Image of a game over, classic Pac-Man sign for an article about Ubisoft prioritizing free-to-play games.

Ubisoft Is Making an Unwelcome Shift to Free-to-Play Games

The transition to inexpensive titles has divided consumers and signals an ongoing trend within the gaming industry.
July 9, 2021
11 mins read

The studio behind the prominent Assassin’s Creed and Tom Clancy franchises is angling away from its full-priced AAA releases. Following underwhelming release figures, poor critical reception and quickly depleting player-bases for Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, the well-known gaming company Ubisoft seems to have adopted a new, contemporary approach to video game development.

During their full-year earnings call on May 11, Ubisoft’s chief financial officer announced the following statement on behalf of the game producer: “In line with the evolution of our high-quality line-up that is increasingly diverse, we are moving on from our prior comment regarding releasing 3-4 premium AAAs per year.” This initial statement was met with rampant disproval over social media, even trending on Twitter as fans feared for the direction of the company.

Ubisoft promptly offered damage control, explaining that free-to-play games are simply “becoming a larger share of the revenue pie, not an indication that there will be less traditional paid games like AC.” They also added that the decision purely follows “a financial communication evolution and doesn’t change the fact that we continue to expect a high cadence of content delivery including powerful premium and free-to-play new releases.”

In short, Ubisoft believes that consumers should view their newfound focus on free-to-play titles as supplements to the company’s famed AAA performers. Fans of franchises like Assassin’s Creed can still expect major releases moving forward, only with an understanding that some of the installments will be “high-end” free-to-play alternatives rather than those with standard $60 price tags. Furthermore, previously announced titles such as Far Cry 6 and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Extraction were confirmed to be unaffected by the upcoming transition.

It appears that Ubisoft’s established roadmap through 2022 remains intact, only with different priorities as a developer thereafter. At face value, it seems that the company honored their releases through the next year as promoted and assured consumers that the shift wouldn’t necessitate any fewer premium titles annually. So why all the outrage over an announcement that should, hypothetically, save players money?

Firstly, consumers appreciate variation within an industry, especially concerning video games. When companies cater to specific niches rather than merely emulate one another, a wider range of consumer demands can be met. Proven formulas may appeal to profit-driven producers, but markets offer less of a share for each participating company the larger it grows. Profits plateau while competition skyrockets, and players are left with a library of games that all play the same. When multiple producers offer the same gameplay under different filters, playing any two games within that span of releases becomes monotonous rather quickly.

Secondly, variation also allows for innovation and experimentation. As a creator, it pays more to discover something original than to replicate it years after the trend fades. Attempts at recreating past successes have worked to the detriment of Ubisoft, specifically in recent years, and accelerated the deaths of anticipated releases. A decade of formulaic game designs, including 12 Assassin’s Creed franchise titles and their bland imitation of other well-received RPGs with their Tom Clancy’s The Division series, revealed as much.

However, both titles received at least one follow-up installment. There may be a profitable reputation behind these products, but whatever sparks they light in the hearts of fans burn out all too quickly due to their now repetitive gameplay and lack of creative ambition. So, while few consumers would realistically expect a company as large as Ubisoft to behave similarly to indie developers and take genuine risks, their adherence to an industry-wide herd mentality is concerning. After all, Ubisoft’s shift is not so much a departure from the industry standard than yet another symptom of it.

Games like Fortnite and Call of Duty: Warzone helped popularize the free-to-play format that makes mobile games so impressively profitable. However, the structure necessitates microtransactions and premature releases.

Premature releases allow video games to gain traction, downloads and additional dollars without an established product. As players wait for overdue patches to glitched or unprepared games, the company gains an additional revenue stream and player-base, which they can then use to gauge interest. The producer feels drastically less pressure to provide a quality product under the guise of a “free” game while retaining the freedom to divert attention away from it if the early returns aren’t as hoped. Regardless of how promoted or anticipated a game is, its profitability determines its longevity above all other factors, and free releases place all of the emphasis on in-game purchases for early returns.

As far as profits are concerned, hard copy and digital version sales account for a rapidly decreasing percentage of video game revenue, one of the key contributors to Ubisoft’s decision. Companies no longer opt for hard copy sales to return their investment, instead deciding to go for prolonged microtransactions to bolster revenue. This increased dependence on internal game sales is due, in part, to the success of Epic Games’ 2017 release Fortnite.

In 2019, Fortnite raked in revenues of $1.8 billion despite offering free versions of their Battle Royale game mode to PlayStation and Xbox online service subscribers. Though Fortnite did not invent the strategy, it popularized the approach. Now, consumers will seldom find single-player games without potential DLC, cosmetic add-ons or multiplayer options from major developers.

Unfortunately, developers know that dedicated players will readily purchase aesthetic upgrades and potential competitive edges, a luxury that affords them lower expectations. When a “free” game becomes successful, it naturally shifts resources away from future projects. Companies such as Ubisoft are then only expected to generate in-game content that is considerably easier to produce and promote than original titles.

Since developers hope that microtransaction updates will entirely offset the foregone costs for digital copies, it incentivizes them to release games prematurely to maximize user engagement and subsequent purchases. This dependence on in-game purchases establishes a problematic feedback loop where games are rushed, overloaded with additional monetization and unattended if their initial numbers falter. It negates the risk of genuine time and financial investments on behalf of the video game producers investments that consumers once assumed were repaid with the 60 or so dollars it cost to obtain a copy of their games. Without this perceived obligation to buyers, cashing in as soon as possible and upkeeping only when profitable take precedence over innovation.

With a catalog and fanbase as expansive as Ubisoft’s, players are reasonably suspicious of the company’s rationale and priorities surrounding the shift to an unreliable free-to-play format. The overreaction and greed of video game producers were initially felt with an oversaturation of the Battle Royale genre, as each new first-person shooter release offered its own rendition of an all-too-familiar song. This reliance on imitation has since grown into a concerningly homogenized industry. Developers have gone from borrowing modes and mechanics from other titles to adopting entire rollout strategies. This may streamline prices and risks for game producers, but the consumers ultimately pay the costs to originality and authenticity.

Regardless of how uninventive their AAA titles have been in recent years, Ubisoft still retained a core player base for their established franchises. Games like Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege have survived since 2015, with the admitted aid of microtransactions, but have also seen their engagement dwindle following significant discounts in the time since. The developer giant has struggled to balance the many factors that make for an enduring product and a satisfied player base. Price does not always entail quality, but it suggests something significant about upkeep and intentions with regard to video games.

By following industry behemoths like the “Call of Duty” series and Fortnite, Ubisoft appears to be looking into others’ successful pasts and blindly hoping that that applies to their future. How the new development strategy influences the success or failure of the French developer’s upcoming releases is yet to be determined. Still, the early reception bodes poorly for fans of their key franchises and video game enthusiasts alike, regardless of their initial savings.

Zach Spangler, University of Michigan

Writer Profile

Zach Spangler

University of Michigan

My name is Zach Spangler and I am a senior year English major at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. I’m especially passionate about music, movies, video games, both basketball and football, and writing as a craft.

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