Ubisoft needs a reboot

It's been hard to watch this iconic publisher's slow, freemium-driven collapse.


At some point in the last console generation, Ubisoft lost its soul. It was a piecemeal erosion process that started in 2015, and it finally resulted in a complete identity collapse somewhere between the studio’s unironic rollout of in-game NFTs and its sixth delay of Skull & Bones. Ubisoft has 40 years of AAA hits and weird licensing deals to its name, and it used to be a pillar of European innovation — but in 2023, it’s selling live-service blandness, mobile ports with microtransactions and unreliable release dates. What even is Ubisoft anymore?

Assassin's Creed Mirage
Assassin's Creed Mirage (Ubisoft)

Ubisoft has been a company longer than most of its players have been alive. It’s responsible for developing and publishing hundreds of games, including iconic franchises like Prince of Persia, Far Cry, Trackmania, the Toms Clancy, Rabbids, Rayman, Just Dance and, of course, Assassin’s Creed.

At the company’s Summer Game Fest 2023 show we got reveals of Massive Entertainment’s big licensed games, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora and Star Wars Outlaws, as well as a proper look at the new 2D Prince of Persia game, which actually seems pretty good. But for the most part we saw sequels, live-service games and mobile titles. XDefiant is a free-to-play team-based shooter, and following an off-key sea shanty performance, we saw Skull & Bones – a live-service game that we actually played in 2017 and 2018, but has since been delayed to oblivion. Then there were several mobile-first games like The Division Resurgence and Assassin’s Creed Codename Jade, and a new Crew game, The Crew Motorfest. We also got another Ubisoft TV show and a look at the Assassin’s Creed VR game. It was far from the worst stream of the Summer Game Fest, but it didn’t do much to make people excited about Ubisoft.

So, let’s talk about how we got here.

Everything changed for Ubisoft in 2015. Assassin’s Creed: Unity shipped the previous November and proved to be the series’ most busted installment to date. It was the first Assassin’s Creed built specifically for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and Ubisoft overshot it on all fronts: Unity was full of visual and mechanical bugs, and it was so unplayable at launch that Ubisoft publicly apologized for the game and eventually released free DLC, all while furiously rolling out fixes. That same year, Ubisoft debuted Watch Dogs, too – and that game also had disappointing visuals, especially compared to its announcement trailers in 2012.

Until this point, Ubisoft had an annual cadence for Assassin’s Creed, releasing one mainline entry per year from 2009 onward. Syndicate came out in 2015, and by 2016, Ubisoft was openly talking about series fatigue and announced plans to re-evaluate its approach to its tentpole franchise. Notably, longtime producer Jade Raymond left Assassin’s Creed and Ubisoft altogether in October 2014, just before the Unity disaster.

The Crew Motorfest
The Crew Motorfest (Ubisoft)

This was the stage when a French media investor group, Vivendi, attempted to take over Ubisoft. Vivendi began buying up shares in the studio in 2015, and Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot went on a publicity tour against the raid, arguing about the importance of staying independent on-stage at E3 and beyond. Meanwhile, the Guillemot family, which founded Ubisoft in 1986, went on a buying spree of its own, increasing its control of the studio alongside Vivendi. The fight ended in 2018, when Vivendi agreed to sell all of its Ubisoft shares for nearly $2.5 billion, a hefty return on its investment. This deal was able to happen because Vivendi sold a significant chunk of its ownership to Tencent, an existing Ubisoft investor and one of the largest video game companies in the world. At the exact same time, Ubisoft and Tencent, a Chinese company, announced they’d entered a strategic agreement that would bring Ubisoft’s games to PC and mobile devices in China. Since then, Tencent’s stake in Ubisoft has grown significantly, and today, in addition to its studio shares, it owns 49.9 percent of Guillemot Brothers Limited.

I feel like you can see this period of financial turmoil in Ubisoft’s creative output between 2015 and 2019. Ubisoft was consistently releasing entries in its established franchises, but it wasn’t developing original, genre-shifting hits like it used to. The studio was kind of coasting. In 2019, Ubisoft delayed a number of big games in its lineup – including Skull & Bones, again – and executives said they wanted to slow down even more between releases. In 2020, Ubisoft faced serious allegations of systemic sexual misconduct and sexism, and a handful of longtime leaders were fired or quit.

The Division Resurgence
The Division Resurgence (Ubisoft)

On an investor call in 2021, Ubisoft’s CFO said the company was focused on building its library of free-to-play and mobile games. Since then, Ubisoft has done exactly that, developing Rainbow Six, The Division and Assassin’s Creed mobile games, and focusing on live-service iterations of its franchises, old and new. Ubisoft also earnestly tried to make in-game NFTs a thing, which… no.

The most recent Assassin’s Creed games, Valhalla and Odyssey, have been just fine, but they’ve suffered from the same open-world bloat as Far Cry, offering too-big worlds with too little variety or innovation. The studio’s newest announcements include licensed games, live services, mobile entries and microtransaction specials – with Assassin’s Creed represented in most of these categories. The most intriguing Assassin’s Creed title in Ubisoft’s roster is Mirage, the next mainline entry due out in October. It’s a condensed Assassin’s Creed experience that was initially conceived as a bit of DLC for Valhalla, and it’s an homage to the series roots, with a contained map and a return to stealth-first combat. It sounds like the original Assassin’s Creed – which maxed out at 15 hours or so, rather than 60-plus for the recent games – and it feels like the type of thing Ubisoft players have been looking for over the past eight years. Unfortunately, Ubisoft doesn’t see it that way, and it’s charging just $50 for the game. That’s not a bad thing for players, but when Ubisoft is charging $70 for The Crew Motorfest, it says something about how the studio sees value in terms of game size and paid DLC, rather than substance.

XDefiant (Ubisoft)

To me, Mirage is a welcome step back in terms of scope, but it almost feels like an accident in Ubisoft’s broader plans to build freemium experiences and mobile games for a global market. The studio might be on the cusp of a renaissance, with the space to find its voice and alter the direction of entire genres again, but I don’t think microtransactions and open-world blandness will push it over that edge. Ubisoft used to be weird and profitable in the world of prestige games, but both of those descriptions are fading fast as the studio chases hot monetization trends and relies on the innovations of other creators. Mirage represents one path for Ubisoft, where it chases quality design rather than accounting goals. A game like XDefiant represents another potential altogether – it might be lucrative, but it doesn’t really feel like Ubisoft.