Ubisoft: Straighter. Whiter. Duder.

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I know this story already made the rounds last week, and lots of people have had their say at this point. The community has arrived at pretty much the same opinion and I probably wouldn’t feel the need to join in except that I have some technical background that might help put some of this in context.

Last week, Ubisoft was showing off Assassin’s Creed Unity, where you can customize your own assassin for use in multiplayer. However, you can’t play as a woman, because making alternate female models and animations would double the production costs. Then a former Assassin’s Creed developer (now departed from the company) said that making a female character should only take “a day or two’s work“. So who is right and who is lying?

As it happens, I have a little experience with this kind of thing. About eight years ago I worked on software that had customizable male and female avatars, and before that I actually made some of the models myself. So I have experience both with the art and programming side of this. However, note that my knowledge was a little out-of-date even then. I wasn’t working on high-tech bump-mapped and motion-capped models like the folks at Ubi. But I did make 3D people and I did make animations for them and I did write the code that drives them. So my knowledge is broad, but out of date. And in my quasi-expert opinion: Both of these claims are basically true.

See, when it comes to animating something as complex as a human figure, the real work is in the refining. Yes, you can slam out art assets pretty quickly, especially when you’ve got a huge budget and a lot of dedicated artists. The problem is that the process doesn’t end when the artist hits “Save”. They make the art, then you put the art together, then you do lots of playtesting so see how it all looks and feels, then you compile a list of concerns and send it back to the artists. Repeat until the game is polished. And no matter how much money you throw at the problem, you can’t do much to speed that process up. Iteration takes time, and iteration is how you achieve greatness. So while it’s possible to slap a couple of simple female characters in there in the space of a few days, it would take more than a couple of days to make them look as good as the males.

A big part of the problem is that males and females are proportioned differently. Given a man and a woman of the same height, the man will have more of his height in his torso and the woman will have more of her height in her legs. The man will also have larger hands and a slightly longer reach. Now, if this was just a game where you run around and shoot people then those slight differences might not matter. In Mass Effect, Female Shepard used the same (male) animations as Male Shepard and they (mostly) got away with it. But Assassin’s Creed is a game where you’re constantly interacting with the environment and other figures, and doing so in a non-cartoony world where visual fidelity is important.

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My concern (and again, this is just guesswork on my part based on my own experiences) is that just slapping female assassins into the game world would create a lot of minor little problems that would need to be fussed over to make things look right. Depending on where the female model is anchored to the world, her hands might float a few inches away from the ledge she’s supposedly holding onto. Or perhaps her feet poke into the wall as she climbs. Or maybe she sticks her hand inside her hip when she’s supposedly grabbing stuff from her belt. Or her arm passes through the neck and shoulder of her victim when she grabs them from behind to shank them, as you do in these games. And don’t get me started on all the horrible ways things can go wrong when you’ve got flowing fabric (like capes) that need to obey physics but not clip through the model or end up humorously flipped over their head.

I’m not saying these problems will happen. I’m saying these are the types of problems you might run into, and whether or not they’re a big deal depends a lot on the circumstances and where the camera is.

The point is: It would take a lot of time to go over the massive animation list and tweak them to fix problems like this if they arise.

I can see how just throwing together the female models in a “couple of days” could backfire. Imagine if Ubisoft released the game with both male and female characters, but the females were slightly glitchy, had fewer customization options, and had less variety in their animations. People would (rightly) say that the females felt tacked-on, like an afterthought.

But this whole argument over whether it would take “two days” or would be “double the work” is kind of missing the point.

In Assassin’s Creed Unity, the multiplayer is designed so that you always see yourself as the main character and your friends as “other guys”. I think that’s a ridiculous way to handle things. It would be like a game of Left 4 Dead where every player sees themselves as Francis, and the other players as Bill, Zoey, and Louis. That’s goofy and counter-intuitive. Actually it’s even dumber than that. In Assassin’s Creed Unity we’re all Francis, but we’re all Francis with slightly different hats on. That’s… beyond lame.

They began with a system that made no sense, and fundamentally ran counter to what people want and expect from “customizable multiplayer”. This reeks of creative clashing. I suspect we have creative team that was dedicated to their single-player ego fantasy and management that imposed multiplayer because they heard that multiplayer was a big deal these days.

Yes, if they had even thought for a second about their female audience they would have found time and money in the budget to do it, and do it properly. But if they were thinking clearly they wouldn’t have designed such a nonsensical and confusing multiplayer system to begin with. They didn’t leave females out when they ran out of time or money at the end of the project. They left females out at the start, when they designed their everyone-is-Francis multiplayer.

(Dear nitpickers: Yes, he’s named Arno. It doesn’t matter.)

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Yes, not every game needs to have females in it. I can totally buy the concept that some games are just designed around playing one gender or the other. It would be silly to make Tomb Raider so you could play as a dude. (Although I hope they would at least have the decency to name him Tom Braider.) A male-focused or female-focused game is fine. It’s not that any one game leaves out women. It’s that so many games leave out women. Ubisoft’s catalog is sausagefest even by video game standards. Far Cry, Prince of Persia, Splinter Cell, Assassin’s Creed, Watch_Dogs. Their big-budget headline franchises are by, for, and about dudes.

This is made all the more painful by just how bland and shallow their male protagonists are. It’s one thing to be obliged to play as a dude when he’s interesting and different, but after five minutes playing as Adrian Pearce I was ready to demand a game that let me play as a pan-ethnic differently-abled gender queer senior citizen, if only to escape the smothering sameness. If we’re going to play as thirty-something straight white dudes all the time, then is it too much to ask if they have some personality?

Even if you don’t care about female players, this is still ridiculous from a business standpoint. Ubisoft can’t argue that “women don’t want to play these kinds of games” because Ubisoft has no way of knowing that. In fact, they’ve gone out of their way to avoid knowing about that. The one Assassin’s Creed title that had a female protagonist was released for handhelds, and with such understated marketing that I didn’t even hear about it until after it was already out. (Compare this to the Black Flag marketing blitz, where I was sick to death of the game before it even hit stores.) They released their one female-focused game on a different platform and to little fanfare, so that whether it sold well or poorly they would have no idea if it had anything to do with the gender of the audience or the protagonist. Even in Unity, it would have been really useful to let people choose to play as a woman, just to see how many people wanted to do that.

The point is: This has nothing to do with how hard or easy it is to put females in the game, or how much it would cost, or how difficult it is to do mo-cap these days. Ubisoft doesn’t want to put females in their games, they have no idea if it’s something the audience wants, and they are avoiding any move that might shed some light on the subject. I’m not pointing fingers at any specific person in the company, but taken as a whole Ubisoft comes off as shallow, stupid, single-minded, and lacking in creative vision.

No, they don’t have to put females in their games. But I don’t have to stop heaping shame on them for fumbling at PR and game design. Their characters are bland, their multiplayer system sounds awkward and silly, and their excuses are actually more patronizing and irritating than just coming out and admitting that the only thing they want to do is make more stories about shallow 30-something white dudes.

Shamus Young is the guy behind Twenty Sided. Special thanks to the excellent and venerable Ric Chivo for the article title..

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