Is abandoning female characters 'the reality of development'?

Is abandoning female characters 'the reality of development'?
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

June 11th 2014 at 10:48AM

Develop is calling on studios to discuss the alleged burden of adding women to blockbuster games

The team behind Assassin's Creed Unity was forced to scrap work on playable female characters for the game because "it would have doubled the work".

The new Creed, announced last month and demonstrated for the first time at Ubisoft's E3 press conference, allows up to four players to play co-operatively – but every member of this quartet is male.

When asked why there is no option to play as a female assassin, Ubisoft technical director James Therien told VideoGamer that it would have required too much work.

"It was on our feature list until not too long ago, but it's a question of focus and production," he said. "We wanted to make sure we had the best experience for the character. A female character means that you have to redo a lot of animation, a lot of costumes. It would have doubled the work on those things. And I mean it's something the team really wanted but we had to make a decision.

"It's unfortunate, but it's a reality of game development."

Is it?

Granted, four homogenised male assassins must be less technically intensive for the engine. And given the growing prominence of motion and facial performances in the triple-A titles of today, it's understandable that there will be a certain limit as to how much capture data a game can handle.

But it's hard to accept this reasoning when Assassin's Creed Brotherhood's multiplayer mode (way back in 2010, mind) featured no less than five female characters, free-running and fighting alongside male characters in matches that handled up to eight players and those crowds of bystanders the series built part of its technical reputation on.

What has changed to suddenly prevent the use of female characters, particularly given that Unity is powered by the next generation hardware of Xbox One and PS4?

Therien is not the first to use technical difficulties as the reason for excluding an entire gender. Last year, Call of Duty: Ghosts' executive producer and long-running CoD dev Mark Rubin told Kotaku the team had to completely reconstruct the engine to handle the addition of females to the game.

"Our previous engine would not handle that," he claimed. "The way memory worked in the previous engine, it never would have been able to do that.

"When we got a chance to re-tool the engine completely, that gave us the opportunity to make the change that we could have character customization. That then gave us the opportunity to do female characters."

Obviously, every game is different and it's often difficult to draw direct comparisons. But it's hard to see why the most successful games on the market, with the highest production budgets and biggest teams (heck, Assassin's Creed has ten entire studios behind it) can't solve the problem of adding female characters when the likes of (off the top of my head) Skyrim, Saints Row, Left 4 Dead, Borderlands, Pokémon (okay, not quite on the same scale), every BioWare RPG and any MMO gives players the option from the word go. 

None of these games seem to suffer from the burden of the female presence. Nor do those with female protagonists such as Tomb Raider, Remember Me, Mirror's Edge, Alien Isolation, Bayonetta, Heavenly Sword, Beyond Good & Evil – and, oh yeah, Assassin's Creed: Liberation.

In fact, has the excuse of "too much animation or modelling work" ever been a genuine reason to remove women from games? Perhaps, for indie devs and smaller studios with less budget and/or resource to offer a wide range of characters but for studios of this ilk, it sounds far less plausible.

Therien and Rubin's explanations might sound semi-acceptable to the average gamer, with little to no knowledge of the toll animations, character models and other associated resources take on the performace of a game, but what do you think? Are the technical complications of adding female characters really "the reality of game development"?

We want developers to share their thoughts and experiences with this issue. Comment below, or email James.Batchelor@intentmedia.co.uk. We'll publish the best responses on the website.