May 12, 2021 - Economy & Business

Ubisoft's confusing shift to mobile and free-to-play game development

Screenshot of a guy riding a polar bear.
Screenshot of Assassin's Creed Valhalla

Ubisoft, the maker of "Assassin's Creed," "Rainbow Six Siege" and (once upon a time) "Splinter Cell," is putting more emphasis on mobile and free-to-play game development, provoking some understandable confusion.

Why it matters: Ubisoft's changing direction seems consistent with where much of the game industry is going, but such moves are controversial for many players.

Fans of big-budget games that sell for $60 are used to being catered to by big game publishers.

  • They are suspicious of mobile and free-to-play releases that often have inferior graphics and controls or, worse, monetization models designed to keep nudging players to pay more to progress in the game.

The big picture: Traditional game publishers see gold in free-to-play games on PC, console and mobile.

  • An internal Microsoft study of games industry profit for 2019 called free-to-play the "industry's primary business model" and noted that it "sees the healthiest profit margins (32%)."
  • Activision has successfully expanded its "Call of Duty" franchise to hit free-to-play and mobile games.
  • Last week, Ubisoft announced similar plans for its "Division” series with a free-to-play game called "Heartland" and a "Division" mobile spin-off.

Between the lines: Ubisoft's plans have already proven controversial and confusing.

  • Yesterday, an executive’s comments about the new direction seemed to signal a reduction in big budget, or so-called AAA, Ubisoft releases.
  • Not quite, a Ubisoft rep told Axios today: "We are excited to be investing more in free-to-play experiences, however we want to clarify that this does not mean reducing our AAA offering."

Looking ahead: Ubisoft may now say that it won't reduce the number of $60 AAA games it makes, but it has none slated for the October–March time period.

  • It does plan to expand into mobile in a big way in early 2022 with a major mobile game that is expected to involve "Assassin's Creed."

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