Dealing with the issue of context.

For every company that has a good E3, there’s always one… this year, it was UbiSoft!

Between Far Cry 4 and Assassin’s Creed Unity, one could say that UbiSoft had a pretty good showing at E3. All they had to do, in essence, was show the games and answer a few simple questions, a few minor niggling doubts and settle frazzled nervous types desperately looking for the next thing to be outraged at.

This is NOT, however, a gender equality blog post. I’ve covered this before – several times – and UbiSoft’s insistence that female characters are too hard to animate and that voice acting would cost more money than it could reasonably make back is by any measure laughably outmoded. But the main point to be made here isn’t that UbiSoft even tried trotting out the same idea, or that it (inevitably) backfired on them in spectacular fashion, making even their withholding of a Wii U game look seedy and sinister (more on this in a bit). It’s that this is news and if anything is lacking in UbiSoft’s current public relations drive, it is context. Contextualising the point of the game, or their goals, and instead relying on an old excuse that only a handful of people desperately cling to like an old comfort blanket.

Far Cry 4 is the best place to start though; because not a few weeks before E3, UbiSoft had ALREADY had a chance to learn of the importance of contextualising something, and what happens when you do not. The official promotional artwork for Far Cry 4 led to accusations of racism, with a white man effortlessly dominating an underclass that was probably of Indian descent, and UbiSoft stayed silent on this for almost a week before they realised that oh dear, the press and the Internet appear to have gotten the wrong end of the stick! We’d best put them right. As I said in my last piece, in an age of fast-paced media interaction, 24/7 Twitter feeds and blogs and social media pages being shared ad-hoc to the masses, radio silence is rarely the right answer when dealing with such potentially volatile issues. Was it a storm in a teacup? Sure. But rather than move to contain it, the silence simply allowed that brewing storm to become so much more devastating and damaging than it ever really needed to be.

Not learning from this, UbiSoft spoke of Far Cry 4 and Assassin’s Creed Unity, and the lack of female representation, on separate days to boot; not content with one day of backlash, it swept in and did it twice without any delay or thought. There’s a saying about repeating the same actions and expecting a different outcome. I’m not sure if UbiSoft have heard of it though.

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“Did I ever tell you the definition of insanity?” – Vaas

UbiSoft also had to defend itself after almost proudly stating that it was sitting on a “completed Wii U game”. A family-orientated game, and one that was simply sitting on the shelf waiting for the right time to be released. There was also a veiled threat that alluded to the possibility that, if Nintendo wasn’t already aware of it, two other consoles could easily have this game. And within an hour, the argument had been demolished to the extent that it was almost embarrassing to watch. As was pointed out, why would UbiSoft port a family party game to other consoles right now, when those games aren’t selling so well on other hardware? How could they even justify the expense of porting it – to do so, after such a public display, would have been little more than spiting Nintendo. A company who went on to have what is considered by most websites and media outlets to have had a fantastic E3, to the point of being crowned this years arbitrary “winner” (even though winning is largely pointless at E3, when there are another 364 days to consider).

Hell, even EA are back making Nintendo games (even if it is legacy Wii/3DS versions of FIFA 15, but hey, EA made their stance on Nintendo very clear last year and this wasn’t expected. It’s not ideal, but it is a strange sort of progress…).

We can guess why UbiSoft are withholding the game – no doubt slower than expected sales play a big role in that and it’s an issue that no doubt will solve itself over time now Nintendo is pushing big-name games. But without any real context, without any serious explanation, was it really surprising that such information invariably got reported in a manner that didn’t paint UbiSoft in a good light? I mean, so bad was UbiSoft’s week that Konami – who screwed Sony on an exclusive Metal Gear Solid trailer by releasing it a day early, and pencilling in an event which simply failed to materialise at all – was largely ignored, despite their actions being considerably more heinous and damaging to a company also in serious problem, having lost studios and employees the last year which it had relied on somewhat extensively of late. With Hideo Kojima even expressing a desire to move away from Metal Gear Solid, something that must have Konami scratching their heads in disbelief, wondering why a man who has spent twenty-five years of his life largely devoted to one franchise might possibly want to try something new…

But UbiSoft didn’t even have to get into this pickle. If cutting female voice acting and animations is to save money, then one can rightly assume that they’ve also made substantial cuts to their PR department recently, because some of this is almost unbelievable. At a public event, with the media reporting it and hundreds of thousands of people watching at home, or reading live feeds, UbiSoft’s comments are even more unforgivable. We were all there, all listening and watching and reading in patent disbelief. “Wait, what did they say? Did they really mean that?” And their consistent shield in recent months, hiding behind Nintendo hoping to deflect any ire away, was destroyed as Nintendo dropped the defensive stance and went on an all-our PR bender, not just with an endlessly .gif-able direct presentation, but three days of live streaming and gameplay footage, hosted by people who worked in the Nintendo Treehouse department. Not presenters, but they did a bang-up job of it, far better than most would have expected!

Of course, UbiSoft aren’t stupid and they’ll assume that this is simply a backlash that will fizzle out by the time they release these new games. Best to burn away the arguments early so they don’t corrosively assault the games sales when they launch. They may well be right, but it seems like abject laziness now. UbiSoft aren’t even trying. They look like EA, just in it for profit rather than any real passion for the medium, and that’s a stain on UbiSoft it is going to find itself trying desperately to scrub off in the coming months and years.  Annual iterations of Assassin’s Creed will continue when the gaming worlds darling, Beyond Good and Evil 2, remains an unfunded concept deep in the bowels of UbiSoft’s studios (allegedly also because Jade is a girl, and girls aren’t profitable. Oh UbiSoft… *sigh*).

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Oh Jade… we miss you so terribly…

It’s not a sexism issue though; and making it such does a disservice to UbiSoft’s past properties which stand up just as well now as they ever have done. It’s just a complete lack of context, total laziness and corpulent corporate greed filtering down into the system. Women in games? Tomb Raider did alright. The Last of Us was heralded for Ellie. Bayonetta 2 is a huge keystone of the Wii U line-up this year, Hyrule Warriors was demoed predominantly with Zelda and Midna – heck, even Impa is in there. Three female protagonists, and a female antagonist to boot! Oh my! To cap it all off – even EA are rebooting Mirror’s Edge, and keeping Faith Connor as the protagonist. If EA can see the value of a female protagonist – EA, Electronic Arts, that company that won Worst Company in America two-years running and was still nominated for a third, EA, the company whose line-up in recent years has been somewhat dominated by bro-shooters like Battlefield and Army of Two – what excuse could UbiSoft possibly have? Oh right. It costs too much.

If that’s the real issue, then they have serious budgeting issues and I don’t think cutting women from the French Revolution – of course, women couldn’t POSSIBLY have had any role as assassins in the French Revolution, right? – or cutting such key things in order to save what must amount to chump change is the answer. UbiSoft must have been hoping we’d be talking about the wide open vistas of the Himalayas, or the crowds and architecture of Revolutionary France. And yet, no. We’re simply just too dumbfounded by their excuses to remember that they went there to show games.

And all because they couldn’t contextualise, couldn’t communicate and relied on an excuse that simply holds no weight in the modern age. For such a huge company doing such an enormous amount of business, that’s terrifying. UbiSoft has grown to be enormous. Perhaps too enormous. Perhaps this – as Activision, Capcom, Square-Enix and EA have shown us in the past, alongside the now defunct (but surprisingly not dead) THQ – is the inevitable conclusion of consuming such a large share of the market. It’s easy to believe you are more than what you are. Easy to neglect the little details. Easy to dismiss criticism and caution.

Women do need to be treated better; UbiSoft’s excuses devalue women, in my eyes, as not worth investment, but again this is not and should not be about gender politics as we ALL deserve better. It’s about context – the simple matter of communicating. Without any reasoning or explanation, we’ve assumed the worst. And UbiSoft are weaker – and far less popular – as a result of simply neglecting the basics of communication.

This is 2014. And that’s just not good enough.

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