A couple weeks ago, Jason Schreier wrote another insider article that brings light to issues, now seen as problematic, in game development. Mr. Schreier has made a career writing pieces like this about a great many games and studios such as BioWare and Anthem, Naughty Dog and The Last of Us Part II, and a number of other big ticket examples. I qualified my opening sentence, because it’s important to note that problematic practices, like most issues within society, are often tied to flavor of the month/year political/cultural opinions.
We have seen countless examples of people having no problem with a well-known or fairly obvious given practice and then suddenly turning on a studio for the same issue after a random article is printed about it or an employee, present or past, comes out and complains about it. What this tells me is that people seem to only care about issues as much as caring about them will gain them clout. That also means that conclusions like right vs wrong are subjective and not based on any sort or established set of rules. So I don’t think it’s accurate or fair to demonize one studio once it’s reported on while ignoring similar practices at another studio that just hasn’t gotten its five minutes of infamy yet. I also think it’s unfair to get mad at one company for following industry trends in order to maximize profits while not treating every other company with the same amount of ire before Mr. Schreier takes the time to write about them.
The article in question focuses on sexual misconduct at Ubisoft. I want to start by saying that none of the reported sexual misconduct issues are OK. Not all of them are illegal, but all of them should be seen as problematic in a professional setting. I’m not going to defend them and I don’t feel there’s any need to debate them. That’s not what this post is about. Another issue, that I actually do want to discuss in this post, that was also discussed in the article, is the minimization of female roles in Ubisoft games. In many ways this was actually the bigger news to come out of that article. Many other media sources reported on the article with a focus on this development practice at Ubisoft. You can read the full article but the summary of this particular issue is that Serge Hascoët, the chief creative officer, among others at Ubisoft, made it a point to limit the roles and focus on female characters in the games produced during his long tenure at the company. He was also accused of sexual misconduct, but those are two separate issues. And that’s the first problem.
Serge Hascoët was accused, and is presumably guilty, of sexual misconduct at his work place or with people related to his work place. As I already said, this is not OK and such behavior shouldn’t be defended. But to automatically link his misconduct with his game development decisions is, in my opinion, wrong. It’s an inaccurate linking of correlation with causation. One can both be a sexist and make successful business decisions. One can be both a sexual predator and be good at their job. We have countless examples of this in the film and television industry. Some of the greatest actors, producers, and directors of the last several decades have been outed as sexual predators. That doesn’t negate how good they were at their jobs or how seriously they took their jobs. It simply means they were both good at their jobs and trash human beings. So in the same mode of thinking, I think it’s more accurate to say that Serge Hascoët was a great chief creative officer and a trash human being rather than saying he was a terrible chief creative officer because he was a trash human being. Because making a successful game is measureable.
We can debate whether or not there is one way to make a successful game, but we can’t debate whether or not he was good at making successful ones. His list of credits speaks for itself. He was the chief creative officer on more successful games than most developers even get to work on. Some examples include the Assassin’s Creed franchise, several Tom Clancy games, and the Far Cry series. And not just one installment either. He was leading the production of most titles in multiple franchises. Say what you want about his conduct, but the man clearly knows what makes a game that sells. And let’s make sure we address that point. A successful game is a game that turns a profit when you’re one of the largest publishers and developers in the world. A family run, publicly traded company, especially one that fought off a hostile takeover, cannot afford to make games that don’t sell. The objective definition of a successful game in this context is one that turns a profit. And the larger the profit the better, as is the way of capitalism. So in that mode of thinking, Serge Hascoët was great at his job and made Ubisoft several boatloads of money.
Many people will refuse to disconnect the two issues. They will say they are incapable of separating Hascoët’s personal misconduct with the sexist, and arguably racist, practices displayed in his work conduct. But most of these people almost assuredly have never and will never release a AAA game. Certainly not as the lead producer. The correct question is not were Ubisoft’s decisions concerning the minimization of female roles in their games sexist? Yes, they absolutely were. This is not debatable. But it’s also not the issue that needs to be discussed. The correct question is were Ubisoft’s decisions concerning the minimization of female roles in their games the correct business decisions at the time(s) they were made? This is the issue I really want to discuss.
Many people hate this discussion because it addresses an issue that many people don’t want to acknowledge as the entire backbone of the discussion. And yes I’ve discussed it in reference to different events in the past. Game development is a business, plain and simple. Some games are willing to risk profits to make a statement, but every game needs to make a profit for the team to continue making games. A baseball player nearly bankrupted the state of Rhode Island trying to make a game. And that game, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, was actually really good. Games are expensive, time consuming, and high risk. Doing everything you can to make sure the game makes as much money as possible and keeping literally hundreds to sometimes more than a thousand people paid, and ideally employed for the next game, is the number one concern of any AAA game development studio. And that’s while dealing with a greedy board of directors that would rather see their annual dividends go up than their employees paid properly. So it’s really important for a game to be successful. Especially if development took years. So the question is did the decisions made by Hascoët concerning the reduction/exclusion of women in Ubisoft’s games improve, suppress, or have no effect on the financial success of the games he managed?
The sad thing about this question is that we can never know for sure. We can use other examples, like The Last of Us Part II and Horizon: Zero Dawn, to try to extrapolate conclusions but we can’t ever know with 100% confidence what the real answer is. This is because of a number of factors. Some of these include the following.
- We have yet to have a Ubisoft AAA quality title with a female protagonist to know how one would perform.
- Ubisoft doesn’t make new IPs much so all their games in question are beholden to established franchise audiences, expectations, and canon.
- The games industry and community has changed significantly over time because of steps taken by Ubisoft and other publishers/developers by using mostly slow incremental steps towards more diversity.
Let’s look at Assassin’s Creed as a currently relevant franchise for this discussion. Over the course of now 13 years and 11 main platform titles plus another 11 spin-off titles on various platforms ranging from mobile to PSP to DS, Ubisoft has established a power house franchise that now is essentially too big to fail. Today they could do pretty much whatever they wanted and get away with it without the game tanking . . . to a point. But that took a lot of time and effort over many games, and other types of content such as animated films, books, comics, and one garbage live action movie. In those 11 main titles, only one features a female protagonist, and that position is shared with a male sibling. In a few others, female characters are playable for limited periods of time in specific sequences such as Aya, in Assasssin’s Creed: Origins. Two of the spin-off titles feature female protagonists as well. These being Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation and Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China. Has the franchise been successful regardless of the minimization of women or because of it? That’s the question that needs to be answered. But really it first needs to be asked.
It’s easy to demand a committed female protagonist in an Assassin’s Creed game in 2020 when you know the game won’t fail, even with all the naysayers online. But was that the case back in 2007? If Altair had been a woman from the start would Assassin’s Creed be the franchise it is today? If Ezio had been hung with his father and brothers and Assassin’s Creed: II, Brotherhood, and Revelations had followed his sister Claudia Auditore da Firenze, also a member of the Brotherhood of Assassins during the same time, instead would she, like Ezio, be one of the most beloved assassins in the franchise? It’s easy to say yes after the fact. But there’s no evidence to support that claim. Consider this; Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2016) sold 8.7 million copies in its release year. The Last of Us Part II, which is still in its release year, has sold about 4 million copies. It outpaced Uncharted 4’s opening week record, but now its sales have declined considerably since then compared to Uncharted 4’s sales pace in the same time frame. Why? Is it because Ellie is a woman and Nathan is a man? Can’t say for sure but a social media analyst would certainly argue that it’s a factor.
Take it one step further if we want to have a discussion about all inclusion and not just gender. Is the fact that Nathan is a straight, white male and Ellie a lesbian a factor in the difference in sales? Again, impossible to know for sure but a social media analyst would certainly argue that it’s a factor. And more importantly, it’s a limiting factor. Compare the sales of Uncharted 4 to those of Shadow of the Tomb Raider (2018). Uncharted’s sales are way higher. That’s not to say that Tomb Raider’s sales are/were low. But it’s factually true to say Uncharted’s latest main line installment was stronger than Tomb Raider’s even though it came out two years later to a much more inclusive gaming industry and community. Or at least that’s how it seems. One could of course say maybe Shadow of the Tomb Raider just isn’t as good as Uncharted 4 and gender had nothing to do with it, and that may be true. But it’s not an objective measurement of comparison. Companies make decisions based on perceived facts. Even if the facts are suspect, decisions are made based on something. Not just guesses. You look at the numbers comparing multiple similar games, you identify their key differences, and you make seemingly likely conclusions based on them. That’s how entertainment works. Why does Thanos die at the end of Avenger’s Endgame? Because enough data can be shown that people like seeing the villain die at the end of Marvel films. If that wasn’t true he’d still be alive. In the same way, the data shows that male protagonists sell better than female ones in video games. That very well may be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it changes nothing about how the data looks.
Let’s look at it another way. Horizon: Zero Dawn (2017) was a great success. So much so that the PC port and the recently announced sequel are both highly anticipated and are expected to sell millions of units each. But 2 questions should immediately come to mind. Would those sales numbers be higher if Aloy was a man and would that game have been as successful if it had been released with Aloy as the protagonist in 2007? Can’t say for sure on either question, but I bet if you took a poll of AAA game developers and they answered honestly you’d get an overwhelming number of them answering yes to the first question and no the second question. Again, cannot say for sure, but the data appears to indicate certain conclusions that inform the way creative directors like Serge Hascoët do and have done their jobs for now multiple decades. Still waiting for that totally awesome and financially successful Nintendo franchise starring a female protagonist that didn’t spend more than half her career being mistaken for a man in a suit of armor. And yes I do still remember when it was revealed to the wider public that Samus Aran was a woman. It was because of the ray-gun revealing her skeletal structure in the original Smash Brothers on the N64 and was widely reported in multiple gaming physical magazines. Many boys decided to change their Smash main after the news broke. And no that’s not an exaggeration. It’s a sad truth of our history and society. Remember how mad people were last year when they found out Hooded Justice was Black in the Watchmen show? That’s the world we still live in. And because of that, I believe the development decisions concerning the role of female characters at Ubisoft were profit driven rather than some systematic attack on women.
One of the examples expressed in Schreier’s article concerning the minimization of female characters is Aya in Assassin’s Creed: Origins. I thought this example was especially interesting because currently I literally just finished Origins for the first time last week. It was reported that originally the main protagonist, Bayek, was supposed to be killed off early on and the game would focus on his wife, Aya, getting revenge for her murdered spouse. Instead he was kept alive, made the main protagonist, and she played an auxiliary role with a few playable sequences. The fact that those sequences exist tell me that this report is most likely true. She was originally meant to be the main protagonist. But my experience with the game, which I’m happy to admit is biased as a heterosexual, African American male, makes me believe that making Bayek the main character was the right choice.
Throughout the game I have constantly said that I wanted Aya to play a larger role in the story. But I never thought that in terms of gameplay. I wanted her more present in order to develop her relationship with Bayek. That was the thing I disliked most about her character: the fact that her marriage with Bayek was so distant and odd. The character is attractive and Bayek goes out of his way to show loyalty to his wife, even when she is not present, constantly. Multiple female characters come on to him throughout the story and he always makes sure to let them know that he’s happily married. Yet to me his marriage was anything but happy. His wife was constantly a country away doing her own thing. Every time he asks her to stay with him she says she has work to do and can’t. She’s portrayed as the stereotypical working husband in many ways. I didn’t like this at all. I like her but wanted her more present, as Bayek’s wife. Of course you can say that’s the sexist view and that she shouldn’t be held to the misogynistic fantasies of the male player, but that’s not a business minded response. That’s a political response. Again this is about making profitable games. They made a character I liked and wanted more present, but failed to make her more present. But they did not make me want her more present as the playable character. Of course I can’t speak for everyone who played the game. Maybe a majority of other players did want to play more as Aya and didn’t like Bayek. But Bayek is a really great protagonist so I highly doubt that. He really is the best assassin since Ezio in many respects. I’m speaking as someone who hasn’t played Odyssey yet, for the record. But the point is I genuinely believe that I wouldn’t have liked the game as much with Aya as the main protagonist. But to be fair, we can assume they would have written her and the plot in general at least slightly differently if she was the main protagonist. So obviously that has an effect on my opinion. Making this another situation where we can’t say for sure if gender actually matters or if Ubisoft is just making causality out of correlation. It’s a tough question. But what’s not a tough question is how much money did the game make?
Assassin’s Creed: Origins has sold more than 10 million copies. It was released in 2017. Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate (2015) only sold about 5.5 million copies by 2017. Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag (2013) sold 11 million units by 2014. Now I can’t prove or disprove anything, but what I can do is compare the three titles from a completely objective standpoint devoid of context. The game that sold the most of the three has a white male protagonist as the only identified playable character. The game that sold the second most has a male person of color as the main protagonist with some portions of the game played as two other female people of color. The game that sold the least has the play time nearly split down the middle between a white male protagonist and a white female protagonist.
Having played all three, I can say that they’re all good Assassin’s Creed games. Syndicate was certainly the worst of the three, but I still feel like it was better than multiple other games in the franchise. So what was the factor that made Syndicate sell so much less than either of the other two games? You can’t use race as a factor here. And as these are all post Assassin’s Creed III games, story is possibly a factor, but I’d argue none of the games post ACIII have a particularly relevant meta story. Taken one step farther, I’d argue that while Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is the best of the three titles for gameplay, it’s the worst for story. Not character development or world building, but specifically the plot. Meaning that there’s not really an objective way to compare these other aspects of the games. The only things that are 100% measurable factors that can’t be debated are the genders and skin colors of the playable characters in each of these three games. While you could say gender isn’t the reason for the large difference in sales, it should be obvious how someone could reach that conclusion based on the sales data. And as we have seen with countless games, the social media response to female protagonists in the Assassin’s Creed franchise, among other franchises, tends to lean more negative as well. So when you couple that with sales data those conclusions make sense on paper. I believe this is the root cause of Serge Hascoët’s design choices in Ubisoft’s games.
As a community and industry, we need to be able to make a distinction between sexism and profiteering. I would argue that both of those things are problematic, but only one is a foundational property of our economy. So I can’t blame a company for chasing profits. So the question shouldn’t be is Ubisoft guilty of making sexist design choices? The question should be are sexist design choices in pursuit of profits acceptable? Is there a line where profits should no longer drive decision making in video game production? Consider this scenario. You’re chief creative officer of a AAA game. You have a team of people, men and women, who want to do a female protagonist. They are excited, passionate, and unified in their vision. You also believe, or even know, that putting a female protagonist in the game will have a large effect on the future of game development by making it more accessible to women as well as leading to a noteworthy increase in the number of future AAA games featuring female protagonists. You would greenlight that project. I’d almost argue you have a responsibility to do it. Choosing not to do it for no reason other than you don’t want to would be blatant sexism. But what if you also knew that it would drop sales by 3 million units? The company would still be fine. No one would lose their job. You’d still get to lead the next game. But you would be costing the company 3 million units in sales. Would you still use a female protagonist? Would you willingly choose to sacrifice 3 million units of sales for a political agenda? This decision can affect people’s bonuses’ and even the future of the franchise. Even if the only repercussion is reduced sales, if you know that for a fact then you probably won’t choose to go with a female protagonist. And depending on your contract, you might have an obligation not to in that situation.
I’m not saying that Serge Hascoët made the right design choices. Because I can’t prove that sales would have been lower for any of those many games he managed had he have not minimized the roles of female characters in them. But I can absolutely say that based on the data I have available, which is obviously way less than the data available to him when making such decisions; he made the choices that appear to have been the most profitable. And that was his job. Again, that doesn’t excuse his sexual misconduct in the work place. But we shouldn’t conflate bad workplace behavior with being bad at one’s job. Those are two completely different things. It’s an objectively false claim to say that he made games that weren’t profitable. In a way, to have included both issues in the same article was a bit dishonest and inflammatory because it paints every game developer as sexist for putting profits first in their development decisions. I don’t think that’s fair. Furthermore, I believe that the only reason that you will get to choose to play as a female Eivor in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla is because of the years spent building a strong franchise that can now take those types of risks. That may not be the nice way to look at things, but the sales data, in my opinion, shows that it’s the accurate way to look things.