Franchise fatigue is a muddy concept. How many sequels is too many? How many times can we hammer in familiarity and pull enjoyment from the same old intellectual property? How do you tweak the formula just enough to make the old feel new again? It’s an enormous subject of debate in the gaming community and perhaps no franchise exemplifies the debate better than Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise. The company recently announced that there would not be an Assassin’s Creed game in 2016 and later announced that it would be examining the possibility of avoiding yearly releases with the franchise going forward. Honestly, if that happens, it may be the best play Ubisoft has made since Assassin’s Creed 2.
Let’s look at the facts. Assassin’s Creed was good, but the entry where the series blossomed and became a monumental franchise was definitely Assassin’s Creed 2, which is debatably still the best the series has ever had to offer. There have been nine games in the main series with numerous spinoffs and, with the exception of the original Assassin’s Creed, Assassin’s Creed Unity and Assassin’s Creed Rogue, the main entry games have come out around the same time in every consecutive year. Also fact is that while not all of the games have pulled the reception of Assassin’s Creed 2, there has yet to be a universally panned Assassin’s Creed game in the main series.
That said, generally positive reception doesn’t always translate to each game being innovative and it certainly doesn’t translate to each game selling as expected, both points of which may very well be at the heart of Ubisoft’s decision. Assassin’s Creed games are always long and that length provides players and critics with a lot of time to see how repetitive the mechanics are. It’s always been a problem with the games. The environments are always gorgeous and there’s often a stand out gadget that makes environmental traversal interesting, but it always generally comes back to the combat and fighting or escaping the same old enemies over and over again. When the primary concern of your series has to eventually circle back to the honorable Assassin’s Guild confronting those nasty Templars, it’s almost going to be a crutch to real and profound innovation.
That’s not to say that innovation can’t be done. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag added quite a few cool elements to the franchise with its pirate and privateer themes of exploration and sea combat, but the two games that followed after presented their own problems. Assassin’s Creed Rogue was a continuation that sought to give closure to Assassin’s Creed III and Black Flag, but it would go on to receive criticism for being pretty much a cut-and-paste copy of most of Black Flag’s style. Meanwhile, the true sequel, Assassin’s Creed Unity experimented with co-op multiplayer and other new ideas only to find its way into predictability and shallowness compared to the open seas or wilderness of Black Flag and Assassin’s Creed III respectively.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate in particular had a lot of work to do based on the games released before it. Rogue was too close to Black Flag before it and Unity, for its attempts at something newish, was a downright technical mess considered by some to be the worst in the franchise. Syndicate found itself in a state where it had to dress to impress and wow players and franchise faithfuls into believing the series still had lifeblood in it. Syndicate performed admirably. It wasn’t a buggy mess like Unity and it introduced new ideas and environmental niche that gained it some praise, but what it couldn’t do was avoid predictability and repetitiveness for which the series has come to be regularly panned.
Coming off of the buggy mess that was Unity, having the standard problems that come with an Assassin’s Creed game is exactly what Syndicate didn’t need. If Syndicate hadn’t come directly after Unity and Rogue, it may have found more of a favorable response. However, to come after Unity, Syndicate needed to be the best the series ever had to offer. While admirable and fairly good, it clearly wasn’t up to that task. What all of that leads up to is sales. Rogue and Unity have shipped over 10 million units together, but on their own they’re both two of the worst performing games in the franchise history. Syndicate has managed to sneak out ahead of Unity in performance, but the game is just barely managing to do better at this time and still has a long way to go in overtaking Unity in overall sales. Even Ubisoft itself has publicly said that doubt in the series after Unity may have directly led to diminished sales for Syndicate.
That leads us to the current state of the franchise. The gaming industry is more competitive than it has ever been and new and better products are constantly shifting the landscape and changing expectations. Assassin’s Creed has been able to coast on a familiar formula for a long time and find reasonable success with it. However, with the current state of the industry, the next Assassin’s Creed game can’t afford to be simply a normal Assassin’s Creed game. It has to be something out of the ordinary which will capture the hearts of new audiences while satisfying old fans. As Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot himself put it, Assassin’s Creed needs to find “a new dimension”.
Will this hurt the company for sales? On some levels yes as the Assassin’s Creed series has been a steady stream of revenue for Ubisoft for years, but the company certainly isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Ubisoft still has Tom Clancy games like Rainbow Six: Siege and the upcoming The Division to coast on, not to mention their melee multiplayer game For Honor. The company also has the live-action Assassin’s Creed movie starring Michael Fassbender to bank on near the end of this year. Finally, there’s also talk of a new untitled multiplayer project the company is preparing for in addition to all other known projects. Ubisoft may not be getting that sweet Assassin’s Creed game paycheck they’ve been collecting for a while, but they’re certainly not in any sort of dire position where they need it yet.
Franchise fatigue is real and Assassin’s Creed was suffering from it. Games like Syndicate aren’t bad, but they’re certainly not enough to meet the expectations Ubisoft or their fans have anymore. Without the pressure to release the game on a regular yearly schedule, the teams working on it have time to make real changes and rebuild Assassin’s Creed into the blockbuster that Ubisoft wants it to be. With the extra time on its hands, Ubisoft has the opportunity to make sure that the next Assassin’s Creed is unlike any other.