In the run up to Ubisoft’s E3 2014 press conference, French Revolution stab-em-up Assassin’s Creed Unity was set to be one of the biggest moments of their briefing, if not of the entire event.
We knew that it would be a hot topic and we knew that the next Templar-ousting game in the series would be led by a male protagonist. But what we didn’t know was that Assassin’s Creed Unity would exclude playable female characters entirely and as for Ubisoft’s downright offensive statement to justify the lack of playable ladies? None of us could have ever seen that coming.
E3 2014, Assassin’s Creed Unity and That Controversial Statement
The reveal of Assassin’s Creed Unity’s co-op gameplay was meant to be a thrilling, enthralling and captivating view into the first next-gen only game in the series. It was also going to be a debut of fancy camera angles (there are now appropriate zooms and swoops when you fall from things) and a greater fluidity to our assassin’s movement (you now fall from things like a graceful, acrobatic swan and not a mildly athletic chunk of wood), two things that everyone was very much open to.
Less acceptable, was the cast of characters who joined AC Unity’s leading man, Arno, for said co-operative battling.
All three of Arno’s playable mates in the trailer were male and although trailers don’t always paint the bigger picture, it has been confirmed that we’d better get used to Assassin’s Creed Unity’s playable boys only club because only playable male characters will be available.
More concerning still is that when Ubisoft Technical Director James Therien spoke to Videogamer hoping to wave the concerns of no playable females, he provided this incendiary statement:
“It was on our feature list until not too long ago, but it’s a question of focus and production. So we wanted to make sure we had the best experience for the character. A female character means that you have to redo a lot of animation, a lot of costumes [inaudible]. It would have doubled the work on those things. And I mean it’s something the team really wanted, but we had to make a decision… It’s unfortunate, but it’s a reality of game development.
Again, it’s not a question of philosophy or choice in this case at all I don’t really [inaudible] it was a question of focus and a question of production. Yes, we have tonnes of resources, but we’re putting them into this game, and we have huge teams, nine studios working on this game and we need all of these people to make what we are doing here.”
8,000 Animations and How Ubisoft Added Even More Fuel to the Fire
Think Therien’s dismissal is bad? Ubisoft Creative Director Alex Amanci said the following to Polygon:
“It’s double the animations, it’s double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets. Especially because we have customizable assassins. It was really a lot of extra production work. Because of that, the common denominator was Arno. It’s not like we could cut our main character, so the only logical option, the only option we had, was to cut the female avatar.”
Meanwhile, Assassin’s Creed Unity Level Designer Bruno St. Andre told the publication that around 8,000 animations would have to be created (along with an entirely new skeleton) in order to allow for playable females. And he had this to say too:
“We started [work on a female character] but we had to drop it. I cannot speak for the future of the brand, but it was dear to the production team, so you can expect that it will happen eventually in the brand.”
“Eventually”, “8,000 animations”, “double the visual assets” – a collection of phrases that are both insulting and untrue.
As explained by Dan Lowe, who is the Senior Technical Animator at Ubisoft Montreal and has worked on Far Cry 3, the animations for female and male characters in Watch Dogs at least were so similar that “when [they] checked [their] female combat mocap it was pretty much indistinguishable from the male captures”. Meanwhile, Assassin’s Creed 3’s Animation Director Jonathan Cooper tweeted that “Aveline de Grandpré shares more of Connor Kenway’s animations than Edward Kenway does.” despite the fact that Aveline and Connor are assassins of two different genders. Funny that.
Cooper also estimated that the so-called “8000 animations” that would need to be rejigged and put together on a different skeleton, along with all of the other claims that those Assassin’s Creed Unity team members said, would only take a day or two to put together.
Now, I’m not about to start throwing around childish phrases and start calling Ubisoft a bunch of liars but it seems absolutely ludicrous Ubisoft can throw their hands up and say ‘this is all of the work we’d have to do, we don’t have time to do that work’ when they have been quite proud of the fact that they have thrown tonnes of resources behind AC Unity and that thousands of people in 9 different teams have been working on it.
The Industry Responds
I know where to pick my fights and sometimes, particularly on this subject, I can admittedly be a bit reactionary, but in the face of the estimated 40-50% of female gamers that Ubisoft would be alienating with their design choice and the fact their resulting statements had about as many holes as a 10 storey block of Swiss cheese, my opinions are not alone.
Compiling some of the best tweets about Ubisoft’s statement, Rachel Weber over at Games Industry International spoke to several game developers on what Ubisoft have said.
This tweet from Anthony Burch joked about the huge swathes of content and features that Ubisoft games continue to pack in until we’ve got gameplay (and the subsequent promotional trailers for them) coming out of our ears. For example, the customisation of our assassins is something that we’ve already have in the game for years, with players being able to craft and collect different assassin robes so why is it suddenly such a huge detriment to development that it means an entire gender of playable characters has to be left out?
Meanwhile, Ansh Patel of Narcissist Reality explained Ubisoft’s frustrating design choice,
“Animation and modelling a playable character doesn’t require as much commitment and costs as Ubisoft says. In fact, a trend among many indie developers looking to cut on time and costs is to use the same rig (skeleton) for the model to create a common set of animations for both the male and female characters. Just wanted to call out Ubisoft because their ridiculous excuse doesn’t make any sense even from the developer perspective. It clearly seems driven by a marketing decision, which is extremely unfortunate.”
And even Anna Megill, a writer at Ubisoft Quebec (one of the studios that’s contributing to Assassin’s Creed Unity’s development) said in a series of tweets that the situation over playable female characters “sucks”.
How History Doesn’t Help Ubisoft’s Cause Either
The thing that stings the most isn’t even that Assassin’s Creed Unity will help further the tremendously awful statistics on playable female characters or that female gamers are so easily being ignored; it’s the ethos of where it comes from.
The Assassin’s Creed games pride themselves on freedom, equality and liberation of people from the things that had held them down. From Adewale and Edward’s tasks to free slaves (although admittedly I didn’t agree with the heavy gamification of one of history’s most awful crimes) to the power-abusing Templars and the removal of corrupt nobles, the Assassin’s Creed games are a fantastic vehicle to defeat inequality, by making us all more aware of history’s injustices.
So why then, is gender equality in this small (yet entirely important) example being overlooked? Why are we being told that female characters in Assassin’s Creed Unity are so much effort when despite Aveline and Edward not having an awful lot of shared animations, Ubisoft went out of their way to create just a single hour of Aveline-led DLC that was only available on PS3 and PS4 anyway?
Furthermore, as James O’Malley over Tech Digest points out, even history is laughing at Ubisoft because the lack of playable female characters actually makes Assassin’s Creed Unity historically inaccurate.
Ubisoft already know that the French Revolution was built on the backs of both men and women as the publisher went to the trouble of including female protesters in the game’s very announcement trailer (suggesting a conscious decision to put the female NPCs there). And, O’Malley points out, the “Angel of Assassination” Charlotte Corday and political activist Marie Gouze (Olympe de Gouges), were incredibly important figures that a game like Assassin’s Creed Unity should be taking into consideration.
The overwhelming support for playable female characters in Assassin’s Creed Unity could lead to something positive, with some even suggesting that the backlash could force Ubisoft’s hand and lead them to release DLC for the game (if that wasn’t already the plan). But frankly, that’s not good enough.
The fact that a game of this scope, with such a detailed open worldand a foundation that suggests that both sides of the gender binary should get a chance to be portrayed, doesn’t offer something as simple as diversity is a shame. It’s also an insult to all gamers of all genders to know that Ubisoft doesn’t care enough to listen to longstanding fan demands.
In an ideal situation, Ubisoft would listen to concerns, make a statement and promise to fix this before the Assassin’s Creed Unity is released on October 28th but judging by the words, thoughts and comments of the people responsible for the game, I think we’d honestly be lucky if we even got that.