In Defense of Ubisoft, or Ubisoft Needs Defending?

2 01 2014

Kotaku user duchessofnuts penned a piece entitled “In Defence of Ubisoft. No, seriously, hear me out.” In it, she (I’m assuming the writer is a woman, going by “duchess” in the username) talks about how Ubisoft really doesn’t deserve the negativity that many fans of games harbor towards it. This hit me from way out of left field, as I was almost entirely unaware that anyone bore any ill will toward Ubi. duchessofnuts’ piece reminded me of the whole mess with Patrice Désilets (short version – Désilets worked for Ubisoft and was a creative lead on Assassin’s Creed and Assassin’s Creed II before leaving during the production of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, which he was also involved in. After a brief sojourn at THQ, he returned to Ubisoft to work on 1666, a project that seemed to be a labor of intense love for him. In 2013, he was fired by Ubisoft, which retained the rights to 1666, triggering an acrimonious legal fight between Désilets and the company, which seems to have ended with the rights remaining with Ubisoft and the game never to see the light of day). Ubi’s actions toward Désilets were certainly clumsy and heavy-handed, and it seems unfortunate that 1666 won’t be happening. As duchessofnuts points out, a game set in that time period had the potential to hurt sales of the Assassin’s Creed juggernaut, and the two distinct properties would inevitably be compared to each other, possibly to the detriment of both. So that makes Ubi’s behavior understandable, while still regrettable and unquestionably poorly handled. Still, that’s pretty much the only ding against Ubi that I could remember.

Apparently there’s a decent amount of grumbling over the steady drip of Assassin’s Creed titles, with some people feeling that the quality of the games was suffering under the weight of a release schedule that is more about profits than quality. To some degree, it’s impossible to argue with that. Shackling a series to a yearly release schedule means you’re burning through story ideas alongside a dev timeline that has nothing to do with “when it’s done.” While the “when it’s done” mentality leads to frequent, frustrating delays, many games that refuse to set arbitrary deadlines for their dev cycle end up absolutely brilliant. Valve’s work comes to mind, though it is necessary to glare angrily while acknowledging horrid misfires like Daikatana and Duke Nukem Forever here. On the flipside, promising that fans can always expect a title by the holiday buying season means less time for polish. For proof, see the Call of Duty series (which I’ll be addressing in an upcoming post). Revelations and ACIII also failed to fully embody the best of the series, which lends a lot of credence to the idea that Ubi was sacrificing quality for a quick buck.

Thing is, I don’t entirely buy it, or at least their version of sacrificing quality is a lot better than anyone else’s. Fans of games love to pick “bad guys,” and some of them are unquestionably deserving. EA has long been a money-grubbing monolith, grinding employees into the ground to produce sub-par products (see Medal of Honor) while pursuing aggressive strategies to eliminate competitive challenges (see the exclusivity agreement they signed with the NFL to torpedo Visual Concepts’ ascendancy). Activision’s fight with Infinity Ward, paired with the declining quality of the yearly Call of Duty outings, makes them look like jerks, no question. But Ubisoft… I just can’t stay mad at them. Despite the fact that ACIII has failed to keep me glued to the controller the way ACII and Brotherhood did, it does a lot very very right. It sets out to tell a smart story in an era no other series outside of strategy games has tried to touch with a ten foot pole. It presents players with a great deal of moral complexity and steers clear of easy answers. It is a game that is unquestionably saying something. Similarly, Far Cry III, an outing in the all but moribund real-world shooter genre, takes bold storytelling leaps and asks the player to think about the violence they’re committing and their easy acceptance of its rationalizations. And then there’s Rayman Legends, a beautiful and joyous romp in a genre that seems to have little place on non-handhelds anymore. That doesn’t feel like a game made by a company obsessed with money.

There have been missteps, sure – Ghost Recon Future Soldier was fun, but ultimately forgettable. Call of Juarez: The Cartel was apparently awful (I haven’t played it). And again, the Désilets mess is ugly and worth scorn. As duchessofnuts points out, though, Ubi has also been at the forefront of a trend toward smaller and cheaper downloadable games that are still substantial and well made. I have issues with Far Cry III: Blood Dragon – mainly the humor just didn’t connect for me – but there aren’t a whole lot of studios making games at a lower price point that are so clearly loved and taken seriously by their dev teams (even if the end result is far from serious). duchessofnuts points to Call of Juarez: Gunslinger as a similarly successful downloadable (and asks for a term to be applied to games in that budget-but-not-garbage class – so far all I can come up with is “AAA Jr.”) and mentions the flawed but intriguing I Am Alive. Clearly Ubi sees some promise in the AAA Jr. space, and they’re doing a good job with it.

All of that is to say that I agree with her central thesis – Ubi has made some mistakes, some more glaring than others, but they don’t deserve the level of opprobrium they’re (apparently) getting. Even when they fall short, they end up much smarter than many of their competitors, and they deserve a lot of credit for that.

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