It’s a strange feeling, being happy to hear a popular developer will not be releasing a game. That’s exactly how I felt upon learning Ubisoft would not be bringing us an Assassin’s Creed title this year. This is a company responsible for two of my absolute favorite games (Prince of Persia: Sands of time, and Assassin’s Creed 2), but their stock has fallen rapidly of late. A series that was once a must-have and broke ground in parkour gameplay is now synonymous with mediocrity, luke-warm story and nightmare-inducing glitches. For my mind, one of the greatest series of the previous console generation has crumbled into a farce, and there is only one culprit.
This is an article about annual release cycles, and why they’re bad for you, and for anyone that cares about quality.
A yearly cycle is actually a rather arbitrary way of organising a release schedule, when you think about it. Why would our orbit of the sun coincide exactly with the time it takes to make a video game? If someone wants to consume your product it often doesn’t matter if it’s January, spring or New Year’s Day. Especially if your product is a video game. However, just as Christmas comes every year, so does a new COD, a swathe of marginally upgraded sports titles and – until this year – a new Assassin’s Creed.
It should make you happy. A brand new awesome game from an awesome series every year, but while Santa would have an army of magical elves to keep the western world happy come December, Ubisoft only has normal humans and a limited amount of time. It becomes a question of quality or quantity, and it’s very clear why many developers and publishers would opt for quantity.
Let’s look at some stats, courtesy of VGChartz game database, Grand Theft Auto 5, one of the highest selling games of all time, has a total of 52 million console sales over both generations. Over the same time Activision has released Call of Duty: Ghosts, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, and Call of Duty: Black Ops 3. While out of the three only Ghosts managed to reach even half of GTA’s haul, Activision managed over 70 million console copies sold when combined. As a brand, COD is more profitable than Grand Theft Auto in terms of sales.
Now, this is not an entirely fair comparison, because Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Call of Duty: Black ops 3 were actually made by different groups of developers, giving each title a cycle closer to three years than one. In fact, Call of Duty is used more as name recognition than as series title, as there are actually multiple series emerging within its broadening umbrella. So despite concerns about recycled gameplay and series fatigue, their business model involves varying developers and titles, offering comparatively fresh and up-to-scratch games. And it is very successful.
The problem with successful business models is that they invariably find themselves emulated, and this does not always go well. It is here we find Assassin’s Creed falter. They did not have various different sub-series, but rather a more linear progression of games unchanged at their core. Call of Duty and sports games (we will get to them in a moment) survive the one-year turnaround if their core mechanic is strong. Simply, in a shooter the shooting must be fun and everything else can be average and you may still have a success. Similarly, a sports game should be fun, and players cope if there is limited padding or game modes. But Assassin’s Creed is a series about story, sprawling worlds and engaging characters. There is no way all of those criteria can be met in a single year of development, and there is no core mechanic to fall back on that keeps players interested.
This is where sports games become relevant. FIFA consistently moves over 10 million copies a year, while Madden and NBA 2K average closer to 7 million. The key is that they are consistent moneymakers for their developers, despite remaining largely unchanged every year.
I can speak from personal experience, because I have owned all but one iteration of FIFA since FIFA 09, and have watched as the series made one major addition (Ultimate Team) at the expense of all other game modes. Career Mode is largely the same experience, and every year the gameplay is – at most – tweaked in minor ways. So why do I keep buying it? It’s just so darn fun to play. Plus, by the time the next FIFA comes around, the footballing world has already transformed and you want your game to reflect that (because they stop updating the squads at this point.) The reason sports games continue to sell each year, despite every franchise’s specific constant issues, is that they are fun to play every year. It’s fun to score goals, and FIFA is the perfect way to enjoy a football-devoid weeknight.
So why do these selected developers have an annual release cycle? Because it makes them money, and because they can. It actually means that the games we do get are often recycled and empty, but we swallow them anyway. We each pay the same amount for each new game, but is the $80 or so spent on Grand Theft Auto 5 comparable to the $80 or so spent of FIFA 16? No. Not in terms of development hours, not in terms of the depth of content, but when a series has name recognition and a predictable release cycle, it makes money. We spend the same, but they spend less, and we should demand better.
And I think we are. Honestly, I think strong-selling sports games will continue their annual release until the expanding sun engulfs the earth, but the backlash against, and subsequent policy change by Ubisoft regarding Assassin’s Creed is a positive move. Assassin’s Creed, Assassin’s Creed 2, and Assassin’s Creed 3 all sold over 10 million copies. By contrast, Unity barely managed 7 million, and Syndicate – widely considered a superior game to its infamous predecessor – managed only 4.5 million sales.
Much has been said about Assassin’s Creed: Unity and its buggy release, but even after Syndicate was proved to be a better quality game, many fans cooled on the franchise, and the sales plummeted. And when money talks, businesses listen.
The obvious fix for the franchise, as previously noted, was to scrap their model of annual releases. More development time means better story, fewer bugs, and a deeper experience (generally), and if a new Assassin’s Creed title manages 10 million sales after two years of development, it would be better than two Syndicates by 1 million, and that’s ignoring the franchise’s drastic downward trend.
But what does this all mean? I think Assassin’s Creed’s fall from grace will serve as a cautionary tale for many publishers and developers considering adopting an annual release model, but money talks louder than all of us combined, and the money is there. Call of Duty – despite being a conglomeration of a number of different developers and series – crowds out its competitors with name recognition and sheer volume. This means we may miss better games behind the stained glass of familiarity. However, this medium is ever changing and one can only hope that quality becomes the major driving factor for sales.
I’m not getting my hopes up, not while EA and Activision keep raking in their money this way.