It’s been a tumultuous year for Ubisoft. What’s the state of Assassin’s Creed as we close out 2014?
Assassin’s Creed took a beating this year. Unity isn’t a bad game, by any means, and in all fairness I think its bugs aren’t significantly worse than, say, Dragon Age: Inquisition, which has received a much more positive reception. But as I’ve already argued, Ubisoft shot itself in the foot with that review embargo nonsense, and Unity now has a poisonous reputation regardless of its many virtues.
It had to happen eventually. Ubisoft takes greater care of its flagship annual franchise than other publishers have, but I think it’s worth remembering that many of the publishers who embraced the annualisation trend have since collapsed. Only Call of Duty and sports games seem immune to that curse.
Assassin’s Creed is now seven core entries in. Think about that. If Ubisoft had maintained conventional numbering, Unity would have been Assassin’s Creed 7. How many modern franchises, besides Final Fantasy, ever have numbers that large attached to them? Bugger all, is the answer; there’s a good reason why Call of Duty threw it out the window, and it’s that big numbers like that tend to go along with smaller sales. You can stave off franchise fatigue a lot longer if you quietly kick the numbers under the rug after about four entries.
But nothing holds off franchise fatigue forever. There will come a day when even the mighty juggernauts of Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto will fail, if they don’t evolve fast enough. Assassin’s Creed, while one of the blockbuster, powerhouse properties of the industry, is not immune to that.
I don’t think the Assassin’s Creed ship has sailed, necessarily. Ubisoft has made a number of mistakes over the past few years, but it is already showing signs of trying to correct them. Next year will probably be the sticking point. Let’s take a look at what the publisher can do (and in some cases has already begun to do) to shore up the property and stave off franchise fatigue.
#1: Stop releasing so many games.
Even ignoring the side-scroller spin-off, companion apps and other distractions, we had two Assassin’s Creed games this year – Rogue and Unity. That’s at least one too many. Ubisoft had good reasons for producing a past- and current-gen release this year, and the sales will likely make up for its investment, but by being inclusive of those yet to upgrade to newer hardware, Ubisoft risked tiring out fans. I smashed Unity, eventually – and now the thought of doing all that again makes me feel a bit sick, even though Rogue has received very good reviews. Assassin’s Creed games are just too huge to expect us to finish two in any given year. It sounds like we’ll only get one next year, which is a bit sad for PS3 and Xbox 360 fans, but the franchise will be better off for it. It would be even better for a year off, to be honest.
#2: Give Ubisoft Montreal a break.
Although Ubisoft spreads development duties out across multiple studios, until the 2015 entry, Ubisoft Montreal had always taken the lead development role. Over the years leading up to Unity, it was developing huge new technology, while at the same time leading development on older tech for Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag. The team itself has said it just had no time to try out new things, and is grateful to have handed the series off to Ubisoft Quebec for at least one year. Go whole hog on this one, Ubi; give your teams the time they need.
#3: Maybe lay-off the multi-studio approach a bit.
Hundreds of people work on each Assassin’s Creed game, and some of them never meet each other, because they’re on other sides of the world. This approach isn’t necessarily bad, because there’s no reason not to get a lot of the grunt work of development done elsewhere (outsourcing is pretty common even among developers with only one team to their name). But Assassin’s Creed: Unity in particular had a modular feel; you could see that the people in charge of creating side content, and the people in charge of making the main missions, and the people making the core tech powering Paris, weren’t necessarily looking at the project as a whole game. As a result, the setting and content feel kind of disconnected from each other. It astounds me that “developed by umpteen studios” is being used in promotional materials as if it were a selling point and not cause for serious alarm.
Next: six more pieces of advice on how Ubisoft can keep the Assassin’s Creed ship from sinking.