The new Assassin's Creed game shown off at E3 -- Assassin's Creed Unity -- looked pretty standard for the series. Brooding male protagonist in a hood prowling stealthily through the streets of 18th-century revolution-era France to take down the aristocracy.
It even has four-player online co-op -- and here's where the trouble comes in. Although players can customise the look of their playable character, that playable character can only be main character Arno Dorian. (There aren't four separate male player characters, only one.) Ubisoft admitted it had considered adding a female player character, but nixed the idea as too much work.
"It's double the animations, it's double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets," creative director Alex Amancio told Polygon. "Especially because we have customisable assassins. It was really a lot of extra production work." And level designer Bruno St Andre estimated that a female player character would require around 8,000 new animations.
This was all called into doubt when former Assassin's Creed 3 animation director Jonathan Cooper said on Twitter that it would take no more than two days. He expanded to Polygon, "I think what you want to do is just replace a handful of animations. Key animations. We target all the male animations onto the female character and just give her her own unique walks, runs, anything that can give character." However, he also added that doing so would require a sacrifice in quality.
Looking at the E3 gameplay trailer for Assassin's Creed Unity, it's clear that quality is something Ubisoft would not want to compromise -- that, if a female character were to be included, she would have to be designed from the ground up. Remapping male animations onto a female character may have worked for Assassin's Creed 3: Liberation's Aveline de Grandpré, a PlayStation Vita game that was peripheral to the main series, but not for a main series game designed for PS4 and Xbox One -- especially bearing in mind that Ubisoft is creating all-new animations for Unity.
Creating a female character does present new challenges. Female skeletal structure is different, which means transferring animations wouldn't necessarily work, and women tend to move differently than men; maybe not significantly differently, but differently enough.
And, unless you make the female character exactly the same size as the male character, you have a lot of environmental factors to take into account. Where NPCs (non-player characters) gaze when they interact with the character, for example. NPC animations for two different opponent heights or move sets. How characters climb a wall if they're taller or shorter. And if the co-op gameplay has interactions between the characters -- such as one character helping another climb a wall, for example -- each of those interactions needs to be animated four times.
A team of animators will usually work on player character animations for the duration of development, since they have such a huge effect on the game. An NPC isn't even near the same order of magnitude; they'll typically have just one or two tasks, interacting little with the environment and having minimal impact on it, and their role is done.
Ubisoft has not ruled out adding a female playable character as DLC later down the road. Let's be clear: This kind of thing can be done, and done well. Mass Effect is the perfect example, but it requires time, planning and hard work from very early on in the development cycle.
For launch, Assassin's Creed Unity will have a fixed protagonist. One wearing fancy outfits, sure, and entering an oversaturated market of brooding fixed male protagonists. But the issue is not that Ubisoft is lying about how much work it would require to add a female player character -- it's that the idea was considered unworthy of those resources in the first place.