Ubisoft existed before I was born, it was created on March 28, 1986 under the name Ubi Soft, which means “ubiquitous software”. The founders, the Guillemot family, were already wealthy at this point and made their fortune through farming and owning a cider distillery in the early 20th century. The Guillemot brothers wanted to move away from agriculture and into the industry of the future – video games.
In its first year of business, Ubisoft released a handful of games in France, including Ciné Clap, Fer et Flamme, Masque and Zombi, which sold a whopping 5,000 copies. Until 1987, it imported foreign games to sell to French audiences. A year later, in 1988 – when I was two years old – Yves Guillemot was appointed CEO. He is still in power now.
Back then it was still a small company, operating out of a chateau in Brittany, with just a handful of developers, including a teenager Michel Ancel, later best known for creating Rayman, and a playtester named Serge Hascoët. Rayman was a big moment for the company when it was founded in 1995, marking the beginning of a period of massive growth. Over the next few years, Ubisoft Studios would open in Paris, Annecy, Shanghai, Montreal and Milan.
At the time, Ubisoft was looking for a game that would be a hit in the American market. It bought Red Storm Interactive in 2000 and received the rights to develop games with the Tom Clancy name. Guns, patriotism and America – name a more iconic trio.
Red Storm’s Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six sold well in the US, and these were followed by a brand new Ubisoft game set in the same universe – the result of a partnership with Xbox to create a weapon rival Metal Gear – called Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell.
It wasn’t just Americans either. Ubisoft had a firm grip on the hardcore market. All three Tom Clancy games were difficult to play and required patience and planning, forcing players to use stealth and strategy to survive, whether that’s breaching and clearing a room or shooting out lights to crawl through the Darkness. There probably wasn’t much crossover between fans of these games and fans of Rayman. Ubisoft’s strategy was to target different demographics with different tastes.
Hascoët was appointed chief content officer around this time. His job was to review and greenlight almost every game Ubisoft was working on, and ultimately determine its direction.
For a time, Ubisoft was an innovative company in the middle. It created platformers, racers, shooters, stealth games, and more, and these games often saw big, sweeping changes between sequels.
The debut game might have been made by a different developer, but the first three Far Cry titles are varied experiences, and Sam Fisher wore different goggles in the Splinter Cell series. Ubisoft has also always been an early proponent of new hardware and accessories, developing games that take advantage of the Wii U gamepad and VR headsets. It experimented with multiplayer and created game modes unlike anything else. It reinvented itself almost constantly.
Then came Assassin’s Creed and sold 8 million copies. That was the mainstream hit – the dragon that the French company has been chasing ever since.
Ubisoft began applying the Assassin’s Creed structure to its other series. After Assassin’s Creed, most Ubisoft games adopted the open-world template and featured familiar game mechanics – tall buildings that you need to scale to unlock points of interest were colloquially known as “Ubisoft Towers” for good reason. Far Cry has essentially been the same game since the third entry, and Watch Dogs is basically an Assassin’s Creed game set in modern day. Even Ghost Recon is now an open world game. Each game is eaten up by the next.
Interest in Ubisoft’s games has been steadily declining, perhaps suggesting that gamers are bored of doing the same thing over and over again – as Far Cry 3’s Vaas said, that’s the definition of insanity, after all. Far Cry 6 had strong sales in its first week, but it left the conversation as quickly as it entered it. Nothing has emulated the success of Assassin’s Creed except more Assassin’s Creed.
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Ubisoft might think its falling sales and stock value are solely due to an economic downturn — and some of them might be — but it probably doesn’t help that it’s constantly competing with itself or chasing the latest trend.
In 2020, Ubisoft launched a battle royale game called Hyper Scape in hopes of hopping on the Fortnite gravy train. The problem was that by that time the train had already passed the station and other people had parachuted in and eaten all the sauce. The battle royale boom happened primarily because it offered a different experience than the dozens of FPS games on the market, but the novelty faded once it was clear everyone wanted to make money. Fortnite, PUBG, Apex Legends and Warzone have held onto their massive audiences, but it’s not an easy sell when there are already four very different and good battle royale games out there.
Among the games currently announced, Skull & Bones – a pirate game that takes advantage of technology used in previous Assassin’s Creed titles – is unlikely to change the company’s fortunes (and it’s just been delayed again). Beyond Good & Evil 2 is still in development according to Ubisoft, but we haven’t seen anything like it since the pandemic. The Splinter Cell remake is something fans have been asking for since the dawn of time, but it’s unlikely to set any sales records. The Prince of Persia remake is in development hell. His Avatar game, based on the James Cameron sequel, missed its chance to land alongside the film. Three unannounced Ubisoft games have just been cancelled. This leaves the next Assassin’s Creed as the only surefire hit. Ubisoft’s Star Wars game also has a chance.
Ubisoft attempted to fix the ship by jumping on the NFT handle and introducing a new line of “unique” NFT cosmetics to Ghost Recon Breakpoint with its Ubisoft Quartz initiative. These blockchain elements allowed them to get a helmet that looked the same as the other NFT helmets, except with a slightly different serial number. The NFTs reportedly made less than $2,000 in total.
It’s been one disaster after another and Ubisoft shares reflect that, losing almost 20 percent of its value in the past few days.
On top of that, the company’s optics are in the bin. The litigation section of Ubisoft’s Wikipedia page takes so long to read that you could probably finish Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and all of its DLCs to the end. People at Ubisoft have been accused of abuse and sexual misconduct, and it’s reportedly fostering a toxic work culture.
Assassin’s Creed creative director Ashraf Ismail has been fired for allegedly cheating on his wife with a fan and abusing his position at the company. Hascoet, who was accused of physical and verbal abuse, resigned, along with Tommy Francois and Maxime Beland, both of whom have faced similar allegations. Not fired, resigned. These were all high-level players in the company, reporting directly to Guillemot, the CEO. None of this was implemented until it became public knowledge thanks to a series of media reports. The problem lies at the heart of Ubisoft.
Now Ubisoft Paris is facing a workers’ strike after Guillemot blamed employees for the company’s poor financial performance. “The ball is in your court [Ubisoft’s] on time and at the expected level of quality,” he said after announcing that the company had an operating loss of $538 million for the fiscal year after forecasting a profit of $433 million.
“The ball is in our hands, but the money stays in his pocket,” the union said Solidaires Informatique said. “Mr. Guillemot is trying to shift the blame (once again) onto the staff.”
At this point, it’s hard to imagine what Ubisoft can do to turn its fortunes around. It can improve its work culture, but the taint of those reports will be there forever. It can try to innovate in the field of video games, but the results of this work will not be seen for another seven or eight years due to the realities associated with the development of video games of this scale.
It seems almost inevitable that Ubisoft will be swallowed up by another acquisition. Journalist Jeff Grubb claims he’s already been looking for a buyer but has been “mostly smiled at” for being too unwieldy. Like its games, Ubisoft is bloated. It’s not hard to imagine it being chopped up and sold for parts.
Still, I hope that’s not the case. I hope Ubisoft fixes its issues, and for the right reasons – not just for its looks, but for its workers. I hope it appoints a new CEO who engages with the workforce and makes promises instead of demands. I hope it becomes clear that appointing a guy to Greenlight games was a terrible idea. None of us want a future where a few companies have complete control over what we experience, but none of us want Ubisoft the way it is now.