It’s hard to believe that what started out as an experiment on Ubisoft’s part would become such a major success. Assassin’s Creed is now one of the most popular franchises, touting a following comparable to Mass Effect and Halo. However, it seems like overnight, things changed for the franchise. It first appeared that it would follow the traditional two year gap between releases, but then when Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood was revealed, things changed.
A nagging suspicion
Now, just like Call of Duty and Battlefield, we’re seeing yearly releases of the war between Templars and Assassins. More concerning though is the dips in quality for various entries in the series, and hints that the core focus of the games are heading in directions even further from where the franchise began. There’s a lot of things left unanswered by Ubisoft personally, but taking the various pieces of their history and the Assassin’s Creed franchise in particular, an image begins to form that is not only unsettling, but potentially hazardous for Ubisoft itself.
I started my examination with a far more simplified hypothesis. Having only played a portion of both Brotherhood and the original Assassin’s Creed before entering Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, I began to have a suspicion Ubisoft was cherry picking ideas from their best titles and forcing them into others. Ghost Recon: Future Soldier had the “mark and execute” mechanic from Splinter Cell: Conviction. Splinter Cell: Blacklist has an upgrade system and multiplayer progression ideas heavily inspired by Assassin’s Creed. Far Cry 3‘s style of marking enemies later translated to Assassin’s Creed 4, as did the fort invasions to make territories safe to travel in. Both Far Cry 3 and Assassin’s Creed 3 even had Alice in Wonderland references in their introductory sequences. From small details to key mechanics, it seemed like a Frankenstein’s monster was being made. I had to confirm my thoughts and go back in the timeline. I finally ventured into the older journeys players had taken in the animus.
Brotherhood came first on my sojourn, not only as it seemed to be the start of the new style of Assassin’s Creed titles, but I had made the most progress in it already. However, in completing it, I began to see more and more distinct problems for the series itself. The game itself was as fractured as Desmond’s mind in Assassin’s Creed: Revelations.
Certain gameplay elements were hinting to a slower, more Hitman-esque game. The vast array of weapons, the scale of the cities, the factions you can hire, the more open levels, calling upon your brotherhood, the detection system, and the stealth options all indicate a far less scripted direction. Other mechanics ran in the opposite direction, reminding me more of Uncharted‘s fast-paced, simplified gameplay design. The counter system, the nigh-universal behavior of weapons, the automated aiming system, the continuous resupplied state of your ammo, the hand holding world navigation, and the constant flow of set piece moments over player choice.
There doesn’t seem to be any core direction to what some told me was the best entry in the series. The story itself even lacks focus, desperately trying to present a meaningful narrative for the universe, for modern day protagonist Desmond, and for Ezio Auditore, the game’s ancestral main character. Except almost all narrative is just more world building. Similar to the recently released Amazing Spider-Man 2, the plot is a broken mess strewn across more hours than it needs to be. Ezio lacks charm and changes attitudes at odd moments. The rest of the cast are also all just returning characters from Assassin’s Creed II, with little further development for any of them. The overarching conspiracy surrounding the “Apple of Eden” results in little more than a few wild goose chases and a brief section where you finally find it. The main villain dies in an arbitrary twist opening/closing mission that has nothing to do with what little plot the game has. All we really get are a few more questions levied and a handful older questions half-answered.
It was at this point that my thoughts began to shift, discussing my findings with a colleague who encouraged me to try more games in the series. I proceeded onward next, to what many considered the low that was Assassin’s Creed III. However, instead of finding all that was wrong in the series and the source of Ubisoft’s design mistakes, I found Assassin’s Creed III to be the first Assassin’s Creed since the original game that felt like it had been designed with care.
There were genuine improvements, attempts to enhance the core ideas rather than ignore them. Certain ideas were removed in favor of new ones. It felt like an actual sequel, and in retrospect, left Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag feeling like a lateral move rather than a fully fledged upgrade. How could the sequel actually offer less than its predecessor in terms of gameplay options? How could entire concepts be missing in a direct sequel? How could such massive worlds be made in such increasingly short time frames? How was it Ubisoft seemed to be lagging behind in responding to what critics and players did and didn’t like?
Having your cake and eating it too
Then during another discussion with my colleague, it finally all came together clearly. This wasn’t a simple situation of similar sequels being churned out, these were all individual sequels being made by different developers with only slight amounts of time between each other. Right before Assassin’s Creed I-II‘s creative director Patrice Désilets left Ubisoft for THQ, the executives in charge must have realized they had a hit on their hands. It would make sense that they tried to make Désilets stick to this one project, but once he left the picture, each game had either a lower ranking member from the first two games promoted or someone new hired on for a single game.
The series has gone through more creative directors than Spinal Tap has gone through drummers. The only returning creative director is Alexandre Amancio (Assassin’s Creed: Revelations), who is joining to make the latest title, Assassin’s Creed: Unity, a next-gen Assassin’s Creed game, already releasing around the time a new PS3/Xbox 360 midquel codenamed Comet will release, in addition to the recent release of Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation HD, and Assassin’s Creed 4: Freedom Cry. That’s five titles in less than two years. What’s worse is that this isn’t even the only time we’ve had this kind of blitz of releases. The original Assassin’s Creed had three follow-up mobile games, one that released just a year after, and then two concurrently in the same year as Assassin’s Creed II in 2009. The series has never genuinely had a chance to breathe since its inception.
Even more curious is that it seems all titles after Assassin’s Creed II are just as much required sequels as they are testbeds for new ideas. It’s already been stated by Ubisoft that they would use the multiple projects as a way to transfer cut features onto new games. For all we know, the out of place tower defense section from Assasssin’s Creed: Revelations may in fact be recycled from an earlier title. Revelations introduces crafting for bombs, which we later see in a similar form for economic reasons in Assassin’s Creed III, and then later as a simplified hunting/crafting hybrid system in Far Cry 3 that is then used in Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag.
They seem to be editing games mid-development, as certain aspects such as hunting are all but barely present in Assassin’s Creed 4 despite having the space in it’s inventory system for hunting items. While handling similar to Assassin’s Creed III, Assassin’s Creed 4 has had most Assassin’s Creed elements ripped from it. The plot awkwardly lets you practically be a ready-made assassin to start with despite no training in-story and the main series conspiracy pushed to the wayside. Other features seem held back needlessly until you’re near the end of the campaign, like they were added in too late into the game’s development, such as the rope dart.
Ubisoft even asked in a private survey if fans would like a Black Flag title all to itself, less than two months after the initial sales numbers. They’re ready to start it as a new franchise, regardless of canonical issues and the short time frame in history to work with, because that’s apparently how Ubisoft does things now. Does Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon sell well? Okay then, let’s talk about franchising it. Rabbids are popular? Franchise them and get me a FILM and TV show in addition to a boatload of sequels. Is Watch_Dogs being well received and getting pre-ordered to ridiculous degrees despite not even releasing yet? Franchise it so hard you need a breakdown sheet to explain all the collector’s editions’ bonuses!
They are no longer interested in singular games, they want franchises and almost nothing but franchises. Think about how they’ve been treating their games. Games like Beyond Good & Evil and Prince of Persia 2008 were left in the dark with minimal, if any, attempts to revive abandoned ideas in either title. With some cases like I Am Alive, it’s understandable, but this kind of blockbuster franchise making mentality is putting just as much strain as it does added resource options to Ubisoft. It’s going to be a team of now tenstudios to make Assassin’s Creed: Unity happen, and we don’t even have word on how many are working on Comet. Ten. Studios.
For reference, this is just what they’ve reached now. Brotherhood had five studios working on the single-player with a sixth developing the multiplayer. Seven studios combined for Revelations and Assassin’s Creed III. Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag had nine studios. Bear in mind the first two games were solely made by Ubisoft Montreal. Then suddenly we go up to FIVE. Also consider the fact that since each of these games takes at least two to three years to develop, so all of these studios were making different entries of the series at the same time in the same offices simultaneously. Revelations was nearly out of beta testing while Brotherhood still had DLC to release. There’s almost no chance for real iteration like most franchises get because there is no pause to receive critiques and build from there. Why else do you think Ubisoft has had so many user polls in e-mails hinting to their future plans? Why else would they put a rating system like out of a social media site into every story mission for Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag? Because they cannot function as any other developer would.
A wrench in the works
It’s not even really a series when you take a good look at it. It’s just a flood of different games all rushing to the gate in a sea of studios tangled by a web of confusion. Core philosophies about how the series should be produced differ from creative director to creative director, leaving everyone to try and find the secret formula to get the series to a new zenith. It’s a competition of ideas and it almost makes you wonder if Ubisoft wants this, as if they’d get better results by turning a business into a race against time and work constraints.
What’s worst of all about this is that they never needed to do this. They never needed to make a tangled mess of studios, because the sort of release cycle they are chasing is attainable very easily. Call of Duty, the game that has inspired this kind of schedule actually has a far better solution, and it’s maddening no one at Ubisoft thought to apply the method Activision uses instead.
Activision simply has three studios work separately on their own spins of the core franchise. Infinity Ward, Sledgehammer Games, and Treyarch all develop games on a three year cycle, scheduled in just such a way that they always make a yearly release despite no rush. While Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty: Ghosts released, Sledgehammer was likely entering pre-beta or beta for Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, all while Treyarch is putting together prototypes and a pre-alpha for their next game.
Not only does this mean each developer has it’s own untainted vision of the future of Call of Duty, but they get to take notes and iterate. They get to learn and improve. They don’t have to stop you at the end of every match and ask you to rate it from one to five stars because they’ll get the reviews, they’ll get the fan feedback, and they’ll know what to do with it. It’s no rush for them, even if it looks like it. They’ve got more than enough time to develop, test, and polish their games. There’s no reason Ubisoft couldn’t be doing the exact same thing.
The worlds might not always feel as big, you might not have a checkers mini-game, but at least your titles would actually follow a traditional form of development within the new release cycle. As they are now, you are juggling various games with various code by numerous teams all trying to shove a game out the door just so they can immediately get started on the next one. This philosophy of no amount oftoo many sequels, especially sequels being developed nigh-simultaneously by the same studios with each depending on the other, is just going to hurt Ubisoft in the long run. What if the next release fails?
What if Unity bombs at the review office and has a massive amount of trade-ins and returns? That is going to hurt even more now that so many other titles just starting pre-production as we speak get ready on your production line of developers. If Comet and whatever comes after it fails? Your system won’t be able to survive that. You will have thousands of developers to pay but the cash will stop flowing. I guess that’s why they have Watch_Dogs now.
Strangely enough though, not only Watch_Dogs but Rayman: Legends, Rainbow 6, The Crew and The Division have all been delayed at some point before their intended release date (and in the case of Rainbow 6, undergoing a complete re-development for next-gen consoles under new creative direction). Whether this is one of the benefits of this heavy leaning on Assassin’s Creed or a sign that someone at Ubisoft has stopped drinking the Kool Aid is hard to discern. Hopefully they’ll be turning the corner into a better development cycle with the rest of their games. If they don’t, and a crash does happen, we might see them institut similar systems of content creation for franchises other than Assassin’s Creed, Rabbids, and Far Cry. Cross your fingers and your hidden blades, gents.