There are no women assassins in the new Assassin's Creed: Unity, which was showed off at the annual Electronics Entertainment Expo this week. It's a notable omission, but developer Ubisoft's reasoning behind exclusion of playable female characters is drawing even more scrutiny: Apparently women characters are simply too hard.
Alex Amancio, creative director at Ubisoft, told Polygon: "It's double the animations, it's double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets, especially because we have customizable assassins. It was really a lot of extra production work." (Meanwhile, the effort spent on creating a huge and perfect rendering of Paris has not been questioned.)
Given that one of the French Revolution's top assassins was Charlotte Corday, it wouldn't be completely outlandish to create a game that included female assassins. It is curious that Ubisoft, a company that previously featured an assassin that was a woman of colour in Assassin's Creed III: Liberation and presumably knows how to make that happen would suddenly speak as if their hands were tied.
Ubisoft's technical director also argued for the complexity of including female assassins, telling VideoGamer: "A female character means that you have to re-do a lot of animation." He also said the decision "was not a question of philosophy or choice."
A choice was made though, somewhere along the line, to feature a male protagonist and focus the gameplay on him. "It's not like we could cut our main character, so the only logical option, the only option we had, was to cut the female avatar," Armancio said to Polygon.
Many gamers have taken to Twitter's #womenaretoohardtoanimate to rightfully mock (and mock and mock) Ubisoft's comments, and some even announced they'd be boycotting the game. Post backlash, Amancio has changed his tune, stating there are no playable women assassins in Assassin's Creed: Unity because everyone is playing the protagonist, Arno. He acknowledges that his previous comments were a "slip-up."
We've heard before that including more than one gender is expensive, but with different results. Revolution 60 features an all-woman cast as "a cost-saving measure," according to Brianna Wu, CEO and lead designer at Giant Spacekat Studios. She told Cult of Mac: "Once the (female) model was created and brought into Unreal, to bring in a second, 'male' would cost another $10,000."
But AAA developers keep insisting that including women is an extraordinary amount of work. According to The Verge, Ubisoft's Bruno St. Andre estimated that "a female assassin would've necessitated more than 8,000 new animations recreated on a new skeletal structure."
We spend a lot of time discussing how much work it is to create female characters, and rarely the other way around. The message seems to be that animating them is somehow more difficult than animating men. In a now-notorious interview, Frozen lead animator Lino DiSalvo said: "Historically speaking, animating female characters are really, really difficult, because they have to go through these range of emotions, but you have to keep them pretty and they're very sensitive to – you can get them off a model very quickly. So, having a film with two hero female characters was really tough..."
Back in the video game world, Far Cry 4 – also a Ubisoft game – was "very close" to letting players choose a female co-op character. "It was purely a workload issue because we don't have a female reading for the character, we don't have all the animations," director Alex Hutchinson told Polygon. "And so it was this weird issue where you could have a female model that walked and talked and jumped like a dude."
How different, really, do women and men jump or go through facial expressions? And is the issue really so insurmountable in animation? Friends of mine who works in animation say a good animator can make anything. Indeed, we don't see many animators talking about how hard it is to make courtesans, tavern wenches, talking dogs or super bulky men.
"Man, if I had a dollar for every time had a dollar for every time someone at Ubisoft tried to bullshit me on animation tech," Jonathan Cooper, an animator at Naughty Dog wrote on Twitter. Cooper, who previously worked on Assassin's Creed III, Mass Effect and more, called out Ubisoft's comments on Assassin's Creed: Unity writing: "In my educated opinion, I would estimate this to be a day or two's work. Not a replacement of 8000 animations."
Including female assassins, according to Cooper, wouldn't necessarily need additional motion capturing. "I think what you want to do is just replace a handful of animations," he said. Using Assassin's Creed III: Liberation as an example, Cooper says that characters can be created from models of either gender, pointing out that of the games characters "Aveline de Grandpré shares more of Connor Kenway's animations than Edward Kenway does."
The issue is not that playable women characters are particularly hard to animate, it's that too many studios only try to wrench them in as an afterthought. With good writing and planning, there is never an excuse for not having a variety of playable characters unless the creators simply didn't want to include them.
Ubisoft would do best to just own up to that.