Ubisoft is backing away from annual releases to embrace a service model

Over the past few years the priorities of the gaming industry have shifted somewhat – while unique IPs and huge franchises remain key for developers and publishers, annual releases have lost favor. Instead we’re seeing a dramatic rise in the number of long-term service games - also known as games as a service (GaaS).

The latest AAA publisher to start seeing real benefits from embracing this model is Ubisoft. Traditionally associated with annual blockbusters and multi-numbered franchises, in recent years Ubisoft has tried reducing the number of games it’s released, while sticking with them longer. In its annual report, Ubisoft stated it’s now firm in its intentions to move away from annualized releases, in favor of long-term services.

Moving away from annual releases doesn’t seem like a bad idea at all for Ubisoft – we've seen good results so far from its reduced release schedule, and it has the potential to benefit not only the publisher, but its consumers and developers. However, it's embracing a more serviced-based model that fans might find harder to get on board with. 

Though it has some negative associations, it’s not hard to understand why Ubisoft is interested in the service model – it’s more financially rewarding. 

Seeing the benefits

In its financial report, the company outlined that while a traditional game and a live game (which means a game that's still being worked on to bring new features to players, either via online services or DLC), might generate the same revenue in the first year of their release, in their second years the live game will continue to generate a much higher amount of revenue. It’s a pretty significant difference, too – a traditional game will only hold 13% of its original revenue while the service game will hold an incredible 52%.

The reason for this is clear – service games hang around longer after launch, with developers adding online multiplayer, DLC and regular updates to keep players interested. As long as they’re regularly updated and well-maintained, players of these games are generally happy to hang around, spend money and convince their friends to join in, too.

We've already seen how easing up on annual releases can help players; probably the most notable franchise to benefit from taking a year off was Assassin’s Creed. While 2015’s Syndicate was far from a bad game, the series was being run into the ground and fan fatigue was setting in. 

By taking a release break in 2016, Ubisoft had more time to work on the game, players had more time away from it and Origins has benefited massively; not only did critics praise the title, it’s sold more copies.

The long game

The service element of Assassin's Creed came in a few months after its release with sold-separately DLC drops, which expand the game and introduce new stories and objectives for players, and in-game items to buy. Ubisoft has said there are still more of these updates to come and made no mention of an addition to the franchise this year in its report, which makes it seem extremely unlikely that the franchise is going to return to its annual mainline release approach. 

A potential drawback for players when releases are less frequent is a lack of diversity in the games released – where there’s a great deal of focus on online multiplayer titles such as For Honor and Rainbow Siege 6, there’s sometimes a concern that single-player experiences will fall by the wayside. 

However, it could mean they hang around for longer, just in a different way. When never-ending online multiplayer games provide a consistent stream of revenue, there's less pressure to churn out yearly single-player releases for a quick cash burst. 

Because long-term engagement can be achieved in a few different ways, we're likely to see fewer large-scale, single-player titles, yes, but they'll stay relevant for longer with DLC drops. Ubisoft appears to be balancing multiplayer games with time-sink open-world ventures such as Assassin’s Creed Origins and Far Cry 5. 

Both of these titles will have sold-separately DLC so that players can wring new experiences out of the games, and Far Cry 5 has an online multiplayer element that has the potential to keep things fresh for longer.

Of course, purchasing season passes on top of full-price games isn’t appealing to everyone and mixing this in with far less palatable microtransactions and loot boxes seems like a rather surefire way to invite negative reactions from players, particularly in the current climate. Ubisoft's CFO, Alain Martinez, said that any in-game items for sale, however, should not feel necessary. 

A new future

On the developer side of things, more time to work on a game has the potential for more job satisfaction and perhaps less stress and pressure by avoiding infamous 'crunch' periods, where developers have to work long hours to ready a game for release.

By having a longer development period than usual, Assassin’s Creed Origins massively benefited and we saw significant, much-needed improvements to a formula that we weren’t sure we could enjoy again. Being able to communicate with fans and explain design decisions or future plans is something that can make everyone more happy in the long run. 

It’s clear from Ubisoft’s annual report that the publisher intends to continue to pursue “recurring player investment”, rather than simply pursuing recurring titles. While fewer games doesn’t sound immediately appealing, if it means better games, then things may not be so bad. What will need to be considered, however, is how that coveted recurring player investment is encouraged – service games aren't necessarily bad, as long as the service provided is fair and reasonable. 

At the very least it’ll be nice not to blink and worry we’ve missed three new Assassin’s Creed titles. 

Emma Boyle

Emma Boyle is TechRadar’s ex-Gaming Editor, and is now a content developer and freelance journalist. She has written for magazines and websites including T3, Stuff and The Independent. Emma currently works as a Content Developer in Edinburgh.