Ubisoft announced earlier today that Skull and Bones is delayed yet again, and naturally we took the opportunity to have some fun with it (opens in new tab). But word of the delay came as part of a much larger update reflecting real trouble at the company: Ubisoft is struggling, and has opted to cancel three more unannounced projects in order to focus on its existing brands and live services.
The game industry in recent years has shifted toward "mega-brands and long-lasting titles that can reach players across the globe, across platforms and business models," Ubisoft said in the update. Over the past four years, Ubisoft has attempted to do the same with its own major properties, including Assassin's Creed, Far Cry, Ghost Recon, Rainbow Six, and The Division. But it hasn't paid off: Games announced during the "investment phase" of this strategic shift have yet to come out, and its most recent releases have not met expectations.
"We are clearly disappointed by our recent performance," Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot said in a statement (opens in new tab). "We are facing contrasted market dynamics as the industry continues to shift towards mega-brands and everlasting live games, in the context of worsening economic conditions affecting consumer spending.
"Despite excellent ratings and players’ reception as well as an ambitious marketing plan, we were surprised by Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope underperformance in the final weeks of 2022 and early January. Just Dance 2023 underperformed as well."
But Ubisoft's troubles run much deeper than a couple of holiday flops. At the risk of oversimplifying things, it just can't seem to make anything happen. Skull and Bones is maybe the highest-profile example of Ubi's recent inability to get games out the door, but don't forget that the three unannounced projects cancelled today come just six months after Ubisoft pulled the plug on four other in-the-works games (opens in new tab), including Ghost Recon Frontline and Splinter Cell VR.
Frontline was a particularly stinging loss. It was unveiled in 2021 as a military-themed battle royale (opens in new tab) game, presumably aimed at giving Ubisoft a presence alongside games like Call of Duty: Warzone, Apex Legends, Escape From Tarkov, and Hunt: Showdown. Now, not much more than a year later, Ubisoft is still on the outside looking in at the success of those games, with no imminent prospect of getting in on the action itself.
But the bigger issue for Ubisoft is, well, a lot bigger. The company has canned seven separate projects within a single fiscal year and has nothing to show for their absence. Nor does it have any major live-service games, like Apex Legends or GTA Online, to keep the money trucks rolling between releases: Efforts on that front including Ghost Recon Frontline, Hyper Scape (opens in new tab), and XDefiant (opens in new tab) have all fizzled, while The Division: Heartland (opens in new tab), which is supposed to be out later this year, has already been almost completely forgotten. (Heartland, by the way, was also delayed—it was initially supposed to go live sometime in 2021-22.) Ubisoft’s best bet for a live-service hit is likely Assassin's Creed Infinity (opens in new tab), which sounds promising but is also years away.
Some of Ubisoft’s troubles, to be fair, are just plain bad luck. Rainbow Six: Extraction (opens in new tab), for instance, was an interesting extraction shooter that was almost immediately forgotten after it launched in early 2022.
But as we noted in December (opens in new tab), Ubisoft can’t even seem to make the games it’s already made. The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time remake that was supposed to be out in early 2021 appears to have become trapped in limbo (opens in new tab), and the only real news we’ve had about the Splinter Cell remake announced in 2021 is that the director quit (opens in new tab) in October 2022.
The bottom-line cost for Ubisoft is ugly. The company has depreciated roughly €500 million ($538 million) in capitalized research and development expenses related to "upcoming premium and free-to-play games and the newly cancelled titles," which essentially means that money spent developing those games is down the toilet. It's also revising its net bookings target for the third quarter of the current fiscal year way down, from €830 million ($893 million) to €725 million ($780 million). Beyond that, Ubisoft is looking to cut another €200 million ($215 million) in expenses over the next two years through "targeted restructuring, divesting some non-core assets, and usual natural attrition."
Ubisoft's ongoing struggles also make it a tempting target for a takeover. The company successfully fought off a drawn-out acquisition bid by Vivendi in 2018, and the Guillemot family, which founded Ubisoft in 1986 and continues to hold a controlling stake, has repeatedly emphasized its desire to “remain independent.” But Ubisoft's share price has tailed off dramatically over the past five years, from a high of €103 in July 2018 to less than €24 today, and that makes high-priced offers like the one tendered last year by Chinese powerhouse Tencent very difficult to turn down.
All of this, of course, comes on top of high-profile allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct (opens in new tab) at various Ubisoft studios, the lessons of which still don't seem to have entirely sunk in (opens in new tab).
It's not necessarily a death knell for Ubisoft, but the company is clearly in a bad spot. Turning that around will be a major undertaking, requiring not just cost-cutting measures but a meaningful change in the company's ability to actually make and release some dang games—all while trying to convince circling sharks to leave it the hell alone. As we like to say in farm country, that’s going to be a tough row to hoe.