Ubisoft: How to Sell a Broken Game
Before the practice of digitally downloading games without ever leaving your comfy computer chair was as common as it is today, launch day for a highly anticipated title was a day where after months of promotion and fanfare, touting how great and advanced their game is, companies would release their title. In response, many individuals would wait in huge lines, buy their games, head home, and play the game they spent their hard earned money on. Most of these things still happen today when a new game comes out, but with one major difference: the game may not be playable until customers are served up their day one patch, with a potential promise of more (fixes) to come. For game industry giant, Ubisoft, the practice of selling and marketing an incomplete or broken game and seemingly promising otherwise has become so common that it is now almost expected, and that is no exception in its most recent game title, Assassin’s Creed: Unity. Instead of being a concept that is increasingly necessary, it should be an issue that is considered unacceptable and damaging for the industry as a whole.
With games getting bigger, more complex, and requiring more man hours than ever before to complete building, bugs that fell through the cracks are often times an honest mistake, since catching all them in such a huge amount of work that has been done can be quite difficult. However, as games and consoles are slowly requiring active online services the entire time, and with the increasing opportunity to send fixes online, companies as a result are given more slack to release an incomplete game or even worse, knowingly releasing a game that they know is an inferior or broken product, while still charging customers a full, sometimes premium price for a game that does not fulfill the promises set by the game companies themselves. In simply the last two years of releases, here are just a very few number of titles that required a day one patch: Medal of Honor: Warfighter, Battlefield 4, Far Cry 3, Titanfall, Grand Theft Auto 5, Watch Dogs, Destiny, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Assassins Creed: Unity, Dragon Age: Inquisition, and The Crew (Futter, 2014). Some of these patches like the Halo bundle required downloading a whopping 15GB (Humphries, 2014). The fact that if most of them had been released just one month later at the very least, it would have been able to fix some of the issues that left the game unplayable, instead of having customers wait around potentially for hours on launch day when they could be spending that precious time playing the game. As you can see from the following list of AAA titles, this issue is certainly not exclusive to Ubisoft, and many examples exist. Companies like Electronic Arts, two time winner of the “Worst Company in America” award, have also had their fair share of releasing buggy, broken, and/or incomplete games (Tassi, 2013).
I am not saying that those mentioned in the list above are not good games, nor do I believe that patches are inherently wrong. In fact, many of them are games that I have played and thought were great. Additionally, there are many games that have had less than satisfactory launches, but managed to clean up their act down the road and eventually became arguably great games. A good example of that would be the ever popular World of Warcraft. When launched in 2004, the game had constant server issues and player disconnections that were so severe, it lasted through the New Year and even pushed Penny Arcade to revoke the title’s game of the year award (Orland, 2013). Now, over a decade later, the game still continues to dominate the massive multiplayer online genre, bringing in approximately 36% of the market share and over a billion dollars in revenue (Tassi, 2014).
However, with Ubisoft, we are seeing this problem of releasing games that are not what the publisher promises becoming a standard, rather than something companies are striving to push away from. The company in particular has had some questionable launches for their games as of late. Earlier this year, Watch Dogs was released and its general reception was that the game was somewhat lacking. While this in and of itself is not a real problem, what makes this seem somewhat troubling is when reviewing past E3 footage, the game was portrayed as incredibly cinematic and graphically advanced, but when it was actually released, did not seem to contain those features. This was further put into question when modders found disabled code that contained what seemed to be what was missing from the launch of the game when compared to the E3 footage. Ubisoft responded by denying any claims of purposely scaling down Watch Dogs, instead arguing that the reason behind the removal of the graphical effects were performance based issues only, even when modders found a comment in the code for color that was written “is PC only, who cares” (Orland, 2014). This is on top of poor performance optimization issues that the game was having that resulted in screen stuttering and texture based issues, even when being played on high end rigs (Schiesser, 2014). Despite the criticism received that resulted from Watch Dog’s controversy, the game was, to no one’s surprise, eventually patched in order to fix most of the problems, and as the industry tends to do rather quickly, everyone more or less managed to move on.
It was then up to Ubisoft again to prove to the world that they were incapable of releasing a triple A game without game breaking bugs and glitches, and they sought to achieve this goal through the release of Assassin’s Creed: Unity. Joking aside,
with all the problems that came with the launch of Unity that the company had to face, one can question whether or not they at the very least anticipated s
ome of this backlash beforehand. For context, Assassin’s Creed Unity was released with numerous reports of frame rates in the single digits, players
constantly getting stuck in hay bales, falling endlessly beneath the map, and also some more humorous (or terrifying, depending on how you look at it) glitches, to name a few (Gates, 2014). Additionally, the game’s highly promoted online co-operative mission system, which allows you to play with up to three additional players, was facing issues that either crashed systems or did not allow the player to access any co-op content altogether, the latter being personally experienced by yours truly. Not only were fans of the game series disappointed, by the looks of the company’s financials, so were investors. Ubisoft’s stock price was reported to have fallen over 9% after the release of Unity’s poor review scores, from $3.62 to $3.29 (Kim, 2014).
The issues surrounding the popular franchise does not end there, as various public statements and actions from Ubisoft are what contribute to problems that bring down themselves and the industry as a whole. First and foremost are examples that companies like Ubisoft are making promises to consumers that, based on their actions, they cannot keep. The president of the North American branch of Ubisoft, Laurent Detoc, quoted that if Ubisoft found they could not keep up the quality of the Assassin’s Creed series, they would break the annualized schedule the franchise is committed to, that “if [they] think [they’ve] ended up with a 70 percent Assassin’s Creed game, [they’re] not going to ship it”, as it would “damage[s] the brand” (Detoc, 2013). Considering that the highest score (Xbox One) for Unity on Metacritic is a 76, it puts the company in an even worse position when considering brand image (Metacritic, 2014).
Finally, and perhaps one of the most controversial issues regarding the release of Assassin’s Creed Unity, is the idea circulating the review embargo of the game. What this means, is that reviews of the game were held from being released until approximately 12 hours after the launch of the game. Simply put, this means the game had been available for purchase for up to half a day without any input from reviewers on how the game performed, whether it was positive or negative (Kuchera, 2014). Ideally, embargos are beneficial for the consumer, reviewer, and seller. It would allow reviewers to take time to play through a game and have sufficient time to gloss over notes before making an informed decision. Reviewers who break the embargo are typically frowned upon and would impact the reputation of said reviewer, which typically discourages such behavior. However, when it is like the case concerning Assassin’s Creed Unity, and the embargo is in place until after the game is set, it can lead to some assumptions of a potentially suspicious situation regarding a publisher and its game. Such was the case with Ubisoft, and as well as with games like Destiny and Drive Club, both of which opened to the same lackluster performance and over expectation as Unity. In Ubisoft’s case, it breeds distrust towards the company, and sends off the message that even the publisher knew that the game was going to be subpar, and forced the embargo to outlast the launch in order to capture the initial wave of buyers that are typically hard-core fans of the franchise. All this really does is further damage the company image, while hurting your customer base who decided to spent at least $60 dollars for an unfinished, unpolished game.
If intentional, this puts Ubisoft in a position where many consider it an inexcusable act, and if unintentional, this still leaves Ubisoft looking incompetent and inadequate. In any case, what happened in regards to Ubisoft is a reminder that customers and the industry must continue to deem such behavior unacceptable for the good of the industry. Ubisoft has since apologized for the state in which Assassin’s Creed Unity was delivered, and have been hard at work releasing patches and even providing free downloadable content to any who purchased the game. However, since physical copies are still available and must be packaged way ahead of the release schedule, it would be good on Ubisoft and other companies to assess the quality of their game at that point, and decide whether or not releasing on schedule or delaying the game is the better option. Doing so would benefit consumers and publishers alike.
Assassin's Creed Unity. (n.d.). Retrieved December 7, 2014, from http://www.metacritic.com/game/playstation-4/assassins-creed-unity
Crecente, B. (n.d.). The long road to fixing Assassin's Creed Unity. Retrieved December 4, 2014, from http://www.polygon.com/2014/11/14/7223023/assassins-creed-unity-fix
Gates, C. (n.d.). ‘Assassin’s Creed Unity’ Reviews Knock Down Ubisoft Stock Price. Retrieved December 6, 2014, from http://gamerant.com/assassins-creed-unity-reviews-drop-ubisoft- stock/
Kim, T. (n.d.). Ubisoft Stock Gets Crushed after Abysmal Assassin's Creed Unity Launch. Retrieved December 9, 2014, from http://finance.yahoo.com/tumblr/blog-ubisoft-gets-crushed-after- abysmal-assassins-creed-165926902.html
Kuchera, B. (n.d.). How Assassin's Creed Unity weaponized review embargoes. Retrieved December 9, 2014, from http://www.polygon.com/2014/11/11/7193415/assassins-creed- unity- review-embargo
Orland, K. (n.d.). Amid controversy, Ubisoft denies downgrading graphics on PC Watch Dogs. Retrieved December 9, 2014, from http://arstechnica.com/gaming/2014/06/amid-controversy- ubisoft-denies-downgrading-graphics-on-pc-watch-dogs/
Orland, K. (n.d.). Unready for takeoff: The five worst PC game launches (that aren't SimCity). Retrieved December 9, 2014, from http://arstechnica.com/gaming/2013/03/unready-for- takeoff-the-five-worst-pc-game-launches-that-arent-simcity/
Tassi, P. (n.d.). 'World of Warcraft' Still A $1B Powerhouse Even As Subscription MMOs Decline. Retrieved December 9, 2014, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/insertcoin/2014/07/19/world- of-warcraft-still-a-1b-powerhouse-even-as-subscription-mmos-decline