Sexuality and games have always had an awkward relationship. Plagued by censorship, ignored by a kill streak obsessed audience and subject to derision from an often prudish wider society, one of the most important elements of our culture is often marginalised into crude flash games and Japan only doujinshi. We talk to Mike Amerson of girlfriend sim My Virtual Girlfriend about his company’s first release, why dating sims haven’t caught on in the west and balancing mischief with misogyny…
Xero: Firstly, can you tell us a bit about who you are and what you do?
Mike Amerson: I’m Mike Amerson, I’ve been a game developer for 10 years as a 3D artist/ animator and I’ve worked on top franchises such as Star Wars and Call Of Duty – PC and console games. My latest (and personal) creation is an iPhone game called: My Virtual Girlfriend. I co-founded a company called WET Productions with my partner William to make this iPhone game. I live in the US and he lives in the UK. We never have met in real life, all of our collaboration to create this game has been through the internet and using tools like SVN, Google docs and (RIP) Google wave. We developed my virtual girlfriend using Unity 3D, A 3rd party dev engine.
X: Our next question is one we ask every person we speak to here at Midlife Gamer, what is your favourite beverage and what is your favourite biscuit (or cookie outside of the UK)?
MA: My favourite beverage is from Starbucks. A Venti white mocha with 3 pumps of white mocha and 1 pump of sugar free cinnamon dolce + add a shot of espresso. My favourite cookies are: Mother’s circus animal cookies (Pink and white, with the sprinkles).
X: How did WET Productions start out? Why start an independent game studio?
MA: Good, this allows me to elaborate on the first question. I met William online in a game developer forum in 2003. He was working on a Tetris like clone and I am an artist. He posted a request for an artist to help him make some simple graphics and I answered the call. I did it for free and after he finished the game I told him about a game idea I had (a sexy female fighting game for PC called “Girlfight”) we worked to develop a prototype with the intent to secure a publisher so we could hire a full development team and create the game for Xbox (at that time) and PC. Since we both work for developers, we would only be able to work on this during after work hours, which is few in game development. Using an in house engine that William created (It used to have it’s own website but we made it available for free here). We made a prototype of the game with 2 girls that could fight in a nightclub level, a bit like rumble roses. After 2 years, in 2007, I was unable to obtain financing and due to constant crunch modes at my regular work – the future was looking bleak for “Girlfight”. We both had lost a lot of our momentum and things moved at a snails pace or not at all. In 2008, after I posted a Craigslist ad for software developer for hire – another company contacted us and wanted us to write custom software for casino gaming (I live in Las Vegas – it’s a big industry here). So we made a game for them and that was our first paid assignment. Because we were cheap and the company that hired us loved what we did they hired us to make a couple more, so a few more paid assignments happened that year… In late 2008, I heard of the iPhone and thought- low barrier to entry, minimal developer cost. Why not make Girlfight for iPhone? I contacted William and started drawing up some design docs. After about a month into pre-production and after some research, we anticipated that our game would not be allowed on the iTunes store due to the content being a bit on the “mature” side of things. At this time my mind is racing – what can we develop that would be fun and entertaining – that there is not much competition for in the app store? Then it came to me: a girlfriend sim game! I contacted William, he liked the idea and agreed. A year and ¼ (and many low sleep nights) later My Virtual Girlfriend hit the app store in may of 2010. Although we made this iPhone game we both continue to remain employed by other development studios and work on this in our spare time (that’s why it took a year and a quarter – our schedules are always busy so extra time was very limited). I continue to be employed as a Senior 3D Artist and William a programmer.
X: How big is your team, how is the work divided and what are your industry backgrounds?
MA: The team consists of myself: Mike Amerson – Art / Animation /design / producer / business manager / PR and marketing. My partner William (last name is kept secret for anonymity) – coding. My wife Angelina – came in on the tail end as an associate producer and marketing. We used a few Mixamo animations and I contracted a friend of mine: John Hutchinson for a couple of animations as well.
X: Your first title My Virtual Girlfriend has been out for a while now, what has the reaction from the public been like and has it been a commercial success?
MA: The biggest thing we’ve run up against is that people take the game way too seriously or think it’s porn. We’ve been in a few flame wars on forums defending our game and explaining to them that apple doesn’t allow for objectionable adult material.
X: Why did you choose to make a title like MVG as your inaugural effort under the WET banner? Is there a big appeal to this kind of title?
MA: The path that led us to making this game has been a long road, as noted above in an earlier response. As for why this type of game? Well, I have a lot of experience at character modelling, texturing and I wanted to make something that would be a commercial success. My strength lies in art, especially characters, so making something visually appealing was a top priority. I wanted to make something that there was nothing else close to in the app store, and it had to be manageable in scope due to our schedules (boy I blew that one!).
X: How difficult is it to balance tongue-in-cheek pastiche with the out-and-out offensive? How well do you feel you achieved this in My Virtual Girlfriend?
MA: I did a LOT of research for MVG. I went on forums for alpha females to MySpace comebacks for the urban girl and searched for interesting dialogue and quotes. There are over 1500 lines of dialogue in the game. Each piece of dialogue can be distilled down to 1 of 6 categories. Average, Urban, Diva, Hippie, Alpha and Prude. Each girl is a mix of Average and one of the other categories. The percentage of each is generated randomly and at the start of the game – which is also based off of player input.
X: We’ve seen plenty of dating sims and girlfriend games released in Japan, yet whenever this type of game has come to home consoles or portable platforms, reaction from press and games has tended to be fairly poor and coverage minimal. Why do you feel we don’t see more of this type of game in the west?
MA: Now you’ve opened up Pandora’s box. This is one of my biggest pet peeve’s with Western culture and gaming, in that it’s absolutely ok to slit someone’s throat in a game but when it comes to anything even mildly sexual (such as seeing breasts) it’s completely taboo, well, until Rockstar did it… But PC and console gaming has come a long way now with allowing for more mature content. Apple however, is very conservative with their views, so we have to push the boundary but not go over the limit with them or risk our game being pulled from the app store.
X: Do you feel that, with digital download platforms, games are more open to explore themes such as sexuality (even if it is within a light hearted context as seen in MVG) or have the restrictions of platform holders meant that this type of game can ONLY be made on iOS?
MA: Yes, by nature of a digital download it is more “private” and therefore one can purchase it without embarrassment and these type of games are usually single player, so its even more so. As for the OS, it’s easier to self publish mature material on a computer than it is a console or the app store. Apple reserves (and exercises) the right to deny games with sexuality, so the developers must work within their rules. I think they should open up a little bit more, but that’s my personal take. However, I do respect that it is their store after all and they can say what goes in it.
X: Where next for WET Productions? Updating MVG? A sequel? Or perhaps a new title altogether?
MA: First thing, we continue to develop MVG with updates that help improve it. Once we get it to a point where we feel we’ve done as much as we can for it (1 more update), then we begin on the iPad version. And a lite version. After that – We’ve been getting a lot of requests lately for the “male” counterpart. So after the formula for gameplay is solid we will reskin the game for the ladies and create a “MVB” game (My Virtual Boyfriend). It is my hope that one day my partner and I will be able to develop apps /games full time and have the option to be independent from having to work for others, if I should someday choose to go full Indie. I do work with some really awesome people, the long hours can be a grind over time and with the instability of game companies these days, its good to have a backup plan.