They’re afraid. As consistently innovative as they are—even to the massive detriment of their biggest ongoing franchise—Ubisoft seems deathly afraid of making the big changes. The times when they should be swinging for the fences finds them tenderly dipping a toe into the water, reassessing, and then going with another toe.
Why hasn’t Assassin’s Creed, for instance, made it to the modern era? Sure, Desmond’s tale took place present day, but the bulk of the series has relied on the kindness of history’s lack of audio video surveillance. Even with Assassin’s Creed III, the game with the most Desmond bits, had him quarantined off in extremely linear, almost fearful gameplay sections.
But those parts were interesting. You were in environments that designers could wholly conjure up from their minds. You were fighting against enemies that you’ve never seen before in any past Assassin’s Creed game instead of the usual palette-swapped grunts, brutes, and elites. More than that, you were facing them in situations you’ve never faced before.
Since the very first game in the series, it seems like we were teased with the intrigue of a fully modern Assassin. They tested the waters with some fun stealth and subtle yet elaborate story shenanigans and quickly moved onto giving Desmond his full Assassin abilities, allowing him to freerun and fighting and whatnot. And he constantly evolved, leading any reasonable person to believe it would soon be happening.
After the culmination of the Desmond storyline, however, hopes were dashed. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag tried something new outside of the Animus sans Desmond, but it was still the story of a seafaring scallywag. Assassin’s Creed Unity didn’t even have anything outside of Arno’s story. It wasn’t the assumption that followed Assassin’s Creed; it wasn’t the hope after Assassin’s Creed III; it was just disappointment.
It feels like fear. So much of what they’ve built relies on the lack of modern implements. And as they introduce more of them like Assassin’s Creed Syndicate‘s grappling hook and carriages in an Industrial Revolution-era England, you realize how much they could be rid of by go further into the future.
That’s not necessarily a good thing or a cure for the series’ ails. It’s a remark upon how much they’re afraid they’ll lose if they go full-bore on that concept, if they extrapolate out Desmond’s time out into a full game. Will they lose the core mechanics that many identify with the franchise? Will they lose the uniqueness as they skew too close to games like Watch Dogs or Splinter Cell, cannibalizing other Ubisoft lines?
They are entirely valid questions. When was the last time you saw a series reinvent themselves to such a degree? It’s just not how the industry works. You take a concept, give it a go, and if people latch on, you iterate to fix the flaws and juice up the working parts to see if they still like it. But eventually you have to call it quits.
If you look at Gears of War, Epic Games fulfilled the Marcus/Dom saga, gave it another go with Gears of War: Judgment, and called it when that failed to find traction and giving it up to Microsoft and Black Tusk Studios for something new. Visceral Games actually dipped out after a rock solid three Dead Space games.
Ubisoft, however, feels content with taking a more Call of Duty or Guitar Hero—really Activision—approach: run it into the ground. For as long as people are buying, just have studio after studio go at it until they stop buying. It’s a solid strategy that responds to the essence of capitalism. After all, if consumers don’t want it, they show it with their money, or lack thereof.
That is perhaps the great virtue of indie game development. It’s not that they can’t employ the same strategy but rather that they choose not to. It’s a conscious decision and seems to be one based largely on guilt and internal obligation.
It’s not that there aren’t indie series because there totally are like Amnesia and Hotline Miami, but it’s rarely a triple-A farming situation. For all the problems of the insular, nigh incestuous component of video games that is the indie (those two descriptors, though, apply to the entire industry as well from development to press to players), it has imbued those independent devs to feel obligated to not be That Guy.
Instead we have multimillion dollar That Guys all trying really hard to be the Thattest That Guy in the biz, almost as if it were a point of pride. How many Hindenburgs have you piloted straight into the ground? Only four? Amateur hour.
Picking on Assassin’s Creed isn’t fair when there are a half dozen more just like it. But it did just make a recent and sizable announcement that was hilariously lukewarm in its reception. Even the most diehard of apologists could only tend to the crowd and say you could look away if you wanted while they sorted out their feelings. The well eventually dries up. Seems like Ubisoft finally found the bottom.