Ubisoft has gone from being a publisher and developer I was excited and eager about, into one I feel a sense of utter apathy for. Their games used to be amongst the biggest most exciting releases in a given year for me. And while Ubisoft games certainly are still amongst the most high profile of any released in a given year, as a video game fan I can’t help but feel this lack of enthusiasm for anything they’ve put out in the last few years.
And they’re a company that puts out a lot…
If I had to contribute this feeling to any one reason… well, it’s in the title. Ubisoft have become the embodiment of low risk/high yield development in the AAA video game industry. It’s nothing new for Ubisoft, you only have to look any of their given tentpole franchises to see they have a problem with iteration.
And yet, they’re such a marketing monster that each of their games are a huge success regardless. Thus they have no real reason to change the way they operate.
As an example, let’s look at this biggest and most successful franchise: Assassin’s Creed.
Assassin’s Creed is a franchise that has changed and evolved multiple times over the years to become something almost unrecognisable from what it was when it originally got started. So much so that there are “eras” of Assassin’s Creed titles much in the same way there are eras of Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog games. The difference being those two franchises span a time of 35 and 29 years, while Assassin’s Creed has only been with us for 13.
The current iteration of the franchise started 2017 with Assassin’s Creed Origins, a game that added a ton of RPG elements and loot to the franchise. Over the years, I’ve loved many Assassin’s Creed games. II, Black Flag and Origins are amongst my favourites in the franchise.
Not so coincidentally, those are also the games that mixed up the formula and did something new with it. Only to then go and use those same frameworks to make several more games in the same mould. Odyssey followed very hot on the heels of Origins, so quickly in fact that I was still pretty burned out on Origins. Which meant that jumping into a near identical game with much larger map seemed like the least appealing prospect in the world.
And the upcoming Valhalla, from all reports, seems to be making the exact same approach. And so I look at the game and wonder what’s the benefit to me to play the game when it’s mostly going to be stuff I’ve seen before. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying people who love Assassin’s Creed and pick up every one are wrong for doing do. But from my perspective, I can’t play multiple interchangeable video games back to back.
I’m currently chipping away at Ghost of Tsushima, a game cut from a similar cloth to Assassin’s Creed. Jumping from that right into a very similar game to both it and Origins simply doesn’t seem like a great use of my time or money. Had Valhalla totally changed its approach and style then I’d be much more likely to be interested. Like, maybe going back to it’s roots mechanically.
I lament the loss of those stealth focused games of the early franchise. Games about hiding in plain sight and planning and executing elaborate assassinations of targets. Although those are a far cry from the open world sandbox games we’ve got today where we’re playing as spartans and vikings… Speaking of Far Cry.
That series is one that might be an even more scathing example than Assassin’s Creed of Ubisoft simply making the same game over and over again. I loved Far Cry 3, the first of the series I played. But only a handful of hours into Far Cry 4 I found myself bored with it, doing the exact same things I did in the previous game, just in a worse setting.
Ubisoft’s approach to development seems to be to find something that works and just do it til it doesn’t anymore. Far Cry seems to be the example of the developer failing to see this and altering the wrong thing from game to game. While the settings in the five games since Far Cry 3 have changed drastically, the core gameplay itself hasn’t. I’m not sure if Ubisoft fail to realise this or simply don’t care, but with the announcement of Far Cry 6 “returning to their roots” and a tropical setting, I feel they’re probably well aware of what they’re doing.
At the end of the day, my criticisms of Ubisoft only go so far before they fall flat. As much all their games do seem interchangeable, and don’t carry enough from sequel to sequel, yet they all sell incredibly well for Ubisoft. In that regard, they’re doing some amazing business as a company.
There’s no doubt they must have a truckload of new ideas, innovations and future plans for all of their franchises just sitting on some computer waiting for sales to dip slightly before they pluck one of them out for their next “reinvention” of one of their franchises. But it makes more sense finally for them to just find what works and keep doing it till it stops working. Content to die a slow death than a hot one.
The people I feel sorry for the most are the developers working there, many of which probably go through the same frustrations I do, being held back creatively in order to bend to the whims of their totally business minded overlords, who themselves have little to no regard for the art aspect of video games whatsoever.
I find myself having even less time for Ubisoft than before before the whistleblowers coming out and sharing their experiences of sexual misconduct and toxic working environment that seemingly goes on behind closed doors, involving these business minded people who seem to care about nothing beyond the bottom line. As proven by the line “Women don’t sell” that was uttered and forced upon the Assassin’s Creed Odyssey developers who tried to make a game with a sole female protagonist.
An utterly ridiculous and out of touch statement that came out around the same time we’re seeing Tomb Raider, Last of Us and Horizon Zero Dawn as some of the biggest franchises going right now.
This lack of interest from the top, coupled with the incredibly risk adverse nature of almost all of their video games just makes me apathetic towards all of the massive properties from the company that I used to adore. They seem like company totally driven by figures, who are totally unwilling to allow the incredibly talented individuals who work for them to flex their creative muscles and make the most of the massive resources Ubisoft have access too.
As shown by the fact that they’re putting out Just Dance 2020 for the Nintendo Wii, if something’s selling they’re not going to change it till it stops selling. And while this approach means we’re going to get one amazing entry in a franchise once a generation, it means that the rest of the time they’re just not a company worth paying attention to. Wringing much blood out of the proverbial stone as they can.