The Vivendi and Ubisoft Situation – Part 2
This is the time of year gamers rush to message boards to discuss who had better exclusives, salivate over rumors, and have joygasms induced by a stampeding horde of AAA reveals. Yes, E3 has come and gone, fueling the hype train for another year of speculation and whispers. One game that’s received a lot of attention is Watch Dogs 2, and for good reason… although perhaps not the right one.
As the original Watch Dogs approached its release in 2014, gamers were hoping it’d lead to an evolution in open world games. Sure, the likes of Grand Theft Auto were large enough to provide tens, if not hundreds of hours of fun, but did most those cities ever feel alive? Was that barrier between playground and reality ever truly shattered? Nah. By and large, the most interaction people could hope for was when random NPC’s were struck by your vehicle and turned into road paste. Watch Dogs, however, promised to change that through ‘hacking’, a new gameplay mechanic which had been designed to not only affect the environment around you, but allow a glimpse into the lives of everyone you pass on the street.
Unfortunately, Watch Dogs wasn’t the game changer Ubisoft had hyped it to be. There were some solid ideas at its core, but the package as a whole suffered from a weak plot, a loathsome protagonist (seriously, the guy was a dick), and not enough variety in mission structure, primary or otherwise. Needless to say, many felt Watch Dogs was average at best, and were disappointed they had paid full price. That didn’t stop it from selling over 10 million units its first year though, and while that pretty much guaranteed a sequel would come sooner rather than later, it didn’t seem there was enough interest left in the gaming community to warrant one.
And yet here we are, coming down from the excitement of E3 2016, and people are genuinely excited to get their hands on Watch Dogs 2 come November.
Despite the hype however, Ubisoft should be concerned. Unlike the first game, the hype for Watch Dogs 2 isn’t universal… and they need it to be. As it stands today, there are plenty of folks that just don’t want to spend $60 to be disappointed again, and you can count me among the skeptics. I can’t speak for everyone else, but I don’t get the impression Ubisoft finally understands what to do with this franchise. Sure, they’ve seen fit to provide a protagonist more interesting than a roll of wallpaper, but that isn’t saying much. Kudos to the publisher for attempting to fix what kept the original from reaching its full potential, but their overcompensation – which was on display for all to see during E3 – is legendary. It’s like they made a list of all the stuff from the first game, and went in the opposite direction… with everything.
And boy, do they want you know it. A frying pan over the head would have been more subtle than their messaging during E3:
“Welcome to Watch Dogs 2! Remember that ole Bernie Sanders lookin’ mofo in a trench coat? Forget him! Our new protagonist is a young black male with attitude, and he can parkour like nobody’s business! Instead of walking through the dreary streets of Chicago, you can escape the po-po through a vibrant rendition of San Francisco… because black guy! To stay relevant, we’ve designed DedSec to be just like Anonymous… you know, that hacker organization in the real world! They’re mostly comprised of teenagers, right? RIGHT! Complete missions to gain followers so you can take the power back from the man! And eeeeeeeverything is hackable! Cars, toys, drones, robots… you name it! That’s right! Watch Dogs 2 delivers the stealth-based hackathon you’ve come to expect, in a world that’s especially catered to be your virtual playground! YEAH!”
Ubisoft went to an extreme to let us know how ‘radically different’ and ‘cool’ this game is, but the game is only 5 months out. Why not let the gameplay do the talking? No, instead they’re telling us what to be interested in, and ironically enough, none of that gobbledy-gook interests me. It also failed to captivate a number of others, too. What I, and probably others, really need to hear from them is, “Hey, we’ve removed those stupid mini-games, improved the hacking mechanic, fixed the narrative, enhanced enemy AI, and made the missions more compelling!” All of these major complaints have been glossed over, and why? Well, I suspect it’s because they have no clue what gamers actually want.
I know it doesn’t sound like it, but I’ve genuinely enjoyed a number of Ubisoft games. That said, I’ve grown tired of their ‘and the kitchen sink’ mentality. When a studio crams this much content into their games, it’s because they want to make sure there’s something for everyone. Now, as nice as that sounds, the ‘cater to everybody’ approach rarely, if ever, improves a product. Instead, a good core gets swallowed by the mediocre content surrounding it, and that’s a fact Ubisoft have proven to be blind to. Does anyone ever say their experience is enhanced by collecting useless crap, or grinding for something needlessly because a dev wanted to pad a game’s runtime? No. Of course they don’t. So, I think the writing is on the wall. Watch Dogs came off as a missed opportunity in 2014 and I foresee the sequel heading in a similar direction.
I hope I’m wrong, though. Watch Dogs 2 should come out and blow everyone’s freakin’ mind. As a matter fact – and I said this earlier – it needs to. Not because I want to see gamers get the game they deserve (however nice that would be), but because Ubisoft needs to stay in business.
The prospect of a hostile takeover by Vivendi is quite real. Yes, a ‘change of the guard’ could force an evolution in the company’s approach to game development, but Vivendi have a history of mismanaging their funds and bleeding their assets dry to make up for it. If this cycle is allowed to continue with Ubisoft under Vivendi’s wing, the studio could end up being forced to close… leaving Electronic Arts and Activision with more control in third party game development for PC and consoles. Competition is always good for the consumer, and even with Ubisoft making numerous iterations of ‘Climb the Tower: The Game’, there aren’t many in the way of major players on the field. Losing just one would change things dramatically. It wouldn’t happen overnight, but you’d see the strategies of EA and Activision become bolder as time goes on.
So, that’s why I’ve been droning on about all the things Ubisoft are getting wrong with Watch Dogs 2. All Vivendi needs are some Ubisoft investors to sell their shares, and a clunker of a game would be the perfect incentive for them to do so. It’s why earlier this year Ubisoft had turned to their Canadian investors with hat in hand, asking they beef up their shares so Vivendi wouldn’t be able to worm their way in.
To be clear, though, I’m not saying anyone should go out and buy Watch Dogs 2. As gamers, we still have a very important decision to make at the end of the day – Do we support a troubled game, or not? The answer, of course, is no, unless there’s some extreme factor which compels us otherwise (you’re a collector/connoisseur, are a content creator, a major fan of a developer or franchise, etc.). What happens behind-the-scenes isn’t exactly our concern, even if the end result will impact us directly. All we can do is make an informed decision, one way or the other, and hope things turn out for the best. If Watch Dogs 2 does prove to flop, all we can hope is that this company has all its ducks in a row, learn from their mistakes, and make better products in the future.