Ubisoft (NASDAQOTH:UBSFF) recently abandoned plans to add playable female characters in the new co-op mode of Assassin's Creed: Unity, the first exclusively next-gen title of its flagship Assassin's Creed franchise.
The decision was surprising, since Ubisoft had included playable female assassins in multiplayer mode ever since Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (2010). Assassin's Creed III: Liberation (2012) also starred a female protagonist, Aveline.
In an interview at Polygon, Ubisoft creative director Alex Amancio stated that eliminating the female characters from co-op mode was caused by "the reality of production," since female characters would have required "double" the amount of voices, animations, and visual assets. Amancio also said that "8,000 extra animations" would have been required to complete the female characters.
However, Jonathan Cooper, the animation director of Assassin's Creed III, publicly contradicted Amancio's statements on Twitter, claiming that additional animation for females would merely require "a day or two's work." Cooper also noted that Aveline shared more animations with Connor, the lead character of Assassin's Creed III, than Edward, the star of the fourth game.
Ubisoft then backtracked and explained that it made more narrative sense for both players in co-op mode to play as Unity's main character, Arno. This ongoing debate led to widespread allegations of sexism against Ubisoft. Ubisoft subsequently announced that it had also cut female characters from the multiplayer mode of its upcoming shooter, Far Cry 4, further exacerbating its PR debacle.
Yet in my opinion, Ubisoft isn't sexist -- it is simply the victim of poor PR, next-gen technical demands, and an accelerated production schedule.
Assassin's Creed has never been sexist
There are plenty of games that I personally consider misogynistic and sexist -- such as Saints Row, God of War, and Dead or Alive's "volleyball" games -- but Assassin's Creed isn't one of them.
At no point in Assassin's Creed is the player asked to traffic sex slaves for laughs (Saints Row: The Third), get a "Bros Before Hos" achievement for stomping on a woman's face (God of War: Ascension), or participate in awkward photo shoots of bikini-clad women (Dead or Alive Paradise).
Unlike those games, Assassin's Creed is a historical fiction series that has starred plenty of powerful female characters besides Aveline. Assassin's Creed IV stars two real-life female pirates, Mary Reed and Anne Bonny, who are portrayed as wise mentors and confidants to Edward, rather than love interests. The animated short Assassin's Creed: Embers, which serves as the end of the Ezio trilogy, stars a female assassin from China, Shao Jun.
Since the Assassin's Creed series spans from the Crusades to the French Revolution, the series portrays women empowered through non-traditional roles. To top that off, Jade Raymond, who produced the first two Assassin's Creed titles, is one of the most well-known women in the gaming industry.
Therefore, to clump Assassin's Creed together with blatantly sexist games is as reckless as Fox News criticizing the "graphic sex" in Electronic Arts' (NASDAQ: EA) Mass Effect based on a single PG-13 love scene in the game.
So why did Ubisoft remove the female characters?
Assassin's Creed: Unity is a massive project that has remained in development for nearly four years. By comparison, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag took just over two years to develop. The reason is that Unity is only designed for next-gen consoles like Microsoft's (NASDAQ: MSFT) Xbox One and Sony's (NYSE: SNE) PS4. This means it needs bigger, more detailed textures and smoother animations than its predecessors.
Therefore, Mr. Cooper's comments about "a day or two" should be taken with a grain of salt, considering that he last worked on Assassin's Creed III, a last-gen title. He also no longer works for Ubisoft -- he works at Sony's subsidiary Naughty Dog. So just as Mr. Amancio's claim of "8,000 animations" might have been a gross exaggeration, Mr. Cooper's assessment could have been one as well.
Meanwhile, an accelerated development schedule to launch Unity and another last-gen title, Comet, by this holiday season likely prevented Ubisoft from adding all the features they wanted to in Assassin's Creed: Unity and Far Cry 4. After all, Ubisoft notably cut out Ben Franklin, canoes, Desmond missions, and various weapons from Assassin's Creed III just to get it released by October 2012. But no one complained loudly about that deleted content -- since Ubisoft didn't clumsily announce it while clashing with a former employee over social media.
If Ubisoft fails to launch Assassin's Creed: Unity and Far Cry 4 by the holiday season, its top line will take a huge hit. Ubisoft does not break down revenue by individual titles, but it reported that it sold more than 11 million units (sell-in and digital copies) of Black Flag and 3 million units of Far Cry 3 in fiscal 2013. Assuming an average retail price of $50, those two games generated up to $700 million in sales -- more than half of Ubisoft's total sales for the year.
Therefore, Ubisoft should have found a better way to explain that if it didn't launch the games on time, it would lose half of its annual sales, instead of offering convoluted reasons about hard-to-animate females.
The Foolish takeaway
I believe that Ubisoft's actions weren't sexist, but they were explained poorly to the public. In my opinion, it was just an accelerated development schedule for a next-gen game that resulted in some features, including female co-op characters, to be cut.
Women now account for 48% of all gamers, according to the Entertainment Software Association. Therefore, it makes good business sense to make games that appeal equally to men and women, and avoid offensive sexism and misogyny, which could alienate half of the potential customer base.
However, we should realize that some games, like The Sims, Dragon Age, Mass Effect, and Skyrim offer plenty of customization features, while others do not. Developers still deserve intellectual control over their characters and narratives, and shouldn't be forced to create characters of all races and genders simply to appease the player.
What do you think, fellow gamers? Is the public overreacting to Ubisoft's decision to cut female characters from Assassin's Creed: Unity? Let me know in the comments section below!