When Ubisoft technical director James Therien decided to explain why the latest Assassin's Creed title, Unity, had decided against including a female playable character he probably thought his response sounded reasonable, rational and sure to be nothing more than an addendum to a nice complimentary feature about visceral combat and stunning visuals.
"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."
He was wrong.
In fact his discussion with Videogamer only highlighted how unimportant the issue was, to Ubisoft and the creative team. Nine studios worked together on the game to recreate every inch of revoltuonary Paris, to finely craft each sprout of stubble on each co-op character's chin. But a playable character with breasts? That's too much trouble.
Twitter erupted, with developers speaking out about the decision. We've collected some of those responses, as well as spoken exclusively to a number of industry insiders to find out if there's a truth to what Ubi is saying.
Use some money on a woman's rig instead of 10 CG trailers— prom night dad (@konjak) June 11, 2014
If Saints Row can have female customisable characters then not having them isn't a 'reality of development' it's just a crappy decision.— Rhianna Pratchett (@rhipratchett) June 11, 2014
Andrew Eades of Relentless was kind enough to talk about the problems they faced when developing characters for Buzz.
"We did have a strong female character in Rose who was the smarts behind Buzz in the first game. In the end we decided to drop her entirely as our publishers' only comments were to make her breasts bigger rather than develop her role in the game as we wanted to," he says.
"Our soon to be released new Murder Files game has a female protagonist, Hannah Dakota, voiced by Amy Shindler of The Archers and is written by award-winning writer Felicity Carpenter. It was not particularly hard to do as our teams at Relentless appear to be able to draw, animate and write female characters and male characters equally well."
guys i dunno, ubisoft games are so tight and restrained, so *minimalist* that of course female characters wouldn't be viable— Anthony Burch (@_anthonyburch) June 11, 2014
Telltale pitched Fiona and Rhys from the getgo, never even had a discussion about it. They wanted 50/50 male to female ratio amongst heroes— Anthony Burch (@_anthonyburch) June 11, 2014
Meanwhile Ansh Patel of Narcissist Reality got in touch to debunk Ubisoft's excuses, and suggested marketing could be the real cause.
"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."
Um. I am working with real live actors on my current game and it still wasn't a hard decision to have a male and female protagonist...— zoÃ« magdaros (@UnburntWitch) June 11, 2014
Jon Ingold of Inkle explained that when he was making narrative game Sorcery! he felt a gender choice didn't make sense compared to other game features that would be seen by all players. A playable female character was added as a later update though, and it took only a fraction of the time that Ingold had expected.
"Obviously, for a game like Assassin's Creed, they'd have to re-record the entire dialogue set and couldn't just reuse the text like we did," he admits.
"But I suspect the developers there feel that 'maleness' is an important part of their storytelling simply because they've never actually tried making their stories work with either gender in the lead role. It turns out -- since computer game protagonists tend to be loners who don't form stable relationships on-screen, don't have kids, and are outside the traditional social norms of the game-period -- that gender doesn't really become relevant at all."
Whilst Ubi *should* have included female assassins in Unity, I'm not a huge fan of the implication that animation is somehow cheap OR easy!— Daniel Lim (@asphaltOnline) June 11, 2014
We also heard from Nick Witcher, marketing director from RedBedlam. The lead character in its upcoming shooter, Bedlam, is female.
“I think that it's a shame that the desire to have both sexes represented isn't higher up the list of game features from day one, rather than being thought of as a 'we'll do it if we've got the time' feature," he explains.
"Knowing how the big boys tend to stagger things these days I wouldn't be surprised if this ends up being DLC later after a little bit of faux 'outrage' generates greater demand and therefore $. However all this being said I don't think games should automatically have both sexes playable if that's not the story or character, e.g. I don't need to play a Lara Croft game as Lance Croft or anything, nor do I expect to have that choice. But if a game is open and has no predefined lead character then having both male and female should both be a main feature to the design.”
In my educated opinion, I would estimate this to be a day or two's work. Not a replacement of 8000 animations. http://t.co/z4OZl3Sngl— Jonathan Cooper (@GameAnim) June 11, 2014
We've reached out to Ubisoft but with the whirl of E3 and damage control no doubt happening behind the scenes, we've not yet had a company statement. But through Twitter we did get a response from Anna Megill, game writer at Ubisoft Quebec.
"The entire narrative team on my Ubi project wants more female characters," she says.
"I'd love to see more female characters in all games."
In an ideal world the press coverage will shame the publisher into adding a playable female character for co-op; a day one update that is an obvious afterthought is still better than no reaction at all.
Update: Ubisoft has issued a statement in response now, which you can read here.