Ubisoft’s #MeToo Reckoning Has Opened New Doors for Them and for Gaming
In early summer 2020 a wave of sexual harassment and misconduct accusations hit the French developer and publisher Ubisoft. As June gave way to July gave way to August leading figures in the company including but not limited to Creative Director of several Assassin’s Creed titles Ashraf Ismail, Chief Creative Officer Serge Hascoët and Editorial Vice-President Maxime Béland were all placed on leave, investigated and eventually dismissed. The fifth largest game company in the world had been rocked to its core but as horrible as these incidents were they may point to a brighter future for Ubisoft and gaming as a whole.
It’s easy to say that we’d rather not have these incidents happen but reckoning with them and their impact on Ubisoft’s employees, the company as a whole and the wider gaming culture must be done and the end result will be more rewarding. Ubisoft is a powerhouse developer and publisher. Few other games companies could hope to score such a creatively and financially lucrative deal as Ubisoft did with Nintendo. Although Nintendo has collaborated with other studios before it’s never granted them access to their most iconic characters let alone allowed them to mix with the collaborating studio’s own characters. That was how Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle came about in 2017. But more than being the kind of studio that can secure an agreement that hasn’t been seen since Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Ubisoft are also cultural power brokers. Their reach is long and their grasp is wide.
The Ubisoft open world design may as well be trademarked at this stage. From Assassin’s Creed synchronization points to Far Cry’s skill trees to The Division’s looter-shooter mechanics a little bit of Ubisoft’s DNA has bled into nearly every corner of AAA gaming. Ubisoft may not have been responsible for coming up with these mechanics but they are responsible for propagating them. Whereas games like The Witcher 3 will have you explore its open world organically Ubisoft’s best selling RPGs will force you to climb a series of towers to unveil a map filled with animals to hunt, prisoners to free and outposts to raid. Ever since Far Cry 3 made a splash the above has been the formula ad infinitum for tens of RPGs from Assassin’s Creed to Horizon: Zero Dawn to 2020’s Ghost of Tsushima. While initially a great way of giving their games a shared identity and feel Ubisoft, intentionally or not, poisoned the well when it came to big budget RPGs with fresh ideas.
The overabundance of this kind of game design is enough of a problem on its own but it pales in comparison to the misogynistic behaviour that was par for the course in the French company’s Paris and Toronto offices. Reports of the Paris office in particular being more akin to a “frat house” than a workplace were rife and spoke of a workplace culture similar to fellow French developer Quantic Dream as well as, to a lesser degree, Rockstar studios. These attitudes affected not only those who worked at the studios but their work as well. Hascoët’s sexism ran deep and as CCO his clout allowed him to either cut out reduce the role of the playable female characters fans and developers had been asking for. It wasn’t until Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey that players got the chance to experience the vast breadth of a Ubisoft RPG through the eyes of a woman. The connecting tissue between this issue of misogyny and the diversity problem it faces in game design is Serge Hascoët but his departure may signal a turning point in terms of Ubisoft’s practices in their workplace culture and their games.
Not only was Hascoët the driving force behind the exclusion of women from Ubisoft’s biggest franchises he was also the point-man when it came to the company’s approach to the design of its various open worlds. While his excuses for not including female characters read as pathetic now – they range from female characters not selling games to female characters being too hard to animate – it’s his affect on the game design that reads as most damning. In order to do good work we must work in a safe, encouraging environment. As Ubisoft’s latest entries in the Tom Clancy franchises The Division and Ghost Recon show it’s clear that Ubisoft, under Hascoët, was no longer a safe, encouraging place in the development cycles of these games. With Hascoët and others’ dismissal over the summer the path to change lies ahead but it will be a difficult one.
Game development is a long process. You can bet the next Assassin’s Creed entry was already in development well before Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla’s release date of November 10 was even announced. With Watch Dogs: Legion on October 29 and Far Cry 6 due out in 2021 it’s safe to say that these games will follow in the footsteps of Hascoët’s and others toxic influence. Even now Ubisoft continues to weather controversy due to a (very) poorly timed ad for the mobile game Tom Clancy’s Elite Squad equated the Black Power movement with terrorists. Still, the appointment of heads of inclusivity, diversity and workplace culture at least show that Ubisoft is willing to tackle these issues from within. With that said it remains unclear how aware long-standing CEO Yves Guillemot actually was of the accusations leveled against some of his most trusted officers.
Gaming culture needs vast improvement. The fact that men in such positions of power got away with such widespread harassment for so long says a lot about how far we need to go in terms of community, culture and individuals. GamerGate’s political and social ramifications are still being felt but attitudes are changing even if, like Ubisoft’s design practices, they are changing at a glacial place. Five years from now we may be looking at a fresh new slate of Ubisoft games that have shaken off the effects of the company’s stunted game design as well as the psychological effects the harassment had on worker morale. I’ll believe it when I see it but right now I’m more hopeful than I was when this news broke and that, no matter how small, is something to hold on to.