Ubisoft’s open seas pirate fantasy from hell has lost its third creative director. Kotaku has learned that Elisabeth Pellen, who began working with the Skull and Bones team back in 2018, left Ubisoft Singapore to return to the French publisher’s Paris headquarters earlier this summer. The game’s long-awaited closed beta recently received mixed reactions, and Kotaku now understands that Ubisoft Singapore faces an organized labor campaign by the country’s Creative Media and Publishing Union.
A lot is riding on the big-budget blockbuster, especially as Ubisoft cuts costs following an anemic 2022 release slate. Along with The Crew Motorfest, Assassin’s Creed: Mirage, and Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, Skull and Bones is one of four major games Ubisoft touted at its big summer showcase to reverse recent misfortunes and strategic changes that have led a flurry of internal projects to be canceled, including a sequel to 2020’s Immortals Fenyx Rising.
Pellen, who was previously a VP of editorial, Ubisoft’s centralized department for creative oversight and support for franchises like Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and The Division, oversaw Skull and Bones’ pivot from primarily a session-based multiplayer ship combat shooter to a broader exploration and survival-oriented piracy sim that drew loose inspiration from games like Rust and Ark: Survival Evolved. She’s now back at Ubisoft’s Paris office with the title of directeur editorial online, according to her LinkedIn profile.
“Five years ago, Elisabeth Pellen went to Ubisoft Singapore with a mission to reboot the creative direction of Skull and Bones,” a spokesperson for Ubisoft told Kotaku wrote in an emailed statement. “She succeeded, and the Skull and Bones team is now fulfilling her vision to deliver a unique naval action RPG experience to our players.”
The publisher added that at this stage of a game’s development “it’s not uncommon for a creative director to move on to a new project or role,” though two sources familiar with the situation, who wished to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak about company business, told Kotaku that Pellen’s tenure at Ubisoft Singapore had been expected to last at least through the end of the year.
Pellen did not respond to a request for comment.
Born out of an expansion for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (which is now getting a remake), Skull and Bones was originally expected to ship in 2018. The soft reboot and more ambitious vision, however, saw the game subsequently delayed several times. It was effectively ready to come out in the fall of 2022, but was pulled at the last minute over ongoing concerns around polish and playtest feedback. While Ubisoft has once again promised to deliver the “AAAA” blockbuster before the end of its fiscal year in March 2024, Kotaku understands that there’s still no new internal release date yet.
IGN was one of the select few media outlets who received access to the latest version of Skull and Bones for a hands-on preview, and its initial impressions were glowing. “I’m more excited to dive into the full experience than I was even way back when it was announced at E3 all those years ago,” Travis Northup wrote for the site. Not everyone was so impressed, however. Yahoo! News Singapore contributor Aloysius Low wrote that it left him “terribly bored,” with much of the beta boiling down to blowing up ships or quietly sailing for long stretches of time while little happened.
“The positive feedback received during the recent Closed Beta highlights the invaluable work Elisabeth and the entire team have done,” a spokesperson for Ubisoft told Kotaku. “Now through the game’s launch, our focus is to offer the best possible experience to players by considering their feedback and further polishing the game.”
Skull and Bones’ years of development hell have been accompanied by broader concerns around workplace treatment, equality, and pay at the Ubisoft Singapore studio. Most recently, these appear to have culminated in a “ballot exercise” by the country’s Creative Media and Publishing Union (CMPU) who has been soliciting support from developers there via flyers at lunchtime. “This caught many of us by surprise,” HR director Desiree Tan told staff in an August email viewed by Kotaku.
It’s not yet clear how much support the CMPU has or which developers within the studio could potentially become represented by the group. The union drive follows a host of recent organizing efforts at game studios in the US, but won’t be entirely unique for Ubisoft. Labor laws and sectoral bargaining arrangements in France mean that the publisher has been navigating union activity at studios in its home countries for years. Some French Ubisoft employees called for a strike earlier this year over pay and CEO Yves Guillemot appearing to shift blame for recent corporate missteps onto workers.
“At the request of the Creative Media and Publishing Union (CMPU), a branch of Singapore’s National Trade Union Congress, a ballot exercise is being conducted this week among eligible team members in the studio to determine whether formal recognition should be granted,” a spokesperson for Ubisoft wrote in an emailed statement.
Ubisoft believes in the importance of listening to our employees and fostering an open dialogue, and we believe that we have appropriate mechanisms and initiatives in place to continue creating a great workplace. Ubisoft Singapore was voted by employees as a Great Place to Work in 2022, and we will continue to engage with our team members to gather their feedback and work together to create a workplace where everyone can thrive.
The CMPU did not immediately respond to a request for comment.