The “Ubisoft Formula” to open world games gets a fair amount of hate but it has produced some absolute classics during this console generation.
The longer this console generation stretches on, the more I realise how I’ve come to love the games from Ubisoft. It dawned on me during E3 this year, when I was absolutely sold on everything they showed on stage (yes, Including Just Dance), that they’ve quietly become my favourite big publisher. Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, Watch_Dogs and The Division are all IP’s I’ve sunk considerable time into in the past few months and looking ahead, I’ll be there on day one for AssCreed Odyssey, Skull and Bones and The Division 2. This is due, in part, to something called “The Ubisoft Formula”, an oft used term which describes the base mechanics and systems which have permeated many of the publishers titles. Boiled down into the component parts, the “Ubisoft Formula” is as follows;
- An open world
- Towers or locations which, when activated, populate a map with icons
- A myriad of optional activities and collectables
- Game play which prioritises emergent, player driven experiences over scripted scenarios
- More often than not features a playable brooding anti-hero or silent protagonist
The phrase “Ubisoft Formula” is often used as a derogatory term and there’s been a number of articles published over the years – exhibit a, exhibit b – that describe how this culmination of mechanics and their continual use have led to a “repetitive, mechanical, and shallow” titles. I’m here to argue the opposite. It’s no accident that the “Ubisoft formula” has produced some of my favourite games of all time and continues to do so and I want to share the reasons why.
In an earnings call back in 2016, Yves Gillemot said that Ubisoft were the “only company that can make Open World games this consistently”. At the time of saying that, Ubisoft had published 8 open world games in the previous 12 months, many more than any of its competitors, which is prolific to say the least. What’s most impressive is the high quality of these open world environments, despite the quantity. Whether it be the Pyramids of Assassin’s Creed Origins, the battle-torn streets of The Division or the mountain ranges of Far Cry 5, Ubisoft have a knack of choosing enticing locals for their games. While it’s not always what gamers have been asking for (Assassin’s Creed Feudal Japan when?) they’ve always been places that have offered visual splendour and an interesting backdrop to the story. Ubisoft pour a lot of effort into these worlds too giving them a degree of authenticity that has yet to be rivalled and is getting to the point where they’re becoming so factual, they’re being used in the classroom. That’s not to mention the master class in environmental storytelling that the teams put into their games. I’ve written about how Far Cry 5 creates truly detestable villains through environmental storytelling before but this level of world building is prominent in most Ubisoft games. There’s barely a corner of The Division that isn’t visually describing some horrendous conflict and the Assassin’s Creed games are littered with environmental clues to historic events.
The game world itself isn’t anything without the artificial life in it and, again, Ubisoft are well ahead of the curve with this. It’s easy to miss many of the little touches that the Ubisoft teams put into their games but take a moment to just walk around their worlds and it’s astounding. A couple mourning over a grave in Assassin’s Creed Rogue. A man smashing up a car with a baseball bat over an affair in Watch Dogs 2. Children playing “wally” with a football in the park in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. A drunk man being thrown out of a bar in Assassin’s Creed Unity. The wildlife of every Far Cry game to date. The naked women bathing in the sea in Assassin’s Creed Origins. There’s months of work poured into the design, character models, the animation, the vocals, the positioning – all to give games using the “Ubisoft Formula” a lived-in feeling just for fleeting moments. It’s an astonishing attention to detail which is beyond the products of any other developer/publisher right now.
More so than the location and inhabitants though, it’s the way these places are designed that make them so enjoyable to explore. Take Assassin’s Creed Rogue for example, one of the purest examples of “the Ubisoft Formula”. A massive open world to sail across, sure, but each of the towns, forts and caves have a defined structure with multiple options. Landscapes and vegetation are positioned to draw your eyes to holes in fences, caves, climbable trees and more that give freedom to traverse the world how you see fit. The same can be said about the landmarks in Far Cry 5; approach any Peggy facility from any direction and there’s a pipe to crawl through, a hole in a fence or an overlook to snipe from. The vast majority of missions in Watch_Dogs 2 have an open design that allow players to complete them as they see fit, whether that be all guns blazing or using a drone and hacking. It’s a design philosophy that has filtered into almost everything that Ubisoft do to give players options. It prioritises a unique player experience over ensuring each player stays within the scripted system.
More than anything else, the “Ubisoft Formula” has created a familiarity which means each game that uses it is easy to pick up and are instantly intuitive. After playing one of their games, it’s easy to pick up another thanks to the transferable aspects. Play any Assassin’s Creed game and you can pick up Watch Dogs. Play The Division and you can easily understand Ghost Recon Wildlands. Games using this formula have become my “go to” when I need half an hour of familiarity. When it’s 3AM and I’ve finally managed to settle off my teething daughter in my arms, I pop on Assassin’s Creed 3 for half an hour and search for some feathers until she’s in a deep enough sleep so she won’t explode like a grenade filled with tears and wailing if I stand up. When I want to play with my fellow FingerGunners (that a thing? That should be a thing), we load up The Division. I gave Origins my “Game of the Year” award last year because, despite sweeping changes to combat and progression, the game still felt like a warm comfort blanket in times of uncertainty. This is probably what leads people to complain or “repetition” but for me, a critic who often has to flit from one game to another, the familiarity of the “Ubisoft Formula” is a welcoming feeling.
Much like TT Games and Telltale Games have tweaked and perfected a game play formula which they have made their own, Ubisoft have done this with open world games. The publisher wasn’t the first to use any of these aspects – Grand Theft Auto can lay claim to much of that – but Ubisoft have refined it to such a degree that other developers have now started to recognise these as the gold standard and are adapting it. Horizon: Zero Dawn had their own version of the “Ubisoft Towers”. Even Zelda got in on that action in Breath of the Wild. The upcoming Spider-Man game is including a plethora of side activities like bases filled with Wilson Fisk’s goons to clear out too. As is often said, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” and for fans of the “Ubisoft formula” like myself, it’s heartening to see it being used more widely. What I’m most excited about though it what Ubisoft do with this DNA next. Roll on Assassin’s Creed Odyssey…