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?