The perpetual debate over the dearth of playable female characters in major video game franchises has flared up again with the news that the latest installment in the “Assassin’s Creed” series, “Assassin’s Creed: Unity,” will not include women. Much of the frustration about that announcement has centered on the idea that Ubisoft, the company that makes “Assassin’s Creed,” is lying or exaggerating about the amount of work it might have taken to add female characters to the game.
The reality is more complicated. It does take time and effort to design new body types for video games, whether you want to add a female character or a man who is heavier than either a playable male main character or the henchmen players are supposed to eliminate. Those characters move differently and they require different coding for their costumes. But that does not mean that companies should not invest the time and energy in broadening their character bases — and their audiences.
Dani Price, who has worked on both independent and big-company games such as “Black Mesa,” says that the the rising standards for video games mean that it takes more work to produce an excellent, high-resolution character.
“Ten years ago it took a couple weeks to a month for one artist to make a AAA quality character, but the art was much lower resolution,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Now it takes a modeler, a texture artist, a technical artist, an animator, and a lead to direct everyone. Higher poly counts [the shapes that need to be rendered into a whole image in the game], higher quality required in the textures, usually you have to make a really high quality model, movie realism quality sometimes, that’s then ‘baked’ down to a game graphics compatible model. It can reasonably take a two month cycle with multiple people to do a modern character, from concept to functional product.”
Price explained that while games can reuse generic male body types to populate the action with multiple male targets, and can dress them using the same code, they cannot recycle that work for female characters.
“You wouldn’t want to apply a male walking animation on a female character,” she wrote. “Wouldn’t look right.”
Mike Jungbluth, who has worked as a senior animator on a number of big-company games, said that the the differences come down to very fine details.
“Something as simple as the placement of the clavicle being higher or lower between characters, or arm length being longer can cause fairly substantial ripples, that then require tools which allow hands to maintain proper contact points when holding items or interacting with other characters,” he e-mailed.
But just as with male characters, the upfront investment in building female characters can give companies a resource they can draw on for future projects.
“As for how successful animation sharing is, in most cases, actions and combat can share animations across characters, as those often have more to do with function than personality,” Jungbluth explained. “Idles, fidgets and general locomotion are where you spend the most time seeing the animations repeated, so those make sense to give unique personality…Something classic like ‘Golden Axe,’ each character has a different weapon, powers, etc and needs unique animations to match that.”
The question is whether Ubisoft is minimizing the extent to which it had done design for other games that might have made it easier to include female characters in “Assassin’s Creed: Unity.” Jonathan Cooper, who worked on “Assassin’s Creed” previously, said that Ubisoft had done work on female characters that the company could have re-purposed for the new installment.
Whether it would have been easy or costly for Ubisoft to add female characters to a game is ultimately not the point. The bigger question is why the company decided that it was not worth it to make an investment in designing female characters that, judging by the outcry, might have been a draw for some of its franchise’s fans and potential fans. This dynamic is not new to this business. When female characters are cut or get handled poorly, the companies take hits. At minimum, getting promised female characters into the final product seems like an intelligent public relations and brand-building strategy. (I reached out to Ubisoft for more details on its production process but did not receive a response.)
Of course, it costs money to do new things. Of course, it takes a while for investments in new ideas and in wooing new audiences to pay off. But companies like Ubisoft build worlds so detailed, expansive and beautiful that they feel real. It is a shame that corporations that show so much imagination and ambition inside their pocket universes fall so short in the real entertainment business where they have been so dominant.