Has Ubisoft had its “Let Them Eat Cake” moment?

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Before 1789, the French monarchy was the very definition of power and excess: Louis XVI wielded virtually absolute power – and answered to no one. Back in those days, there was no difference betweens the national treasury, to pay for things the country needed, and the King’s own personal bank account. Needless to say, he made regular withdrawals.

It wasn’t just this Louis – the preceding Kings (usually also called Louis) were just as bad at pissing away money on Grand Projets. Take the expansion of the Palace of Versailles – growing it from a small (well, still big) fort all of the way to the largest palace in Europe, with gardens that are unfathomably large until you experience them in person.

If you visit Versailles in person too, you’ll see how every wall and ceiling is dripping with excessive pomposity and wealth. It’s enough to make Donald Trump look like a devout monk, in comparison.

Needless to say, the lifestyle couldn’t last. In 1789 the people of France finally rose up against the the royal family: Whilst the King had lavished all of this cash on himself, they were starving and couldn’t even afford bread.

It is at this point when Louis’ Queen, Marie Antoinette is claimed to have said “let them eat cake”. Unfortunately, she never said it, but the phrase is essentially the perfect encapsulation of the elites being out of touch with what the people actually want. (Cake, being more expensive than bread, would be even less accessible to normal people.)

The next few years didn’t work out great for the King – he not only lost his country but he lost his head too.

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The reason I tell this story is that it reminds me of another French titan that has recently failed to treat the public with the respect it deserves. I’m talking of course, about Ubisoft.

The company has spent the last several years becoming one of the most formidable names in gaming: Under its belt are several key franchises like Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry and Watch Dogs – yet as this November has shown, despite all of the pomp, things can go seriously wrong, seriously quickly.

Assassin’s Creed Unity, which is set just after the events of 1789, is Ubi’s Palace of Versailles. Yes, it is a magisterial recreation of 18th century Paris, and yes the boasts about how designers have spent an entire year building Notre Dame Cathedral are impressive – but then so are the decorations at Versailles. Unfortunately though, the focus hasn’t been on giving the people what they want: A game that actually works well, and isn’t riddled with bugs. Gamers have been denied a staple need: A game that is fun to play.

As it turns out, Ubisoft appears to be responding slightly better than Louis XVI did: The company is now seriously backtracking and trying to make good with consumers, releasing patches and offering free DLC, but what it does next will be key to whether gamer frustration spills over into full revolutionary fervour.

For all of the recent problems, gaming is very much still heavily community driven: Given the level of comment online, and the amount of crap the sans-culottes can give companies that fall foul of them (see Microsoft’s dramatic backtracking on the very premise of the Xbox One), if Ubisoft wants to retain the goodwill of consumers, and keep Assassin’s Creed as a franchise that can keep giving, then it needs to do better with the next iteration. If it releases another clunker, then will anyone trust Assassin’s Creed to deliver in the future? And what of Ubisoft’s other games? Won’t we worry they will be treated with the same disregard?

Other franchises have been here before: Many years ago Tomb Raider overplayed its hand with poorly received sequels, believing a strong brand can support bad games, and it was only a decade or so on with the recent reboot that it has found favour again. Activision’s Call of Duty has also faltered recently – 2013’s Ghosts was widely derided as not new enough (all it added was a dog), and sales reflected that. Activision has only regained some momentum by putting in some effort and coming up with some new innovations – such as the future setting and recruiting Kevin Spacey to give the series its energy back.

For Ubi, one possible trust rebuilding exercise could be to release the next game not in time for next Christmas, as its “annualised” schedule demands – but only when it is finished.

Thanks to a leak, we already know that next year’s Assassin’s Creed will be named “Victory” and set in Victorian London – but will Ubisoft release a game that respects the players, or will it cry “Let them eat cake”, whilst not realising nobody has enough Uplay tokens to afford any?

James O’Malley