The Homogeny of Ubisoft

It’s the day after (despite what the publication date may be) with E3 having come and past once again. A year of CGI trailers and ‘in-engine’ footage for the biggest games, whilst Nintendo seem to be the only ones with any sense right now. But none of that really concerns me (it does, but it’s not for this blog) since the biggest concern I’ve been lamenting after this year’s events is Ubisoft’s gaming future. I have an on and off issue with their biggest franchises, which consist of Splinter Cell, Far Cry, Assassin’s Creed, along with the rising Watch Dogs brand and the fact they’re so similar. Similar, not the same, as much as I joke. But no one can deny the uncanniness between the lot of them in their design and mechanics, especially after the last half a decade, which includes the recent E3 announcements. Even their internal staff, whether they care or not, must know their projects are becoming homogenised to the point of repetition, and their PR must use the words ‘revolutionise’ and ‘innovation’ with pangs of doubt. To me, this very strict template on what should be in their action games is fatiguing the genre and many are concerned that their franchises will begin to slow down and become homogenised to the point of boredom.

But first, we need some evidence, so let’s look at some of the glaringly similar features from the recently shown Assassin’s Creed: Unity and Far Cry 3, below:

Air Assassination

Both pictures aren’t great quality, admittedly, but they’re there to visualise my points. Each are of the main characters in the middle of committing an Air Assassination/Takedown. Popularised by the Assassin’s Creed series, it unsurprisingly returns in this sequel as it has since the 5 previous instalments. Far Cry 3 effectively introduced the same mechanic since the moves are the same apart from the perspective, a rehashed idea now applied to two different game series.

Far Cry has shared more with the AC series, one such mechanic was even included in Watch Dogs. The iconic ‘Towers’. As you can see here:

Towers

You scale your way to the top of a tower to unlock activities, revealing more locations and place of interest on your map. They work exactly the same between each other, apart from the slightest variations. It’s an ok mechanic, but it’s tiring to experience now and offers nothing more than a slight diversion to break up fairly repetitive games. And in turn, Watch Dogs also shares similar features with the recent Splinter Cells, especially in that the player can easily kill enemies at the click of a button:

Special Ability

In its third person part-shooting, part-stealth gameplay, Watch Dogs allows players to enter ‘Focus Mode’ which slows down time, effectively used to aim better headshots. Effective when popping out of cover to shoot your silenced pistol at a few police officers. Splinter Cell has its own easy kill system through ‘Mark and Execute’, where players tag enemies before clicking a button as you instantly kill each one of them. Admittedly, they’re fun and effective when used to the proper effect, yet you wonder just why these presumed stealth focused games have so much gunplay.

You can probably tell by now what my point is, but here’s a last picture comparison of Splinter Cell and Assassin’s Creed: Unity with their stealth cover systems, just to go full circle:

Cover Shooting
A new addition to AC: Unity, but a veteran mechanic for Splinter Cell. It works, which is why I imagine Assassin’s Creed now has it since their stealth elements have never felt good or even just capable of playing their game that way.

I could go on, show more examples, but I think by now my sweeping generalisations on Ubisoft’s cookie cutter formula isn’t all me chatting out of my arse. Now I have the precedence to move onto my actual bloody points about Ubisoft then.

Let’s start with the biggest reason on why their direction of games follow a homogenous pathway and my rant will divulge from there. So, Ubisoft as a global company pool together all their studios to work on several of their projects in different capacities. It puts them in a unique position compared to any other gaming company at their level, all of who have their studios working independently of each other a majority of the time. So these cooperating teams at Ubisoft work on sections of the games at a time, with one typically focusing on the single player, another doing competitive multiplayer and another doing the cooperative stuff. That sounds smart, efficient and good… on paper at least. Just think of Watch Dogs, all about an open world game where the network of technology is all connected together. You can have the Ubisoft Montreal team making the meat of the third person character stuff like the hacking, whilst Ubisoft Reflections, the studio behind the Driver series, design the third person vehicle sections. Sounds like we get a great game with less time needed to develop it since it’s split between the studios, so wins all around right? Arguably, if you were amazed by Watch Dogs. But I wasn’t. At least, not as much as I was expecting to, considering THAT reveal which blew everyone away. You’d think a game made by a reported four studios that the promise of a next gen experience would be fulfilled. Instead, it felt exactly the same way as it does when making a broth and you have too many cooks in the kitchen. Disjointed, samey and lacking the flavour, the identity that sets it apart. I’m sure many who played Assassin’s Creed: Revelations remembers the opening and the list of studios popping up on screen was mental. Revelations wasn’t a great game despite the budget, the manpower, the studio numbers. It was, like so many other Ubisoft action games, solid and polished but so safe. The ‘you can’t polish a turd’ analogy feels appropriate, but they’re never shit games, they’re just devoid of some ambition or substance, like it’s hollow.

You can’t keep an original vision after it’s been cut up, thrown around between several people (let alone several studios) in different parts of the world. The personal nature of it is diluted when handled that way, Frankenstein-ing pieces together so it looks like a game, talks like one too, but something’s wrong about it. You always hear of these small teams of a handful of people making something magical because it’s a passion project of big ideas and small budgets. Hello Games, who are making No Man’s Sky, are made up of 10 people, 7 who are actually working on an uber ambitious and adventurous project. Compared to Ubisoft who are at that level where they try to just throw money at things to make money out of them, primarily. And that’s completely damn well fine. Companies need to make money to survive and thrive, build bigger and more cost demanding games and really it’s the aim in the ultimate game of life called ‘Consumerism’. Ubi are winning in their own way. But when you’re making your games into a mass produced commodity, where the most obvious difference between your main characters is each has different headgear like a hat, a hood or a pair of night vision goggles, you’re not on a passion project. They might as well just bite the bullet, move production to China and run developers as near-slaves in sweatshops on the docks of Hong Kong and pump out their games at a quicker pace..

To be fair though, I am fine with their reuse of gaming assets, like character animations and textures for things, which is usually what people complain about when they see Ubisoft products. “Ezio moves exactly like Connor. That’s just lazy.” are the type of comments I couldn’t give an eff about. Reuse means they don’t have to build things from the ground up and can instead work on something different. That’s why you’ll see little differences in the climbing animations between games, especially the Assassin’s Creed series. I promote this recycling in a lot of ways, I have recycling bags, reclaim parcel envelopes and reuse ink cartridges, all stuff I do because I know we have limited resources on this hellish floating rock. For gaming companies intent on making sequels and such, these issues should be a bigger concern for them considering how inefficient their studios can be with a budget, with projects costs surpassing the average film budget sometimes. They need to cut away all the unnecessary fatty money deposits on their projects to not waste thier time with trying to make everything look new.

Think of it this way. How many brick walls have you walked past in video games? Hundreds, right? I’m sure you’ve never really paid attention to them in any real way unless the devs intended you to. Yet for each game they make, they get their teams to build those walls all over again when they still have the data from the previous games lying on a hard drive somewhere. Video game making should operate much like house construction. If devs have those bricks already in the office from a previous job, why would you order a new batch to be made? You don’t build the house to sleep in it in one night, and then just build another one for the next night from nothing when you have leftoves. You reuse what you have. That’s what Ubi do a bit better than most, incorporating old things and adding newer parts. They don’t rebuild their houses over, though obviously that’s kind of the issue i’ve been posing. But their reuse of assets is better implemented than what many others do. And if you’re sitting there, thinking ‘I don’t give a fuck about recycling, give me gamez, why am I reading this, where are my pants?’ well you should care. If gaming budgets and associated costs decreased by reusing certain assets, the cost of games would be much lower, much cheaper at retail shops and online stores. This next gen price hike bullshit wouldn’t be a proper thing and neither would the Steam price hike. We, the consumers, would benefit. Yet we’re still suffering under these bloated studios.

I do obviously know people don’t want games to be the same each instalment. We get that with Call of Duty, and no one’s really happy that the game hasn’t evolved in 7 years. Assassin’s Creed has received that flack for a while and it’s only growing. Now all Ubi’s games are coming under fire for their repetition and reuse of assets. And that’s the real issue really. Ubi are stuck between the need to impress with new unique stuff and the need to economise the costs of developing, neither can win out. Someone will always be annoyed at the choice Ubisoft make. Same as they need to hear about the issues when we as fans are displeased about their products so the games themselves are forced to do something new, progress and TRY to be better. At least that’s what should be happening, but it’s increasingly difficult to see if that’s the reality of the theory.

Ultimately, Ubisoft seem to be an efficient company when it comes to cutting back some of the unneeded work, effort and money on their part. Yet, when they claim they won’t make a female character for AC: Unity because it would apparently cost a lot of unneeded effort, you wonder just how badly their efficiency is affecting the quality of the games they make. So is the homogeny of the Ubisoft brand a good thing or a bad thing for the company? Time will tell if the sales trend as the brands fatigue. For us, the gamers? I see us missing out on potentially great and innovative franchises, bogged down by a company’s needs to make everything accessible and fill its pockets more than satisfyingly challenging its fans and naysayers. All I know is, I’m still a sucker for a good AC or Splinter Cell and am eager for more, yet increasingly worried that my expectations will dwindle on two of my favourite game series.

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