The Arlesian from Ubisoft is no longer an Arlesian. The multiplayer pirate game that had almost been forgotten all this time resurfaced this week to finally reveal gameplay, information and above all a release date. The end of the tunnel finally seems to be approaching for the first new IP from Ubisoft Singapore, announced five years ago all the same. But then, what happened during all these years?
- Skull and Bones: a pirate story that started well
- 2018-2022: Radio silence on the side of Ubisoft
- Blurred vision, technical limits… Corridor noises
Skull and Bones: a pirate story that started well
It all starts in June 2017. E3 is in full swing and Ubisoft is giving us its usual conference. In addition to the announcement of the newcomers for these flagship licenses, namely Assassin’s Creed Origins and Far Cry 5, a new IP succeeds in making an impression: Skull and Bones. Game of pirates and naval battles, it inevitably recalls Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, this opus which allowed you to discover the life of a pirate and to sail on the waves.
We quickly learn that it was during the development of the latter that the project was born. During 2013, while the Ubisoft Singapore teams were finalizing the title, they embarked on a few experiments with a view to producing a new game. Over the course of these, the idea of offering a pirate game to discover with friends emerges. Particularly inspired by this new proposal (Sea of Thieves was not released then), the developers are embarking on this great and long journey that will be the development of Skull and Bones.
Little by little, the concept becomes clearer. The game will certainly be multiplayer, but will also have to offer new content regularly. In terms of substance, the developers want to get us on board on the waves of the Indian Ocean, story to stand out from the Caribbean story that we are usually told about pirates. Add to that gameplay focused on loot hunting, naval battles and strong customization and you have the Skull and Bones that was shown in 2017.
From the announcement, a strong community is created around the Ubisoft game, which intends to give them an important place in the creation process. Based on the participatory aspect of the development of Ghost Recon Phantoms (beta and other fan contributions), Ubisoft Singapore had even already invited a group of players, the Keepers of the Codeto come and test the game and give their opinions during a dedicated workshop. A closed beta is also launched and, according to the studio, it reaches a record level of participation for a new Ubisoft license.
Thanks to these kinds of initiatives, it’s stronger than ever that Skull and Bones returns to E3 2018. During the event, we were even able to play it and the game had many advantages, almost acting as a technical showcase for Ubisoft. But now, if the game showed more on this occasion, it was also postponed to 2019, much to the chagrin of fans. Unfortunately for them, this is only the first in a long list of postponements. Because if everything seemed to be going for the best on the side of Skull and Bones, the game is then about to begin a long crossing of the desert.
2018-2022: Radio silence on the side of Ubisoft
At the end of 2018, Justin Farren, creative director of Skull and Bones, left the ship. If we have little information on the subject, the survey conducted by Gamasutra and revealed in 2020 suggests that the atmosphere was not really good in the studios. The man is indeed quoted in the many testimonies pointing the finger at a work climate that would be toxic and full of remarks more than inappropriate. Impossible to say if this caused his departure, but we suspect that the situation could not have played in favor of a serene development for the title. This investigation even prompted Ubisoft to remove another member of the studio in 2020: Hugues Ricour, director of Ubisoft Singapore and participant in the production of Skull and Bones.
These departures inevitably had an impact on the development of the game. Changing teams and directions in the middle of a project is never easy. In the end, the announcement of a new postponement during the year 2019 is therefore not really a surprise. What is more, however, is the radio silence that followed. For almost a year, we have no news of the title. To reassure the players, Elisabeth Pellen finally speaks on the Ubisoft site to explain the postponement. It would thus be due to the great ambitions of the title as well as to a new vision which would have emerged over the months.
Many of you are wondering why we had to postpone our launch. The answer is that we simply needed more time. We dreamed of something bigger for Skull & Bones, and those ambitions naturally came with bigger challenges. These difficulties have resulted in necessary delays for our game. Crucial questions had to be addressed over the past few months, such as: how to modernize the classic pirate game? How to guarantee a more immersive and visceral experience? How can we create cool and memorable moments in the game? To answer most of these questions, it was clear that we needed more development time.
And then the studio immediately resumes its silence. In 2021, not a single tweet is posted by the official Skull and Bones account. The game page is gradually being emptied of all information. Until this week’s presentation, the official site was content to redirect players to the Insider Program, without giving any details on the title itself. When Ubisoft’s financial report is released in 2021, we even learn that the game has been postponed again, without even an official announcement having been made.
Little by little, the hope of one day seeing this title come out is dying out. Skull and Bones obtains the title of Arlesian and the enthusiasm around the game is dwindling. After four years without new images and only one release in three years, the title has, against all odds, decided to make a comeback this year. With a few bits of information a few months ago and, above all, this week’s Ubisoft Forward, Skull and Bones showed us that it is not dead, far from it. The game is indeed almost finished and will finally be released this year, November 8, 2022 to be precise. But then, if the development has indeed progressed during all this time and the project has not been abandoned as some thought, how come Ubisoft was so quiet about it?
Blurred vision, technical limits… Corridor noises
If we have no official information at this level, there are still some points that explain the strange silence around Skull and Bones, starting with the chaotic situation of the studio. As mentioned above, Ubisoft Singapore was at the heart of the charges brought against the French video game giant. So much so that in the summer of 2021, the TAFEP (Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices) launched an investigation into the working conditions of employees. Again, difficult to develop a game serenely under the conditions reported, but also in the midst of an investigation of this kind.
Note that a few days before that, a completely different kind of survey had been published by Kotaku. Claiming to have collected the testimony of about twenty people working or having worked on the project, the online journal provides a chaotic inventory of the development process. Judging by its lines, Skull and Bones has not only changed its vision over the years, but rather had the greatest difficulty in finding one and sticking to it.
We are told about a game that could have happened in a fantastic world to finally invest the Indian Ocean. We talk about the many points that would have remained unresolved for years, such as controlling only the boat or its captain, or the size and operation of the card. Others, less fundamental, would have monopolized team members for several months, to finally be purely and simply withdrawn.
Lack of clear decision-making, perpetual changing of minds, very different game systems piling up on top of each other… Kotaku’s article reports a confusing and frustrating development. We note all the same that certain testimonies contradict each other and that it is therefore difficult to fully grasp the reality of this development process. But what is certain, however, is that it was not the most clear and relaxing.
In addition, the various reports have put Ubisoft Singapore in the face of more technical problems. We are now in 2022 and the latest consoles to date are the PS5 and the Xbox Series. Skull and Bones will also be a next-gen game, since it is planned, on the console side, on the latter only. But to get there, we had to work hard and above all start from scratch many times. When the project was born, it was the era of PS3 and Xbox One. Gradually, the Ubisoft Singapore teams were therefore forced to return to their initial work in order to stick with the technical standards of the PS4/Xbox One era, and now PS5/Xbox Series. Suffice to say that the time wasted constantly upgrading the game must have been substantial.
If Skull and Bones was at a competing studio, it would have been dropped a dozen times by now
But then, if development was so chaotic, why is the game still on track? Some claim it’s because Ubisoft has already put a lot of money on the table (nearly 120 million dollars according to Kotaku) and that the project therefore cannot afford to be abandoned. Others put forward a supposed contract with the Singaporean state, which would have authorized Ubisoft to open a studio in the country in exchange for the development of a new IP triple A made in Singapore.
Whether for the first or the second reason, Skull and Bones has indeed stayed the course. See you on November 8 to see if the game will have been worth the candle. Unfortunately, the tide is not really turning in his favor. Because if some were reassured by the presentation of this week, the release date will be a real handicap. Skull and Bones should indeed be released a day before one of the most anticipated games of the year: God of War Ragnarok. To stay the course, the pirate game therefore has an interest in having a solid back.