you perks and bonuses, similar to other free-to-play MMOs.
The game had a distinct lack of females, let alone lingerie-clad ladies beckoning me to go and "play with" them. "This game has no hot chicks at all!" I joked at the time, looking at an interface that resembled a client-based city-building game.
So I ask Higa this: if Evony is a fully-functional and supported game that clearly has enough going for it to attract and engage players, why did they go with boobs to begin with?
"Being perfectly honest, it's incredibly hard to launch in this kind of environment, especially when you don't have a retail box and you don't have a presence on shelves when people go to buy a game," he says.
"I've heard the executives talk about this many times and I don't think they would have done anything differently. It was a bit shocking and hurtful for the industry itself to respond so negatively, but overall it was an effective way to launch in an environment where it was very hard to get noticed."
"And when you think about it, perfume uses sex to sell. Cars use sex to sell. We're finally reaching an age where games are using the same advertising methods as everyone else – we're now trying to appeal to such a wide base of gamers that we're using the same tricks that other industries are using. I don't know, to me it was a logical evolution, and it worked for the company."
Looking Beyond The Breasts
While many people remember the game by its risqué ads and the banners of rivals who poked fun at them, such as when PopCap created parody advertisements for the launch of Plants Vs Zombies, millions have looked beyond the ads of '09 to find something more.
Higa himself played Evony before working for the company. Spending many years as a publisher and developer, he worked on developing a military simulator for the US army, and most of his development experience was in the PC and console space.
Development on Evony began in 2006, and while the game has been compared to Sid Meier's Civilization, Higa says that the roots of the game came from the desire to create a type of game that didn't yet exist.
"The whole idea was to bring immediacy to the gameplay and an element of ubiquitousness," he says.
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"Most games involve the installation of a client, so one of the first and foremost goals was to make something you can play through your web browser. Prior to our launch there were some browser strategy games, but lots of them had a very basic interface – it would just be a list of numbers or something like that. So we were seeking to bright the gap."
"One of the games we always talk about is Settlers – how can we get that kind of play that's graphically appealing and yet has this whole element of an MMORTS game? That was the kernel of the idea. Everyone always talks about Civilization, but it wasn't just Civilization that inspired us. It was the whole idea of this kind of empire-building game that's quick and ubiquitous so as long as you have a browser, you can play. You don't have to download a client. That was the big goal."
While Higa admits that Civilization was a source of inspiration, it was one of many sources. He talks about board games like Supremacy and Settlers of Catan as providing the kind of experience that Evony tries to replicate, and also games like Hearts of Iron and Panzer General. The whole team play and analyse all kinds of games to figure out what's fun, what works, and what doesn't work.
Higa believes that Evony succeeded in its goal of taking the functionality of a client-based game and implementing it into a browser. He says the technology was there, but it required a leap of faith to move the MMORTS out of the client and onto a platform that few people consider to be on the same level as consoles and client-based games on PC.
"Ironically, a lot of that bias actually comes from the game development community itself," says Higa.
"When I was deciding to change companies, people were like: ‘You're going to work on a browser-based game? Really?' But to me that's like saying you're only going to work on PS3 games and not Xbox 360 games – I just see the browser as another platform, and it's a very viable platform."
The Uphill Battle For Browser-Based Games
Higa says that browser-based games tend to have a psychological barrier for a lot of gamers, especially hardcore players, but the game has been able to attract a loyal community that comprises of gamers of all backgrounds – hardcore players included. He says part of the game's success is in the way it provides players with the tools to create their own action, narrative, and drama.
"In an MMORPG, I think some of the longevity comes from constantly releasing new worlds. In a strategy game, the goal is to create an environment by which it's always engaging to the player – in our case, it's constantly shifting the battleground."
Higa refers to the alliance system within the game that allows players to team up with others to transfer knowledge and plot tactics together. While all players begin by building their cities, raising their armies and attacking NPCs, the lively community leads to alliances forming as players eye off the resources of their neighbours, work together to conquer and colonise other cities, before turning on each other.
"As people join these alliances and move up the ranks, these alliances become an organic part of the gameplay mechanic," he says.
"You have alliances that are friends with each other and others that are in conflict, and that makes for really interesting gameplay, especially when two sides that once worked together are now at war."
Leaving The Scantily-Clad Past Behind Them
Two years on the Evony ads still exist, although scantily clad women have been replaced with images more in-line with the actual themes of the game. Was this move in response to the earlier criticism? Yes and no, says Higa. He admits that the criticism was strong enough that they paid attention, but having now identified their demographic they have decided to change their marketing strategy.
I return to Evony. The game has grown significantly since I first looked at it; the live-chat at the bottom of the screen still remains with players on the server discussing their strategies, and Age II has welcomed a more sleek design with more features, more player choices, and optional Facebook functionality. I'm not sure if this is the kind of game that I will stick with; the psychological barrier of a browser-based game is still there and I have my reservations. But I give it a go anyway - this time without the expectation that a woman with ample bosom will play with me.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku Australia.