Yesterday, the dam broke for Ubisoft, and the gaming press and gaming public stopped fighting each other after two months of GamerGate warfare to turn toward a new common enemy. In fact, Ubisoft seems to have crossed so many lines with their recent Assassin’s Creed dual release, that critical disdain and public outrage over their policies has reached EA levels of fervor.
EA, twice voted the worst company in America by extremely zealous anti-fans, hasn’t entirely avoided controversy this year. There’s still the forever-question of “was Titanfall a failure?” hanging over their heads with sales data apparently locked in a safe and buried under two hundred feet of concrete somewhere in Redwood. Then there was some kerfuffle with The Sims and swimming pools which I could never really wrap my mind around. But for the most part, they’ve kept their heads down this year and generally avoided fan ire. In fact, they’ve even scored a huge win with the apparently great Dragon Age: Inquisition, if you can believe the reviews of more or less every major gaming outlet.
But this has been an especially bad year for Ubisoft, and it’s only gotten worse as of yesterday. Whereas EA is usually cast as a corporate industry villain, Ubisoft isn’t normally quite as persecuted. Before this, their most memorable controversies involved overly-intrusive DRM, but now? They’re being painted as the face of everything wrong with modern gaming, from deceptive marketing to recycled concepts to crass monetization.
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Here’s a list of the charges from this year alone, in rough chronological order:
– Watch Dogs was accused of “overdressing” E3 footage to look incredibly cinematic, yet the final product was a less remarkable visual experience and far from the next-gen graphical revolution that was promised.
– Watch Dogs failed to live up to its own hype, much of it arguably put forth by Ubisoft, or at least Ubisoft working through the press. The game was serviceable, but unremarkable, which was deemed a sin by the public given how much was promised.
– During E3 2014, Ubisoft stumbled over questions about why the recently revealed Assassin’s Creed Unity didn’t have playable female characters, saying that it was simply too much work to animate.
– Ahead of the Assassin’s Creed Unity launch, Ubisoft revealed the game would be locked at 30 FPS to create a more “cinematic” experience, an explanation fans deemed a PR whitewash of a technical hurdle they were simply unable or unwilling to overcome
– Arriving at the launch of Assassin’s Creed Unity, review copies were given out to critics, but with the stipulation that their reviews could not go live until 12 full hours after the game’s midnight launch. Then, when it was revealed that Unity suffered from a myriad of technical problems across all platforms (including framerate, ironically), the move looked to many like an attempt by Ubisoft to sell day one copies to fans before any negative press could get out regarding the technical problems or the quality of the game itself.
– Assassin’s Creed Unity features a number of troubling gameplay elements, including microtransactions that offer in-game currency for packages priced as high as $99. Past that, the game scatters chests throughout the map that can only be accessed if you game is connected via an AC app or Uplay.
– Far Cry 4 is yet to be released, but already fans are wary of the game also becoming a part of Ubisoft’s new “annual” release schedule, accusing it of looking like extended DLC rather than a meaningful evolution of the series.
– In general, fans decry Ubisoft’s constant use of an extremely similar formula across all their major series, including capture points on an open world map and a huge amount of copy/paste sidequests and collectibles, which may have reached their peak with the drowning-in-icons AC: Unity map.
That’s eight different controversies, each a differing level of seriousness, but all come together to form a picture of a company that seems to be on the wrong track, at least according to the fans who buy its products.
The oldest charge is one that’s going to resonate well into the future. Ubisoft has been a master of creating eye-catching, buzz-building cinematic trailer for their games, using actual pre-rendered CGI, but also stylized gameplay. But the problem is now, the gameplay shown at events like E3 simply doesn’t match the final product. That was most prominently on display with Watch Dogs, but it’s already happening again with The Division, which seems to get less visually impressive the closer it gets to becoming a reality. The issue now is that Ubisoft can show any kind of visually spectacular footage and be met with claims of “well it won’t look like that at launch.”
Some of the intermediate issues are relatively minor and industry-wide. Ubisoft botched the playable female character question with Unity, but obviously more women in meaningful lead roles is something that is not an entirely Ubisoft-specific problem. Neither is the eternal loop of hype-building between publishers, the press and fans, building up games with impossible promises and expectations, and then having them be let-downs at launch as a result.
But the most recent issues with Unity are serious and related to Ubisoft directly. The “weaponized review embargo” as Polygon’s Ben Kuchera recently put it, was a nasty bit of a game-playing that looked entirely self-serving and was the largest issue that managed to unite a feuding games press with their readers for the first time in months.
Though Ubisoft has mostly avoided EA-style disasters of launching games to inoperable servers, as their games are mostly single-player, the technical problems with Unity are a different sort of launch issue, and one that’s just as serious. It’s here that we see the cracks starting to show in Ubisoft’s newfound mandatory yearly release schedule for Assassin’s Creed, and now presumably Far Cry as well. Essentially blackmailing the press with a bizarre embargo time (either you agree to it or you don’t get review copies any more) let players pick up the game on good faith alone before anything negative could be written about it. But that’s the problem with “ good faith;” it goes away.
The gaming public is quickly becoming wary of what companies like Ubisoft are doing. As I mentioned earlier, glorious, too-good-to-be-true E3 footage is going to draw skeptics going forward after what happened this year. And huge AAA games which are forcing post-launch review embargos on the press are going to look like they have something to hide. These are tricks you can pull only so many times before your customers catch on. There’s a fine line between doing what you have to do to sell your product, and tricking (formerly) loyal customers into picking a game they might not have bought otherwise if they had all the facts.
In terms of Ubisoft’s struggles with what their roster of games actually contains, Unity is full of rotten ideas for the “future of games,” whether its $99 microtransaction bundles in a $60 game, or locked chests that can only be opened with companion iPhone apps. Though Ubisoft isn’t the first company to use microtransactions in full-retail games or try to shoehorn in their own services or apps, they’re doing it in a way with Unity that is simply obnoxious, and between these items and the multiple-AC-games-per-year release schedule, it looks desperate, like they’re trying to squeeze every single drop of blood out of the stone. Say what you will about an also-annual franchise like Call of Duty that many view as derivative and sometimes exploitative, but even they’re not offering $99 “unlock all guns” bundles. Yet.
A common refrain when we deal with these kinds of issues is that “well, publishers need to make money.” I understand that, but there’s a limit to what you can do without completely alienating your customers. You have a game like Elder Scrolls Online (not Ubisoft) which has A) a traditional box-copy cost B) a subscription model and C) in-game microtransactions. And how big of a hit was that game? Game developers can’t have it all. Even if a game like AC: Unity is only doing two out of three, there are gamers out there who remember when “unlock everything” was a cheat code in single-player games, and now it’s a $99 macrotransaction.
Yes, making games is expensive, and especially so when it comes to AAA blockbusters, but the further we get down this road, the less the “games are art” argument seems to apply. Assassin’s Creed can be a fun, thoughtful, intelligent series when it’s at its best. Why does it have to be forcefully milked by its own publisher with rushed-out sequels, cash-grab microtransactions and “enchanced” elements like app-locked chests? It’s like if after Gladiator won an Oscar, there was a new sequel released every year, and by the time Gladiator 5 rolls around, you’re paying 50% more to see it in 3D and you have to download an app to watch bonus scenes on your iPad.
The film/TV comparisons are always tough because games have the unprecedented ability to charge for anything and everything, whereas all other forms of media can do is raise ticket prices or subscription rates. Non-F2P, non-indie video games have the $60 price point locked in place, and now publishers are trying to figure out how games can cost $100 or more between DLC season passes, microtransactions, subscriptions and more. Ubisoft is rushing out games and trying controversial revenue generation all at the same time, and it’s not just creating a poor user experience, it’s making them look sloppy and cavalier about their relationship with their fanbase.
Yesterday, I talked about how the Assassin’s Creed franchise needed to slow down or it would go off the rails completely, but now I’m starting to realize that this seems like it applies to Ubisoft as a whole. EA lost consumer trust more or less completely for a period of time, and is just now starting to earn it back. But this year, Ubisoft has fallen into the same trap in different ways, with consumers no longer trusting their advertising (because of enhanced footage) or their retail releases (because of an apparent attempt to silence the press). And in pumping out more games from their beloved series more often, they’re diluting all the properties involved by rushing out a final product that doesn’t have enough time to be an innovative evolution for the series, or one is filled with technical issues. Or both.
A) A product that looks like what was advertised
B) Not to be talked down to in PR speak
C) A working product at launch
D) To be respected for shelling out $60 for a new game, and not goaded into paying even more
These are not difficult goals to accomplish, and it’s amazing how far a little honesty will go in an industry where consumers constantly feel misled. Obviously every company exists to make money, but when your customers feel deceived or like their loyalty is being exploited, you’ve taken a wrong turn. And Ubisoft has taken at least a half dozen wrong turns this year, and now seem to be lost in the labyrinth EA only recently escaped from.
I’ve reached out to Ubisoft for comment for this story, but have not heard back at the time of publishing.