Somewhere along the line during the previous console generation, Ubisoft lost its essence. It went through a gradual erosion process that began in 2015, leading to a complete collapse of its identity, evident in the studio’s unironic embrace of in-game NFTs and the constant delays of projects like Skull & Bones. With a legacy of 40 years, filled with AAA hits and unconventional licensing deals, Ubisoft used to stand as a pillar of European innovation. However, in 2023, it has devolved into a purveyor of generic live-service experiences, mobile ports laden with microtransactions, and unreliable release schedules. What has become of Ubisoft?
Assassin’s Creed Mirage
Ubisoft boasts a long-standing history, predating the birth of most of its players. It has been responsible for developing and publishing numerous games, including iconic franchises like Prince of Persia, Far Cry, Trackmania, Tom Clancy’s titles, Rabbids, Rayman, Just Dance, and, of course, Assassin’s Creed.
During the company’s Summer Game Fest showcase, we witnessed the unveiling of Massive Entertainment’s ambitious licensed games, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora and Star Wars Outlaws, along with a promising glimpse of the new 2D Prince of Persia game, which seems quite impressive. However, the majority of the presentation was filled with sequels, live-service offerings, and mobile titles. XDefiant, a free-to-play team-based shooter, took center stage, but even after an off-key sea shanty performance, all we saw of Skull & Bones, a live-service game that some of us actually played in 2017 and 2018, was yet another delay. The event also featured several mobile-first games like The Division Resurgence and Assassin’s Creed Codename Jade, as well as a new addition to The Crew series, The Crew Motorfest. Additionally, there was a glimpse of another Ubisoft TV show and an Assassin’s Creed VR game. While it wasn’t the worst presentation during the Summer Game Fest, it failed to generate much excitement for Ubisoft.
So, let’s delve into how Ubisoft arrived at this point.
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Ubisoft experienced a significant turning point in 2015. Assassin’s Creed: Unity, released the previous November, proved to be the most flawed installment in the series to date. As the first Assassin’s Creed designed specifically for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, Ubisoft overshot its mark in every aspect: Unity was riddled with visual and mechanical bugs, rendering it virtually unplayable upon launch. Ubisoft publicly apologized for the state of the game and even released free DLC as a gesture of goodwill, all while aggressively patching it. In that same year, Ubisoft also released Watch Dogs, which, from a visual perspective, failed to live up to the expectations set by its 2012 announcement trailers.
Up until that point, Ubisoft had followed an annual release cadence for Assassin’s Creed, delivering one mainline entry per year starting in 2009. Syndicate hit the shelves in 2015, and by 2016, Ubisoft openly acknowledged the series fatigue and announced its plans to reassess the approach to its flagship franchise. Notably, long-time producer Jade Raymond departed from Assassin’s Creed and Ubisoft altogether in October 2014, just before the Unity debacle.
The Crew Motorfest
This was the period when a French media investor group called Vivendi attempted to take control of Ubisoft. Vivendi gradually acquired shares in the studio since 2015, prompting Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot to embark on a public campaign against the takeover, emphasizing the importance of maintaining independence, both on stage at E3 and elsewhere. Meanwhile, the Guillemot family, who founded Ubisoft in 1986, launched their own buying spree, increasing their control over the studio in parallel with Vivendi’s advances. The battle came to an end in 2018 when Vivendi agreed to sell all of its Ubisoft shares for nearly $2.5 billion, realizing a substantial return on its investment. This deal materialized because Vivendi had sold a significant portion of its ownership to Tencent, an existing Ubisoft investor and one of the largest video game companies globally. At the same time, Ubisoft and Tencent, a Chinese company, announced a strategic agreement to bring Ubisoft’s games to PC and mobile devices in China. Since then, Tencent’s stake in Ubisoft has grown significantly. Currently, in addition to holding shares in the studio, Tencent owns 49.9 percent of Guillemot Brothers Limited.
It feels like this period of financial turmoil in Ubisoft’s history, spanning from 2015 to 2019, had a noticeable impact on its creative output. Ubisoft continued to release entries in its established franchises, but it seemed to be coasting without producing the genre-defining hits it was known for. The studio lost its momentum. In 2019, Ubisoft postponed several major games in its lineup, including Skull & Bones, once again. Executives expressed their intention to slow down further between releases. The following year, Ubisoft faced severe allegations of systemic sexual misconduct and sexism, leading to the dismissal or resignation of several long-time leaders.
The Division Resurgence
During an investor call in 2021, Ubisoft’s CFO stated that the company’s focus was on expanding its collection of free-to-play and mobile games. Since then, Ubisoft has remained true to that vision, developing mobile versions of Rainbow Six, The Division, and Assassin’s Creed, while prioritizing live-service iterations of both old and new franchises. Ubisoft also made earnest attempts to establish in-game NFTs, which did not resonate with the audience.
The most recent Assassin’s Creed titles, Valhalla and Odyssey, have been satisfactory but suffer from the same issue of bloated open worlds as Far Cry, offering vast landscapes with minimal variety or innovation. Ubisoft’s latest announcements primarily revolve around licensed games, live services, mobile entries, and special microtransactions, with Assassin’s Creed featuring prominently in most of these categories. Among Ubisoft’s upcoming releases, the most intriguing title is Mirage, the next mainline entry scheduled for release in October. Mirage is a condensed Assassin’s Creed experience initially conceived as DLC for Valhalla, aiming to pay homage to the series’ roots by focusing on stealth-oriented combat and featuring a more contained map. It evokes memories of the original Assassin’s Creed, which provided around 15 hours of gameplay compared to the 60-plus hours of recent installments. However, Ubisoft seems to view Mirage differently and is pricing it at only $50. While this may be beneficial for players, it sends a message about how the studio values game size and paid DLC over substance, especially when considering that Ubisoft is charging $70 for The Crew Motorfest.
To me, Mirage represents a welcome step back in terms of scope, but it almost feels accidental amidst Ubisoft’s overarching strategy of building freemium experiences and mobile games for a global market. The studio might be on the brink of a renaissance, with an opportunity to rediscover its creative voice and reshape entire genres. However, I don’t believe that microtransactions and formulaic open-world design will push it over the edge. Ubisoft used to be both unconventional and profitable in the realm of prestigious games, but these characteristics are fading as the studio chases after lucrative monetization trends and relies on the innovations of other creators. Mirage signifies one possible path for Ubisoft, where it pursues quality design rather than purely financial goals. On the other hand, a game like XDefiant represents a different potential future, one that may prove profitable but doesn’t truly capture the essence of what Ubisoft used to be.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Reboot
What caused Ubisoft to experience an identity collapse?
Ubisoft’s identity collapse can be attributed to several factors. It started with the flawed releases of games like Assassin’s Creed: Unity and Watch Dogs in 2015, which received significant backlash due to technical issues and unmet expectations. The departure of key personnel, such as producer Jade Raymond, further impacted the studio’s direction. Additionally, financial turmoil, including the attempted takeover by Vivendi and subsequent partnership with Tencent, led to a focus on profit-driven strategies and a shift towards live-service games and mobile titles.
How has Ubisoft’s creative output been affected?
Between 2015 and 2019, Ubisoft’s creative output seemed to stagnate. While the studio continued to release entries in its established franchises, it lacked the originality and genre-defining hits it was once known for. The emphasis shifted towards sequels, live-service games, and mobile offerings, leading to a perception of open-world bloat and a lack of variety or innovation in their titles.
Has Ubisoft addressed the allegations of misconduct?
Yes, in 2020, Ubisoft faced serious allegations of systemic sexual misconduct and sexism within the company. As a response, the studio took action by dismissing or accepting resignations from several long-time leaders implicated in the allegations. These events had a significant impact on Ubisoft’s reputation and further highlighted the need for change within the organization.
Is there hope for Ubisoft’s future?
While Ubisoft’s recent focus on live-service games and mobile offerings has drawn criticism, there are signs that the studio may be poised for a potential renaissance. Projects like Mirage, which aims to recapture the essence of the original Assassin’s Creed experience, indicate a willingness to explore quality design over purely financial goals. However, it remains to be seen if Ubisoft can fully regain its former glory and restore its reputation for innovation and creativity.
More about Reboot
- Ubisoft Official Website
- Ubisoft’s Wikipedia Page
- Assassin’s Creed Official Website
- Vivendi’s Attempted Takeover of Ubisoft
- Tencent’s Investment in Ubisoft
- Sexual Misconduct Allegations at Ubisoft
- Ubisoft’s Plans for Live-Service and Mobile Games
- Assassin’s Creed: Unity Launch Issues
- Ubisoft’s Reassessment of Assassin’s Creed Franchise
- Ubisoft’s Financial Turmoil and Recovery