In the 80s, a man named Toru Iwatani saw a gap in the market of arcade-goers which were typically full of teenage boys. At that time, violent games were dominating the market with Space Invaders (1978) and Breakout (1976) being huge successes. Iwatani wanted to create a game that would also appeal to women. And so, Pac-Man (1980) was born. With developers such as Iwatani taking an interest in the female market so early in video game history, why did publishers start believing that video games with a female protagonist do not sell?
An article recently released by Bloomberg’s Jason Schreier covered the overwhelming accusations of sexual harassment and sexism at Ubisoft. It detailed several accounts from both former and current Ubisoft employees who outlined the deeply rooted sexism within the company. This included a source saying that several attempts of including female protagonists in the famous Assassin’s Creed franchise were blocked by Ubisoft’s marketing department and its former Chief Creative Officer Serge Hascoët (now resigned) due to a claim that ‘female protagonists do not sell video games’.
Pac-Man grew to be hugely successful, especially with women and became one of the most influential video games of all time. As a result, Ms. Pac-Man (1982) was released as its successor and ended up being one of the biggest selling titles in North America. Lara Croft is the typical go-to character when it comes to talking about female protagonists in video games. Even way back in the 90s, Tomb Raider (1996) was a major hit and reached the top of many sales charts. Resident Evil 3: Nemesis differed from the first Resident Evil game which had the player pick between Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield; Jill was the lead protagonist in the third instalment who was playable for the majority of the game. Despite this, Resident Evil 3: Nemesis was a bestseller for the PlayStation. In GameLuster’s own survey, many respondents mentioned Aloy from Horizon Zero Dawn (2017) as their favorite female protagonist. Sony was originally reluctant to have a female lead for Horizon Zero Dawn, and did extensive market testing before they decided to go through with it. The payoff was excellent as Horizon Zero Dawn is one of the bestselling PlayStation 4 games and Aloy was praised as a well-written character by critics. Clearly none of these games had any issues with sales, despite having female protagonists.
The Assassin’s Creed series has often been heavily criticized for its lack of playable female characters. Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation (2012), the 9th game in the franchise was the first to have a playable female lead, but it was an exclusive for the poorly selling PlayStation Vita console. Finally, a playable female was introduced in a main Assassin’s Creed game in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate (2015), the 9th title in the main series and the 16th game in the whole franchise. In Syndicate, the player would alternate between twins Jacob and Evie Frye, however it was revealed in the Bloomberg article that Evie and Jacob initially had equal play time until Ubisoft interfered and Jacob ended up having a much more significant presence. The same happened for Assassin’s Creed Origins (2017), when the initial pitch had Bayek injured or killed early on in the game and the player would take over as his wife, Aya. This was scrapped to have Bayek in most of the game and Aya playable in a few segments. Finally, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (2018) was the first major instalment to have a playable female character throughout the whole game, but this is only because the player can choose to play either Kassandra or her brother Alexios. Again, the developer’s initial pitch would have the female character as the only option. Maybe it will be 13th time lucky for the developers in the next installment of Assassin’s Creed? Though since Assassin’s Creed Valhalla has also adopted this approach, it’s likely the series will now settle with a choice of gender.
The Last of Us Part 2 was a massive success, being the fastest selling PlayStation 4 exclusive ever. And this despite it having not one, but two ‘unsellable’ female leads. Players will alternate between Ellie and Abby throughout the story and although some may say Tomb Raider could lay its success on the sexualization of Lara Croft, The Last of Us Part 2 famously used unconventional body types on its two playable female characters. This was met with online hate from those who had watched leaks of the story weeks before the game’s release. Abby is a muscular woman. She’s built like a tank. Among other things, the criticism of her character was geared heavily towards her ‘unrealistic’ body type. This is despite the game showing that Abby certainly had the means to get so big as the settlement she lives in has a gym and an abundance of livestock and sources of protein. She’s also surrounded by men of a similar build yet it is her character’s body which is questioned. Because she doesn’t have large breasts and a tiny waist? Not to mention Abby’s physique was actually based off athlete Colleen Fotsch, a real woman. However, despite the criticism The Last of Us Part 2 performed phenomenally well in sales, outperforming the first game which had a male lead protagonist.
Ubisoft came under fire several years ago after developers for both Assassin’s Creed Unity and Far Cry 4 had explained the reason female characters were not an available choice in either multiplayer mode was because it was too much extra production work. This was despite the Assassin’s Creed franchise already featuring female assassins as far back as Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood. And despite these claims, Naughty Dog animator and former Assassin’s Creed animation director, Jonathan Cooper told Polygon that actually this would only consist of a ‘day or two’ of work. Ubisoft’s tactic of avoiding female protagonists has so far worked out really well for them since their stocks were down by 40% by the end of last year. Meanwhile, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey managed to narrowly escape its female protagonist getting in the way after it performed the best in the series for opening week sales.
But how did Ubisoft come to this conclusion? It is true that a study in 2012 found that games with male protagonists sold 75% better than female protagonists that year, but it’s also true that games with a female protagonist have 40% of the budget that male protagonist games have. This could be because if big publishers such as Ubisoft are blocking pitches with female leads, then it’s indie games which would make up most of these sales due to their freedom for creativity. Capcom’s Remember Me (2013) initially struggled to find a publisher. “We had some [publishers] that said, ‘well we don’t want to publish it because that’s not going to succeed. You can’t have a female character in games.’ It had to be a male character, simple as that,” Creative Director Jean-Max Morris told The Penny Arcade Report.
There’s also a wide assumption that publishers prioritise marketing towards young males because they making up the gaming majority, this is why they reject female leads. Based on a study released by the Entertainment Software Association, adult women actually make up the largest demographic of gamers and the average gamer is 31-years-old. This was closely followed by adult men. Although the ‘adult’ age range makes up a much larger group of people than teenage years, this does disprove the misconception that the majority of gamers are teenage boys. Now, this doesn’t mean your parents are sneaking onto Doom every night to rip off a few demon heads (though this is entirely possible, don’t discriminate), as this data includes all gaming platforms including mobile phones and Facebook games. But it’s also true that the average female gamer in this survey had been gaming for 13 years and Candy Crush (2012) only came out 8 years ago.
Another survey by Quantic Foundry in 2017 found that the most popular genre of game for women was an interactive drama, fantasy MMO or JRPG whereas first-person shooters, open world and action-adventure games did not appeal to them. These are typically the genres that do not market towards women. However, this doesn’t mean women wouldn’t be interested in playing them if they were marketed towards them. When asked what would put a woman off buying a game, a lack of female protagonists was among the top reasons. Despite not playing as many open world games, data collected by Quantic Foundry in 2016 looked into the different motives for playing games. Women tended to enjoy completion, immersion and exploring worlds; so the motive to play a game such as Assassin’s Creed is there. It’s just that female gamers feel more alienated by games that do not feature female protagonists. This is why, although only 26% of women liked to play Western RPGs, this almost doubled for Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014) which is diverse in its characters and also allows players to pick the gender they wish to play as. Male gamers were mostly interested in first-person shooters, open world and action and adventure games whereas their motives for gaming were destruction and competition.
But if Assassin’s Creed was marketed more towards girls, would Ubisoft lose out on sales from male gamers? A survey by Rosalind Wiseman and Ashly Burch was performed on high school students ages 11-18. It found that only 39% of boys preferred playing as a male character and only 20% of them would pick a game based on the protagonists’ gender, even less than that said they wouldn’t want more female heroes in video games. This was a different story with the girls as 60% of them said they preferred to play as a female character – showing that girls are much more likely to pick a game based on the gender of the character, quite possibly because these characters are so rare. So rather than Ubisoft losing out on sales had they risked an Assassin’s Creed game with a female character, they are actually potentially losing out on money for not catering towards the other half of the population too.
In fact, at GameLuster we did our own anonymous survey which was filled out by 45 people, 65% of these were male, 32% were female and 5% were non-binary. Although this survey was on a much smaller scale to the statistics mentioned in this article, they did widely reflect the same data. When respondents were asked if they would buy a game with a female protagonist, everybody said yes. When asked if gender reflected their decision to buy a game, everybody said no – with many saying that they cared much more about story and enjoyment than the character’s gender. One respondent said: “I do not often self-insert myself into the character. Rather, playing video games is a way to experience a story, not live it.”
Pac-Man was one of the first video games to have a large audience of women. How to Win Video Games (1982) showed statistics on what percentage of each gender were playing popular arcade games released that year, Pac-Man was the only one to have a majority female player base of 60%. That same year Donkey Kong (1981), Centipede (1981), Qix (1981), and Tempest (1981) all had an equal amount of male and female players. This is interesting because it is a common misconception that it’s only recently that just as many women play video games as men, and the 80s were typically a male-dominated era in the video game industry. Yet the statistics published in this book show that it wasn’t a case of women not being interested in video games, it’s the way they were being marketed. Iwatani chose to create a game marketed towards both men and women, and that’s what he got.
A year before Ubisoft said it was too difficult to put a female character option in Assassin’s Creed Unity’s multiplayer, Call of Duty: Ghosts (2013) managed to do so just fine in the first title in the series to feature a playable female character in the character creation of its multiplayer mode. Producer, Mark Rubin, told Variety: “We said, ‘we know there are women playing, how can we be more inclusive and embrace them?’” This turned out to be a massive mistake as it ended up selling only 19 million copies and by 2019 was the fourth best-selling game in the whole franchise. So clearly those pesky females cost Activision a pretty penny… if only they had listened to Ubisoft.