Big Top Ballet, bringing gaming to an underserved demographic, women and girls that want to play a cool trippy game!
Ever since Apple made it possible for indie developers to sell their own games through the App Store five years ago, the Game Industry has undergone enormous disruption. Then followed Google Play, Amazon’s App Store, the Chrome Web Store, Facebook Games, etc. The list is growing for independent distribution. With this democratization of game publishing comes much competition, hence the number of apps and games available for smartphones and to play for free on-line. Large studios are beginning to feel the fierce burn of this market disruption and scaling back by reducing staff and adapting with new models.
As a female gamepreneur, this disruption couldn’t have happened for me at a better time. I always wanted to get into game development but to be honest, creating art for some shoot up war game was a huge turn off. I had become a new mom in 2007 and had just enough time to familiarize myself to mobile development and come up with a game concept I was really excited about bringing to an underserved demographic, women and girls that wanted a cool trippy game title. Some of the best games come out of the writers passion for a certain theme. Personally my passion for dance, electronic music and nouveau cirque was the impetus for Big Top Ballet the video game. It’s an alternative indie title that we’ve released to multiple platforms and we’re now working to scale with new content and a variety of mini games.
With this new found creative freedom in publishing and distributing games globally, comes challenges I hadn’t expected. Our first mini game within the title features trippy electronic music by Ill-Esha and spinning ‘Paper Ballerinas’ that the player must dress by dragging costumes and touching white tabs to attach costume pieces like tutus, masks and wings. Pretty tame, or so I thought. The Entertainment Software Ratings Board is the body that governs ratings for different games on all app stores. It’s voluntary to have your video game rated by the ESRB and as an indie developer for Big Top Ballet it hasn’t been a barrier for us to distribute the title on Apple’s App Store, Mac App Store, Google Play or Facebook Games. It’s that extra step that I haven’t taken at this early stage given that our game content is still growing.
This spring we were invited by Chillingo to release Big Top Ballet to their 100 Percent Indie app store for Android game”s available on Samsung mobile devices. We’re so pumped to be part of 100 Percent Indie. The experience and the support has been awesome. If you’re an indie game developer distributing to Android, I highly recommend it since 100 Percent Indie is available in countries like China where Google Play is not. Also China is now becoming the World’s biggest market for mobile iOS and Android apps. The numbers are staggering for the growing adoption of Android devices.
Big Top Ballet achieved Top 10 rankings, #1 in China and #4 in the US on the Mac App Store for Mac Music Games, we’ve been on the iOS App Store for a year without any issue. You can imagine my surprise when releasing to Samsung’s App Store to learn during the game review process that Big Top Ballet’s content was deemed unethical in certain countries. Which countries? Why? ‘Short skirts’ unethical specifically in Iran, China, Japan and the Phillippines. Okay Iran, women aren’t even free to dance in this country ( like that’s ethical?), so I decided to remove Big Top Ballet from distribution in Iran. But they’re tutus! The 100 Percent Indie team was awesome at advocating our case given that these were ‘Paper Ballerinas’ and the short skirts were ‘tutus’ being attached to an already dressed ‘paper ballerina’ dolls. Not to mention the title was already being distributed in China on Apple’s App Store for iOS. Clearly this was just an over cautious quick assessment by the review team.
Apparently not. Over the past week I began to receive buyer feedback from what were designated as ‘Global Arab’ countries that Big Top Ballet’s ‘Content is unethical’. WTF? Seriously? Oh yah Saudi Arabia, women can’t even vote or run for office. As I roll my eyes, really? What part is unethical? The music? The visuals, the fact that a woman is the game’s designer? So I asked simply and respectfully the buyers directly as a part of discovery. Keep in mind I have a copy of the Qu’ran and even read it from time to time. Interesting enough, one of these same buyers then gave a 5 star rating with ‘Great!’ as their review. Maybe they had to rethink what in Big Top Ballet was actually in conflict with their values and morals? Maybe the title is different and cool, so it’s an impulse judgement? Who knows? The reality is that as the title grows with new content, if this feedback continues in different countries, I am not going to argue, I’m going to remove Big Top Ballet from sale in those countries, just as I did with Iran.
If I’ve gained all this new freedom to create and release a video game in my own voice, I’m not about to compromise artistic integrity as a woman and game developer by designing burkas for ‘paper ballerinas’ to appease the Middle East. I wonder though, had I not asked, ‘Can you please comment what content in the game is unethical and based on what philosophy? ‘, then would they have re-evaluated their position? It’s a big world and you can’t please all your critics. I have to admit I would have been flattered if ‘unethical’ was instead replaced by ‘subversive’ because there’s nothing more rebellious to the Middle East than women creating their own art and dancing freely.
Elizabeth Boylan is the Chief Creative Officer of Big Top Ballet Inc. and Partner of VectorBloom Technologies mobile development firm based out of Whistler, British Columbia. She is a mother to a young daughter and works closely with her husband and programmer, John Borchert. When she isn’t working on Big Top Ballet her favorite past times are swimming, hiking, playing tennis and snowboarding Whistler peaks. You can follow news for Big Top Ballet on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook.