At one time I would have described myself as a Ubisoft fan. After last year’s Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, I went so far as to say that Ubisoft Montreal may well be the best games developer in the world. In my opinion however, 2014 will be remembered as the year Ubisoft started taking their business model and stock price too seriously, and started pushing their customer support downhill.
Let’s start with Watch_Dogs. Watch Dogs was a colossal clusterfudge of a release. Having to awkwardly follow a glitz-and-glamour E3 show, Ubisoft Montreal realised there was no way they could possibly follow up on the hype that they themselves had generated. After cutting all manner of content from their game, the reception for Watch Dogs was tepid from several quarters. Overall the reception was good but the PC crowd were left feeling deflated, especially after discovering hidden, E3-only, files within the PC build which showed exactly what the game could have been, were a ton of stuff not cut out to make the deadline.
Obviously, I understand the nature of the industry and the circumstances which surround content getting cut from games. My favourite game of all time suffered terribly from content-cutting to make the game ship on time. But we’re not talking about content found on the disk years after the game has been released. Nor are we talking about the ongoing quest to find the missing Colossus in Shadow of the Colossus. We’re talking about advertised features here. Content and gameplay which was shown in public at E3 and did not materialise in the retail copy of the game. Simply put, the game was mis-sold to a great many consumers.
Fast forward to Q4 this year (2014) and we’ve just seen Ubisoft undertake another enormous blunder in the guise of the super-hyped launch of Assassin’s Creed Unity. Before we touch on the game let’s first look at the sales strategy, specifically for the exclusive PC market. Ubisoft claimed their game was not going to be available on Steam and would be sold exclusively via Uplay. Sure, this gives Ubisoft a shorter route to market for future updates, it also means they’re not jumping through hoops to update via Steam. But this smelled more like actively pursuing a controlling interest in the game’s distribution. Why give Steam any money at all, if you have your own digital gateway? A move which certainly makes financial sense and no doubt inflates Ubisoft stock prices, but this is a dick move to the end user, no?. After considerable backlash from customers, Ubisoft halted plans to release Assassin’s Creed Unity exclusively through Uplay, opting instead to sell digital copies of the game anywhere, provided they were unlocked through Uplay. Whatever. Although the move was retracted, when Unity was planned for a Uplay download only, Ubisoft gave customers just one way to purchase the game at a massive £50. For digital download. Given the competition between the number of video games retailers for console releases, the PC download of Assassin’s Creed Unity could have ended up costing up to £10 more than physical PS4 copy. Is that customer support? In a climate in which Grand Theft Auto finds it hard to turn a profit, perhaps a more introspective attitude is necessary. Is squeezing out potential customers to favour development a smart financial move in the long term?
We’ve joked in the past about the encroaching pervasiveness of Ubisoft’s control. You never needed to link a Uplay account before, but it was heavily encouraged, incentivised even. Even in its early stages I found this hunger for control to be insidious, but Unity takes it to whole new levels. “This chest cannot be opened unless you link your Uplay account and download the companion app” is a message gamers will be faced with more than once. Currency packs for £50 a shot and a host of microtransactions throughout the game speak of nothing but contempt for the gamer, but that’s a different rant for a different day. Forcing players to utilise the Ubisoft exclusive Uplay system, generating income through it and enforcing control over the marketplace helps Ubisoft stock prices. That’s a given. But are we, as Ubisoft customers, interested at all in those stock prices? As a consumer, I couldn’t give a toss what Ubisoft stock looks like. And when I download a PC game, I expect the same level of quality and customer support as somebody buying a physical console game. Especially when I’m paying more than them.
This is all before we even start talking about the performance of said games. Massively over-specced both; the recommended minimum specs for the PC build of Assassin’s Creed Unity is higher than the highest settings for some popular, current PC games. We’re all for pushing the boundaries here at The Game Show, we want to see the very best that studios are capable of, but out-speccing the majority of your PC fanbase seems like a purposefully obtuse thing to do, especially when many advertised features aren’t delivered. Fifteen frames per second on medium settings, skinless horror-heads and falling through the floor within seconds; that’s the unfortunate reality for a lot of PC gamers. Watch Dogs was the same – the game looked awful compared to the E3 PC game. Clever PC users later found the better settings by digging around in the game’s code and turned them back on. The settings were there, but the game was hobbled on purpose. There was a thread on Reddit not long back where a gamer had gone through Assassin’s Creed Unity’s code, and found that the PC game is still the development build, despite the game still being in development a week before the release. It seems that Ubisoft are purposefully trashing their PC games in the hope that their customer base will turn to console games, eschewing their PC titles. Whilst the console versions aren’t perfect, Ubisoft have purposefully mucked up their PC games and there is no clear answer as to why.
To a conscientious outsider, it would look as though Ubisoft are trying to kill off the PC games market, in an effort to prove that there is no PC games market. It’s in Ubisoft’s best interests to reduce development costs for multiplatform. Black Flag after all was released on six different platforms. But with the PS4 and the Xbox One both being based around x86 architecture, developing concurrent PC builds surely just got easier. There are less challenges and lower pressure for multiformat development these days, so you would expect Ubisoft to support more PC games, rather than make genuine attempts to scupper a whole section of the games marketplace. The console versions of Ubisoft games will have been signed off months before release. That compiled code needs to be mastered and shipped for manufacture; a process that takes weeks, excluding logistics time. If anything, the advantage of digital delivery is that downloadable PC games can be tweaked and polished right down to the wire so the final game should be better, not worse, than its console counterpart.
Despite leaning on hyper-polished PC builds for their E3 showcases, Ubisoft have a bit of a poor legacy when it comes to their PC retail output. Remember seeing the videos of the ships in Black Flag rising up into space with all the sailors still aboard? How about the one where the sea just had a black hole in it with water pouring in? Whilst these are funny glitches and make for great YouTubing, don’t forget that eleven million people bought that game and a proportion of those will be the PC gamers. Far Cry 3 needed a good few patches too, before it was the game it is now. For what it’s worth, Far Cry 4 seems to be a solid experience but let’s not forget it has hardly been as hyped as Unity.
In Soviet Russia, Ubisoft Contact you
This week, Ubisoft contacted all customers who’ve bought Unity. In what Raff refers to as “The old shit sandwich”, Yannis Mallat’s apology amounted to “Sorry the game launch was absolute crap and the PC game doesn’t work, but the first DLC will be free to everyone”. Yeah, fine. Fair enough. You mucked up and here’s a small handout to make up for it. The problem runs deeper though, when you realise that to fix the problems, Ubisoft are stripping out even more features to get the game running as intended.
The PS4 version is now bereft of the global illumination (which led me to say to Raff “I think this is the best-looking game I’ve ever played”) and the resolution has been dropped to boot. Of course, Ubisoft’s official press release didn’t mention this, rather they seemed as proud as punch to be giving away content that should already have been in the game. The mail smacks of damage limitation; grovelling to their customers because they got caught trying to sell a massively flawed product. All that bunkum about innovation and optimisation; I was under the impression that optimisation is getting what you’ve got working better and more efficiently, not just plain removing stuff until it doesn’t break.
Really, Ubisoft just needed to get this game out in time for Christmas, as they’d spent all the advertising budget and the shareholders were breathing down their necks. These are the exact same problems which plagued Watch Dogs and apparently Ubisoft have neither learned from their mistakes nor are willing to change what they do. At least with Watch Dogs they stripped the content before the game shipped, this time they couldn’t change the release date so Ubisoft needed to edit the game after release.
Look at the big hoo-ha caused by DriveClub. The game was pushed and hyped as this next-gen racing sim where your online career is the meat and potatoes of the experience. Then the online didn’t even work. How a game can be released in this day and age with those kinds of flaws amazes me. DriveClub and Watch Dogs were supposed to be launch titles. Neither of them work the way they were intended, even now.
Ubisoft aren’t losing any money though, so can you expect this to change? As long as gamers are pumping money into this heartless machine, gamers will continue to be treated with this contempt.
The recent Far Cry 4 is a great game, which goes some way to making up for Unity’s failure. EA even brought out Dragon Age: Inquisition which didn’t suck at all. The most recent World of Warcraft update had ten million players on its first day. The game was highly praised and well received, because it shipped when it was ready. The difference is that none of these games were razzed up so hard that they were doomed to failure. Dark Souls and Payday 2 are other examples of games which kept the hype low. Word of mouth and a modest marketing budget helped these games become great successes, without stirring up the hype nest. Dark Souls 3 may well suffer the problems listed here as it’s now a flagship product, but I hope to be proven wrong.
In an industry that’s generating more and more money each year, is this mentality a safe and sustainable investment for the future? It’s hard to see these actions causing anything other than harm further down the road. If the games industry doesn’t suffer financial backlash from its actions then if nothing else the integrity of the products will be incalculably damaged.
Think of it this way – You’ve paid to watch Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar at the cinema, only for the reel to give out 80% of the way through the movie. Warner Brothers put out a lukewarm press release saying “Sorry about that, we wanted our movie out in time for Christmas. We’ll include the full cut on the BluRay, promise”. Are you truly going to be satisfied with that? I don’t think so, and if Hollywood moved in this direction the integrity of the cinema experience would be wholly undermined. I imagine we’d see cinema attendance dropping to unprecedented lows.
Only time will tell if we see the same thing happening in video games. The onus is on you, gamers.