Ubisoft Are Bad At PR
At least that seems to be most logical conclusion after the past few months.
While the largest portion of the fallout has come after (and during) this year’s E3, it didn’t start there. I would like to take you back to the reveal of the Far Cry 4 cover art a little over a month ago (though it’s quite possible that you can find more issues if you go even farther back).
Along with this image they really only provided a release date and some details on pre-order DLC. So they basically left people to interpret this piece of art on their own. Keep in mind this is the Internet. You give them what looks like a swede in a pink suit and fancy shoes, sitting on some despoiled cultural heritage and suppressing a local-looking man cupping a grenade in his bound hands… well, it doesn’t take long for people to start crying racism, and express fears that maybe Ubisoft intend to make a gay man the villain.
With their regular suave professionalism, Ubisoft came out and chided people for jumping to conclusions when they didn’t know the context. No shit we don’t know the context, when you refuse to tell us. I don’t remember how many days it was before they finally unveiled that this was indeed the villain, and he was also native. A dictator, to be precise. But however many days it was, it was that many days too long.
They also revealed that we’ll be playing as Ajay Ghale. At least Ubisoft are for once doing a non-white male protagonist, but it doesn’t seem like they’ve strayed too far from their template even so. Barest minimal ethnicity? Maybe I’m the one being racist now.
All in all, not a huge incident, but it does give an indication of Ubi’s lack of communication skills, and possibly also their lack of imagination. Ubisoft’s stable of big games has one of the dullest collections of white, male protagonists you’ll find anywhere. Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, Watch_Dogs, Call of Juarez, etc and so on. All are basically the same, white bloke being incredibly dull. Of course that’s not all they have. You won’t have to look hard at all to find games with female protagonists or a choice between male and female, even in Ubi’s stable, but they’re often smaller titles. The white, male, gruff man is a recurring thing across all of video games, but the trend does seem to run a little stronger at Ubisoft. Which wouldn’t necessarily be so much of a problem if they were at least interesting protagonists. I am still at a point where I’d rather have an interesting male protagonist, than a dull female one, but the over-saturation of white men in games is driving me towards preferring *any* female character.
Which brings us nicely to the E3, where they showed off Assassin’s Creed: Unity. Where they proudly showcased 4-player co-op and character customisation, while using this promotional image:
Four white men I’d be hard-pressed to tell apart, even with the difference in clothing (more on that in a minute). The question was quickly raised if you’d be able to make a female character for the co-op. Considering this is set in the French revolution, that actually features at least one rather famous female assassin, it doesn’t seem like an unreasonable query. They said no, which is disappointing, but might not have been such a big deal if it wasn’t for *how* they explained it.
They said they had originally planned to have a female playable character, but they had to drop it because of expenses. To quote:
“It’s double the animations, it’s double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets. Especially because we have customizable assassins. It was really a lot of extra production work. Because of that, the common denominator was Arno [the protagonist]. It’s not like we could cut our main character, so the only logical option, the only option we had, was to cut the female avatar.”
That doesn’t really sound all that good, does it? Now there have been several posts, and even videos, calling bullshit on this. Not to mention the idea that Ubisoft would be lacking budget for their biggest franchise… but let’s say we assume they really didn’t have the funds (or time?) to make two versions of the protagonist, why not make the protagonist a woman? Or non-white? Or both?* Heck, it even turned out that all four of the co-op characters are the same dude. To each player it seems like they are the main Arno, while the others are just… helpers? Clones? Fever-dreams? If you’ve finally capitulated and accepted that your protagonist is that bland, it makes even less sense to not have any choice.
Not to mention it just kinda makes them seem rather lazy overall. I also cast doubt on their claims that they originally had plans for a female protagonist. I find it much more likely that either it was decided right off the bat that it wouldn’t a woman, or it was simply never even thought of. Everyone just assumed it would be another dude, and no one ever questioned that. I find it unlikely that there was any deliberate sexism at play, but incidental sexism isn’t exactly any better. In fact, it might be considered more insidious. “I didn’t mean to” doesn’t really help that much when you still did it.
I’m sure Ubisoft are as much caught up in the idea that “women protagonists mean less sold games” as anyone else in the industry, when there is very little hard evidence to back that up. There is a tendency for female-led games to receive a much smaller marketing budget/campaign than their male-led counterparts, as if it’s already just assumed they’ll automatically sell less. Considering that roughly 50% of gamers are now women, that’s quite the assumption. We just don’t have the data from enough female-led games with marketing equal to male-led games to make any sort of final call on that issue. It’s just something the games industry decided, like that horror games were dead, point-and-click adventures should never come back, every shooter should be Call of Duty, and JRPGs need to be more cinematic and less like JRPGs. Stuff that seems to have been just accepted among AAA publishers and developers for a long time without any proper evidence backing it up. I suppose the indie market owes some of its growth to these curious decisions. The AAAs left quite the gap just waiting to be filled.
So was that the end of Ubisoft’s lack of communication skills? Of course not! During a Q&A session, it was asked whether Rainbow Six: The Siege would feature both male and female hostages. At which point Ubi attempted to end the interview. Smooth, Ubi. Smooth. You should really consider how you present yourselves.
And just when Ubisoft were probably feeling like they could use a break, Watch_Dogs came back and bit them in the arse. An eager modder was digging around in the files of Watch_Dogs‘ PC version to figure out how to make it look a little better. At launch the game had seemed slightly underwhelming compared to what was promised, not to mention it seemed a tad unstable and poorly optimised. As it turned out, there wasn’t much modding you really needed to do. A lot of assets, shaders and so on were already in the game files, only disabled for reasons not entirely clear. So work began on an unofficial patch to re-enable these features, while no statement was forthcoming from Ubisoft. While there’s a bit of conflicting reports, it seems the overall consensus is that the extra features make the game seem a lot closer to the E3 2012 presentation, while not really affecting the performance of the game much at all. In fact, for some people it seems to run smoother with the patch.
We may never truly know why the PC version of Watch_Dogs had these features disabled, when it’s more than likely that even your average gaming PC could support them with little problem. Ubisoft certainly don’t seem forthcoming with details. Maybe they should consider hiring new PR people.
Even if we take Ubi’s rocky relationship with the PC platform into consideration, it seems unlikely that they would genuinely think that no one would find these files. Maybe they didn’t really think about it, and the code left in there was an oversight. Maybe they actually don’t have the competence to make those features work on PCs. Maybe they rather focused on making all the different versions look as similar as possible? They will probably have higher sales on consoles anyway, so maybe they didn’t want the PC version to look that much better? What I find highly unlikely, is the notion that’s been raised that Microsoft and/or Sony would have paid them to gimp the PC version. I find it much more likely that if that was done deliberately, it was entirely their own decision.
And that’s the saga of Ubisoft’s incompetence at PR so far. We’ll see if they’ve learned anything, or if they keep bumbling. As a bonus, I will share something I found just this morning. While it might seem like Ubi’s finally being progressive, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them now doubling down on the idea that UPlay is not in any way DRM, and more games will feature constant multiplayer. Heck, maybe this is the reason for the lazy co-op in Unity?
At least it’s unlikely they’ve fucked up Valiant Hearts somehow.
*Before anyone brings up Liberation, that was released on PS Vita only with almost no marketing behind it, and even when it eventually came to PC, it was a poor port that still had no marketing behind it. How many of you were even aware it had come to PC? It was a spin-off, and I’m asking for one of the main games to feature someone who breaks the template.
Posted on June 21, 2014, in Games, Thoughts and tagged Asssassin's Creed Unity, bad PR, excuses, Far Cry 4, female protagonists, male protagonists, Rainbow Six The Siege, Ubisoft, videogames. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.