The general idea of a series that’s on a yearly release cycle is still relatively new in the game industry. Activision and Call of Duty have essentially written the book on the strategy, releasing a brand-spanking new CoD to the world for nine straight years by 2016. And while the games themselves and even the developers that make them have shifted over the years, there’s no doubt that it’s been a profitable business.
Yearly releases have done wonders for Activision with few issues beyond their games feeling too similar or inconsistent, but the strategy’s true cracks have shown best in the other large publisher taking advantage of their most popular franchise: Ubisoft and their beloved Assassin’s Creed.
After the major critical and commercial success of Assassin’s Creed 2 in 2009, Ubisoft began down the road of yearly releases, starting with Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood in 2010. At the time, this left us scratching our heads wondering, “how could they possibly make a large, open-world game every year?” For the next four years, Ubisoft pumped out new AC game with no real issues beyond CoD’s own problems (staleness, changing things for the sake of changing, etc).
And then 2014 rolled around in Assassin’s Creed: Unity, and the mighty ship of Ubisoft sprung a few leaks. The game was an absolute technical mess – framerate was tortuous, its main character was boring, the story was forgettable, and the much-talked-about multiplayer co-op hardly worked. It was a bad month for the company, and after the critical failure of Assassin’s Creed 3 in 2012, people were starting to lose hope in the series. Ubisoft brought it back around in 2015 with Syndicate, but much of the surprise of that game surrounded the fact that it wasn’t a trainwreck. Fast forward to today and Ubisoft is giving the AC series some breathing room. For the first time in seven years, there will not be a new AC game this year, and the IP will instead release every other year from here on out.
So why did Ubisoft make this move? It’s clear that the series can benefit from an extra year to marinate, but Ubisoft still wants AC-level profits every year. Considering Watch Dogs pulled in surprisingly impressive sales for its first outing, its mechanical similarities to AC, and the fact that it’s only been two years since the original game, it the company may be looking to Watch Dogs to fill in the gaps for its stabby sibling on the years that it’s taking a break. If both games are now on a two-year production schedule, they could fit nicely in-between each other on off years (the same strategy Activision used with CoD before Sledgehammer joined the mix in 2014). So with this idea in place, we’d assume that Watch Dogs 2 is this year, AC Egypt (assumably) is next year, and Watch Dogs 3 the year after. It’s a bold plan for a few reasons, but not much bolder than the unstable plan they already had in place.
First, it could be much harder to make a series like Watch Dogs new and interesting every other year. Despite the fact that they’re both open-world and revolve around shadowy groups of rebels, Watch Dogs and Assassin’s Creed are very different games; AC being of the extremely vertical platforming variety, and WD the horizontal car-driving variety. Watch Dogs can’t just surprise its crowd and jump the setting back a few hundred years. It’s a game in the modern realistic world with unclimbable skyscrapers and guns everywhere, so there will be inherently less novelty with each new game.
For these reasons, the world might get sick of Watch Dogs a lot faster than it took to get tired of AC. But there is something they could do to really blow things out of the water and lean into the absurdity of their worlds: combine the two series’ fictions! It’s already been revealed in the first Watch Dogs that the Templar organization Abstergo exists in the same world, so it’s not the craziest idea that the modern assassins cross paths with the free-wheeling hackers of the world. Watch Dogs already plays like the closest thing to an assassin that would make sense in the modern world: using stealth to get by security, drones to distract and take out guards, hacking your enemies to dismantle their operations. Hell, that’s what the assassins literally have you do for them in the first-person bits of Black Flag.
It sounds kind of crazy, but there’s no reason it can’t work. I can see it now, Watch Dogs 3: Assassins. Or maybe Assassin’s Dog 3. No, Watch Creed!
Look, the name isn’t important.
Ubisoft has a lot they could do with what will likely become its other top franchise given the wide spread of positive first impressions. It’ll be a long uphill battle to keep a GTA-style open-world game interesting every two years, and it could be valuable for them to simultaneously create new interest in both series by combining their corporate-dominated fictions.