The past couple of years have been good for Ubisoft. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was received to both critical and commercial acclaim at the end of last year, and at the same time the hype for Watch Dogs was approaching the stratosphere, as well as for South Park: The Stick Of Truth. PC gamers were back on board after their ridiculous always-on DRM was canned. And last but not least: not one but two new Assassin’s Creed games were planned for 2014 – the series which was Ubisoft’s cash cow by a mile. A year later the wheels seem to be falling off somewhat… so what happened?
In short, Ubisoft tried to be too much like EA, with too many fingers in too many pies, and the pies not being tasty enough. Watch Dogs was good, but not great; South Park was good, but not great; Far Cry 3 is probably their best game released during the past couple of years, but a couple of niggling problems held it back from being an absolute showstopper, and instead kept it in the “very good” camp. Child Of Light was seemingly an experiment in an indie-style game being published by a triple-A publisher, and whilst I’m not sure it was a complete success (it was more strange than anything else) I am all for these kinds of things being attempted, so I certainly can’t fault Ubisoft there. The thing with those kinds of undertakings is that they require your big hitters (in this case Assassin’s Creed) to really deliver; so far, reviews on Assassin’s Creed Unity seem decidedly mixed: it’s not terrible (at this point in the series that would be truly shocking), but it doesn’t reach the heights that it could have. And then there’s the biggest problem – Ubisoft’s questionable embargo policy.
We here at OSP asked the almighty Ubisoft gods for a review copy of Assassin’s Creed Unity, but unfortunately it was not forthcoming. For most of the major gaming press however, their copies came with an embargo asking for their reviews not to be published until midday of the game’s release date. This represents quite a departure in the modern gaming world, where reviews are usually published at least a few days and sometimes even a few weeks ahead of the game actually hitting the streets. It looked particularly bad for Ubisoft, as reviews for EA’s upcoming Dragon Age: Inquisition were already hitting most major gaming sites, and that game wasn’t even out for over a week from the time its reviews began to surface. Generally there is only one reason you begin to employ shoot-the-messenger tactics like this, and that’s when you know the game isn’t going to be the success that you want it to be (or worse, is an absolutely stinker – but that doesn’t seem to be the case here), and so you try to suppress reviews until after the game’s release in order to try to maximise the amount of revenue you can get from sales before word-of-mouth reaches its tipping point. The whole situation was even enough for Kotaku to officially touch on the subject in a post, stating how they would no longer respect these kinds of post-release embargoes in the future.
When EA are making you look bad, that’s when you know you have a problem.
EA, for so long the Donald Trump of the gaming world (and let’s not forget, winner of not one but two “Worst Company In America” awards – in 2012 and 2013) is slowly getting it right at the same time Ubisoft is getting it wrong. All it took was getting rid of John Riccitiello and, you know, actually making good games. Early reviews of Dragon Age: Inquisition have been extremely positive (and you can read them before the game is out!), to where I am personally hopeful that BioWare have finally turned the corner on the mediocrity that has been their hallmark these past few years.
Ubisoft needs to stop trying to copy other companies – be they EA or anyone else – and furrow their own path. Your number one priority for a gaming publisher – whether you’re the industry leader or an indie that sells a few hundred copies a year – should be to make and publish great games. EA’s problem (and now perhaps Ubisoft’s problem) is that they became content to publish ok games, or average games. Provided that a particular title turned a profit then its quality was, if not incidental, then not the biggest factor under consideration. EA tried to please shareholders first and gamers second. Perhaps you can never completely strip that out – especially for a billion dollar company like EA – but you can at least make it less overt, instead of treating your customers like ambulatory bags of money.
I don’t think Ubisoft are the devil incarnate, or even as bad as EA were on their worst day a few years back. Still though, they could be doing better. Their response to Unity’s mixed reception, perhaps looking towards The Division next year and beyond, will shape what we can expect from them. Can they nip their sag in the bud and turn it around quickly, or do they want to wallow in it for an extended period of time? Here’s hoping for the former…