Back when last year’s Assassin’s Creed Origins was still a fairly new game, Ubisoft found an unusual way to brag about it. In a press release three and a half months after it launched, the company noted: “Average playtime per player expected to almost double.”
The claim had some odd caveats. First, it was a projection, based on how people would play the game across a full year. Second, for some reason that you can probably guess, it excluded the sprawling 2013 game Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag.
Regardless, it made sense that average play time would be increasing for Origins. The playable map was enormous and more full of things to do than any Assassin’s Creed before it. The game was also designed to keep players hooked with a trickle of post-release content and that strategy must have been working.
For years, Ubisoft has been experimenting with ways to keep players from trading in Assassin’s Creed games after they complete the story. Years ago, the publisher introduced competitive multiplayer to the series, but while its cat-and-mouse design was a nice change from online shooters and strategy games, it never quite caught on. After several sequels, they dropped it. Now, it’s becoming clear that Ubisoft has a new strategy for the series: a steady drip-feed of post-release content. It’s an approach that has become ubiquitous across the games industry not just in service games like World of Warcraft and Destiny, but in everything from first-person shooters to Kirby games. Look even at this week’s Tomb Raider, which is set to get new tombs every month from October through April of next year.
A month in advance of the next big Assassin’s Creed game, Odyssey,game director Scott Phillips is promising “our most ambitious post launch support ever.” He said that in a video for the game’s calendar of content that convincingly supports his point.
Odyssey is set to have months of free and paid content. The main offerings appear to be a staggered set of episodes that’ll alternate between free “Lost Tales of Greece” releases and paid chapters of two three-part “story arcs,” one focusing on the first wielder of the Assassins’ hidden blade weapon and the other on Atlantis. (Yes, as in the lost city of Atlantis.)
The premium story arc episodes are the main offering of the game’s $40 season pass. They’re set to release about every six weeks, with the free Lost Tales releasing between them. It’s unclear how evenly this will all be distributed, but the content calendar shown in today’s trailer shows that Odyssey players who pay into this plan could be looking at a new episode every few weeks from November or December until late in the spring. This would be more frequent than Origins’ purportedly playtime-doubling plan which involved some free quests as well as two big expansions in January and March. (For the record, Assassin’s Creed has had post-release expansions nearly from the start, just nothing like a calendar’s worth until Origins.)
It’s unclear how different the Odyssey and Origins plans actually are, though the Odyssey one does seem like it’ll be offered more piecemeal, with fewer stretches of the game being in stasis. Origins had two big additions in its January and March expansions—the second one was particularly good—but it actually also quietly received a batch of free quests, too. Each of its paid expansions was preceded by the release of a free quest, as was the game’s horde mode. Additionally, it got a short quest that crossed over with Final Fantasy. (The corresponding crossover in Final Fantasy XV was much more elaborate, but the Origins crossover was neat for what it was.)
No matter how it works, it’s clear that Odyssey will get a lot of stuff. That stuff will expand a game that already appears to be gargantuan. During the current pre-release hype cycle for Odyssey, the game’s creators are already promising the franchise’s biggest game map and a story that runs 100 hours or more.
Since Ubisoft started showing off Odyssey, some franchise adicionados noticed some things that seemed to be missing. High on that list, oddly enough, are Assassins. Odyssey occurs before last year’s Origins, which depicted the creation of the Assassin’s order and then, in an expansion (notice what they did there...), showed the first Assassin’s brotherhood in action. Odyssey, which is set a few a few centuries before Origins, doesn’t even feature the series’ signature hidden blade as a weapon. This has led to confusion and, in some online quarters (among others, the skeptical AC subreddit), some aggravation that Odyssey might lack both a Creed and Assassins.
Enter the first expansion, announced today, and its promise to let players fight alongside the first wielder of the hidden blade. That blade appears prominently in the lead marketing image for the game’s post release content, dominating the new trailer’s YouTube thumbnail. Fans are speculating that the man with the blade is Darius, a Persian assassin referenced in 2009’s Assassin’s Creed II and again in last year’s Origins, though he had been thought to have died right before the era during which Odyssey is set. Perhaps it’s him. Perhaps not.
When enticing potential players with promises of post-release content, developers must perform a careful balancing act. If players get the sense they’re being denied too many parts of the game in favor of add-ons and preorder bonuses, they’ll often revolt. It’s a game of manipulation: With, say, WWE 2K, the publisher intentionally held back one of the most interesting new members of the wrestling company’s roster, Ronda Rousey, as a bonus character you get right away only if you pre-order. With Odyssey, players itch to have any characters with hidden blades—any bona fide assassins or proto-assassins in the game—and Ubisoft signals you’ll have to pay more to scratch that.
Part of Ubisoft’s process turning Assassin’s Creed into a service game has been adding timed events. Last year, with Origins, Ubisoft also tried to hook players by activating special high-level boss battles every couple of weeks. They’d not done this before, and the inexperience showed. A month after that game came out, those fights were too tough for half the player base to even try. It looks like Ubisoft is trying to refine that idea with Odyssey, offering weekly appearances of high-level mercenaries and ships, along with the promise to add more mythological enemies, all of which would be more reason to keep playing the game.
One way to hook players is to let them keep pecking at the game in the hopes it’ll dole out a new and exciting treat. That works best for loot games, which for many years, Assassin’s Creed wasn’t. Players could collect some swords or outfits for their characters, but the game’s systems weren’t based upon frequent acquisition of items of varied quality, a la, say, Diablo or Destiny. Last year’s Origins went full Diablo by adding an abundance of color-graded, randomized gear acquired through combat, quests or shopping. There appears to be plenty more gear to get in Odyssey, and today’s trailer shows that even more will be obtainable using a “special currency” earned by completing daily or weekly contracts.
Earlier this summer, Ubisoft’s CEO, Yves Guillemot, said that Assassin’s Creed wouldn’t have a new release in 2019. The series has usually come out once a year, with rare instances of skip years. For its previous AC cycle, Ubisoft launched Origins in late October and wrapped up post-release content in March. For this one, they’re going longer, starting with a game launch in early October and not finishing their season pass of content until mid- or late spring. It’s actually surprising they’re not trying to stretch it longer. The company has offered year-two slates of content for more multiplayer-oriented games such as The Division, Rainbow Six Siege, and Ghost Recon Wildlands. It stands to reason they could do something similar with a single player game, particularly one as sprawling as Odyssey is likely to be.
On top of all of that, Ubisoft is dangling the prospect of getting two remastered Assassin’s Creed games—III and Liberation—for people who buy the season pass, and they’re promising the additions of a historical-tour Discovery mode and a New Game Plus, both added post-release.
In this era of online service games, many have wondered how big publishers can find success making single player games. With their increasingly service-minded approach to Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft might be showing a workable model. We may still see the odd standalone singleplayer success story like Sony’s God of War but the trend is leaning more towards a menu where you buy your meal, pay extra for some dessert, and maybe get some free chips on the table between courses. Publishers want to keep us at the table, hopefully long enough that we’ll even decide to buy an extra drink or two.