I’ve referred to Ubisoft games in the past, but never really explained it. That ends today.
Ubisoft, the developer behind Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs, The Division, and Far Cry, is known for its open world games. They often have expansive maps, numerous activities plucked from a limit set of mini games, and collectible items sprinkled over the map. The success of the above series shows how this approach can be quite appealing, but also has serious downsides. For all the money of its made, Ubisoft is now seeing the weakness of their model. It can be fixed, but it means going outside of their development comfort zone.
The Ubisoft model has some good things going for it. The biggest two are the tons of content and (from the developer’s prospective) the quick turnaround on game development. The sheer amount of content in an Ubisoft game allows the player to flit between activities ensuring that no one activity wears out its welcome and that the player can pick the parts of the game they enjoy. Even better, many of these activities grant bonuses that improve the player’s abilities meaning that the content builds on itself as the player plays. The standardized formula also allows Ubisoft to turn large games out in relatively little time. With the exception of the new maps, most of the content is relatively easy to design and implement allowing for AAA games with only a year or so of turnaround. Rather than wait three or four years for the next iteration of a blockbuster title, fans can experience one on a regular basis while the developer enjoys the financial benefits.
That is where the strengths end and much of the blame lies on the quick turnaround. While the “map + mini games + weak story = success” template allows Ubisoft to churn out games quickly, it restricts what Ubisoft can do with the game elements. The mini games are a perfect example of this. The map of an Ubisoft game is littered with icons denoting diversions for the player. Sadly, most of these games are undeveloped fractions of the larger game. After playing a few rounds, the value of most side quests is in their rewards, not their gameplay. At its worst, mini games reach Skinner Box levels of compulsion where the player isn’t having fun, but rather is receiving just enough of a reward to keep playing. Ubisoft has had years and numerous games to fix this, but can’t due to the shortened development cycle. Developing genuine side quests with fun characters, new gameplay, and a decent narrative ark takes time and coordination that a limited timeline with set pieces can’t allow. To fit into the model, mini games must be unobtrusive and require little from the other elements to cut down on the amount of editing it would take to ensure each element fits together. As a result, most of the diversions are small, repetitive, and self-contained until you get to the reward.
The mini games at least “benefit” from the compulsion to get just a little more. Storyline, the often neglected aspect of these games, falls almost completely by the wayside. The heavy investment in a map and gameplay style limit what each story can do. Most game locations are, by necessity, in the game map because additional locations would take more time. Stories can only ever happen in a few alternative locations limiting the scope and narrative to just those places. The repetitive gameplay causes even more damage. In a perfect world, gameplay would follow from story allowing the developer to create gameplay that reflects the larger narrative. In reality, the writers get invited to the party too late. In a game like this, the writers never get a chance to tweak anything. They almost always write a story that matches the limited gameplay with the knowledge that they can do nothing new or interesting without requiring additional resources they won’t get. With the locations and gameplay so restricted, it shouldn’t be a surprise that most Ubisoft game stories are garbage.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this before. EA’s Need for Speed series followed a similar trajectory until the customer base grew bored and moved on to greener pastures. Later developers took EA’s model and built the Burnout series which saw a new round of success. If Ubisoft is willing to let its series breath, give them more time to develop, and dabble in new ideas, than the next success in the open world genre need not come from the outside. With a little bravery, Ubisoft can leverage its existing talent to be the developer that takes these games to a new level.