Skull and Bones: a look back at a project that struggles

Announced several years ago, Skull and Bones, the pirate game from Ubisoft, has hardly been talked about since, except for announcing postponements… And despite eight years of development, the wind still doesn’t seem to be ready to lift, and the title continues to sail towards an uncertain horizon.

FROM DLC TO FULL GAME

The American media Kotaku has published a massive investigation about the creation of Skull and Bones. And the least we can say is that the twenty or so developers interviewed, both former and current, are not very confident about the game’s development and the final result.

Let’s remember that the project goes back to 8 years ago and that initially planned to be a simple extension of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Internally, Kotaku’s sources have raised doubts about the planned release date, which was last reported to be February or March 2022. On the other hand, Ubisoft is quite confident about the project’s progress, at least in front of investors.

So why not simply cancel the project? Because, still according to Kotaku’s sources, the development of the title has already cost Ubisoft 120 million dollars, and it is still far from being finished. For comparison’s sake, this amount represents as much – or more – than a recent episode of Assassin’s Creed.

The project is too big and advanced to be canceled, especially since it would not go down well with investors. There would be a political and economic deal between Ubisoft Singapore, the leading team behind the game, and the country to top it all off. The studio will have to release an original franchise within a specific timeframe if it wants to keep its advantages. The company seems to be bound hand and foot.

NOTHING BUT A DEMO?

If you follow JV and especially our adventures at E3, you may know that Panthaa – whose sweet voice you can enjoy in the video above – was able to play Ubisoft’s 2018 pirate title live and in a duplex for nearly an hour.

The game was quite playable at the time, yet it still hasn’t been released. A bizarre and rather unprecedented situation, but some developers compare to the case of Anthem: Skull and Bones would be for them a kind of technical showcase, bordering on the demo, but with little content behind.

This one indeed struggles to arrive because of the lack of a clear guideline. The Singaporean studio has given Kotaku some information about the game’s current state: the production has just passed the Alpha phase (8 years after the beginning of its development), and the teams say they are eager to give more details.

A NEBULOUS CONCEPT…

Still in the article of the American media, one of the developers explains that the basis of the problem lies in the status of the game itself: a DLC based on Assassin’s IV, which was technically not fresh at its release at the end of the life of PS3/360 and the beginning of generation One/PS4.

At the same time, Ubisoft was preparing Assassin’s Creed Unity, an actual new-gen episode that made the technical aspect of Black Flag a bit cheesy. And therefore of Skull and Bones. A technical reboot for the one that was still called Project Freedom then began.

The principal information that came out of the many interviews with former and current developers of the studio is that the game has always been searching for itself: we went from the Indian Ocean to the Caribbean; we started with a version very much inspired by the excellent Meier’s Pirates! with a multiplayer campaign with branches, before moving on to a version offering an ultra-atypical central hub, a city described as a “cathedral of water” by the developers. Several such avenues were explored during the long years of development, which didn’t help make the project something concrete, fixed and quick to release.

STACKING SYSTEMS

In the same style, we learn that the different versions shown at the show had a different philosophies. Initially focused on player vs. player (PvP) for its first presentation in 2017, Skull and Bones integrate PvE with players and AIs the following year when it returns to E3. At this stage, the game includes a vast number of systems: naval battle, a competitive game system in the style of The Division’s Dark Zone, loot, resource management, crafting, buying and reselling merchandise… Ubisoft does not hesitate to try things. But the result is an indigestible accumulation of features, both difficult to manage in-game and in its interface.

​​MULTIPLE RETURN TRIPS

Whether you play the ship or – nuance – a pirate piloting the ship has been reconsidered repeatedly over the years. Faced with all these direction changes, the studio spent between six months and a year developing tools to make exploration on foot possible.

As the hesitations multiplied, the teams finally felt lost and had to bounce back as best they could from each new decision made by the managers. The relations between the Parisian studio and the one in Singapore would have been complicated, not helping the project to progress.

According to Kotaku’s sources, the game would continue to evolve today, but it seems to be struggling, and it is not clear where it is heading. It isn’t easy to project a release date in these conditions. Let’s hope that it doesn’t fall entirely in the water…