Ubisoft’s Reliance on Blockbuster Releases Has Stripped Away Its Charm

Ubisoft’s Reliance on Blockbuster Releases Has Stripped Away Its Charm

Josh Wise

Poor Ubisoft. Nobody wants to play with them any more. That, at any rate, is the impression you get when you listen to Yves Guillemot, the company’s CEO, who recently announced the culling of three unannounced games and the delay – the latest in a weary procession – of Skull & Bones. (That game began development in 2013, and it’s beginning to feel as though the only way we will get to play it is by plundering it from Ubisoft’s hold.) “What we have observed is that there has been some contraction in overall consumer spending coming from the economic environment and rising inflation,” said Guillemot. He then lamented the ailing performance of some of the publisher’s smaller titles: “When there’s more pressure, people go for the biggest brands, and they don’t go for the small ones.” Ah, yes. The curse of obscurity. The brand in question? Super Mario.

Apparently, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope failed to ignite a sufficient blaze in sales. Also cited as underperforming was Just Dance 2023. Guillemot said that Ubisoft is “facing major challenges as the industry continues to shift towards mega-brands and long-lasting titles that can reach players across the globe, across platforms and business models.” You could almost feel sympathetic, were it not for two things. One, it’s never easy to sympathise with a company that projected to make 830 million euros and instead made 725 million euros. And two, Ubisoft has, in no small way, a hand in this shift. The Likes of Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, Ghost Recon, and The Division have felt less like video games and more like mega-brands for some time now. Long before the market followed suit, they have suffered both contraction and rising inflation: their mechanics all boiling down and blurring together, while feeling more overblown every year.


And yet, it wasn’t always like this. Ubisoft, though as hungry for a hit as anyone, used to trade in adventure – not just games that sought to thrill us with something out of the ordinary, but games in whom investment was a kind of adventure. The likes of Beyond Good & Evil, from Ubisoft Pictures (later rechristened Ubisoft Montpellier), or XIII, from Ubisoft Paris, felt like the work of a company that was restless for our attention, grabbing at the world with wild colours and the click of a camera shutter. These games were arty and elegant, aimed squarely at the middlebrow; they teetered on the lip of pretension but never quite tipped over, and time seems only to have caked them in further style. What’s more, this approach seemed, back then, like the most natural thing in the world: Just France 2003.

Unfortunately, what links those two games, more than their inherent funkiness, is the fact that they didn’t sell enough copies to earn sequels. (XIII was planned as a trilogy, and the party at the end of that game, awash with the fizz of fireworks and champagne, and punctured by a final betrayal, now tastes bitterly fitting.) Outside the mainstays of Prince of Persia and Splinter Cell, the titles that Ubisoft published bore the stamps of intriguing studios and ideas. Gearbox Software’s first self-made IP, Brothers in Arms; the perennially underrated Call of Juarez; cult curios like Darkwatch and Cold Fear; and a nice line in puzzle games for the PlayStation Portable, including Exit and – a bona fide masterwork – Lumines: Puzzle Fusion.


That run, from about 2003 to 2007, ending with the release of the first Assassin’s Creed, is the version of Ubisoft that I consider most fondly. It didn’t come to an abrupt stop so much as it petered and thinned. Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway came out the next year (though it would be the last main entry in that series), along with Far Cry 2 – a brilliant and flawed game, with its brushfires and rusted guns, which set the series on the path to mega-brand status. When I heard the announcement this week, it brought to mind the golden span of another major house, Electronic Arts. EA has yet to match the epoch that began with the release of Black, in 2006; brought us Skate and Crysis the next year; reached its zenith in 2008, with Burnout Paradise, Dead Space, and Mirror’s Edge; and was capped, in 2009, by Brütal Legend and The Saboteur.

None of which is to suggest that Ubisoft’s days of producing great games are behind it. (The contented millions who buy Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry on a regular basis have no time for such wistful retrospection; they are too busy having fun.) Nor do I presume these three cancelled games were likely to have been masterpieces. But we don’t always need masterpieces. We need a steady stream of good games, and we need publishers to keep putting them out, and thus tending the landscape from which the masterpieces may emerge. But when you cancel games, in the name of fiscal consolidation, and when you grip only a handful of giant franchises, then what hope is there for the sparks of anything special?

  • I miss the days when I used to be excited for ubisoft games. The main problem is that after fc3 and ac2, all ubisoft games became the same game. Same map of objectives, same character tropes, same currency/upgrades... It just stripped the personality out of every franchise.

    Then came the disappointment from their paper thin innovation with watchdogs and division which promised so much but ended up being the same old vanilla content.

    Always room for a comeback though
  • That trailer for Beyond Good & Evil 2 was one of the worst things I'd ever seen/heard. It did the exact opposite of what a trailer is supposed to do, which is turn you onto a game.
  • Exactly: all we want (well, me and my overblown ego at least) is just *good* games. It's great if they are brilliant, genre-defiant, blockbuster titles with the depth of the Mariana trench and a moving story. But in the end, I just want to sit down and play a game. And for that I settle for good.
  • I have a lot of Ubisoft titles on my shelf - AC games, Far Cry games, Tom Clancy games. What I do not have is AC: Valhalla, Far Cry 6, Watch Dogs: Legion or Ghost Recon: Breakpoint - as in, the latest game from each series.
  • When they try to innovate they can really get something worthwhile, but as soon as they found that, they unfortunately milk it until they're basically forced to innovate again which is a shame.
  • The best ubisoft game are smaller, indie project
  • With all honesty they need to can skull and bones. It seems that game is causing problems for other potential games.
  • AC used to be one of my play-it-day-1 series. While I preferred some over the others but ultimately all the earlier AC games were fun. I can't say the same about the recent entries. Valhalla I finished recently, 2 years after launch, and there's nothing memorable about that game. I feel sad about what's happening as it was a Ubisoft game - Prince of Persia Warrior Within that changed my thoughts about games in general. Warrior Within made me realize that games could be a work of art as well.
  • Great article, Josh.

    I like that Ubisoft attempts to make games that have a historical setting, but the "Assassin's vs. Templars" underlying storyline and repetitive gameplay tropes, as well as the modern-day genetic memory research and corporate intrigue / espionage just kills it for me.

    I'm surprised Josh did not mention AC Unity. Other than Kingdom Come: Deliverance, I don't think there has been a more loving recreation of a historical context in their version of Paris during the Terror. That was the best part of this game, and climbing towers and jumping into hay wagons to unlock the map was just stultifying. Totally squandered an amazing and beautiful environment, with realistic crowds and NPC loops, with lazy copy-and-paste gameplay and a plot so superficial I don't even remember it.

    Ubisoft needs to stop going back to the same old troughs. They can make a blockbuster game without it being one of their tentpole franchises. People love AC because of the thrill of living history, not the farfetched Assassins vs. Templar plots. Make a game where the plot is realistic, and based in reality -- in these amazing environments they realize.

    Skull & Bones could have done that, and was headed way. But they gave it up to indulge in a massively multiplayer online model, and now they have a game that is apparently not functional in either respect.

    Thanks for the good weekend read!
  • Surprised their move into license games isn't mentioned. Avatar game, Star Wars, is this a move to get the blockbuster level with an external brand? Look at Jedi Fallen Order, 8mil units sold in less than 3 months. The key question is can Ubisoft do a Fallen Order with their chance or a Battlefront 2 launch?
  • I enjoy Ubisoft games. I've played a lot of them. I think Far Cry 5 is the best in the series for gameplay, which puts me in the minority. Yet, I can feel a few kinks in the recent games. While I have sort of a "zen" mode when playing their checklist-y type of style, I can see why the newer stuff is turning off players.

    I think it's easy to hate on Ubisoft. They do some things well; especially their commitment to repairing their screw-ups regardless . Still, their recent gaming philosophy was to chase a trend that could not last - because this Games as a Service is anti-consumer in almost all circumstances. Ubisoft's style is to create two-three games a year, and they're crowding themselves out.

    Also, I think their recent successes benefited from unique market conditions. They planted Valhalla in a game-deprived environment. Now, where delayed releases are all jumbling into each other because the Covid block is coming loose, they have more competition. Not to mention that the market has shrunk dramatically as more players have returned to fulltime work. Ubisoft is not going to be able to compete with its catalogue of B- games.
  • @9

    Not everyone plays ac games for "living history": the historical setting is nice, but i played them for the bigger narrative, for the desmond story (not ezio's, nor connor's, nor any other's) and ultimetely for the assassins vs templars plot...

    However very few of those things are there these days...

    I don't miss the old days as the writer says about 2003-07.
    Nor I complain that they are going for blockbuster mostly or exclusively.
    I pity them for not have enough guts to make blockbuster AND not repetive games.
  • The last good Ubisoft game I played, was Valiant Hearts but everything else since then has been the same tired, buggy, soulless, made by committee product that does nothing to stand out from the crowd :(.
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