Ubisoft just had its full year earnings call for the last fiscal year. Part of the goal of these calls is to tell the people who have invested large amounts of money in the company what said company plans to do in the coming year to make them even more money. In Ubisoft’s case, that means explaining what kinds of big, money-making games they might want to release in the future.
But this year, news of Ubisoft’s vague plans appears to have attracted a surprising amount of attention, making a few investors on the call a bit nervous and fans even more concerned:
“In line with the evolution of our high-quality line-up that is increasingly diverse, we are moving on from our prior comment regarding releasing three to four premium AAAs per year,” said Frederick Duguet, Ubisoft’s CFO, on the earnings call yesterday. “…Additionally, we are building our high-end free-to-play games to be trending toward AAA ambitions over the long-term.”
This comment has many people upset, worried that Ubisoft is abandoning its tradition of massive console and PC releases like Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and Watch Dogs in favor of the free-to-play, mobile model that makes piles of money but leaves a sour taste in the mouths of the more mainstream gaming populace.
But the actual meaning behind Duguet’s statements yesterday is more complex, mostly less scary, and frankly a little bit boring. It’s less a sea change in Ubisoft’s portfolio strategy, and more the continuation of what Ubisoft’s already been doing for years — a strategy that most major gaming companies are embracing too, whether we like it or not.
What did Ubisoft actually say, and what’s a AAA?
Let’s start by taking a look at what Duguet actually said on the call, in full. Here’s that first quote again, but with more context surrounding it.
“In line with the evolution of our high-quality line-up that is increasingly diverse, we are moving on from our prior comment regarding releasing three to four premium AAAs per year,” he said. “It is no longer a proper indication of our value creation dynamics. For example, our expectation for Just Dance and Rider’s Republic are consistent with some of the industry’s AAA’s performance.”
“Additionally, we are building our high-end free-to-play games to be trending toward AAA ambitions over the long-term. This is purely a financial communication evolution and does not change the fact we continue to expect a high cadence of content delivery, including powerful premium and free-to-play new releases, as well as continued expansion of our post-launch plans with an increased focus on delivering our biggest franchises.”
The “three to four” premium AAA games per year guidance is something Ubisoft has stood on for the last few years to keep investors optimistic, but it’s actually fuzzier than it sounds because of how Ubisoft seems to define these games. Trying to parse out what’s considered AAA in Ubisoft’s portfolio is a bit silly, given that Ubisoft is a AAA games studio and by that definition alone everything they release is AAA — and they certainly come out with more than three to four games a year!
The definition of “AAA” can be a messy one in any context, but Ubisoft makes it even more confusing. So first, for Ubisoft, what isn’t a AAA game? Per its own earnings statements, Ubisoft never considers its mobile games to be in this category. Nor its free-to-play games like Hyper Scape, nor upcoming Roller Champions. Just Dance, an annual franchise so successful it merited regular Wii releases up until the most recent entry, is not AAA either. VR games like Star Trek: Bridge Crew? Not AAA. And then there are games that don’t fit any of these models but still never get counted as AAA in Ubisoft’s forecasts, like Starlink: Battle for Atlus and Trials Rising. Why aren’t they classified as such? It’s unclear. But they aren’t, per Ubisoft.
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So what does that leave? Assassin’s Creed (main series games of course, not spin-offs or mobile games). Most Tom Clancy games, like Ghost Recon Breakpoint and The Division. Watch Dogs and Far Cry of course. Skull & Bones seems to have been in the AAA projections for years now even as it’s been delayed into oblivion, as has Beyond Good & Evil 2. And Ubisoft appears to have counted Immortals Fenyx Rising as well.
This is all based on Ubisoft’s own projections. Last year, the company announced it would release five “AAA” titles in fiscal 2020: Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, Watch Dogs: Legion, Immortal Fenyx Rising, Rainbow Six Quarantine, and one more then-unannounced franchise: Far Cry 6, which then got delayed out of the year.
So what Ubisoft is saying here, effectively, is that previously it had been trying to release between three and four games on the massive scope of Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, Rainbow Six, and so forth a year. Now, per Duguet, it’s not that they’re never going to release that many in a year, or that it’s giving up on these giant, blockbuster franchises. It’s just that this specific number is no longer a target for them because Ubisoft has better ways of making money now.
Ubisoft’s Less-Loved Progeny
This is where the free-to-play and mobile games come in, and if you’ve been watching Ubisoft’s release slate at all over the last few years this should not be shocking whatsoever. In 2020 alone Ubisoft released five new mobile games, and was churning them out pretty consistently for years prior.
Most of these mobile games are free-to-play, but Ubisoft is also looking at that business model on console and PC as well following the success of giants like Fortnite. It already tested the waters rather disastrously with Hyper Scape last year, and The Division: Heartland seems to be gearing up for a hopefully more successful attempt.
And, to be clear, even if Ubisoft doesn’t classify any of these as “AAA,” these are all absolutely AAA games. If Fortnite is a AAA game, which it is, then so is Hyper Scape and Heartland and whatever other free-to-play things Ubisoft is cooking. So more than anything, this is all some weird hair-splitting boiling down to whether or not an Ubisoft game has an open world and giant towers you can climb to unveil the map or something.
But more to the point, so much of Ubisoft’s plan here follows an ongoing trend we’ve seen industry-wide of companies releasing “fewer, bigger, and better” games. Game development is getting increasingly more challenging and expensive and massive games like Assassin’s Creed take more money, more time, and more people to make. It’s becoming less and less feasible for everyone — not just Ubisoft — to churn out several of them a year. How many other AAA studios manage to release that many a year, outside of annualized sports franchises with minimal changes per iteration?
Ubisoft has known for a while that its “back catalog”— effectively all the games that have been out for a while but are still making money one way or another — is a massive, critical source of revenue for the company. If Ubisoft has a strong portfolio of games that continue to generate revenue over the long-term, like for example a free-to-play title, it can keep making investors happy in between those massive new releases.
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Ubisoft has been doing this for years already in not so many words, relying on games like Rainbow Six as a cash cow for years, or by adding repeatable content to Assassin’s Creed Odyssey to keep players coming back. It can focus on making the next Assassin’s Creed mainline game as good as possible, rather than setting the expectation that it will release one every single year and end up launching buggy messes unintentionally.
Aside from the free-to-play and mobile games, Duguet’s quote also called out its expectations for games like Rider’s Republic and Just Dance, saying they are “consistent with some of the industry’s AAA’s performance.” It’s once again drawing a bit of a weird line between AAA and…some other categorization, but ultimately it’s a good reminder that this isn’t Ubisoft going nuclear and releasing a Far Cry plus 20 mobile games a year from now on. We’re still going to see these games that aren’t explicitly members of Ubisoft’s characteristic open-world-objective-marker formula but are still sufficiently large and exciting for many.
Fewer Games and Fewer Delays
Critically, this new plan of Ubisoft’s isn’t really new at all. Ubisoft leadership said the same thing last quarter. They said almost the exact same thing back in 2018, when Yves Guillemot said Ubisoft would be releasing fewer AAA games per year, down to three to four from the previous target of a whopping five to six. And even before that, in 2017, Ubisoft said it was done releasing an Assassin’s Creed game every single year.
At the time, that move was made in response to the first (of many) delays to Skull & Bones, which was to be followed up with more delays on top of more delays of other games. Ubisoft has been roasted by its investors on more than one earnings call now for failing to hit its release targets, and it’s worth pointing out that thanks to such regular delays, Ubisoft has only barely hit its own targets for the last few years.
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In fiscal 2016, Ubisoft’s AAA releases included Watch Dogs 2, For Honor, and Ghost Recon Wildlands. The next year, Ubisoft had Far Cry 5, Assassin’s Creed Origins, and Mario + Rabbids (which presumably counts as AAA). Keep in mind, these were the years in which Ubisoft was still supposedly releasing five to six AAA games a year. Even counting generously, during these years it was at best hitting four a year.
In 2018, Ubisoft managed to hit its “three to four” target with The Division 2, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and The Crew 2. But in fiscal 2019, Ubisoft released exactly one whole AAA title: Ghost Recon Breakpoint, to mediocre reviews and disappointing sales.
2020 ended up considerably better as a series of AAA games that had been repeatedly delayed mostly landed. But Ubisoft seems keen to avoid future investor disappointments and keep the money coming between major releases while giving itself a solid flow of player interest into those eventual big-budget launches. Duguet pointed out on the call that while other publishers are trying to secure stability and steady pipelines through mergers and acquisitions, Ubisoft was investing “in an organic manner” to bolster what it already has.
All this is to say: Duguet’s quote during the earnings call sounds alarming, but it’s not really anything new. Ubisoft has been moving away from releasing a pile of blockbuster open-world “AAA” games every single year for some time now, and its position is in line with just about every other major publisher out there as such games get increasingly expensive to make and other business models become increasingly lucrative.
Like its fellow publishers, Ubisoft has been increasing its release slate of mobile and free-to-play games for several years now. After all, they make tons of money, and the reason they make all that money is because lots of people play them and put money into them not just one time, but for months or years. And all this with less financial investment on the part of the game maker, compared to a single open-world premium release that costs $60 and takes seven years to make. As long as people keep spending piles of money on certain kinds of games and content, games companies will keep making those kinds of games and content.
This doesn’t mean games like Assassin’s Creed are going anywhere — Ubisoft needs those big tentpole releases to satisfy its hardcore base, tie its spin-offs together, and ensure it makes money off the audience that doesn’t touch free-to-play and mobile. But it does give Ubisoft — a company that has time and time again overpromised when it could release what — more time to get them out the door without its investors breathing down its neck. And conveniently, all those spin-offs, free-to-play games, and mobile games give the rest of us something fun to do in the meantime.
Update: Following the publication of this article, Ubisoft reached out to offer an additional clarifying statement on yesterday’s call: “Our intention is to deliver a diverse line-up of games that players will love – across all platforms,” the statement reads. “We are excited to be investing more in free-to-play experiences, however we want to clarify that this does not mean reducing our AAA offering.
“Our aim is to continue to deliver premium experiences to players such as Far Cry 6, Rainbow Six Quarantine, Riders Republic and Skull & Bones to name a few while also expanding our free-to-play portfolio and strengthening our brands to reach even more players.”
[poilib element=”accentDivider”] Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.