Two French-Canadian men in their mid-to-late 30s are nervously scrambling in a swank New York City hotel room, still reeling from a game console crash during a live demo. The game froze, hard, while being played.
“This is still pre-Alpha,” one says in the jargon-infused vernacular of game development-speak. That means “the game is still far from done,” in terms of development completion. It’s not entirely unusual for this to happen during game demos.
Still, is he reassuring himself, or the two Business Insider reporters sitting in front of him? Maybe both. His name is Marc-Alexis Côté, and he’s in charge of the next multimillion dollar entry in the colossal “Assassin’s Creed” franchise. He is visibly nervous. His already large task is even larger after last years iteration of the game was a huge dissapointment.
Maybe you’ve heard of “Assassin’s Creed?”
In the “AC” games, you’re an assassin — surprise! — who explores historical cities, hunts foes, and lives important historical events. In “Assassin’s Creed 3,” you live through and influence the American Revolution. In “Assassin’s Creed 2,” you live through and influence Renaissance Italy.
Each entry in the franchise costs tens of millions of dollars to produce, and more tens of millions to then advertise.
Like the “Transformers” and “Star Wars” film franchises, video game franchises like “Call of Duty” and “Assassin’s Creed” are big bets in need of big payouts. Companies like Activision (“Call of Duty”) and Ubisoft (“Assassin’s Creed”) front the millions of dollars needed to create the games, they structure annual release schedules to maximise on potential return, and then hope for the best.
In the modern world, with more ways than ever to spend our precious time, one stinker in an annualized franchise can have much bigger business consequences than in the past.
Last year’s “Assassin’s Creed Unity” is that stinker.
Beyond issues raised by critics about its quality, the game had huge technical problems. Here’s one of the more terrifying ones:
In case you’re wondering, it’s extremely rare for game character faces to disappear, leaving ghastly floating eyeballs, teeth, and exposed muscle orb. That is not normal.
While glitches like the one above were certainly hilarious, they’re also representative of the base-level problems in last year’s game. Those problems resulted in critics dogging the game; “Unity” dropped over 10 points from the previous year’s “Assassin’s Creed” entry in Metacritic.
Public perception of the game was no doubt hurt by the its cold reception from critics: sales of “Assassin’s Creed Unity” were down compared to the previous year’s game, from 10 million in 2013 for “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag” to 10 million in 2014 across two entirely different games (“Assassin’s Creed Unity” and “Assassin’s Creed Rogue”).
With all that in mind, this year’s “Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate” has a lot of lost ground to make up. The game’s creative director Marc-Alexis Côté and senior producer François Pelland made their first attempts in overtures to media last week.
Back in the swanky New York City hotel room, Côté and Pelland showed the game running on PlayStation 4 — an example, they said, of how their approach is different from past efforts. It runs on the console you’ve got in your house right now! Faces and all! (For context, many games are first shown in slide presentations or as concept trailers.) It was a measure of the developers’ confidence to debut the game to press in playable form.
At least it was a measure of confidence before the game crashed.
“That’s why we brought two [game consoles],”Côté said with a nervous laugh. This is a man with tens of millions of dollars and hundreds of employees resting on his shoulders. It was clear that he wasn’t happy about the crash.
This, he said, is part of why his team’s focus on the latest “AC” game is on accomplishable goals: a single game mode (no multiplayer or co-op play, just a single-player campaign), a single game (unlike two last year in “Unity” and “Rogue”), and versions for only three platforms (Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC).
More importantly than any of that? “Let’s have the game done and let’s polish the hell out of [it],” Pelland said. That’s game developer-speak for, “Get the game done long before release and round off all the rough edges.” Still, it’s unclear how meaningful that is compared to previous years. When pushed on that difference, the two men immediately went on the defensive.
“We don’t want to comment too much about last year’s [game] going forward,” Côté said. He may not want to, but he has to if he wants to earn back loyal fans and casual buyers alike. Ubisoft still has plenty of time to try: “Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate” launches on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC this holiday.
Whether this year’s “Assassin’s Creed” will help Ubisoft regain the ground it lost in last year’s failed “AC” entry remains to be seen. If nothing else, it is different: a new setting, new main characters (two this time), and a new development team making it.