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The Lady Killers

The Assassin's Creed Unity controversy is just the tip of the iceberg; this industry still has a problem with women

It has overshadowed what should, otherwise, have been a pretty great week for Ubisoft; a controversy stemming, ostensibly, from a single ill-considered quote suggesting that female playable characters were dropped from Assassin's Creed Unity for the sake of a bean-counter's calculation. The initial story, as suggested by those quotes, was pretty unpleasant; the representation of female players was so far down the priority list that it was considered to take up too much resources to implement, this in a game whose scope includes a simulation of the entirety of revolutionary-era Paris. "It's just a commercial consideration," the original explanation blandly explained, apparently unconscious of the fact that it was effectively saying "hey, women gamers: this is precisely how little we think you're worth, in dollar terms".

Ubisoft has since been in damage control mode - which is progress in its own terms, I suppose, since it's not so many years since any suggestion of controversy at E3 over the presentation (or non-inclusion) of women would have been dismissed with a snort and a suggestion that we all pop down to one of Sunset Boulevard's sleazy strip joints to sort out any unwanted white-knight feelings we may be harbouring. I wish I was kidding; I'm not. Upon raising the suggestion that a certain game might have been a tad leery and grotesque in its presentation of women at an E3 many moons past, the genuine response of a reasonably senior manager at the publisher (thankfully no longer in this industry) was to invite me to a notorious strip club that evening to "get my head straight".

"Animation and modelling are hard work; they take time and effort, and they cost money. Still, that's not actually an excuse for dropping female models; it's just another way of saying 'you were far, far less important than all this other stuff on the feature list'"

We've moved on. Rather than wooing its critics with unwanted strippers, Ubisoft's response has been to acknowledge the problem but backpedal on its characterisation. A female protagonist was never in the works, as Assassin's Creed games focus on a single protagonist with a distinct character; moreover, in the co-op mode (which is what everyone was talking about, making the discussion of the "protagonist" a fairly transparent and dishonest piece of misdirection), every player is actually playing as the same character, the aforementioned protagonist. Thus, awkward women don't need to be involved at all! You're all playing the same guy. Never mind the fact that the posters clearly show four guys with different facial hair, skin tone and facial features; it's the same guy. Honest.

I'm being snarky, I admit, although I'd contend that snark is a perfectly reasonable way to respond to a publisher that chooses to clutch at straws rather than having the guts to say "you know what, you're right, maybe this was a mistake". Still, through all my snark, I do honestly feel that this is progress in its own right. Moreover, I'm genuinely happy to see how many people have supported the idea that perhaps half of the human population shouldn't be excluded from representation in a game for the sake of saving a tiny fraction of the development budget. Assassin's Creed Unity isn't about to change its approach, I suspect (although I'd be overjoyed to see the team go back to work after E3 and fix this oversight), but the next time a team starts planning out its resource allocation, I reckon female player models might find themselves further up the pecking order. Hell, they might even manage to make some whose armour doesn't resemble a tinfoil bikini.

A lot of very articulate people have made the argument that dropping female player characters is wrong on a moral and feminist basis, and I have no intention of reiterating that argument, because those people made it very well. A few articulate arguments have come from the other side too, I'll grant, along with a very large number of inarticulate ones - I've particularly enjoyed watching people argue that a female assassin in the French Revolution would be historically out of place. Your homework today is googling "Charlotte Corday", although you could just google "French Revolution Assassin", as she's the first result; the second result, a bloke, wasn't actually an assassin, but her victim. I've also invented a fun game which involves finding comments in which the author argues that not including female player characters is solely Ubisoft's commercial decision, it's their money to spend and therefore it's immune from criticism; I then check through their comment history to see how long it is before they pledged to boycott a game for including DLC or F2P features. You'd be entirely unamazed, I suspect, at how little the sauce for the goose is equally applied to the gander.

There's a nugget of truth in there, though; this was a commercial decision. At some level, options were weighed, and the cost of including female player characters was found wanting in comparison to the revenue it would generate for the final product. It's worth noting that the cost of animating and modelling female player characters is not insignificant; it's almost certainly not as high as Ubisoft's representatives seek to imply, but it's also not remotely as trivial as others have suggested. Animation and modelling are hard work; they take time and effort, and they cost money. Still, that's not actually an excuse for dropping female models; it's just another way of saying "you were far, far less important than all this other stuff on the feature list", which is like telling your wife that it's not that you don't love her, it's just that you love all the other women you're sleeping with more. It sounds like a clever technicality to you; it's still grounds for divorce to her.

"Here's a home truth that everyone in the industry knows, at some level, but few are willing to acknowledge the import of; AAA isn't a sustainable model. The market for core game experiences has barely grown in half a decade"

Even so - can we deny the logic of someone who sits down with a feature list and a sheaf of market research papers, establishes a ranked list of which features will sell games and which won't, and culls appropriately? Isn't that a cold business calculation, devoid of any of the trappings of misogyny or discrimination that critics wish to apply to it in retrospect? Shouldn't we respect the numbers and accept their outcome? No, we bloody well shouldn't - on two grounds. Firstly, if your idea of a good and worthwhile creative process involves a spreadsheet of market data and a calculator, then I sure as hell don't want to hear your idea of a fun Friday night, and I never, ever want to play anything you make. Secondly, and less emotively; the numbers are stupid, and their outcome is doubly so.

Honestly, that's a less emotive take. I'm not denying that the numbers might be correct, but as in so many things in life, it's possible to be absolutely correct and simultaneously mind-numbingly stupid. Your market statistics may tell you with absolute veracity that female player characters are a low priority (Ubisoft's clearly do, as they made precisely the same decision on the Far Cry franchise), and in doing so, they may simultaneously be telling you the unadulterated truth, and telling you something unbelievably blinkered and dumb.

Here's why; market stats tell you about the market that exists right now. As such, they're a self-fulfilling prophecy. If your market stats tell you that the most important market to target is young men with aggression problems and poor social skills, you'll focus in on that demographic with your next product - as will everyone else in the industry, because they're reading the same statistics in their planning process. A few years down the line, lo and behold! The stats say this demographic is even more important; so you focus even more intensely on them. With each iteration, you shed the attention of fringe demographics or emerging markets, who find themselves utterly turned off by the tone of the products you're creating; with each iteration, the market stats focus in more and more deeply on the "core" consumers. The prophecy self-fulfils; the market stats are right! More tits, more guns, more gore, less diversity; give the narrowly-defined sub-set of the people what they want!

Here's a home truth that everyone in the industry knows, at some level, but few are willing to acknowledge the import of; AAA isn't a sustainable model. The market for core game experiences has barely grown in half a decade. The industry as a whole has grown enormously, sure, but most of that is down to demographic expansion on the part of things that aren't AAA core games, from Wii Sports through to Candy Crush Saga. The group of people willing to spend £40 on a core game experience hasn't grown; by some measures, it may have shrunk. Meanwhile, the cost of developing an AAA game continues to skyrocket, while the chances of success plummet, and the safety net of an "AA" game category - good but not great, with solid sales to a medium-sized fan base - has all but disappeared. You hit or you miss; there's no middle ground.

Why has this happened? There are several reasons - new platforms, new business models, and so on - but the core reason is simple. For decades, the games business grew at a massive rate because with each passing year it engaged a wider and wider group of consumers. Older demographics, wider demographics, new socio-economic groups... And yes, new gender groups, new ethnic groups, new minority groups. They all trickled into the gaming fold and they delivered a category of entertainment which pridefully boasted for many years that it was "recession-proof".

Nobody has said "recession-proof" since 2008, and that's not because that recession was particularly bad; it's because we stumbled, as an industry. We tried to make a few transitions at once. Physical to digital, offline to online; these are the ones we focus on, and suck at our teeth, and say, hmm, that was tough. In reality, though, the transition that truly stumbled for AAA games was the demographic transition. We'd already reached the majority of guys under 35 (albeit missing a reasonable swathe of sexual and ethnic minorities), and a handful of women in the same demographic; the next challenge was everyone else. The rest of the human race. There for the taking; there to become the consumers that would make games into the biggest entertainment business in the world.

"AAA has to grow to survive in any meaningful form, and that growth has to come, in part, from showing people who have traditionally dismissed games as "not for me" that this medium wants them to be involved"

Well, games are going to be the biggest entertainment business in the world - but how big the AAA core game market will be in that picture is another question entirely, because it messed up, badly. Just as it should have been expanding its reach, it closed its eyes instead. Just as the opportunity to be an entertainment medium for everyone approached, it pulled up the ladder to the treehouse and hoped that the world would pass it by. Some of that happened because of outright unpleasantness; there remains a group within the industry that bluntly doesn't like women, or gays, or minorities of any kind being represented, acknowledged and respected, because it threatens their dominance of a pastime they view as "theirs". The majority, though, had nothing to do with that. Most of it wasn't done with any ill intention at all. Most of it was done through numbers; stupid, blinkered numbers.

In the context of an individual game, the numbers are usually right. If the numbers say it's not an effective use of resources for Assassin's Creed Unity to implement female character models, those numbers are probably right. Ubisoft would probably make a little less money on the game if they did that. Yet that calculation, repeated over and over again at publishers around the industry, ends up being more than the sum of its parts. It ends up with many, many games lacking female player models or female protagonists. In each individual case it's commercially justifiable. Repeated across the industry overall, though, it says one thing and one thing only: "women, we don't want you or your money".

This is why the numbers are stupid - they only tell you what to do today, with no inkling of the consequences tomorrow. If the AAA games business continues to dogmatically follow the lead of blinkered analysts working with narrow market data sets, it will make good decisions today while selling out any prospect of a better tomorrow. AAA has to grow to survive in any meaningful form, and that growth has to come, in part, from showing people who have traditionally dismissed games as "not for me" that this medium wants them to be involved. Cutting their representation from high-profile games to save a fraction of a percentage point of a gigantic development budget sends precisely the opposite message.

Would the inclusion of female player models in Assassin's Creed Unity make a big difference to the engagement of women with core games? No, absolutely not. It's a tiny issue; a storm in a teacup, by any standards. The problem is, right now I'm looking at a pretty huge tea-set, and every bloody cup seems to have a storm in it. AAA publishers and developers, with some notable and wonderful exceptions, are marching in lock-step to a tune that's not only morally wrong, but commercially short-sighted. We grow or we die; and cost-cutting by removing representation of your best hope for a growth market is a pretty big step down the path to "die".

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Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.