Ubisoft’s Reliance on Blockbuster Releases Has Stripped Away Its Charm

Ubisoft’s Reliance on Blockbuster Releases Has Stripped Away Its Charm

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Josh Wise

Poor Ubisoft. Nobody wants to play with them any more. That, at any rate, is the impression you get when you listen to Yves Guillemot, the company’s CEO, who recently announced the culling of three unannounced games and the delay – the latest in a weary procession – of Skull & Bones. (That game began development in 2013, and it’s beginning to feel as though the only way we will get to play it is by plundering it from Ubisoft’s hold.) “What we have observed is that there has been some contraction in overall consumer spending coming from the economic environment and rising inflation,” said Guillemot. He then lamented the ailing performance of some of the publisher’s smaller titles: “When there’s more pressure, people go for the biggest brands, and they don’t go for the small ones.” Ah, yes. The curse of obscurity. The brand in question? Super Mario.

Apparently, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope failed to ignite a sufficient blaze in sales. Also cited as underperforming was Just Dance 2023. Guillemot said that Ubisoft is “facing major challenges as the industry continues to shift towards mega-brands and long-lasting titles that can reach players across the globe, across platforms and business models.” You could almost feel sympathetic, were it not for two things. One, it’s never easy to sympathise with a company that projected to make 830 million euros and instead made 725 million euros. And two, Ubisoft has, in no small way, a hand in this shift. The Likes of Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, Ghost Recon, and The Division have felt less like video games and more like mega-brands for some time now. Long before the market followed suit, they have suffered both contraction and rising inflation: their mechanics all boiling down and blurring together, while feeling more overblown every year.

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And yet, it wasn’t always like this. Ubisoft, though as hungry for a hit as anyone, used to trade in adventure – not just games that sought to thrill us with something out of the ordinary, but games in whom investment was a kind of adventure. The likes of Beyond Good & Evil, from Ubisoft Pictures (later rechristened Ubisoft Montpellier), or XIII, from Ubisoft Paris, felt like the work of a company that was restless for our attention, grabbing at the world with wild colours and the click of a camera shutter. These games were arty and elegant, aimed squarely at the middlebrow; they teetered on the lip of pretension but never quite tipped over, and time seems only to have caked them in further style. What’s more, this approach seemed, back then, like the most natural thing in the world: Just France 2003.

Unfortunately, what links those two games, more than their inherent funkiness, is the fact that they didn’t sell enough copies to earn sequels. (XIII was planned as a trilogy, and the party at the end of that game, awash with the fizz of fireworks and champagne, and punctured by a final betrayal, now tastes bitterly fitting.) Outside the mainstays of Prince of Persia and Splinter Cell, the titles that Ubisoft published bore the stamps of intriguing studios and ideas. Gearbox Software’s first self-made IP, Brothers in Arms; the perennially underrated Call of Juarez; cult curios like Darkwatch and Cold Fear; and a nice line in puzzle games for the PlayStation Portable, including Exit and – a bona fide masterwork – Lumines: Puzzle Fusion.

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That run, from about 2003 to 2007, ending with the release of the first Assassin’s Creed, is the version of Ubisoft that I consider most fondly. It didn’t come to an abrupt stop so much as it petered and thinned. Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway came out the next year (though it would be the last main entry in that series), along with Far Cry 2 – a brilliant and flawed game, with its brushfires and rusted guns, which set the series on the path to mega-brand status. When I heard the announcement this week, it brought to mind the golden span of another major house, Electronic Arts. EA has yet to match the epoch that began with the release of Black, in 2006; brought us Skate and Crysis the next year; reached its zenith in 2008, with Burnout Paradise, Dead Space, and Mirror’s Edge; and was capped, in 2009, by Brütal Legend and The Saboteur.

None of which is to suggest that Ubisoft’s days of producing great games are behind it. (The contented millions who buy Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry on a regular basis have no time for such wistful retrospection; they are too busy having fun.) Nor do I presume these three cancelled games were likely to have been masterpieces. But we don’t always need masterpieces. We need a steady stream of good games, and we need publishers to keep putting them out, and thus tending the landscape from which the masterpieces may emerge. But when you cancel games, in the name of fiscal consolidation, and when you grip only a handful of giant franchises, then what hope is there for the sparks of anything special?

Comments
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  • Microsoft's time to swoop in and buy em and restructure assets properly
  • This is a problem with the entire industry. Rockstar went 5 years without releasing a game but made a technical masterpiece with Red Dead Redemption II. Look at Batman games, 5 on OG Xbox (not all good), 3 on 360 (great, even better, good) 1 on X1, it took 7 years to have a follow up and lost 20 points on Meta.
  • My guess is Rockstar can pay the bills off the money they make on Grand Theft Online. They can afford to wait. Not all developers have that side hustle. Valve doesn't even need to make games anymore because of Steam.

    Game developers need those blue-chip games and services to help fund the creative stuff. Then see what sticks with gamers. Take chances again. The masses will always play the same 10 popular games. Use some of those funds to create the other games and if they miss it's not so bad.
  • Maybe stop making crap no one is asking for (Skull and Bones) and maybe make something people are asking for (Splinter Cell). I don't think making all your open-world games feel similar was the best idea either.
  • Problem is they are so reliant of the milked to death assassins creed, far cry, season passes and over priced dlc and cosmetics. Sooo many ppl i know would love a new splinter cell, prince of persia, rayman or driver but they seem intent on ignoring what ppl want. Or maybe they ant good enough to do them anymore? If so why not sell those ip's to someone who can
  • I think the issue is when all these big name publishers see other pubs raking in billions, using a type of model/system, and those billions are earned sometimes in just months, they want to attain a piece of that. So they try to mimic the same model with every game they create. I mean, hell... How many overt micro-transaction laced hero shooters, or PvE, or MMOs are out there? Or how many games are out there where they purposely create a game with a problem, in the hopes of selling you the solution?

    There are no longer any fresh ideas or risks taken, or middle tiered games, at least from big name pubs because that doesn't make billions. Pubs have an illogical approach too... Anything that doesn't make X amount is considered a failure, and that is such a dumb way to look at things. A game can sell 4 million copies and that would be a failure if they hoped to sell 6 million, ignoring the reality that 4 million copies sold is still a hell of a good payout. Now just do that with a bunch of different games.

    They believe they can release multiple games that makes all the money. Not going to happen... Release multiple games that makes some money and you'll stay fresh, interesting, relevant, and still successful. Of course, this is all my opinion, and not speaking as though any of this is fact.
  • I'd like to know what the 3 cancelled games were. Pretty sure most would have preferred Skull and Bones to be cancelled and we get the other 3 games.
  • All comes down to management and decision making!! Your fan base is there for a reason and they need to be listened too, yet you keep milking them with the same c**p year after year.
    They need to pump out a splinter cell game…..even a remake of assassins creed black flag would go down well!!
    Hell, I think Ubisoft are purposely delaying skull and bones and not because the game is not complete but because nobody wants it and they save themselves the extra costs.
    Won’t be long until we hear that MS is interested in a purchase, cause let’s face it, Ubisoft plus and assassin’s creed won’t save them.
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