By Andy Humphreys
Ubisoft recently broke the news that a new Assassin’s Creed is in development. Not so surprising, you might think.
Well actually, isn’t it just a little surprising that an announcement has to be made at all? The news that a new iteration of such a popular and long-running franchise is in development should be a given, shouldn’t it?
The most interesting part of the announcement is the timeframe. It seems the next installment in the series will be given as long as it needs to be ready, with Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot stating that the game may not even make a 2017 release. This was in addition to a press release in February of this year, where Ubisoft stated “This year, we also are stepping back and re-examining the Assassin’s Creed franchise…we’ve learned a lot based on your feedback.”
Why is this interesting? Well, in 2013, Lionel Raynauld, VP of creative at Ubisoft said (via Edge): “We are able to offer people a new Assassin’s Creed every year because they want Assassin’s Creed every year… As long as this is true we would be very stupid to not satisfy this need…”
Only a couple of years ago then, Ubisoft were full-steam-ahead on yearly Creed games. So why the flip-flop? Have the gaming public lost their appetite for an annual Assassin’s Creed?
In 2014, Assassin’s Creed: Unity sold 10 million units when sales are combined with that of its sister game, Rogue, released on last gen consoles. This was about as many copies as the previous entry, Black Flag, which was released on both generations of consoles. No particularly damning trend there -- no uptick, no decrease.
But a trend does become apparent when you look at the series’ more recent entry, the Victorian London-set Syndicate, where Ubisoft reported that first week sales were down on the previous entry. And the brass weren’t shy in putting forward with a theory as to why.
"Clearly in our first week we were impacted by what happened with Assassin's Creed: Unity," said CFO Alain Martinez in a yearly earnings call.
‘What happened’ was the beleaguered release of a flagship AAA title that was utterly plagued with bugs across all platforms. Ubisoft clearly believe that fans’ bad experiences with the game, coupled with the unfavorable publicity surrounding the situation, had a serious impact on sales for their next installment.
This is of course bad for the franchise for immediate financial reasons -- less sales equal less earnings -- but in the long-term, it has the potential to be far worse. Ubisoft will be very conscious of the fact that, having built up this franchise from humble, experimental beginnings with the original game, they will not want what is arguably the jewel in their crown to be tarnished in public opinion.
But, based on the figures at least, Assassin’s Creed is a series that gamers are beginning to care less about.
The move to change to a done-when-its-done mentality with the development of the series is bold, and cannot simply be to give the developers time to cure any last minute technical issues. Ubisoft have identified that an annual output must result in a lower quality finished product, and realize that if that continues, the Assassin’s Creed series’ reputation will be irrevocably tarnished.
But is this strategy a gamble? Could moving to less frequent releases simply make Assassin’s Creed less visible, less current…less relevant?
Gamble or no, Ubisoft are not the only publishers who seem to be moving to a less regular output to safeguard the quality of their games. ‘Franchise fatigue’ has now been identified as a very real problem. Guitar Hero is a poignant recent example. Here, a franchise and a formula that seemed enduringly popular, and which was very profitable for publishers Activision, soured very quickly due to an avalanche of successive releases, eventually resulting in the (temporary, as it turned out) death of the entire brand.
Activision appears to have learnt from its experience with the Guitar Hero games. In the case of Call of Duty, far and away their most lucrative series, the publisher has taken preemptive steps to avoid franchise fatigue. By keeping three studios developing Call of Duty games on rotation, they will hope to keep the games fresh, introducing new ideas from a larger group of people, whilst still giving the public what they, at least currently, appear to want -- a Call of Duty game every year.
EA Games have also had brushes with franchise fatigue. Being the world’s biggest publisher, they churn out more than their fair share of yearly-iterating games (Madden, FIFA, NHL, etc.). And they succeed, year upon year -- a fact evidenced by the recent revelation that this year’s FIFA release set a franchise record, outstripping the previous holder (FIFA 13) and improving on last year’s launch sales by 18 percent. So, the yearly release model is a strategy that works.
The problem comes when you try to apply this same business-centric logic to non-sports, non licensed games. Between 2002 and 2012, Need For Speed, the once genre-leading racing series, had no less than 14 major titles., and their quality varied drastically, from the critically lauded (Underground), to the far less universally appreciated (The Run). Now, Need For Speed games are released far less regularly, and EA has shared development duties between a number of its in-house studios. The publisher even rebooted the series In 2015 with the aptly named Need For Speed, but the damage to the brand had been done, and now EA are competing in a post-Forza world where the bar has been raised both in terms of quantity and quality of features. EA and its various studios now have some work to do bringing this particular franchise back to the front of the grid.
The takeaway from this is that sports games are by their nature annual, and don’t need the same freshness in terms of character and story that narrative based, non-sports titles require. Even racing games, which do not tend to be story-driven, need more attention than simply updating tracks and car models.
In the case of Ubisoft and Assassin’s Creed, sales have yet to drop significantly. The damage has not yet been done -- or at least, has not so far been significant enough to be critical. By slowing the development cycle, and giving the developers enough time to really polish and perfect the next game, Ubisoft are taking necessary steps to revitalize Assassin’s Creed before public and critical perception of the franchise turns sour. In doing so, they will no doubt feel that they are not only preserving the high regard that has built up for what most still view as one of the few premier single-player focused, story driven AAA franchises in the industry, but also guaranteeing the financial success of the franchise for years to come.
They are exchanging short term financial gains for potentially infinite longevity. That’s not a gamble. It’s a no-brainer.