Skull and Bones is 'too big to fail', despite eight years of tortured development

A pirate captain holds the wheel as the deck explodes in cannon fire.
(Image credit: Ubisoft Singapore)

A multiplayer expansion to Assassin's Creed: Black Flag. An open-sea survival game. A session-based multiplayer deathmatch. Ubisoft Singapore's Skull and Bones has been many things over the past decade, with past and current developers describing the eight years of mismanagement stopping Skull and Bones from setting sail in a new report from Kotaku.

In the lengthy report, developers describe a game that never really worked out what it wanted to be. Once planned as a simple multiplayer mode for Black Flag, Skull and Bones was transformed into a standalone project—but what that project looked like changed frequently.

Every time Skull and Bones changed track, months of work on design, setting, and art would need to be remade from scratch. Fundamental questions like whether you play as an individual pirate or the boat itself kept coming back up, and excess time was spent on prototypes that never left the ground. The version of the game shown at E3 2018 and 2019, a competitive ship-battler with a Division-style exploration zone, was ultimately scrapped.

"Every time we got feedback from Paris they would just freak out and change everything, and then change the people working on it, and that happened multiple times," one former developer told Kotaku.

This all comes on top of recent reports decrying Ubisoft's abusive work culture, reports that saw Skull and Bones managing director Hugues Ricour ousted from the studio. Developers describe managers who would swoop into the project with a complete change in direction, surrounding themselves with "yes men" to avoid listening to feedback from the devs themselves before selling bosses in Paris on unreasonable expectations.

"The toxic culture permeating the Singapore studio is in no small part responsible for most of the production issues—reboots, rebrands and re-reboots—that have plagued Skull & Bones for a decade."

Despite these problems, Ubisoft is still determined to get Skull and Bones out of port. One current developer described the game as "too big to fail", likening it to U.S. banks during the 2008 crisis, with a former dev adding that if any other publisher were working on Skull and Bones, it "would have been killed 10 times already".

In a statement to Kotaku, Ubisoft explained that the current version of Skull and Bones has just passed alpha and is well underway, but also pinned the blame for any kind of poor studio morale on this kind of reporting. The publisher also reasserted that it had made changes to fix its toxic workplace culture—though, according to French outlet Le Télégramme, many developers feel nothing has meaningfully changed since last year.

"The Skull & Bones team are proud of the work they’ve accomplished on the project since their last update with production just passing Alpha, and are excited to share more details when the time is right. That being said, any unfounded speculation about the game or decisions being made only works to demoralize the team who are working very hard to develop an ambitious new franchise that lives up to the expectations of our players."

Over the past year, we’ve made significant changes to our policies and processes to create a safe and more inclusive workplace and empower our teams to create games that reflect the diversity of the world we live in."

Natalie Clayton
Features Producer

20 years ago, Nat played Jet Set Radio Future for the first time, and she's not stopped thinking about games since. Joining PC Gamer in 2020, she comes from three years of freelance reporting at Rock Paper Shotgun, Waypoint, VG247 and more. Embedded in the European indie scene and a part-time game developer herself, Nat is always looking for a new curiosity to scream about—whether it's the next best indie darling, or simply someone modding a Scotmid into Black Mesa. She also unofficially appears in Apex Legends under the pseudonym Horizon.