Of men and women: Animators explain Ubisoft's gender conundrum

Of men and women: Animators explain Ubisoft's gender conundrum
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

June 11th 2014 at 3:10PM

Developers reveal implementing both male and female characters may be harder than you might think

This morning, it emerged that Assassin's Creed Unity will not have female playable assassins in its co-op mode because defining the animations and other assets would "double the work" for the development team.

We've already shared our thoughts on this and called for other developers to do the same. As a result, animators have been in touch to shed light on both the complications the Ubisoft team are referring to, but also some potential solutions.

Crucially, multiple developers have acknowledged that there is some credence to the AC Unity team's claims: introducing additional animations and models, regardless of whether they're male or female, does add to a studio's workload.

One character rigger, who has worked on a very high profile open-world title, gave a prime example of how much extra effort could be required.

"It's not just about the number animations you have to think about – you also have to think about the sheer number of pieces of geometry that have to be made," the rigger tells us.

Standard player characters are built around the following five aspects: head, upper body, lower body/legs, feet and accessories. If your game has a character creator with, say, 20 male upper body models and textures, 10 for the lower body and 10 for feet, creating the same number for female characters does literally double the work.

But it doesn't stop there, the rigger tells us: "You then have to skin all of those pieces to their respective skeleton. You have to make sure that for every animation, every single combination of those assets does not cause intersection problems and make adjustments where necessary, which then may cause new intersections where previously there weren't any.

"It's not a simple case of doubling the number of assets we make. It's an order of magnitude higher than that."

As one Develop reader points out in the comments below our opinion piece, few games have as many locomotion animations as Assassin's Creed, thanks in no small part to the parkour that forms the series' hallmark.

"The animation quality of the AC titles is so high due to the sheer number of different animations they use," says commenter Kyle. "This new AC seems to have re-worked/recaptured a ton of new animations for the new generation of consoles and I imagine the old data simply isn't compatible for any new higher-quality character rigs they created.

"Creating four variations on a single male locomotion set is significantly easier than creating a whole new locomotion set for one female."

If your game has a character creator with, say, 20 male upper body models and textures, 10 for the lower body and 10 for feet, creating the same number for female characters does literally double the work.

Some developers claim that the importance of including – and differentiating – female characters can be overblown in some cases. Ultimately, will the inclusion of a heroine dramatically change the vision and performance of the finished game?

"I feel that if developers put females in for the sake of putting females in – for example, if they feel like they have to pander to the people that complain a lack of female characters in games – it can change the developers' vision and in some way complicate it to a degree, but not in the sense that it makes designing the game harder," says one studio boss.

"It comes across as people dictating to developers what they can and can't do with their own visions, which to me is a selfish thing to do. Developers shouldn't be forced to shoehorn in a female protagonist if their vision for the game is a male character."

However, an animator that works on indie games tells Develop that there are plenty of options that make it easier to implement female characters without "doubling the work" as Ubisoft claims.

"As an animator, in my experience (on productions much, much smaller than nine-studio collaborations), the Creed team could easily retarget animations at run-time on skeletal structures that are similar," he says. "A company with super-advanced tech and tools and triple-A experience must have the ability to easily deal with lots of animation data and retarget it across multiple rigs.

"They could use most or some of the male animations. It may not always look super perfect for a female-shaped assassin, but for the amount of clothes and weapons that sit on top of that structure, it could work. Some of the takedowns will have to change and maybe walks."

This is certainly a solution other studios have used, as our character rigger tells us.

"We don't have two skeletons in our game with two sets of animation. We have one skeleton, a male one, and some rather transvestite-looking females sitting on that male set of locomotion.

"This was done because the player has a massively larger number of animations. This still causes us huge amounts of work to get everything working, let alone looking good. So it boils down to do you make something that looks only okay, or do you spend time making sure everything looks really high quality."

I think the community would rather have slightly imperfect animation that has more player choice and a more progressive attitude. Some big player needs to push the industry forward.

It may sound like a cheeky solution, but if you know which game the rigger is referring to, you probably never noticed. In fact, our animator suggests that a lot of movements we associated with female animations – for example, the way the hips move – have been exaggerated to emphasise femininity rather than portray women realistically.

"When you exaggerate animation, it's more obvious," he says. "You impart masculinity or femininity to the character. Why not just say that assassins move differently to everyone else, as I imagine someone as trained as the series' protagonists would? Many action films have a masked character engage in combat and are then revealed to be a woman – the audience doesn't notice any slight physiological nuances.

"Yes, as an animator, I know females move differently to males, and in a perfect world everything would be completely bespoke."

Utlimately, regardless of how you implement female characters alongside male ones, doing so – even without differentiating them significantly – requires time and resources, two commodities that while developers are willing to put into such ventures may not be a priority for publishers.

"Like anything in a game, it's a feature, it has a cost and a benefit," the animator argues. "They could have chosen to do the right thing but they have made a choice to not have a female in because they're saying it's not worth it, that it won't provide a return on the investment – as opposed to, for example, a mechanic where you have your own house, build a village and have a micro-economy.

"Every feature complicates development, from a separate GUI for the Animus to the entire parkour system. They are simply saying that having a female playable character just isn't important enough to them to actually spent money. 

"I think the community would rather have slightly imperfect animation that has more player choice and a more progressive attitude. Some big player needs to push the industry forward."