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Activision: No Woman, No Try | 10 Years Ago This Month

A decade after being called out for a lack of female protagonists in its games, has Activision's track record actually gotten worse?

The games industry moves pretty fast, and there's a tendency for all involved to look constantly to what's next without so much worrying about what came before. That said, even an industry so entrenched in the now can learn from its past. So to refresh our collective memory and perhaps offer some perspective on our field's history, GamesIndustry.biz runs this monthly feature highlighting happenings in gaming from exactly a decade ago.

Activision: "Lose the Chick"

As part of its very public reckoning with a sexist work culture with predators in high places, Ubisoft last month saw numerous former employees going public to testify about the many manifestations of the company's disregard for women.

One such manifestation was its attitude toward centering women in its games, as developers spoke with Bloomberg about how chief creative officer and alleged sex pest Serge Hascoët insisted on changes to Assassin's Creed Odyssey and Assassin's Creed Syndicate to reduce the original prominence of their women playable characters, saying that female protagonists don't sell games.

That report apparently didn't set well with CFO Frédérick Duguet, who dedicated a portion of the company's post-earnings investor call to list off a number of diverse characters featured in Ubisoft games. Duguet's defense attracted a bit of mocking on Twitter, but as flimsy as it was, there are other AAA publishers who wouldn't even be able to muster that much.

"Activision gave us specific direction to lose the chick"

A True Crime: Hong Kong developer

A decade ago, Activision was called to account for its representational deficiencies as Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander spoke with developers on the company's third True Crime game, which was originally intended to star an Asian woman as its protagonist.

"We were all on board, and then Activision killed it, said they don't do female characters because they don't sell," one developer told Alexander.

"Activision gave us specific direction to lose the chick," another confirmed.

Activision denied the accusation, with a representative saying, "Activision respects the creative vision of its development teams. The company does not have a policy of telling its studios what game content they can develop, nor has the company told any of its studios that they cannot develop games with female lead characters. With respect to True Crime: Hong Kong, Activision did not mandate the gender of the lead character... Like all other game and media companies, Activision uses market research in order to better understand [what] gamers are looking for."

Apparently the market research didn't like the game with a male protagonist either, as Activision cancelled True Crime: Hong Kong the next year. It was picked up by Square Enix and released as Sleeping Dogs. Sales were disappointing, but the game was fondly remembered enough that a film adaptation starring Donnie Yen was ready to start filming as of last month.

True Crime: Hong Kong eventually turned into Sleeping Dogs

A decade ago, Gamasutra's evidence of Activision's poor representation of women in its games was the fact that in the previous five years, the company's only female-led games were a handful of licensed afterthoughts like Barbie and iCarly. Going back a little further, the company's golden age of enlightened representation probably came from 2001 to 2003, when it published a woman-led game in three consecutive years (2001's Tomb Raider: Curse of the Sword for Game Boy Color followed by FromSoftware's Lost Kingdoms in 2002 and its sequel a year later).

To put it bluntly, that's not a great track record. But Activision apparently took the criticism in stride, formulated a plan, and went on to ignore women even more in the decade ahead.

Since 2011, we've only identified four Activision games fronted by female characters, all of them licensed properties. In October of 2012, Activision released Bratz Fashion Boutique and Lalaloopsy: Carnival of Friends for the 3DS on the same day and kicked up its heels on the women in games front for a couple years. In October of 2014, it released The Legend of Korra multiplatform action game and its 3DS strategy game counterpart a couple weeks apart from one another.

That's been it for Activision games and female protagonists. The company even published a pair of games tied into the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot that famously featured women in the lead roles, but decided to scrap that idea so players could choose to play as men as well as women. (I can only assume this sent purist Ghostbusters fans into a rage considering the game's deviation from the hallowed source material.)

Cover image for YouTube video

Of course, Activision has still allowed for players to create women player characters in series like Tony Hawk, Guitar Hero, and Destiny. And the Call of Duty series has had greater representation in the past decade, adding women in multiplayer with Call of Duty: Ghosts in 2013 and even having players control women in some sequences of its campaign modes. But even a decade after being called out on this, Activision hasn't built an original game around a woman protagonist.

One contributing factor here is that like a lot of large publishers, Activision just doesn't make as many games as it used to. But in the process of focusing on a "fewer, bigger, better" approach to game publishing, Activision is putting more money behind the games it does make, which means they become much bigger bets. That means safer choices, more market research, and a smaller appetite for doing anything that doesn't follow the conventional wisdom of the moment.

And when that's the North Star a publisher is following, centering games around characters from traditionally under-represented groups will be one of the first things to be lost.

Warren's Piece

"We're still making cartoons."

That was the headline takeaway from Warren Spector's GDC Europe 2010 keynote address, but the designer wasn't talking about his studio Junction Point's then-upcoming Mickey Mouse Wii game Epic Mickey.

He was instead talking about the industry's attempts to compete with film, its graphical leaps, and his own belief that developers would be better served to eschew photorealism in favor of stylized or iconic visual treatments.

"If we don't break out of big buff guys with swords and guys in tights and space marines in armor, we're going to get marginalized in the way comics have been in the United States"

Warren Spector, 10 years ago

He also warned about the possible harm that could come from how much the industry had been leaning on adolescent male fantasies for so much of its output.

"If we don't break out of big buff guys with swords and guys in tights and space marines in armor, we're going to get marginalized in the way comics have been in the United States," Spector said. "I hope we can break free of the content of comic books."

Normally those are the sort of forward-looking statements we might cover in the "Good Call, Bad Call" section below. And while I agree with those two specific points of Spector's, I'm not sure there's much concrete evidence to point to in the way of vindicating either one of them.

So instead, I reached out to Spector to ask him for his own assessment of how things have gone in the past decade and whether he feels the industry has progressed on those fronts. He responded with the following:

As far as games being marginalized goes, I guess you'd have to say it didn't happen, at least not in the way I expected. The medium is still making money - more than ever - and the audience is getting larger all the time. However, I will say that content is more diverse now, as is that growing audience. It may be that diversification is what has prompted and supported that growth. Who can say?

What I will say is that despite the fact that there are still maybe too many male-oriented, power trip, "adrenaline rush" games, I'm happy to see indie and triple-A games that deal with real human concerns and emotions as well. Clearly, things could be better, but they could be a lot worse!

"Clearly, things could be better, but they could be a lot worse!"

Warren Spector, last month

And then there's my ten-year-old hope that developers would abandon the quest for photorealism and, instead, move toward more stylized versions of "reality" - or even abandon realistic settings entirely. Once again, you could say I was wrong, at least where triple-A games are concerned. Seems to me the race is on for ever more faithful renderings of reality (even in fantasy and SF games).

That being said, I think the same thing applies to graphics as is happening in the diversification of content - and it's happening maybe even more quickly in graphics than in content. Sure, there are photoreal games (or close approximations) but there are plenty of games that, whether for budget reasons or pure aesthetics, adopt a more stylized approach. Kudos to them.

I guess what I'd say to both points is that you can't look at games as some monolithic thing, something I may have been guilty of in the past. People ask me all the time what is most exciting about games today. What I always tell them is that the most exciting thing happening in games today is that everything is happening in games today. There's something out there for every player, from space marines saving the world to a man and a girl creating what amounts to a family. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. We're a maturing medium that offers variety to a variety of people. We still have a ways to go, but we're getting there.

Oh, and don't ask me for any more predictions, especially when it comes to the kinds of games people should make or play. It's not my place to do that. And if I've learned anything in the last ten years it's that prediction is a fool's game! I don't need any help with that!

Many thanks to Spector for revisiting the subject for us.

"We should all take all the consumer's money"

Tencent is sometimes referred to in the press as "the biggest game company you've never heard of" or some variation on that theme. Part of that is no doubt due to the games media having cultural blinders on that kept it from caring too much about a Chinese tech company's incursion into games. But part of it is also due to Tencent's relatively low profile in the West.

That's probably in the company's best interests from a PR point of view, if a GDC Europe 2010 presentation from Tencent Games VP Bo Wang is anything to go by. In his session, Wang was critical of Sony and Microsoft, saying they had been too slow to adapt to the online gaming market and its business models.

"If you price it at $50 but the customer only has $49 he can't afford it. But that's good money, we should take it," Wang said. "If he has $50 in February, he takes his money to the retailer and he can't find the game anymore.

"The pricing structure of traditional games business is fundamentally flawed. We give away money in development and we don't maximise the return. We should all take all the consumer's money."

Good Call, Bad Call

Good Call: THQ announces the Wii-exclusive uDraw game tablet, a $70 peripheral that comes with a game and works with a handful of $30 titles like Pictionary and Dood's Big Adventure. It would be a surprise hit, prompting THQ VP Danny Bilson to make the Bad Call to tweet "U-draw is selling so well I'm afraid they'll rename the company THQ-Draw."

Bad Call: Believing it had the beginnings of a franchise instead of a one-off hit on its hands, THQ doubled down on uDraw the next year, bringing new versions of it to Xbox 360 and PS3 for the 2011 holidays. Those versions flopped, tanking the company's holiday earnings report and prompting multiple lawsuits from investors who believed the publisher misled them.

Good Call: A few paragraphs into this story headlined by Will Wright, Gaikai founder David Perry predicts the industry transition to digital is going to happen in a hurry.

"Long-term, this industry is going digital, and it's going digital very quickly. To some extent, as the retailers come up with policies like used games, they're actually putting their foot on the gas pedal to oblivion. And that ultimately is going to make the game industry digital about as fast as it could possibly be."

A year before Perry said this, Microsoft had just begun to add physical games to its digital storefront, and even then it was a small selection of catalog titles. A year after Perry said this, Sony confirming the PlayStation Vita would have new releases downloadable on day one was headline news. 10 years down the line, we're more likely to discuss just how big the pile of crumbs left for physical games will be going forward, and it's felt like this for years.

As the head of an on-demand game streaming start-up, Perry obviously had a vested interest in promoting that view, but it doesn't make it any less accurate in hindsight.