Ubisoft: Immersion and Inconsistency
One Gamer’s Troubled Times with Ubisoft
I have a somewhat troubled relationship with the veteran publisher Ubisoft. While they have made some of the most enjoyable experiences in my gaming history, they also make frustrating business decisions, poorly optimized games and perhaps worst of all, some games that just aren’t fun. These issues which have bubbled away for some time are coming to the forefront of Ubisoft from a business standpoint, the publisher recently described the launch sales of Watch Dogs 2 as ‘soft’ and before that put the Assassin’s Creed series on hold after disappointing sales of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.
There’s a larger trend at play here, with sales of sequels in particular lower for multiple publishers last year than in previous years. The juggernaut Call of Duty series saw almost half the launch sales of Infinite Warfare in comparison to the previous year’s Black Ops III. Publishers including Ubisoft and Activision, are taking note with 2017’s entry of Call of Duty described by chief executive at Activision, Eric Hirshberg as a return to “traditional combat”, likely meaning a more contemporary setting. This won’t be a direct impact of Infinite Warfare‘s sales (Call of Duty games are on a three-year cycle) but Activision has clearly read the tea leaves in terms of the longevity of the series.
It can be argued though that these publishers have brought declining launch sales on themselves. After all, they choose to have annual releases of titles which not only doesn’t give the audience breathing space but doesn’t give the developer time to let ideas and concepts marinate. Ubisoft’s CEO, Yves Guillemot once stated something to the effect of, if you keep buying them, we’ll keep making them. True to his word now that sales have slowed, Assassin’s Creed has been put on hold but was this a wise decision in the long-term? Many fans of the series have been burnt too many times by numerous disappointing entries and won’t look back. This decision would have been more fruitful in my eyes after Assassin’s Creed III, when the series had relaunched with a fresh engine and the way was paved for future installments.
Ubisoft have effectively trained the consumer to not buy their games at launch because they tend to be riddled with technical problems which is why the disappointing launch sales of games like Watch Dogs 2 should come as no surprise. This development in their games doesn’t come as a cost of creating massive open worlds or a lack of resources, it comes down to poor business decisions and is endemic of the ‘ship it and patch it later’ culture gaming has adopted. Who can ever forget the launch of Assassin’s Creed Unity? I watched on in dismay as the name of one of my favourite series was once more dragged through the mud. The mindset of those making decisions at Ubisoft were clear to see when the game was delayed by two weeks when it transpired that it really could have done with months and reviews were embargoed until after launch in some territories.
These decisions extend beyond the Assassin’s Creed series too. I’ve recently been playing the first Watch Dogs game and while I’m enjoying parts of it, the game clearly needed more time and care put into its world. Ubisoft’s RPG brand has carved out a very specific niche for itself, their games are predicated on a checklist mentality, clearing a map of various activities and can be described as busywork. This can be both enjoyable and daunting at times especially when you are a completionist. Nevertheless, I am becoming fatigued with this predictable formula as it extends across Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs, Far Cry and the upcoming Ghost Recon: Wildlands, which to my eyes is looking very generic. There are only so many copy-and-paste towers I can clear, so many meaningless collectibles I can stomach and so much tedious side content.
In a post-Witcher 3 world, this approach has become less palatable in the RPG genre. Even Bethesda, somewhat masters of their craft caught some shade for Fallout 4 being more of Fallout 3. The fact of the matter is, there are developers taking Ubisoft’s formula and doing it better. Take a game like Shadow of Mordor which had its flaws, but also something innovative in the Nemesis system which kept the missions and activities you were undertaking feel fresh. I think most gamers would take a smaller, dense map with plenty of interesting and engaging content than massive sprawling ones filled with mundane activities, a road Ubisoft has certainly traveled down.
It’s not all doom and gloom for the publisher though, they have hundreds and hundreds of talented artists, programmers, animators and writers to name a few at their disposal around the world. They possess the kind of development that some studios could only dream of. Their ability to faithfully recreate a city or area is perhaps unmatched and I still marvel at the sheer scale when running across the rooftops of London, Paris or Rome in Assassin’s Creed. In Assassin’s Creed 2 they crafted a story, protagonist and world that remains one of my favourite gaming experiences to date. That creative culture and desire to create great games still persists at the company but it needs to be given the opportunity to shine.
Change is afoot at Ubisoft one way or another. The mass media conglomerate Vivendi now has a share of over a quarter of the business and Ubisoft’s CEO Yves Guillemot is embroiled in attempts to convince shareholders not to sell their shares. Whether or not Vivendi ends up owning a controlling share in the company, this saga which has been going on for a long time now is at least a distraction for those in charge of Ubisoft as a business at a time when they need to be focused on reigniting the fire under their struggling IP and attempting to bring quality back to their games.
Despite my issues with Ubisoft in recent years, I’m hopeful that the publisher can get back on track. There are signs that they are beginning to learn with some rumours saying that Assassin’s Creed won’t see another release until 2018, hopefully a sign that a more nuanced approach is in place. The publisher still makes great games, it’s just a shame to see that they aren’t being given enough of a chance to be at their best. The most frustrating thing about Ubisoft in recent years has been the inconsistency in quality across their titles and the sooner this stops the better, both from a business perspective and a critical one.
For more on the Assassin’s Creed series, check out my thoughts on the triumphs and pitfalls of the series here.