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At E3, once male-only game franchises welcome heroines (+video)

Women protagonists have a storied role in video games, but few series let you choose to play as either male or female characters.

At last year's Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), French video game publisher Ubisoft caught flack for saying that production pressures kept the company from putting female protagonists in its major release, Assassin's Creed Unity. The game introduced four-person cooperative missions, in which players could customize the look and feel of their hero, but the characters could only be male.

While the video game industry has several prominent female protagonists, Ubisoft's omission cast a harsh light on the inequality still present in many tent-pole games. However, at E3 2015 on Monday, several publishers revealed playable women characters in series that previously did not allow them.

Electronic Arts' FIFA 16, the next installment in the popular soccer series, will for the first time include female teams. Bethesda Softworks' Dishonored 2 presents two protagonists: Corvo Attano, the returning hero of the first game, and Emily Kaldwin, a damsel in distress in the original Dishonored who has now teamed up with Corvo. And Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed Syndicate, this year's sequel to Assassin's Creed Unity, features twin assassins: one male and one female.

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Making a video game with two visually different heroes adds a lot of extra work for creators. Each character must be designed, rendered in 3-D, and programmed to use thousands of different animations. While last year's Assassin's Creed Unity allows for up to four players, each one uses the same digital body. In essence, there are not four characters; there is one character duplicated four times. They all swing swords and climb over obstacles in the exact same way – saving the design team from needing to create new artwork for each different body type. Ubisoft argued last year that it couldn't afford to include a woman protagonist because it would multiply the workload.

"It's double the animations, it's double the voices – all that stuff – and double the visual assets," Ubisoft creative director Alex Amancio told the gaming news website Polygon at E3 2014. "Especially because we have customizable assassins. It was really a lot of extra production work."

The industry has created several strong leading ladies, but gender options remain relatively few and far between. E3 2015 saw the return of Lara Croft from Tomb Raider and Faith from Mirror's Edge – both franchises in which you cannot play a male character. Several games that premiered at the show star women, such as Beyond Eyes, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and ReCore. And previous Assassin's Creed games have used female protagonists instead of male, however these installments received much smaller marketing campaigns than their male-lead counterparts.

Men and boys still make up the majority of the game-playing population, but that share is down to just 52 percent, according to a study last year by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), which organizes E3. As the breadth of games expands to include a greater variety of genres, characters, and platforms (such as smart phones), the demographic of "gamers" has changed. In the ESA study of people who play games, women ages 18 and older now outnumber boys younger than 18 by more than double, 36 percent to 17 percent.

Still, even series that spend the resources to create and hire voice actors for men and women protagonists, such as the Fallout and Mass Effect games, a male character usually appears in all of the billboards and box covers. Ubisoft debuted a lengthy trailer for Assassin's Creed Syndicate on Monday that focused on its new female lead, even if her twin brother often stands front and center in most of the ads.

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