It was said to be cursed by a few people. Others were simply unsure of what they were supposed to make(Assassin’s Creed Expansion). One former developer said, “Nobody knew what the fuck they were doing.”
According to three sources familiar with the project’s origins, Skull & Bones began development in 2013 as a multiplayer expansion for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag that would be released as a post-launch update. However, the expansion quickly took on a life of its own, morphing into a full-fledged MMO-like spin-off known as Black Flag Infinite and later a brand new pirate game known as Skull & Bones.
The game made a big splash at E3 2017 with an on-stage reveal and hands-on demo, then reappeared a year later with a polished demo but has since vanished. What happened is a source of contention. Some argue that the game didn’t exist at all, despite the well-received E3 blowouts. Others argue that a version of what was playable at industry events could have launched in Early Access around the same time as other games-as-a-service and matured in the wild, as other games-as-a-service have done.
Years later, the game is still in its infancy, and players are running on fumes.
One former developer stated, “A lot of stuff still doesn’t make sense.” “At this point, polishing it would be a waste of time.”
Skull & Bones was supposed to come out in late 2018. After that, sometime in 2019. Following that, sometime after March 2020. Then sometime between March 2022 and March 2023. It is now expected to be released before March 2023.
“It’s too big to fail, just like the banks in the U.S.” – current Ubisoft developer
In just three years, there have been four major delays. It raises red flags about the project’s future and the fate of those working on it, even from a company with a reputation for rescheduling like Ubisoft. Skull & Bones could be released at any time, and it could be fantastic. However, its development has been hampered by just about everything that can go wrong in the production of a blockbuster video game up to this point.
Following the latest delay, announced during Ubisoft’s May investor call, one current developer told Kotaku, “No one believed February 2022 [for launch], but you always hope.”
Ubisoft executives were scrambling to explain yet another setback during that earnings call.
During the same meeting, Ubisoft CFO Frederick Duguet stated, “Production, led by [Ubisoft] Singapore, has been progressing well over the past 12 months, and the promise is better than ever.” “With the extra time, the team will be able to fully realize its vision.”
However, interviews with over 20 current and former Ubisoft developers and those familiar with the game, its troubled development, and the studio in charge of production reveal a different story. According to them, Skull & Bones never had a clear creative vision, was plagued by almost annual reboots and mini-refreshes, and suffered from too many managers vying for power. Even as ambitions for the would-be game-as-a-service continue to mount within Ubisoft’s head Paris office, basic questions about the game’s core design have yet to be answered.
Because they were either not authorized to speak to the press about the project or feared that speaking out about a previous employer would jeopardize their careers in the video game industry, all of these people were given anonymity.
Skull & Bones has nearly blown through its initial budgets, nearly eight years after its conception. According to three sources, the project has already cost Ubisoft more than $120 million, and that figure is expected to rise as hundreds of developers from other Ubisoft studios pitch in to ensure that the game is released without further delays.
Developers at Ubisoft are compensated based on the success of their projects. Those who are associated with large, nearly annual franchises such as Assassin’s Creed are frequently assured of healthy returns. But, as sources told Kotaku, Skull & Bones was in such bad shape. The project had to undergo a financial write-off internally for its developers to still have a shot at any sort of payout.
“No one wants to admit they fucked up,” said one developer. “It’s too big to fail, just like the banks in the U.S.”
“If Skull & Bones were at a competitor it would have been killed 10 times already,” said one former developer.
Another former developer, more generously, stated that Electronic Arts or Take-Two, for example, would not have attempted it in the first place. In any case, Ubisoft has placed a large bet on the multiplayer pirate adventure and is committed to seeing it through. Since live service games have become a more important and profitable part of the Assassin’s Creed publisher’s portfolio. However, three sources told Kotaku that it is required as part of a deal with the Singapore government. They claimed that, in addition to hiring a certain number of people at its Singapore studio in exchange for generous subsidies, Ubisoft Singapore would have to launch original brand new IPs in the coming years.
Many current and former developers say production has dragged on for years with little to show for it. One current developer compared the project’s progress to that of Bioware’s Anthem, a large multiplayer game-as-a-service that looked great in demos but shipped broken and incomplete. Some Skull & Bones core team members are hopeful that they can avoid a similar fate, but they are also desperate to finish the game and move on to something new.
“Just having people working for four or five years on something that doesn’t move forward, that destroys anyone,” said one former developer.
In response to a detailed list of questions, Ubisoft confirmed to Kotaku that Skull & Bones just passed Alpha, and provided the following brief statement:
The Skull & Bones team are proud of the work they’ve accomplished on the project since their last update with production just passing Alpha, and are excited to share more details when the time is right. That being said, any unfounded speculation about the game or decisions being made only works to demoralize the team who are working very hard to develop an ambitious new franchise that lives up to the expectations of our players.
Over the past year, we’ve made significant changes to our policies and processes to create a safe and more inclusive workplace and empower our teams to create games that reflect the diversity of the world we live in.
The concept was straightforward. Ubisoft Singapore had recently gained experience in online multiplayer games with its ongoing work on a free-to-play Tom Clancy game called Ghost Recon Phantoms and was responsible for developing the sailing technology that helped define some of the best parts of Black Flag. Black Flag Infinite would pool that knowledge to create a fast-paced live-action game that reused and reskinned as much of the original Black Flag as possible. However, conditions on the ground were already outstripping these modest goals.
The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One had just been released, and Black Flag’s already outdated technology would become even more so in the coming years.
“Technology was progressing, and you’d soon want better visuals. “And then you realize that some of your assets no longer fit,” one former developer explained. “And as you start to change far more, more parts become obsolete. And if a project drags on for more than a few years, your initial assumptions become obsolete.”
Things go wrong in game development all the time, but they never seemed to go right with Skull & Bones.
Ubisoft eventually decided to abandon Black Flag in favor of developing a new AAA IP centered on ship combat but with its own narrative and visual identity. Skull & Bones, codenamed “Project Liberté,” was born as a result. The real issue, however, was just getting started.
“On paper, Skull & Bones appears to be a simple game to make, but it isn’t,” one former developer said.
Skull & Bones has been many things in the years since it went into pre-production, according to the developers. It was set in the Caribbean at one point. It then relocated to the Indian Ocean. One version was inspired by Sid Meier’s Pirates! and featured branching multiplayer campaigns that lasted weeks in a fantastical world called Hyperborea. Another revolved around Libertalia, an elaborate floating base inspired by the mythical pirate colony of the same name and described as a “cathedral on water” by one developer. Most of these ideas never made it past the prototyping phase but still managed to take up an increasing amount of the Singapore studio’s time as developers reworked designs and concepts for a game whose core premise appeared to change with the wind.
Skull & Bones was reborn in 2017, this time as a session-based shooter modeled after Rainbow Six Siege but with boats, after the studio tried to rein in its ambitions to focus on ship combat. This was the version shown at E3, but Ubisoft wasn’t ready to give up on its hopes for a larger pirate exploration game just yet. Beyond a monetizable PVP grind, it would still require a world and quests. So, in 2018, Skull & Bones returned to E3 with “Hunting Grounds,” a PVE free roam mode. Players could loot hideouts, fight one another, or work together to take on more powerful AI opponents, similar to The Division’s “Dark Zones.”
But, by 2019, survival games like Rust and Ark: Survival Evolved had replaced Skull & Bones as the game’s new guiding stars. There would be resource management elements such as crafting and trading in addition to the sailing, fighting, and looting. There would also be higher stakes for dying, giving the pirate fantasy a roguelike feel. According to five current and former developers, the change in direction was particularly tumultuous. According to them, the project’s existing engine tools were unfit for taking players on land in search of resources, and the additional layers of inventory were a pain to implement.
Four current and former developers told Kotaku that the direction had shifted yet again by 2020. Skull & Bones’ latest build will be even more different, though many people are still unsure what shape the finished game will take. It isn’t just that the finish line isn’t in sight; it isn’t even clear where the finish line is.
One current developer stated, “The game is still evolving.” “Everyone knows what a Ubisoft game is supposed to be like, but the design isn’t quite there yet.”
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