A couple of weeks ago, survival hit Rust added playable women. This is, however, Rust we're talking about, so players don't get to choose whether they're a dude or a lady. Controversy ensued. People threatened to stop playing. Some said Rust had dug its own grave. Turns out, the game's player count has actually gone up. Facepunch Studios founder Garry Newman tweeted stats showing that, despite a vocal negative reaction from dudes who didn't want to look like a lady (and a bit of vice versa), Rust has seen a significant uptick in sales and players since the update. Thousands more, in fact.
Rust sales grew 74% when we added female models with forced gender pic.twitter.com/oOo10gTVc2
— Garry Newman (@garrynewman) April 21, 2016
— Garry Newman (@garrynewman) April 21, 2016
I asked Newman if Rust's recent bump was typical of major updates, and he said this one is unlike anything he's seen. "Any previous increase was a steady and slow increase over a number of months, rather than a sudden jump," he explained in an email. "So I've never seen anything like this before, apart from Steam sales."
He added that he feels like the gnashing-of-teeth and screenshotting-of-dicks came from a vocal minority. "They were definitely the vocal minority," he said. "It's usually the case with any change we make in game. You hear a bunch of opinions on the internet from people who haven't played the game for months, or haven't even played it. If we really want to know what people think, we join a server anonymously and start asking opinions. The feedback from players that are actually playing the game is the most valuable."
"We're seeing a lot more positivity around the change than negativity," Newman added. "That was perhaps always the case but I guess the urge is always to pay more attention to the negative. It's still a bit of a novelty right now, but I'm guessing in another couple of months it will just exist without acknowledgement just as the skin colour stuff."
Newman has publicly contended that, like last year's randomisation of player skin colour, Rust's new approach to sex characteristics is a gameplay decision first and foremost. Your character is tied to your Steam ID, so you can't just beat someone near-to-death with a club and then come back and be their BFF. "We wanted the appearance of the players to be consistent over time," Newman wrote in an article for The Guardian. "A survivor shouldn't be able to attack another then come back later with a different gender or race and befriend the same player. They should be recognisable consistently and long-term -- so anyone likely to commit a crime would be more likely to wear a balaclava or a face mask."
It does, however, represent a pretty big inversion of gaming's typical status quo. Usually, women are forced to play as male characters. Rust's audience is, like many games on Steam, primarily male, and the idea that they a) don't have power over a system and b) might have to play as woman is legitimately shocking to them.
I asked Newman how the latest wave of blowback stacks up when compared to that previous wrinkle to the skin colour switcheroo, which also got certain corners of the internet jawing. In the aforementioned article Newman wrote for The Guardian, he noted that complaints about character race were often regional, the majority of which apparently came from Russian players. With women characters, however, he told me that hasn't been the case. Complaints came from all over.
"I think it comes down to being accustomed to it," Newman told me. "Generally wherever you are, you either are a woman or you have interactions with women. I can totally imagine that there are places in the world where there aren't any black people, and there's a strong ingrained bias against them. I can't imagine the same thing of gender."
All that said, Newman confessed that he wasn't expecting people to get this vitriolic about not being able to pick whether they're a guy or a girl.
"To be honest the whole interest around it has been a bit of a surprise," he said. "It seems to have gotten a lot more interest than when we did it for skin colour. I guess it's more of a big deal for some people than others. I've always tended to opt for the female characters when there's been a choice. I was Gina in Half-Life Deathmatch, Sheva in Resident Evil, Chun Li in Street Fighter. I don't know why. It's just more interesting to me."