Many in the gaming world let out a sigh today as Ubisoft formally announced their intentions to develop a project currently known as Assassin’s Creed Infinity: a reportedly live service take on the Assassin’s Creed franchise that may just prove to be the future of the series.
“This change means we’re also evolving along with the video game industry,” reads a blog post from Ubisoft regarding the Infinity project. “Rather than continuing to pass the baton from game to game, we profoundly believe this is an opportunity for one of Ubisoft’s most beloved franchises to evolve in a more integrated and collaborative manner that’s less centered on studios and more focused on talent and leadership, no matter where they are within Ubisoft.”
Now, it’s important to note that the words “live service” are not mentioned in that blog post. That idea was instead prominently mentioned by Bloomberg reporter Jason Schreier who published an article about this project shortly before Ubisoft confirmed its existence (Schreier was previously speaking with Ubisoft representatives as part of his investigation). Schreier notes that the current plan is for Infinity to be a “live service platform” that “may be some sort of hub that allows people to play multiple AC games both big and small.” He also notes that the game is “years away” and that “Ubisoft may say screw it and give up to chase the next trend 3 years from now.”
That’s the thing to keep in mind for the moment. Nobody is entirely sure what a live service Assassin’s Creed game looks like. It may prove to be a Destiny-style experience with a shared world, it could end up being a fairly traditional Assassin’s Creed game that is just constantly updated rather than built from scratch, or it might indeed be a kind of “hub” that encompasses a variety of experiences and timelines that all exist under the Assassin’s Creed banner.
Live service games come in many forms, but the one thing they typically have in common is that they’re big games. That’s kind of the whole point of the live service concept. It’s designed to offer a gameplay experience that you’re meant to play for weeks, months, and, in increasingly common cases, years. Studios who make live service games typically want them to be the only game you play, and they try to ensure they give you enough content to make sure you never think of leaving them. Of course, that often means that you’re also encouraged to give them another $60 or so here and there rather than buy an entirely new game.
That’s the biggest problem with Assassin’s Creed Infinity based on what we know about it at the moment. Live service games are designed to be big, and the Assassin’s Creed series has suffered from being too damn big for far too long.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla took about 40-50 hours to beat if you were trying to see the credits as quickly as possible. More “casual” playthroughs take about 50-80 hours. That’s not inherently a problem (and more than a few people would consider that amount of content to be a selling point), but what is a problem in the minds of many is how much of Valhalla was clearly designed to pad the length of the game.
Too many collectibles in Valhalla are just laying out in the open and often yield disappointing rewards. Too many of Valhalla‘s side quests task you with completing objectives that are mechanically familiar and emotionally lacking (which is a real shame given the quality of its other side stories). Too much of Valhalla‘s world starts to bleed together as repetitive geography makes you more impressed with the measurements of the map than how you feel exploring it. Too much of Valhalla‘s combat starts to feel too familiar too soon even as the game relies on it more and more.
Yet, Valhalla‘s worst padding sin was its story. You can argue about how good Valhalla‘s story ultimately is, but its pacing was an absolute nightmare.
Rather than offer a much smaller, tighter story that you could conceivably see the end of in about 20 hours if you chose to do so, Ubisoft tried to stretch Valhalla‘s story across most of those aforementioned 40+ hours and often made you endure what should have been optional content to see the next chapter of the main narrative. It certainly didn’t help that Valhalla tried too hard to insert confusing franchise lore of diminishing returns into its original story, which also doesn’t exactly bode well for the idea of a live service Assassin’s Creed game where even more content could one day be tied together by those same plot threads.
That’s really the point here. Assassin’s Creed games have long been pushing their luck in terms of gameplay bloat, but since the series’ started adopting more “RPG” mechanics, things have gone nuclear. This is a series that’s starting to feel like it’s more interested in bragging about how many hours you can spend with it and less interested in talking about what those hours are filled with and what kind of creative vision they represent. Considering that there are too many live service games that suffer from those same issues, it’s a little hard to be optimistic that an open embrace of that format will somehow inspire Ubisoft to fix their worst habits and use live service as a way to make smaller, more focused Assassin’s Creed games once more.
Yet, that’s exactly what they should do.
There’s a great game at the heart of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla (and most of the recent AC games), but stretching a great 25-hour game into a 50-hour game doesn’t make it more of a great game. Actually, it makes it a game that often prods you to continue playing it rather than making you feel genuinely inspired to do so. The problem there is that we live in a world where many people can only really buy and play a couple of big games a year at most. For them, it’s often ok if they have to spend 50+ hours with a game they generally like over the course of weeks and months, even if that game was clearly designed to pad the runtime.
With Assassin’s Creed Infinity, Ubisoft can still please that crowd without dragging everyone else along for the ride. If they were to either offer a series of smaller Assassin’s Creed games in a single live service package (including, perhaps, the welcome return of AC‘s multiplayer mode) or expand a solid, core Assassin’s Creed adventure with that supplementary content they seem to love so much via DLC updates, they could actually use the live service format as a way to offer their developers more creative freedom and give fans the chance to enjoy the AC experiences they want most. If Assassin’s Creed games are so damn long because they’re supposed to be “valuable,” then Assassin’s Creed Infinity gives Ubisoft a way to offer that same value across a variety of experiences you want to play rather than one you sometimes feel obligated to play.
Assassin’s Creed Infinity could be the vehicle that finally allows Ubisoft to go back to the kind of tighter Assassin’s Creed adventures and original stories that initially helped this series stand apart while retaining the RPG elements and open-world design that make modern Assassin’s Creed experiences such an appealing proposition for many. I’d love for Ubisoft to find a way to tell an emotionally gripping 60+ hour AC story complimented by unique world design and constantly surprising new mechanics, but in lieu of that, I’ll gladly take four 15 hour AC adventures distributed over the course of a much longer period of time, or a solid 25 hour AC game expanded upon by DLC and live service updates for those who are into that thing.
Of course, this is Ubisoft we’re talking about, so the more likely explanation is that they’ll continue to hope you forget about those harassment complaints while they use the concept of a live service Assassin’s Creed game as a way to ensure that Assassin’s Creed is the only game you play in a year not because you necessarily want it to be but because it’s designed to keep you playing past the point of reason. Still, we can always dream of something more interesting.