I’m glad that the subject of representation in games getting attention. But I see this news story as not as an argument about having an optional female or different race protagonist for a single-player game – it’s about prioritising the features in a multiplayer experience where players can already choose their own avatar.
I have been a games designer for a while, having worked at a large triple-A developers and smaller studios. I am now at Preloaded, where the types of games we create appeal to a much broader audience in the health, education and training sectors but the production process is the same.
When designing or planning features for a game, many studios use agile methodology where the team come up with stories of what they want from the game as a player, and prioritise them. This is where this problem of representation starts, before any game development has kicked off.
I would come up with the following stories for multiplayer:
1. As a player I wish to be able to play with my friends online so that we can have a shared experience. (This implies either a competitive or co-op mode, to be defined)
2. As player I want to be able to differentiate myself from other players easily, so that I don't get confused as to who I am. (This implies a new character model)
3. As a player I want to be able to choose a character, so I feel like I'm playing the games as myself. (This implies a choice between multiple characters)
This is where it gets interesting, because I believe that it’s directly after this point, where we should have the following story:
4. As a player I want to be able to choose a female model, because I associate myself with that gender. As a player I want to be able to choose a race, because I associate myself with that race.
Both are important for the players ability to be able to simply role-play as a character like themselves, rather than being forced into the while male model. Finally:
5. (Optional) As a player I want to be able to customise my character, so I feel like I have some ownership of who I am playing and can role-play that character immediately
Being able to customise your character is the first feature to be dropped. It requires extra effort, money and time; yet is less efficient for development cost when it comes to between that and having an alternate race or gender character.
So has Assassin's Creed got this wrong? Time and cost can be a factor, but considering the scale of the game and the profitability of the franchise as a whole, reducing scope in one area of the game such as the character customisation should have easily covered the costs.
We have to question if ”race and gender representation” is a lower priority than all the other features in the game. How could all of them be a higher priority than something that would be so critical for anyone that is not a white male? It’s over 50 per cent of the population they would be potentially putting off at best, and angering at worse.
For story-based content, I can understand how a change in gender could alter the script if there was some sexual content, or to be historically accurate to a real character. As a choice for multiplayer though, when you're asking the player to pick between characters, i.e. “Who do you want to be?”, you have to allow them to be who they are, or at least offer options that are somewhat closer to themselves than a white male.
In regards to Assassin’s Creed heritage, theMarySue.com have a great example from the French Revolution that would help the team nail their female assassin: Charlotte Corday, l’ange de l’assassinat.
The importance of the players' more realistic representation of themselves within a game is only going to get more critical as we enter virtual reality gaming. In a post I hope to share soon, I explore the developer's responsibility to keep presence. When the player looks down, they expect to see themselves. As a female, if I don’t have breasts, that takes me right out of the game.
From Develop's An Audience With Project Morpheus in relation to a question about how Sony deal with a VR avatar, Sony’s Simon Benson said developers can play a few tricks to avoid this should it prove a problem, such as putting gloves on characters to hide differences in the avatar compared to their real self, such as skin colour.
“These things are far more destructive than they ever were now. It’s hugely devastating when it comes to presence.”
Player representation is clearly something that we need to give more thought into as game developers. There is ever-growing number of players that will be expecting to play a closer representation of themselves with todays powerful gaming technology, especially in VR.
[Since this piece was written, Ubisoft has clarified that players will not be choosing a character in Assassin's Creed Unity's co-op mode but playing four identical versions of main protagonist Arno.]