So there are to be no playable female models in Assassin's Creed: Unity.
Unity introduces co-op to the Assassin's Creed formula, allowing you to play with up three of your friends. In order to make this fit in with the story, each player will see themselves as Arno in their own games but be able to choose and customise their public appearance -- i.e. how they present themselves in the games of other. You'll still be able to customise your gear, and you'll have all of that with you when playing with others, you'll just appear as a different character to other players. And that character will have to be male.
It's annoying that were back here again with a company that's actually been fairly good at fostering inclusion of late. Assassin's Creed actually flipped the script in terms of delivering a protagonist that didn't fit the white, male stereotype when it came to Liberation, and did so in a way that was pretty relaxed given the scrutiny Avaline would come under. That's just the nature of things that deviate from established norms, even when those norms are somewhat lamentable. Anything different -- in this case to traditionally white, male protagonists with voices like a cement mixer -- will attract extra attention and pressure. But, to Ubisoft's credit, they let the game do the talking, and it was a cracking little game, with Aveline proving to be a wonderfully drawn character. Before that, we had female assassins in Brotherhood and Revelations, female avatars in the multiplayer components. There's precedent for this, and Ubisoft Montreal themselves set it!
So why not here, in Unity?
"It's unfortunate, but it's a reality of game development," said Ubisoft technical director James Therien, speaking to Videogamer. "It's not a question of philosophy or choice in this case at all.
"It was a question of focus and a question of production. Yes, we have tonnes of resources, but we're putting them into this game, and we have huge teams, nine studios working on this game and we need all of these people to make what we are doing here."
Ubisoft Montreal is one of the biggest studios in the industry. Assassin's Creed is one of the most lucrative IPs in entertainment. Therien admits that they have "tonnes of resources" and "huge teams" working on this game. And yet somehow, in amongst creating an enormously detailed facsimile of Revolutionary France, perched upon thrones presumably made of money given the ridiculous success of this franchise, the excuses for not having one, just one, playable female character model in this game that's been in development for at least two years are "it's a reality of game development" and "it's a question of focus".
That sounds suspiciously like bullshit to me.
It's a reality of development that men outnumber women four to one?
It's a reality of development that you can create an enormous replica of 18th century Paris, fill it with huge crowds and dynamic, systemic missions but can't spare one of your nine teams and buckets of money for even one female assassin model?
It's not difficult to believe that creating a female playable character would have taken some work. "It's double the animations, it's double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets," Ubisoft creative director Alex Amancio told Polygon. "Especially because we have customizable assassins. It was really a lot of extra production work."
That's a given. Creating a model for female motion with the new engine would certainly be more work. The thing is, though, if Ubisoft Montreal can't leverage their enormous development base to do this (when much smaller studios find a way), what sort of a message does that send? The fact that smaller studios find a way only reinforces the notion that in spite of the waffle above, what Ubi are basically saying is "we couldn't be fucked, really".
And I'm not sure what's worse -- that Ubisoft deliberately excised the option for female characters from a series that has already had playable female characters in a co-op game set in an era where that would have actually been totally acceptable (and potentially made it more awesome), or that Ubisoft's excuse for doing this amounts to "We've got loads of resources and manpower but we couldn't do this because of resources and manpower." You must have known that this backlash would be coming, Ubisoft. You can't have been this naive. How we present ourselves online has always been important. More pertinently, the likes of Borderlands and Saints Row and GTA Online and pretty much every Bethesda and BioWare RPG seem to be able to handle it, why not Ubisoft Montreal?
That phrase "extra production work" Amancio uses is telling because it suggests that having female characters is a luxury and that's a fairly risible message to be sending in a series that has managed to deliver inclusive experiences better than most. With Unity, Ubisoft could have finally put to bed the flimsy "because..erm...story" reason for not allowing for female characters by creating a game where you can play the male lead and also present yourself to the world however you like. Instead, they've basically said that their female audience isn't a priority, echoing the mutterings of boardroom suits who even today are actively stifling games with diverse leads and refuse to acknowledge that there is a broader gaming audience out there than ever before.
This stuff matters, and Ubisoft Montreal know it. This is one of the biggest, brightest studios in the industry. And they've utterly embarrassed themselves here.