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On the controversy of female assassins.
by Simon Ashbery on 06/13/14 01:09:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Anyone interested in games and more specifically the business of making them, will have noticed the controversy surrounding Ubisoft’s decision to pull female assassins from the upcoming Assassin’s Creed Unity.

As claimed by Ubisoft technical director James Therien, ultimately the call was made because of the “reality of game development” and as a result of “a question of focus of production.” Effectively James Therien believes that the inclusion of the female assassin would have “doubled the work.”

This statement, which I would guess was originally considered in order to avoid controversy by putting the issue into the clinical, detached, neutral context of purely technical issues, completely backfired and brought en masse a justifiably frustrated gaming populace who are passionately seeking a broader and more inclusive industry and art form which would benefit everyone. Being justifiably frustrated and having one’s heart in the right place does not, however, make one right, at least not completely.

I wanted to make this post because I have a lot of conflicting feelings on the subject, I’m a game’s developer who has had experience with exactly this decision, I’m an artist and animator who knows how much work can go into creating a new character, as well as how many compromises one has to make in development, I am also (I think) a justifiably frustrated member of the gaming populace who is seeking a broader and more inclusive industry and art form which would benefit everyone. On that last point I’m not sure I’m qualified to definitively say if I am or not, but I can at least say it’s where I hope to be.

To be clear, from the bits I have read and from my limited understanding (I’ve never worked at Ubisoft or any AAA studio for that matter,) I feel that given the mammoth budgets and team size involved, the use of this defense is highly spurious and for me reflects on an unwillingness more than inability. However I do not think it invalidates it as a concept and I fear that we are far too quick to gloss over this issue with largest brush we can find and pretend we really nailed the issue.

Not all games are alike and neither are all developers. As such this post is not intended to defend Ubisoft and AC Unity but, if it helps, is instead for a hypothetical game from a hypothetical developer.

I say this because the response from the industry in a lot of instances has been, in my view, troubling. Less so from the chafing at the further efforts of big corporations to try and make decisions for us, but more so from the subtext in the statements made and what that might mean for future development challenges at any studio.

I took a few developer’s tweets from Games Industry’s excellent post “Assassin’s Creed’s female problems: Devs respond” ( and wanted to address them.

Joakim Sandberg wrote:

Use some money on a woman’s rig instead of 10 CG trailers

As an indictment of the mega company’s infatuation with substanceless marketing hype I couldn’t agree more however I feel this statement avoids the deeper issues of games development by insinuating it’s just a case of pouring some more money down an animator’s throat until magic happens.

How does one rearrange a tight development schedule to fit in this new workload? How do you get the money from a marketing department to the developers when It’s likely the marketing dept is utterly divorced from the developers? And ultimately, is there room in the game for all of this anyway?

Clearly It was intended as a humorous jab at Ubisoft rather than a serious critique of the industry in general, but I am purposefully being somewhat pedantic in my dissection of the discourse as I feel the fallout from these discussions is a serious matter beyond the initial shock reactions. As such it begs further consideration, especially with so many high profile personalities commenting.

Rhianna Pratchett wrote:

If Saints Row can have female customisable characters then not having them isn’t a ‘reality of development’ it’s just a crappy decision.

Anthony Burch also wrote:

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

These statements were made specifically in relation to Ubisoft but for me feel as though they address the industry at large.

The Saint’s Row character customisation system marks a pinnacle of player freedom and I know for a fact that it has served as a model for many developers (myself and former colleagues included.) In particular, on a game I previously worked on, we pushed very hard to find a way to implement a gender slider as seen in SR2 rather than a binary switch, because of the freedom and variation this offered players, we couldn’t make it work and dropped it as a “reality of development”

That’s a more extreme example, I know. But such decisions and realities really are, well, a reality of games development. Just because we passionately want them it doesn’t remove the practical issue. We don’t always get to do what we want for a whole number of reasons, be it available technology, time, money, cascading bugs or suitability for the current project.

The landscape of these problems shifts wildly for each project, so to say that “because game X did it, it must be possible for game Y” for me is bizarre.

Saints Row 2’s character creation system was arguably a defining feature for the game and I would guess had a disproportionate amount of resources spent on it compared to other titles. It shows, it’s brilliant. But another game with the same budget might have spent those resources elsewhere which would have a knock on effect of not having the infrastructure or ability to include such diversity in the game.

Would the developers be wrong in choosing their focus depending on the project? No. Should diversity and inclusivity be a stronger consideration from the start? Yes. Does this mean every project needs to have a full pantheon on customisation options? No. Even in the games that don’t are there too many white male protagonists? Yes.

Ansh Patel wrote:

"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."

Jonathan Cooper also wrote:

In my educated opinion, I would estimate this to be a day or two’s work. Not a replacement of 8000 animations.

My issues with these statements are more artistic than anything else, for me they point away from quality, from what I and many others would call “good” animation. They favour speed and practicality which I hasten to add are no bad things nor illegitimate priorities, but again it comes down to the project and what you are trying to say, my issue here is that they are presented as a bottom line.

When I studied animation at university we learned just how much a walk can say about a character, how old are they? What’s their status in society? What’s their mood? Their background? Their intention? etc etc. When you boil the creation of a new character down to “just attach a new mesh to the rig and use the same animation” you lose all of that, you discard the very reason you hired trained capable animators in the first place.

A skilled animator says more about a character with a walk cycle than a page of text does. Many people consider it to be unimportant because player’s generally do not consciously register a good animation, however it is very conspicuous in it’s absence. More over it’s inclusion, whilst not consciously effecting a player’s interaction with the game, very palpably does so subconsciously, in matters as diverse as story telling, aesthetics and gameplay.

To remove this deminishes the game in my view, a player might not notice explicitly and the loss can be made up in other places (if the practicalities of development need it to be) but ultimately the experience is less than it could have been, and we really shouldn’t just be reusing animation sets as a default. That is a compromise, not a development philosophy.

Jonathan Cooper further wrote:

Fun fact #2: Aveline de Grandpré shares more of Connor Kenway’s animations than Edward Kenway does.”

My first thought on this is; a mixed race woman of French and African descent who grew up in comfort wouldn’t walk in the same manner as a mixed race man of British and Native American descent who grew up with his tribe.

Somewhere in the notion that it’s just a case of switching models, my sensibilities of the fundamentals of animation are insulted but more than this my fear would be that with the prevailing opinion on this matter, this concept would get mixed up as the defacto truth in creating an animation set for a game. In turn this might hamper a skilled artist’s chances of doing something meaningful with the animation.

I hasten to point out I’m not attempting to insinuate anything about Mr Cooper’s knowledge and perspective on this. He is clearly a very skilled and experienced person who speaks on the subject with far greater authority than my own. Again I am attemping to get at the subtext of what I feel the community is reading into his statements rather than anything else.

The last consideration I would like to make is that everyone, myself included, has focused heavily on the animation issue and sidestepped all of the others.

Firstly, it’s not just a case of creating the animations but also implementing them, this creates bugs, can impact the flow of the game mechanics and can also just look bad without polish.

Secondly, voice acting: Depending on the character this might be a lot or a little, either way, casting actors, renting recording studios, writing dialogue, recording, mastering and implementing voice is a very difficult, costly and time consuming process.

Thirdly, the art: First we need concepts, once done we need a model, beyond that we need to attach it to the rig, thus far relatively straight forward. However if you are including customisation this opens up a whole can of worms:

  • Can we swap out textures? If yes the models either need to share the same UV layout (which looks awful if the models are very different) or each texture needs to have another version made that looks correct, this is very time consuming.

  • Do we have attachable accessories? If yes, do they fit over both meshes uniformly? generally they won’t, at which point you either accept that it looks worse on one character or another or you tweak the models (and potentially textures) to fit.

I can say, having done both of these things, that neither are an easy task. We had an art team of one (myself) doing this and it was extremely laborious, a larger team (say Ubisoft) would have an easier time of it I’m sure but it’s still not a simple matter.

In conclusion, I stand by what I said about Ubisoft’s defense here before, it rings hollow when these kinds of budgets and team sizes are involved and I feel that the use of “reality of game development” in this context is the sort of almost plausible excuse that holds true enough for the ones making it to convince themselves they actually believe it. But that the “reality of game development” in other contexts is a legitimate concern.

For me however the issue is this. It’s not a case of always having both male and female, but rather that we always default to male when we can only choose one, I’ve never come across a game where the male component had to be cut out due to the “reality of game development.”

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Steven Bobson
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While your post is thoughtful and I think reasonably balanced, I'm a bit annoyed at all the twitter chatter from developers that you're referencing. Some of them are just assuming their experience making a small indie title transfers perfectly to AAA, some have no domain expertise and are just talking out of their ass, and some are maybe just latching on for self promotion. Some of the people quoted by aren't even developers! It's sad to say but I hope I don't ever work with people who think it's OK to snipe like this, regardless of the issue involved.

At the end of the day, there's no reason to assume Ubisoft is lying or that their excuse is spurious. Most of us are not involved in their project and don't know the ins and outs of it. We can't look at our career experience and accurately estimate for Ubisoft's projects the amount of tech changes or budget changes involved or the effects on modeling, concept art, animation, cutscenes, or voiceover involved. The only people in a position to comment on it are Ubisoft themselves, and they've made what I think is a perfectly reasonable comment on it.

For any feature to make it into the final version of a game, one of two things has to happen. Either it has to cause no problems or it has to have enough backing from everyone on the project that effort will be made to ensure it doesn't slip. If a female player is something you value more highly than all the other distinctive features of your title, it will happen. Otherwise work will be done elsewhere. At any point if the feature looks like more work than the value it adds, it's gone. I understand that a small number of people find this socially unacceptable, but this actually is how game development works. No one can do everything and everyone makes trade offs.

There are larger issues here that are interesting. Do developers have a responsibility to inform consumers and the media of every factor behind every production decision? I sure hope not. Just look at how people reacted to this and it's obvious that they're not capable of handling the realities of game development.

Simon Ashbery
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I think that's fair to say, ultimately it's a judgement call on anyone but Ubisoft's part to say if they are in the right or not. Like I say in my post, I'm not experienced in AAA development, I just feel personally that female PCs should be a higher priority for Ubi given their background with the AC series.

Luis Guimaraes
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I think their priorities are very clear at this point:

It's do or do not, there's no try.

Dane MacMahon
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@ Simon

"I just feel personally that female PCs should be a higher priority for Ubi given their background with the AC series."

What background is that? The cast of the series is pretty diverse, with Native American, Arabian and Black main characters. Also there has already been a female main character in Liberation, and there were female choices in the competitive multiplayer modes.

If this game had character select for co-op I am sure Ubisoft would have had female options, no question. However the players always play Arnum, so there is no character select at all. "Time and resources" makes a lot of sense actually, when considering they would have had to revamp the whole thing and made a character select option to put in female characters for those missions.

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And great write-up Ashberry, really enjoyed your thoughts on it.

I really agree with Simon though; I'm a voice actor who has done some programming, and I've (on the voice acting side) worked with differing companies, some large some small. But the sheer amount of work and coordination that goes into a AAA game is astounding.

I've worked on my own games, largely arthouse ones where I like to explore cerebral aspects, and I think a lot of people who are so quick to judge Ubisoft are largely in the same camp, and really want to push the industry into a direction where I'm not sure it CAN go, due to the nature of the general populace of gamers and AAA development/publishers at large.

I'd also like to throw in that the "two days for a female animation" statement probably indicates, as Ashbery put, a low quality animation. As a voice actor, seeing the character move and the subtle nuances of how they speak helps with the acting. It also distinguishes characters.

Larry Carney
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I'm not a game developer. I'm not involved with marketing, finances, or any other part of game pre-production, production, or post-production.

That's why I come to Gamasutra, to see what people who actually know what they are talking about think.

I'm just a gamer. A philosopher, author, and video game scholar, sure. But still just a gamer. It would be quite uncouth of me to speak on this without any knowledge, both as a gamer who wants the best for the industry and gaming culture, and as a scholar who seeks to clarify, not add to the babble of a generation which has come of age where the have the means to let the world know what they think about everything and everyone but also feel entitled that it conform to those beliefs, which can cause much conflict when opposing beliefs come together.

Silence is a tactic often used to prevent debate.

But sometimes silence is golden.

Dane MacMahon
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@ Steven

Very well said, Sir.

The angry, condescending "all-knowing" voice should rarely be used, yet on the internet it's tossed around like it means nothing. "Well if I were President no one would be poor ever again after a week in office!" Things are never as easy as it seems once someone sits you down and tells you to do the job.

Empathy is a double-edged sword. It means empathizing with the women who want to be represented in these kinds of games more often, certainly. However it also means empathizing with the developers given a tight schedule and limited resources and being told to make a huge mega-hit game or else.

Simon Ashbery
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That's exactly the background I mean. The AC series has a great strength of diversity in it's main and supporting cast.

Dane MacMahon
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@ Simon

Understood. I think that should give them more of a benefit of the doubt though, rather than a higher demand.

Garrett Iverson
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I don't think ubisoft or necessarily against female protagonists in general, but more so in the context of this particular game's design and settings. Imagine if Charlotte Corday (Reign of terror period, female assassin I looked up on Wikipedia), asked for help from a male assassin of that time period. On the small chance that he took her seriously, there is no way a "gentlemen" of that era would risk putting a women in danger. It would be hugely immersion breaking (not to mention crime to history just as insidious as deleting the N word from Huckleberry Finn) to put a women as a character without at least adding some mention of gender roles, which could only be seen if you just so happen to play with some friends. Even if the story line is separate for coop, the last thing Assassin's creed needs is another plot element to distract from its already huge pile of exposition that the series loves to drown you in. The game is about stabbing things, it ain't Pride and Prejudice.

Kenneth Blaney
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I think that, to an extent, using the same animations makes a certain amount of sense for both male and female assassins since (historically in the series at any rate) both are being trained in roughly the same way. That is, proper technique in a martial art doesn't change much between different people.

All that said, of course, I don't understand the doubt surrounding their stated reason. I mean, they pretty much just said "We don't think female characters in co-op will move enough copies to justify including them." That's pretty straight forward business. It isn't like they said some BS story like, "Having female co-op characters would ruin the immersion of the game." (Also, maybe it is just me, but the E3 co-op footage looked rather half-assed all around.)

Toby Grierson
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They're trying to convince them that there is a business case for it by claiming that they, as potential customers, want it (therefore there is market demand).

Agree or not, that's all it is; consumers speaking out about things consumers want.

Companies take this into account along with everything else (budgets) and a decision occurs and life goes on.

Ian Richard
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The vocal minority isn't a very good indicator of "What people want."

We'll know what the public wants when we see how much influence this event has on the sales numbers.

Dane MacMahon
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@ Ian

Which will be "not a bit."

Daniel Borgmann
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I'd rather spend more time praising those who get it right than telling people how to do their work to be honest. This negativity only puts people off the cause.

Dane MacMahon
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This is what I've been saying the past few years, as these issues get more and more angry write-ups in the press. It turns people away, more than anything. It makes them sick of hearing about it and worried the first time they make an off joke they'll be fired for it.

I'm about as Liberal as you can get in the United States and it's even turning me into someone who goes "oh come on" half the time I read about it.

Sharon Hoosein
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"When you boil the creation of a new character down to 'just attach a new mesh to the rig and use the same animation' you lose all of that, you discard the very reason you hired trained capable animators in the first place"

But that's EXACTLY what they're doing with the playable male characters. If it was a matter of adding work/artistry, they would've cut the fourth character altogether.

Also this article does a good job of explaining some of the outrage:

Dane MacMahon
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There is only one character, Arnum. There is no character select.

Sharon Hoosein
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Just checked the Assassin's Creed wiki--thanks for the correction, a couple articles I read before were a bit misleading.

Though the animation argument is still a bit weird given they're still recycling the same animations for the co-op assassins.

Maria Jayne
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It bothers me more that every single Assassins Creed game ever made features a male protagonist unyet is supposedly all related to descendants of a single bloodline. One would think at some point that bloodline would have a daughter....

From the impressions I have of the four player coop, that's the same model used four times with different clothing or equipment from a large set available for customization. In that context, they literally did nothing to create three extra avatars since they already had the initial models.

I would rather have a character with a personality than a doll to embody. I don't play games to be me, I play games to be someone. If there's no character or personality to it, I'd rather play an MMO where I can build that personality among a persistent community. Not a multiplayer game where my time is fleeting at best.

Daniel Boy
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AC Liberation's Aveline cries herself to sleep right now.

Maria Jayne
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Wow, I didn't even know that game existed. Thanks, I stand corrected!

Daniel Boy
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You can also say your not-knowing her shows how much work ubisoft has put into making aveline known ; )

nicolas mercier
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" “Fun fact #2: Aveline de Grandpré shares more of Connor Kenway’s animations than Edward Kenway does.”

My first thought on this is; a mixed race woman of French and African descent who grew up in comfort wouldn’t walk in the same manner as a mixed race man of British and Native American descent who grew up with his tribe. "

I think the main point was to show that a male character and a female character can share assets. Since a female character in AC Unity would (could) have the same background as the male assassin, there would not be too much of a gap. Same as Aveline and Connor.

Simon Ashbery
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They could have profoundly similar backgrounds and as someone else pointed out, they would have had similar training. However there would still be a great difference in their movement, physically just from the different builds of the body, the configuration of muscles and skeleton (not even between male and female but from person to person,) but also in multitudinous subtle ways which is what I'm alluding to with their backgrounds.

A good animator's job is to find a balance that works and is still unique, that says something about the character in question.

nicolas mercier
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Well, Aveline and Connor share assets. I am really not convinced by this argument to be honest.
I found this article quite enlightening. I am not convinced so much effort needs to be put in female animations.

Dave Bellinger
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Slightly ambiguous term though, right? "Shares" assets, or even 'shares more' assets doesn't really give much context. That said, I think your language is really indication of the issue at hand. You're not convinced that there needs to be as much work as Ubisoft says, so what is the implication? That they're lying about it, if so why?

I think a perspective that's been mentioned in other venues but still continues to get lost is that it would probably be too much work to meet *Ubisoft's standards*, not all of ours. That's they're decision, and it might inconsiderate at the very least, I can't really believe it's vindictive or indicative of any other agenda.

nicolas mercier
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@Dave: I meant in a very general way, that I am not sure it improves quality to put that much effort in differenciating male and female animations, that it results in lower qulity instead of higher quality.

@Simon: you call that a compromise, I actually want to raise the point that making those animations overly gender specific reinforces steeotypes and in the end destroys quality.
You think animators want to improve quality, I believe that when they try to do so, they don't improve quality, they lower it. They make it sexier, maybe. But that's not better.

Simon Ashbery
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My point is to say that such a thing is a compromise, and categorically not the ideal situation for a competent animator.

I certainly agree that there is no more effort needed for female character animation than there is for male animation, not at all! The point I'm making is that the two aren't perfectly interchangeable, at least not by the standards of what constitutes a good animation.

Using one as a base for the other and building upon it? definitely, that's a smart way to work for sure. But dropping the animation of a 6ft 200lb man with one personal history onto a 5 '6 140lb woman with a different history and calling the job done is a compromise at best and lazy at worst.

Simon Ashbery
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It's really not talking about making it "sexier." At no point have I said that I'm advocating the sexualisation of female animations, I'm not entirely sure where you're getting that from.

Nor is it about making the animations stereotypically female, but rather that there is, empirically, a difference in movement between different people based on a great number of factors not limited to but including gender. I'd make exactly the same argument for not using the same animation between a fat man and a skinny man or an old woman or a young woman whenever it can be helped.

This is the stuff that makes up the very fundamentals of animation, the observation, reproduction and eventual invention of life.

If you don't believe me, go and sit in public place for half and hour and watch how people walk, see how their weight is centred differently, how they lead with different parts of their anatomy and what that says about their physicality and their character.

Animators spend a life time studying this, it's at the very core of building and portraying an interesting character in any visual medium. It's the same reason that when actors like Morgan Freeman take on a new role, the first thing they do is watch others move and develop a walk for their own character, we as human beings can garner a lot about each other just from the way we move.

I think what your thrusting at is the notion of balance, and I agree wholeheartedly. I am an animator so of course I always want to do the very best from an animation point of view (which includes imbuing unique personalities into as many character's through animation as possible. Even a cursory glance at The Illusion of Life or Animator's Survival Kit will back this up) but I'm also experienced enough in games development to know that often the realities of production mean that this isn't always a possibility and one must compromise as such.

Also it's worth pointing out that I don't think it's a binary thing, I wouldn't expect a dev team to supply a unique animation for every single nameless enemy you mow down, but a different walk cycle for the two main characters? Sure!

I do however take issue with the notion that the straight reuse of animation constitutes a development norm, a baseline from which all projects should operate by default. This stifles the art and creativity in the games we create, the conversation about priorities should be had first, before we shut down any animators inspiration to create something truly special.

As a side note, one could happily argue that it would be sexist to assume a female character would find greater actualisation with a masculine animation set rather than a powerful confident feminine one. Feminine does not mean weak or sexy.

Dave Bauer
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This might be a more realistic take on this. If you aren't generating sexualized animations for the female characters, it makes the job a bit easier. Most astounding is the claim by Disney animators that their software is not powerful enough to create distinct female faces.

Simon Ashbery
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well it's not about sexualising the characters in animation, even when entirely unsexual the differences between movement exist. Even a short motion study highlights this.

Also, Disney never said their software was incapable of creating animations for women (aside from anything else, it's not the software that makes the animations, it's animators) they said that it's difficult because the designs HAVE to be X, Y&Z.

My take home from that (which I think a lot of animators were getting at in the discussions I partook in) is that the issues stems from the fact that Disney have character designed themselves into a corner with their stifling, dull, market lead and ultimately cowardly concept of what a woman "should" look like. The result is a character design that's hard to create real emotion with.

Tobias Horak
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It should be noted that Jonathan Cooper, who is quoted as saying “In my educated opinion, I would estimate this to be a day or two’s work. Not a replacement of 8000 animations”, along with the Aveline de Grandpré statement, was the Animation Director on Assassin's Creed III. I believe that qualifies him to speak on the realities of working on animation in an AC game, somewhat. Wanted to state that, for context.

A personal speculation: I believe the current social climate, with awareness through movements such as #YesAllWomen, is stimulating the negative reaction a great deal. I also don't think that is a bad thing. It means that we, as consumers, are waking up to the male gender preference in the games industry. Ubisoft simply failed, or didn't have the time, to realize that this issue is no longer one in which it is acceptable to cut corners.

(edit: spalling mstake)

Dane MacMahon
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It's about more than just swapping in a female body on existing animations though, which is basically what he was talking about. Since there is no character select at all, you'd have to build that whole mechanic into the game, as well as design characters, hire voices, write dialog, bug test each character, etc.

I would imagine it's a big deal to change "everyone plays the main character" into "full co-op character select."

These games iterate over the years, slowly but surely. I would imagine next year's game, or the one after, will be built more with a full co-op mode in mind, and probably have both genders represented in character select way this game doesn't have period (Which is a concern of mine as a singleplayer only guy, who fears the games will be built too much around co-op, but that's a subject for another story I guess).

Tobias Horak
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I totally understand. The issue is, it's not about the technical problems, it's a matter of design scope. They should have stated the issue clearly, instead of giving excuses that can clearly be debunked as a matter of competence. As you said, everyone seeing themselves as the main character is a design decision that I think most people would understand. That's not what was seen, though. What was shown and said at e3 looked very much to the public like: "here's 4 generic characters, we have them all on a massive banner here, that can be played in co-op. Oh, girls? Yeah, wasn't a big enough priority to get into release." That's a problem.

Far Cry 4 made similar statements about their playable co-op woman of bad-assery. Didn't make the cut due to a lack of voice actor and animations. It's similar to the 30 FPS issue. Many developers have been caught stating absolutely ridiculous things about tech in order to explain away that sacrifice in gameplay responsiveness. I remember a lead on The Order: 1886 saying "we wanted a film look. Films are at 24 fps, but we couldnt do that because it didn't feel good. We chose 30 FPS for that reason." It's about honesty.

In this case, though, regardless of whether female characters were possible, or not, developers getting burned on this issue, even unfairly, is a good thing for female representation in the long run. I think we should support that *thumbs up*