Have you noticed that the number of annualised franchises in games is actually shrinking?
As the mid-tier of boxed games essentially vanishes off of High Street shelves and top publishers knuckle down solely on triple-A, retailers have been banking on fewer hits to see them through.
A total decrease in the number of games released means there are less iterated sports games and other sequels on the market.
In that environment, retailers love nothing more than knowing what actually is coming out – so thank heavens for Assassin’s Creed III, which was locked in for a October 31st launch two weeks ago.
Three by name, but actually fifth in nature, this new game continues a success story that started back in 2007. You know that backstory already. It was a new IP that wowed many and sold well – its sequels ACII, Brotherhood and Revelations built and built on that.
38m copies sold later, and Ubisoft reckons that Assassin’s Creed III has the potential to go even further.
“We knew we had something special when we first launched the Assassin’s Creed franchise back in 2007,” says Rob Cooper, Ubisoft’s MD for Northern Europe and Export territories.
Hindsight’s all well and good, but he’s not wrong here – AC has been almost defiant of the games industry’s march towards modernised mass-market action fare by offering intricate storylines amidst historical action. Most games start with a disclaimer about violence – Assassin’s Creed has a disclaimer about how its development team has a mix of staff from many faiths and upbringings, so potentially contentious was its take on the Holy Wars. Cooper describes that package as having “always offered an interesting alternative to the other action games on the market”, and it’s a fair point.
If Call of Duty (which also had its real breakthrough during the same Christmas as Assassin’s Creed with Modern Warfare) is the mindless Michael Bay blockbuster made flesh in video games, then Assassin’s Creed is the Spielberg epic – just as commercial, but much more thoughtful and artistic.
But the competition is shaping up this Christmas already, with the yearly staples and Creed contemporaries FIFA, Call of Duty and Medal of Honor in the mix, plus returning series such as Resident Evil and BioShock. Can Assassin’s Creed hold its own against them?
“Absolutely. This is a huge investment for us,” explains Cooper. “We are in pole position to compete against the other titles that will come to market this Christmas. We’re extremely excited about this launch and very confident the game will perform well.
“Assassin’s Creed III is the biggest and most ambitious launch in Ubisoft’s history so we absolutely believe this game can and will continue to grow the franchise.
“When I saw this game for the first time, I was blown away by both the sheer beauty of it and the technical excellence. This is a real step forward for what is already a critically and commercially successful brand.”
So what kind of step forward are we talking here?
Assassin’s Creed III has a new setting, new lead character and new storyline. After three years set in Renaissance Italy, the eight (yes, eight) development teams working on the project have jumped forward to the American Revolution.
The game has also been developed using a brand new engine that promises more expressive characters and improved AI. It has been in a three-year development cycle separate from the iterative production arc that brought ACII, Brotherhood and Revelations to market, and it has twice the production capacity of any other Ubisoft game.
So that’s quite a fair bit of progress, then.
Cooper elaborates: “Gamers can look forward to a new setting, a new protagonist and an entirely new storyline.
“We’ve enjoyed watching the growing speculation about where this game would be set and it’s good to be able to confirm where the game will take place now. In the previous games, Ezio’s story was powerful and engaging and grew Assassin’s Creed into one of Ubisoft’s biggest and most successful franchises, but it’s time to close that chapter now and take Assassin’s Creed in a completely new direction.”
One thing Ubisoft has never been afraid to remind the world about is how, despite selling millions of units from day one, the franchise’s first instalment wasn’t perfect – something it remedied in sequel Assassin’s Creed II and then
refined from that game’s two follow-up spin-offs.
“We have spoken openly in the past about the work we have done on the franchise to continually improve the offering for our consumers. In fact, a lot of the work we did was based on feedback we were receiving directly from gamers,” says Cooper.
“Assassin’s Creed III will not only continue this legacy but will provide players with an entirely new gaming experience.”
This is not a baby/bath water scenario, though, and some things won’t change so suddenly.
As well as being a retail hit, AC has been a successful digital business for Ubisoft too, selling both multiplayer and single-player add-ons for its games since ACII. That won’t change for ACIII – although Ubisoft isn’t going to give away all its secrets straight away.
“I think it’s fair to say that all major game releases are now supported by a DLC programme after launch and Assassin’s Creed III will be no different,” says Cooper.
But he says the bigger story is that the franchise is “expanding far beyond DLC alone”.
The firm says its transmedia projects supporting Assassin’s Creed specifically have “been really successful”, especially in the UK.
Along with a range of iOS and Facebook apps launched over recent years, Ubisoft has published official novelisations of its games through book publisher Penguin in the UK. Those novels have sold over a million units to date “with almost half of those sales coming from the UK market alone,” according to Cooper.
A book of Assassin’s Creed III is also in the offing to help expand the backstory and retell the overarching narrative of the new game, too – just one of many ways Ubisoft is hopping the push the brand further.
“You’re going to hear a lot of Assassin’s noise in the coming months,” jokes Cooper.
Certainly, the noise has already started. Just this week Ubisoft hosted a large-scale premiere of ACIII, at a London cinema showing with industry party.
As we say, retailers and the media love knowing what’s games actually are coming out this year, and Ubisoft knows it too.
Says Cooper: “We can’t wait to start showing our media and retail partners more on the game so everyone can see why we’re so excited here about what we have coming up.”