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The Curious Case of Ubisoft's game development cycle

Published: 09:14, 12 March 2018
Spoof of the promotional image for The Curious Benjamin Button, featuring Ubisoft.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Ubisoft

Ubisoft have made it a habit to design their games by way of apology. Most of their active cash cows were a yawn-fest on launch and improved later, grandiose apologetic gesturing included. Why not release a finished game to begin with?

Back when the first gameplay trailer for The Division landed in 2013 there was barely anyone immune to the hype. It looked groundbreaking, immersive, realistic, tactical and packed with beautiful visuals. If not for the silly scripted dialogue between the contracted players, it would have been perfect. The trailer was so good that it kept the hype going for three years, it was in a word - mindblowing.

Even then, I had that gut feeling reminding me not to fall for hype, further reinforced by the disastrous downgrade Watch Dogs suffered. The trailer was so good for its time that even if just a portion of it was carried over into the game it would have been a masterpiece. Sure enough, it even suckered a cynic like myself into pre-ordering the game. Then, the game got released and we got none of what was promised.

Ubisoft Screenshot from The Division trailer from 2013 displays the game's supposed realism when the character closes the police car door. The Division - Anyone who watched this trailer in 2013 remembers this moment.

The first thing everyone noticed were the graphics, left and right. The UI was all over the place, busy ruining immersion, every second enemy was a bullet sponge that threw realism out of the window, and tactics were non-existent from a design standpoint. Literally everything shown at the reveal trailer was a lie, except your character's ability to close car doors. That gameplay trailer was a glorified cutscene, in the same manner Watch Dogs' reveal was.

The Division's player base soon plunged like a bungee jumper and everyone considered it a dead game. Ubisoft had already taken the players' money, as it became the best selling game in the company's history. Players abandoned it soon after. There was no reason to update or support it any longer. Contrary to everyone's belief, Ubisoft and Massive Entertainment rolled out a series of updates, culminating with update 1.8 that finally made it a game worth the time required time investment.

Ubisoft The Division screenshots from E3 2013 and preview in 2016 showing the game's graphics have been downgraded. The Division downgrade from 2013 to 2016

A similar story happened with Rainbow Six Siege. The game received a trailer that blew everyone's mind, beautiful graphics and when the release came, it was again a considerable . Bugs, server issues and not enough incentive to keep the players interested in the game long term managed to chase most of the player base away. Then a series of updates came and Rainbow Six Siege is one of the best shooters available on the market today.

Their games appear to have have a reversed life cycle. It's the same as the eponymous character in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. He was born old, only to become younger as he aged. Ubisoft's titles get released in a feeble state and it looks like their life cycle is about to end, and then become fresh and strong over time.

This behaviour leaves room to two assumptions, only one of which is true. The first is that Ubisoft's developer studios are inexperienced and make honest mistakes in the beginning and then fix them when they can. The second one is that Ubisoft pushes unfinished products to market and some of them eventually get polished. Considering Ubisoft is a 31 year old company, I highly doubt the first one is the case. Also showing glorified cutscenes with terrible scripted dialogue and advertising them as gameplay is outright deception, so there is nothing honest about those mistakes.

Ubisoft Screenshot from Rainbow Six Siege gameplay trailer at E3 2014 showing CT units entering a house via helicopter drop. Rainbow Six Siege - Scripted footage from 2014 advertised helicopter drops that are nowhere to be found in the game.

It is rather evident that the games players get are actually unfinished products. But why do they support the games after the player base deserts? One reason may be the games as a service plan that Rainbow Six Siege has. It ensures continuous in-game purchases after the release, so it's a good reason to keep updating it with new content and keep players busy.

The Division on the other hand wasn't structured in this way. While Rainbow Six has yearly season passes that ensure long-term income, The Division had only one Season Pass that unlocks all the content in the game. Sure it has loot boxes, but let's be real - they're just cosmetics that players unlock anyway through Cipher keys obtained in-game and barely anyone buys them. With the recent announcement of The Division 2, it's clear one of Ubisoft's goals was to present themselves in a good light in order to improve the upcoming game's sales.

Massive Entertainment also claim they have learned from their in the past two years and listened to player feedback so the same problems will not repeat themselves when The Division 2 comes. They did listen to player feedback in the original game and that's why it eventually got updated to the state of being good title in this moment. Kudos. The question that needs asking now is ''Is The Division 2 going to be another Curious Case of Benjamin Button?''.

Ubisoft Screenshots from Far Cry 3 showing the downgrade Ubisoft performed on the game. Far Cry 3 - You know the definition of insanity? It's downgrading over and over again, expecting players not to get pissed off.

Releasing incomplete products and then gradually updating them in order to keep players invested while looking like a messiah that's hell-bent on eventually delivering a decent gaming experience is also a viable sales strategy.

That said, Ubisoft's strategies aren't nearly as malicious as EA or Activision's treatment of Battlefront 2 and Destiny 2. Ubisoft's games genuinely become better as time passes. It will be a real shame if The Division 2 isn't a good game from the start, and then built upon with high quality updates in the future. That's an opportunity for a decade-defining video game that the original Division squandered.

I truly hope we don't get any more of that horrendous scripted dialogue during the next E3 gameplay presentation.

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