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RIP, PC: How Ubisoft managed to be wrong and right

Sunday, 27th November 2011 11:23 GMT By Nathan Grayson

Ubisoft’s continuing struggles with the PC market still draw community ire, but Nathan Grayson believes the publisher may finally be on the right track, even if it isn’t moving quickly enough.

PC gaming’s transforming in a big way, but many hardcore PC gamers still pine for the past, back when big-budget retail games were made – nay, forged – with their beefy rigs in mind. So it’s time for big publishers to put up or shut up. Bring out the big guns. Give us something with the impact, scope, and craftsmanship of a Battlefield 3 and the business model of a Ghost Recon Online.

There are two topics you never bring up around anybody if you want to keep conversation free of colorful language and knife fights: politics and religion. With PC gamers, though, you’d do well to dive face-first into those landmines long before dropping a bomb of an entirely different sort: Ubisoft. And why not? The Assassin’s Creed publisher has assassinated any good will it might have accrued via DRM that essentially locked up paying customers and threw away the key while simultaneously justifying pirates’ unscrupulous actions.

And that’s just the beginning. Once considered legitimately shocking, last-second delays of Ubisoft PC games have now become par for the course. And let’s not forget the recent From Dust fiasco, which started as a white flag and ended as a kick in the teeth. It’s little wonder, then, that Ubisoft’s rapidly descended to the rank of public enemy number one.

This week, however, saw things reach a new fever pitch. First, some allegedly lost-in-translation comments from I Am Alive creative director Stanislas Mettra had PC gamers spitting flames over accusations of incessant “bitching” and – most alarmingly – claims that they wouldn’t even buy a PC version of I Am Alive anyway. Since then, Mettra’s re-opened the door he seemingly slammed shut, saying that Ubisoft is “still working to see the feasibility of” a PC version. Granted, that comment’s very much at odds with one I received a couple months ago, but that’s honestly neither here nor there at this point.

The most telling slight, however, was Ubisoft’s sudden about-face on Ghost Recon: Future Soldier’s PC version. Initially, the port was like a ghost insofar as it constantly lurked in the background – known only to a select few. Now, though, it’s like a ghost in that it doesn’t fucking exist. But hey, there’s still Ghost Recon Online and, er, ManiaPlanet for PC gamers to look forward to, right? And that’s where Ubisoft’s diaboloical plan finally begins to makes sense – while also going horribly, horribly wrong.

PC gaming is dead, long live PC gaming

Big-budget PC games aren’t what they used to be. Where once games like Doom and Quake blew minds and broke banks on PC, the biggest hits now put their best feet forward on consoles – bleeding-edge PC tech be damned. Why? The short answer is, “Piracy, duh.” But the long answer is, er, a bit longer. And we’ll get to that in a second. First, though, I’m going to attempt to explain to you why Ubisoft has been – in a few key ways – absolutely correct in its recent treatment of the PC. Please save all questions and skull-splitting hatchets until after the presentation.

Triple-A PC gaming is dead. Done. Over. Six-feet under. Now, it’s important to understand that I’m referring to triple-A gaming in the traditional (perhaps even colloquial) sense. Specifically, I mean $50-$60 price tags, physical retail copies, glitzy hype-driven marketing campaigns, and one-time paid-in-full “finished” game releases. Piracy, of course, is holding the smoking gun, but perceived inaccessibility’s at least helping bury the body. As such, Ubisoft saw the writing on the wall and reacted accordingly. Ghost Recon: Future Soldier’s silent stroll into console-only territory, I believe, is the culmination of that.

Logically speaking, it all checks out. Here’s the problem, though: for far too long, Ubisoft misread the writing. It thought it saw a platform on its deathbed and chalked everything up to “piracy this, piracy that.” In reality, PC was (and is) experiencing some particularly excruciating growing pains. It’s evolving, and evolution – as humanity’s lack of super lungs that process all polution and Superman skin that deflects bullets will tell you – doesn’t happen overnight.

So Ubisoft – along with pretty much every other videogame publisher – moved its eggs to a more reliable basket. Then it made innumerable mistakes – both in terms of copy protection and miscommunication/outright lies – in its treatment of PC, and the rest is history. Believe it or not, though, Ubisoft’s finally kinda sorta taking steps in the right direction again.

Back… and better than ever?

If the 45-trillion MMO-makers singing its praises until they’re blue in the face and you’re deaf in the ears are any indication, free-to-play’s kind of a big deal. So far, it’s proven insanely profitable, which has to be kind of confusing for folks who swore up and down that there was no money to be made on PC. Between that, the indie market, cloud gaming, Steam’s constant pricing experimentation, and social gaming, we’re beginning to see the new face of PC gaming: business models that have arisen from old-school PC gaming’s ashes. In their own ways, they manage to mitigate piracy and largely avoid giving legitimate customers unnecessary grief. They’re not just ill-fitting console hand-me-downs.

Here, then, is the second place where Ubisoft has seemingly hit the nail on the head: it’s finally decided to stop treating PC like the scummy, thief-ridden back alley of console gaming. Half-assed console ports weren’t cutting it, so Ubisoft wised up and realized that PC should be handled with care. So long, Ghost Recon: Future Soldier’s assuredly sub-par port. Hello, free-to-play, PC-centric Ghost Recon Online. Other publishers, by comparison, are still living in the stone age.

Sadly, that’s where Ubisoft’s strategy swerves into a ditch and explodes into crying kittens. Yes, it’s seemingly recognized that PC is a unique platform, but it’s dipping its pinky toe into the water when it needs to be making a cannon-ball-sized splash. Unfortunately, Ghost Recon Online is a frankly stiff-looking series off-shoot, and ManiaPlanet – while ambitious – lacks real brand power. Neither seems horrible by any stretch of imagination, but they don’t exactly inspire frothy mouthed excitement either.

At this point, hardcore PC gamers need to be convinced that games releasing under these new business models are worthwhile just as much as publishers need to be convinced that PC’s worth developing for. But if publishers won’t give it their all, consumers won’t pay attention. Instead, PC gamers will continue to feel like they’re getting sloppy seconds while console players enjoy big-budget feasts served up on silver platters. And then we’ll be right back at square one, with companies like Ubisoft saying, “Well, clearly PC gamers don’t want to spend money on these games” when, in reality, the content they’ve been offered hasn’t been worth the asking price.

Obviously, Ubisoft’s hardly the only guilty party here. PC gaming’s transforming in a big way, but many hardcore PC gamers still pine for the past, back when big-budget retail games were made – nay, forged – with their beefy rigs in mind. So it’s time for big publishers to put up or shut up. Bring out the big guns. Give us something with the impact, scope, and craftsmanship of a Battlefield 3 and the business model of a Ghost Recon Online.

Efforts like Firefall and Tribes: Ascend in the F2P space, Unreal Engine 3 for Flash, and cloud gaming’s quiet growth are hopeful indicators that this is the beginning of a much larger movement in hardcore gaming. It may have taken a bit, but PC’s hitting its stride again. If the Ubisofts of the world don’t start trying to catch up soon, they’ll only be left behind.

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18 Comments

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  1. Maximum Payne

    Nice reading.
    There were and always will be money to make on PC.
    Look at Stalker,Blizzard and Valve games,Total War series,Witcher…they all sold very well even if they are out yearly(total war) or not so much new(l4d 2) or hardcore rpg with high hardware demand(witcher 2)
    Even crysis 1 sell well considering is one of most hardware hungry games and released in on of busiest year of all time(bioshock,assassin creed,Halo 3,Gears 1 on PC,Unreal 3….)

    #1 2 years ago
  2. tdrules

    Ubisoft have never had that much of a presence on PC, so it’s no surprise that it has no idea what it’s doing.
    Personally I think there games can stay on console, they don’t fit the PC aesthetic I’d want in a game and aren’t really desirable to me.

    People shouting that F2P is the future are quite frankly a bit dim, it may work for very few multiplayer experiences, but it does not work outside of that. A F2P title never lives up to the sum of its parts because it will always be an incomplete experience except to the view who buy everything.
    A rebuttal to that would be “you don’t have to buy everything, most things that cost money aren’t necessary”, then don’t make them in the first place. Developers should continue to focus on complete experiences, not tacked on ones this isn’t Create Your Own Adventure

    #2 2 years ago
  3. GrimRita

    The bottom line is that Ubisoft have done themselves no favours at all – then blame everyone but themselves for being a complete tit.

    PC gaming will/is a better place without Ubi.

    #3 2 years ago
  4. Maximum Payne

    @2 Ubisoft did have presence on PC.
    Silent Hunter series,Settlers,Anno,Ghost Recon,Rainbow six were all PC exclusives.
    Then they even made Chaos Theory primarily on PC then ported to xbox/ps2.
    They also bought Heroes of might and Magic.

    #4 2 years ago
  5. jack92

    Bullshit.
    I don’t agree with you.

    How ghost recon online can be good for the future pof PC gaming?
    It’s very bad.

    First, with ghost recon online, ubi consider that PC gamer only play at online game. It’s wrong, very WRONG.

    Lots of pc players play at offline game and with this type of games, ubi said fuck at these players. I play since the start of Pc gamin and I play at online and offline gaming. I can’t think that PC player = online gamer. It’s juste a complete bullshit

    The future of pc game must keep online and offline games. Only offline game or only online games is very bad.

    MMO or F2P is not the FUTURE of PC GAMING. You are crazy to said that.

    Why games must be online? It’s only the vision of stupid man.

    Triple AAA pc games must exist and musn’t dead. There is no reason (and I said no reason) to justify that AAA games like before must disappeared.

    The success of the witcher 2 sales show that PC gaming is excellent for offline games and that Pc platform is a good platform for AAA offline retail game like before.

    Piracy exist since the start of PC gaming and although , lots of developpers or editors have know success and earn lots of money with lots of piracy (ID ,remedy, epic, lucasarts, EA, ubisoft etc…)
    Moreover many examples show that giveup PC just for piracy is not the good method for themself (Lucasarts, GPG with supcom 2, Id with Rage, Crytek with crysis 2 etc…).

    The problem woth ubisoft sales on PC is that, all multisupport game are developped only in console market aim and not PC market aim. It’s normal that these games are more saled on console thant on PC. The opposite would be illogical. UBI think just that it’s the same market and it’s wrong.

    When ubisoft make AAA game with pc market aim like ANNO, sales are good on PC.

    If PC gaming = only online game. PC as game platform is dead for sure.

    I expect that ubi soft don’t think like you. I expect so much.

    #5 2 years ago
  6. fps_d0minat0r

    @ Maximum Payne
    anyone can sell as many games as valve if their as cheap.
    if XBL and PSN matched valve prices they would need to shut down because their servers would melt. valve are just cheap on pc so that people buy it out of convenience as opposed to pirating it.
    also a lot of people dont really want to buy a lot of the games valve sell buy they still sell because their bundled in a giant pack which costs slightly more than the newest game in a series. for example no-one would buy the old GTA’s but when they bundle it with GTAIV they make sales on it even though most the people who get it will most likely never play it.

    when people say pc gaming is dead its because you cant sell a game on PC for £40 like you can on console. valve selling a billion games for £5 hardly makes PC gaming feel ‘alive’. yes a handful of games are doing really well on PC but its still not good enough considering the whole industry.

    #6 2 years ago
  7. GrimRita

    Many publishers felt that MMO’s were the way to go and just at the amount of them going to the wall as a result.

    F2P can and does work, if done correctly – many publishers are reporting increased revenue by turning to F2P.

    However, Ubi are a different beast. They have lost the respect of the PC gaming community for their sheer lack of respect for the format, driven by their shocking comments and shoddy ports.

    PC games are close to £40 now – look at BF3, SWTWoW, Starcraft 2 to name a few but pricing does play a huge part on if a game will/wont sell and if you charge a triple A price for a Z product, no bugger will buy it on day 1.

    #7 2 years ago
  8. Maximum Payne

    @6 how you can’t sell for $40 ? There were news how great Mass Effect 2 sold 3 times more then ME1 on PC,how Skyrim have 250.000 people on day on steam,how much L4d,Orange Box,Portal 2 sell well on PC…

    #8 2 years ago
  9. deadstoned

    Good article :) , personally I feel there’s still room for PC ports and for them to be pretty good. Most ports are absolutely fine, e.g. Borderlands who admitted their first game was a port and their putting in more effort on the PC side this time. But I think “how they sell” their games should change, e.g. Activation limits and Always online DRM should be completely removed. And more emphasis on selling games at better deals on online stores such as Steam should be done. Yes this will upset retail, but I struggle to find PC games in those shops now and 70% at Steam, is obviously better than 30% at retail.

    #9 2 years ago
  10. runbmp

    Its kind of funny that PC is considered a piracy haven. Most of the private trackers i’m on you see Xbox games get released first and usually carry the most leeches and seeds than their PC counterpart.

    #10 2 years ago
  11. Phoenixblight

    @10

    Doesn’t matter Developers and publishers put data hooks in their games and they can tell how many of their games are bought and pirated and one developer at GDC said it was 12:1 on the PC. The consoles were negligible and were even a threatening number.

    #11 2 years ago
  12. Lounds

    Ubisoft are idiots, PC gaming sells very well, these big publishers just want Valves slice of pie. Ubisoft should do me a favour and make a decent PoP game that could be as good as the trilogy on PS2.

    #12 2 years ago
  13. Big_Boss

    The reason developers shy away from the PC has little to do with piracy. The real reason is because it is much harder to sell a mediocre game on the PC than it is on consoles. A franchise like Call of Duty would not sell so much if it was primarily on PC. Why? Because it is outdated. It’s the same technology and gameplay regurgitated each year. PC gamers make a serious investment in their platform so they expect a fair return in the quality of the games they buy.

    Whether or not the market is the same size is hard to determine. Based on something like World of Warcraft the PC market can potentially be as large as any one of the console markets. But it requires a serious investment of money, time and effort to develop a game for the PC market that will be received favorably.

    Basically, developers that do not succeed on the PC can only blame themselves. They are happy to put the blame on piracy, even though both xbox and playstation has considerable amount of piracy, the truth is they choose the easy route and develop for the consoles because it requires less resources and a greater return.

    #13 2 years ago
  14. _LarZen_

    Take away Facebook and MMO’s from PC and there realy aint much left worth many developers attention.

    Gamers wallets over the world have spoken, there are more money to be made on console games.

    Heck…Modern Warefare 3 sold more on the X360 alone then Battlefield 3 sold on all plattforms combined.

    Im no console fanboy or anything…im a gamer and I can see clearly.

    #14 2 years ago
  15. DSB

    I don’t really get the underlying accusation Nathan.

    If PC gaming is a black hole for publishers, then how is Ubisoft one of very few businesses losing money on it? Activision have doubled their revenue on the PC, discounting MMOs and Freemium, while EA have stayed roughly level within the same time period that Ubisoft has managed to lose the vast majority of their business. And this is before BF3 came out.

    Sure, piracy studies blow the mind, but the fact that people help themselves, some number possibly for games that they weren’t likely to afford or buy to begin with (not that that helps a business) isn’t the real question for a business. Ultimately it’s a question of how many real customers there are.

    For that I’d recommend you study the publishers business a bit more closely, because the numbers themselves cannot possibly paint a miserable picture for anyone. Nobody needs to reinvent the wheel while they’re still making a comfortable pile of money, which is the inconvenient truth (especially) for publishers like Ubisoft when it comes to the PC.

    I’m a little disappointed that you leave out the obvious landgrabs that the PC has made, especially in the last decade. PC exclusives haven’t been the black hole that you’d expect them to if piracy-theory was to be taken seriously, and if anything, the huge successes all the way from Steam to Starcraft has shown that it isn’t a question of publishers not being allowed to protect their rights, it’s a question of also respecting their customers rights in doing so.

    The idea that there isn’t room for a compromise belongs solely to Ubisoft. PC gamers have been proving them wrong for the better part of 30 years.

    #15 2 years ago
  16. eyesbleed

    _LarZen_
    Heck…Modern Warefare 3 sold more on the X360 alone then Battlefield 3 sold on all plattforms combined.

    Im no console fanboy or anything…im a gamer and I can see clearly.

    Ehh, I’m not sure what you’re getting at there. BF3 sold a whole lot less than MW3 in console sales as well.

    #16 2 years ago
  17. hyperbaric

    The problem is Ubisoft doesn’t care about their PC ports. Plain and simple.
    This petition has been created for a while now, and Ubisoft just chose to ignore it: http://forums.steampowered.com/forums/showthread.php?t=1794844

    #17 2 years ago
  18. Virginityrocks

    @13 EXACTLY!

    #18 2 years ago