Sage’s Gaming Corner: Ubisoft, The Most Polarizing Publisher In Gaming

by Sage Ashford

Controversial opinion: no AAA third party publisher has adapted to the needs of this current generation and its consumers better than Ubisoft. They’ve gone from being mocked for their lofty, undelivered promises, to figuring out exactly what this generation needs and how to make it work in the Triple-A space. No one else, particularly Western publishers, has even tried to compete on the same level. Don’t believe me? Let’s run down the competitors.

Electronic Arts has been a veritable clown car of stupid mistakes this generation, starting with 2015’s Star Wars: Battlefront. A full-priced, triple A effort that somehow only felt complete after spending another $50 on the game’s season pass. But despite irritated grumblings from their fan base, they managed to eventually make things even worse in 2017 with Star Wars: Battlefront II, a game that promised free updates…then created a right shitstorm by how it planned on making money without paid DLC. They introduced “Star Cards”, a set of pay to win micro-transactions which vastly affected the end user’s game.  Worse, they paired this with the dreaded loot box system, where players spent real cash for randomized sets of Star Cards ranging from worthless to legendary, with the legendary items being far harder to obtain.

In the same year, the company had to shut down a beloved studio in Visceral Games, and with it, their first major Star Wars game that wasn’t a first-person shooter from DICE. And that’s without discussing the unfortunate story behind Mass Effect: Andromeda, a game plagued with issues almost from start to finish: being unable to decide the game’s scope, struggling with an engine that simply did not have the features required for RPG development, and constantly losing staff for Anthem, a game EA believes will eventually pull in more money than a “normal” single-player game. At this point, they’ve become known almost entirely for their sports game division while everything else has languished.

Then there’s Activision, who’ve always teetered on the edge between being a great publisher and a bad one. Sometimes they’re launching Tony Hawk Pro Skater and Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, other times they’re responsible for shovelware like The Legend of Korra. But after losing all their licenses, Activision fell back on two things: the ever-popular Call of Duty, and their new IP, a sci-fi online shooter with RPG elements from Halo developer Bungie.  After going radio silent for some time, Bungie revealed their new IP, Destiny, at E3 of 2013, in a trailer that took full advantage of the power of next-gen, and filled gamers with hope for the endless possibilities of next-gen.

But ultimately, Destiny wound up being quite the polarizing title. The people who loved it enjoyed its beautiful graphics and some of the best gunplay in any game this generation.   Those who didn’t were furious at the game’s non-existent story and the lack of content. Over time, none of us were particularly shocked when news broke about the game’s development cycle being troubled, with much of the original story being tossed out entirely in favor of the cobbled together narrative we would eventually play.

Still, we (or at least I) had confidence Bungie would do much better once Destiny was a success and they had a second bite at the apple. My confidence didn’t last long though, as we would see Destiny 2 experience a delay of an entire year from its initial release date, and eventually learn its development had restarted mid-cycle, resulting in the game feeling less like a proper sequel and more a game attempting to smooth over some of Destiny’s rough edges while ignoring the new flaws it introduced. Once king of the hill, Destiny has been unseated by both Fortnite and Monster Hunter World, and it doesn’t look good for them for the future.

Meanwhile, over in the East…not many third party publishers actually operate on the scale of a Ubisoft, EA, or Activision–there’s pretty much just Square-Enix and Capcom.

Giving credit where it’s due, Capcom threw in on Monster Hunter World heavy and it paid off for them.  Along with Resident Evil 7 and Street Fighter 5: Arcade Edition, the company hasn’t been in a better spot in terms of both sales and consumer good will in a long time.  Though that requires you to ignore the abysmal reception to Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite, and how Street Fighter needed two years to become a project casual and FGC members alike could be hyped about.

For Square-Enix, it’s a bit of a different story. The Final Fantasy publisher has had a rough road this gen. Most of their best releases have been remasters of great games from bygone eras.  Final Fantasy XV was an attempt at doing Games as a Service in the modern era, but it was marred by the need to patch up parts of the game’s story before delivering new content.  Instead of seeming like an additive, the work done with FF15 often felt more like fixing parts left undone when the game had to ship. Meanwhile, many of their biggest titles remain announced but with no announced release dates. Kingdom Hearts 3, Final Fantasy 7: Remake, and even their recently announced Avengers Project all seem to have no actual dates on the calendar yet.

Ubisoft used to be like that. At the start of this generation, Ubisoft was the company that announced games years ahead of time with these amazing trailers that would fail to reflect the game we eventually got to play. Watch Dogs was the game of the show at a otherwise boring E3 2012, successfully getting gamers everywhere talking for its realistic attempt at creating a moody, cyberpunk noir action title. By the time it appeared at E3 2013, we all figured it would be a next-gen title, but there was something strange about it. The game wasn’t nearly as pretty, and didn’t seem even remotely as complex as what we’d already been shown… and we still had to wait another year before we finally got to play it.

The Assassin’s Creed series became a mess after the well-received Black Flag, with both Unity and Syndicate notorious for hilarious bugs that ruined the polished experience you’d expect from their titles. And then suddenly…everything changed.

It all started with Rainbow Six: Siege. A beloved game series missing for years, the game released to rave reviews but was initially criticized for the lack of content the game had at launch. But instead of offering fans worthless platitudes and nebulous promises for new content, the developers at Ubisoft Montreal actually delivered the content. Swapping to what is now called a “games as a service” model, gamers would receive free content updates and added new maps and playable characters on a regular schedule four times a year. Thanks to an already solid core gameplay loop, the reception of the game turned around–Siege now has 25 million registered players.

Three months later, their success story would continue with the launch of Tom Clancy’s The Division. Another game based on the incredibly popular novelist’s works, The Division would be set in an open-world Manhattan torn apart by an unexpected virus. Once again fans complained about the lack of content, and once again Ubisoft set to work fixing the problems as quickly as they could–the current Division is packed with content and the fanbase is eagerly anticipating the sequel due out between the fall and next Winter.

The dominoes continued to fall. Watch Dogs 2 was seen as a vast improvement over it’s predecessor, with it’s colorful depiction of hackers in San Francisco. For Honor became a wildly successful combat game with a fighting system unlike anything in competitive gaming right now. Ghost Recon: Wildlands was the best selling game of most of 2017. Games like the turn-based South Park: The Fractured But Whole and the XCOM-like Mario x Rabbids: Kingdom Battle showed their range, and Assassin’s Creed Origins manages to enter game of the year conversations for its reworked battle system, beautiful rendering of ancient Egypt, and compelling story.

Hell, in a year of largely expected E3 games, Ubisoft had the best conference by far in 2017–announcing new IP such as Skull & Bones and Starlink: Battle for Atlas, sequels to major titles like The Crew 2 and Far Cry 5, and the first sign of the sequel to Michael Ancel’s beloved Beyond Good and Evil. What happened? How’d they pull off such a major change?

Well, I’m just a gamer who knows very little about what goes on behind closed doors, but if I had to guess? It’s the people. Ubisoft simply hires more people than any other company in gaming. They currently employ nearly twelve thousand people, which is more than any other third party publisher–three times more than Activision or Square-Enix, fifty percent more than EA. They’re drowning in developers and artists, and have taken on an assembly line approach to their games, tossing however many people necessary to get the games out by reasonable, expected dates–something most other publishers have failed to figure out this generation.

Of course, there is a downside to this. The assembly line approach is viewed fairly negatively by a portion of the core gamer base, as they feel it strips out the “soul” and flavor of a game.   There’s some truth to this–people love Assassin’s Creed: Origins because it’s basically a reskinned Witcher 3. They saw the way because another company did it first, essentially.   They’re not making “art”, they make games.

My argument to that is it’s fine if that’s all they do. It took five years for the Witcher to come out, and if Cyberpunk hits next year it’ll have been four years since The Witcher 3. Take Two released Red Dead Redemption in 2010 and its sequel is just coming out, eight years later.   There won’t be a Grand Theft Auto for this generation. There won’t be an Elder Scrolls either. The groundbreaking titles gamers want that command the attention of both casual and core gamers alike? They take ages to come out.

And for many of you, that’s fine. It’s “art” and art takes awhile. I don’t begrudge anyone thinking that way, and even I agree with you on some level.  But when you’re developing art on a multi-million dollar budget, sometimes you need more reliability than once every half decade. Ubisoft might never make another ground breaking game again (besides Beyond Good and Evil 2, which will revolutionize gaming if its as good as the trailer and Ancel’s promises), but they are creating those enjoyable titles that make you pick up a controller in between those revolutionary “event” games, and they’re doing it on a schedule just as reliable as EA’s annual sports titles. And in a generation where it feels like every game you want gets delayed by at least a year, that’s appreciated.

Now if I could just get them to do an open world fantasy action game…

Sage Ashford

A writer with way too many hobbies, Sage can often be found catching up on the latest anime, or reading a stack of comics between Wednesdays and Thursdays.