Ubisoft caused quite a stir last year when it told MCV its Week One sales were "important" but "not critical" to the company's ongoing success. Indeed, after a disappointing month at retail during November, the comments of its VP of live operations Anne Blondel couldn't have been timelier. After all, Ubisoft's own Watch Dogs 2 took a bit of a beating in terms of sales that month, with its Week One figures being "comparatively lower than previous versions in previous years," according to the publisher.
However, after posting its full year earnings and sales report on Wednesday, it seems Ubisoft's longer-term strategy of building 'live games' and creating thriving communitiesaround a few key titles is actually working out pretty well.
Monthly active users increased by 27 per cent during the last financial year, with Ubisoft saying the 'Ghost Recon community' grew an impressive 60 per cent thanks to the release of Wildlands in Q4. This allowed the Tom Clancy franchise as a whole to hit 44m unique players worldwide - an increase of 150 per cent in less than 18 months, says Ubisoft.
Likewise, the publisher calculated that the amount of time players are spending in Watch Dogs 2's multiplayer mode is now four times higher than the original Watch Dogs, and the company's total number of peak concurrent players has tripled over the past two years.
As a result, digital revenue soared in the last financial year, now making up 50 per cent of Ubisoft's total sales. It also proclaimed Ghost Recon Wildlands as the industry's best-selling gameworldwide in the whole of Q4 based on GfK, NPD, Famitsu and its own in-house estimates, and also claimedFor Honoras the industry's second best-selling game too.
Despite lukewarm reviews, Ghost Recon Wildlands has gone on to be a huge hit for Ubisoft
"Our Live titles continue to beat records for player engagement and have seen a sharp rise in player recurring investment," said Ubisoft's co-founder and CEO Yves Guillemot. "Our results for 2016-17 demonstrate the success of our new model, with record high operating income and outperforming the target announced a year ago, and operating margin up for the third consecutive year."
Indeed, Ubisoft said it's now aiming to be "less hit-driven" in the future, focusing instead of having "a more recurring and dependable" business that makes the most of its expanding player recurring investment strategy, which grew 131 per cent year-on-year. A statement that sits well with investors, who have been traditionally somewhat wary of games companies, due to a perception of them relying on hard-to-predict smash hit titles.
We can see the straategy playing out in Ubisoft's upcoming slate of releases, too, with just four triple-A titles on the horizon during the next financial year – a new Assassin's Creed, The Crew 2, Far Cry 5 and a brand-new IP that will presumably get its first official unveiling at E3 next month.
However, while The Crew 2 already has a ready-made 'live game' template to follow, it will be interesting to see how, if at all, Ubisoft will try to incorporate this kind of strategy into its Assassin's Creed and Far Cry titles. Both franchises have dabbled with online multiplayer aspects in the past, with Assassin's Creed's Animus-based training missions and Far Cry 4's co-op and competitive multiplayer modes, but neither have ever had multiplayer sit front and centre like Watch Dogs, The Division, Wildlands or For Honor, for example.
This leaked image of the new Assassin's Creed game was posted on Reddit earlier this month
Perhaps this is why Assassin's Creed took a year off in 2016, so Ubisoft could concentrate on building in a more comprehensive multiplayer experience. It is, after all, widely believed to be under development by the team behind Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, which to date has had the most substantial multiplayer aspect in any Assassin's Creed game.
As for Far Cry 5, it's possible we might see a roadmap more akin to The Division, with regular content updates and a dedicated, in-game multiplayer location that evolves over time. The slightly more fantastical leanings of Far Cry certainly lends itself better to a 'Dark Zone'-style area than the historical focus of Assassin's Creed, but we'll have to wait until E3 before we can see if our suspicions are correct.
Of course, it's possible Ubisoft may not introduce any live elements at all to Far Cry or Assassin's Creed, as Blondel herself told us that "it really depends on the genre of the game and what [consumers] are looking for." Even so, a proper multiplayer element would certainly give both franchises a new lease of life compared to their now slightly stale predecessors, and could help extend sales well beyond their initial release windows. If Ubisoft can create another Wildlands or Division-sized success with these series, then the publisher's future could be very bright indeed.