There was a time when I was a kid when Ubisoft ran this town. In a handful of years, several Ubisoft games peaked at once. The early 2010s were a high point for Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, Just Dance, and Rayman, while I also have a soft spot for Call of Juarez, Child of Light, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, and even the Rabbids. This period of the early 2010s also introduced us to Watch Dogs and Valiant Hearts, and while the South Park games weren’t my scene, they were well received and commercially successful. However, since then things have not gone well.
Ubisoft is still making Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, Watch Dogs, and Just Dance, and while (the former three, at least) are still selling reasonably well, they are no longer as treasured as they once were. Added to that, it has not really found a new series to replace them – they remain the big guns. Ubisoft ushered in a new era of game design, laying the groundwork for the constantly busy, constantly rewarding open world philosophy, where the map is stuffed with quest markers signifying towers to climb, collectibles to gather, and optional objectives to pursue.
However, what was once an industry-leading foundation has become quicksand. Games from other studios are moving away from the Ubisoft formula, offering curated linear experiences, or trusting the players to explore out of order. The closest Ubisoft came to this itself was the middling Immortals Fenyx Rising, which still could not avoid the temptation of a quest marker every six paces. Ubisoft was once the new and the bold, now it is the old and the stale.
This came to a head yesterday. Ubisoft cancelled three unannounced projects, and delayed Skull & Bones for a near-unprecedented sixth time. Coming just two days after I wrote of the perils of games being secretly canned leaving devs with holes in their resume, I feel cursed with the gift of prophecy. But it’s the messages that followed these cancellations that are especially worrying.
In an internal email, Yves Guillemot begged teams to deliver their games (those still being made) on time and on budget. “Today more than ever, I need your full energy and commitment to ensure we get back on the path to success,” he told staff. It is never the fault of the regular working stiffs if a project goes over budget. Ubisoft continues to allow its games to balloon in length because some algorithm somewhere says that makes people stick around more, even when it’s abundantly clear that Ubisoft games have lost their spark.
We don’t know what the cancelled games were, but if it wants a cheap game made in a short space of time that fans and critics will love, it seems foolish to think it might just have canned a Rayman Legends follow up in order to make a 90 hour long Assassin’s Creed epic.
Ubisoft has been in disarray for a while now. After allegations of workplace abuse leading to several high profile departures, Ubisoft has struggled to fully rework its culture. Not only is its game philosophy outdated, but its structure is too. That Ubisoft has so many teams based around the world used to be considered a strength – each team could be tailored to various series or franchises, it could create unique games with varied cultural insights, and could have a huge staff without the typical expense of a major studio based in, say, California. Lots of smaller studios kept the cost down.
However, these widespread teams are now seen as a major weakness. There is limited oversight or quality control, and there have been allegations that devs and executives from Ubisoft’s native France get away with more and are allowed to do far less than devs in other studios. The Prince of Persia remake was unceremoniously and publicly ripped away from the Indian studio, while French devs have been bounced around in Singapore as Skull & Bones treads water.
It seems inevitable that Ubisoft will be swallowed up, which is a bitter pill to… well, you know the rest. There are two obvious negatives to this – firstly, the obvious issue is that more and more companies are being bought up by fewer and fewer companies, which tends to stifle creativity and lead to major demands for major profits. We’ve already seen Activision shunt the teams behind Crash Bandicoot, Tony Hawk’s, and Spyro the Dragon (all incredibly popular and critical darlings) into making guns for Call of Duty. Huge corps with the clout and cash to buy slightly less huge corps only care about profit, and interesting little creative experimentation does not equal profit. Second, it leaves workers with less bargaining power – there are fewer companies to work for, and therefore advocating for better conditions gets tougher. Your bosses are bigger and face less competition.
Third, and perhaps romantically, Ubisoft is a family business. This family has protected abusers and ran the business into the ground, and has told staff to work harder to cover their mistakes, so I’m not a major fan of the family, but it still feels like a loss. More than just the pure romance of it though, this has been central to Ubisoft’s appeal for years. While people do not buy Assassin’s Creed Valhalla because it’s a sweet ol’ family business, Ubisoft has always held it as part of its charm. When it comes to its identity and recruitment, it mattered. That can’t happen if it’s sold.
Then there’s the issue of who might even buy it. Microsoft is struggling to argue it’s not creating a monopoly with Activision Blizzard, so it will not risk another. Sony, meanwhile, has avoided scrutiny for owning Insomniac, Naughty Dog, and now Bungie – but will it risk being dragged into that conversation, potentially weakening its ‘woe is me’ cries over Microsoft and Call of Duty? Can it even afford to, when it is heavily investing in other areas like expanding its gaming-to-film pipeline? I’m not sure.
At first, this seemed like a no brainer for Embracer. The new kid on the gobbling-up-every-studio-in-sight block has banked on recognisable franchises, taking on the likes of Borderlands, Tomb Raider, and The Lord of the Rings, among many others. Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed perfectly fit that brief. But on closer inspection, Tencent seems the favourite. The company has a 49 percent economic share and a voting share of somewhere between 11 and 16 percent. Guillemot’s plea might be because he knows the wolves are circling. Another disappointing year, and Ubisoft may be forced to sell out to Tencent completely.
Ubisoft holds an odd place in gaming. I used to admire it as a family run business and cherish its games, but recently it has revealed itself to be a nepotistic enterprise that plays favourites and is incapable of sustaining its global businesses with small time local thinking. What’s more, for all the games are bigger and more technically impressive, they are no longer as beloved as they once were. But when the light at the end of the tunnel is being sold to a megacorp engaged in a space race to buy up every studio on the planet, the future seems very dim indeed.
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