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” (http://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2014-06-11-assassins-creeds-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.”