‘Assassin’s Creed Unity’ Release Set for Fall 2014 -- But Is it Too Much, Too Early?

Ubisoft (NASDAQOTH: UBSFF  ) recently announced Assassin's Creed Unity, the seventh main installment of its blockbuster franchise, transporting players to Paris during the French Revolution.

Assassin's Creed Unity's location had previously been hinted at during the ending sequence of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (2010), which revealed a Phrygian Cap, an icon of the French Revolution.

Assassin's Creed Unity will be the first next-gen-only Assassin's Creed title. The previous chapter, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, was available on the seventh generation Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT  ) Xbox 360 and Sony (NYSE: SNE  ) PS3, as well as the eighth generation Xbox One, PS4, and Nintendo (NASDAQOTH: NTDOY  ) Wii U consoles.

Unity has been in development for three years -- a longer period than any of the previous Assassin's Creed titles -- and will arrive this fall.

The delicate balancing act of hitting annual releases
In a previous article, I discussed the challenges that Ubisoft was facing with releasing annual chapters of Assassin's Creed ever since Assassin's Creed II (2009). Ubisoft spread the workload across more studios to launch annual holiday releases on time. Whereas only one studio, Ubisoft Montreal, worked on Assassin's Creed (2007) and Assassin's Creed II, a whopping eight studios worked together on Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag.

It was an incredible balancing act that all came together seamlessly in Black Flag. Previous multi-studio efforts, such as Assassin's Creed: Revelations (7 studios) and Assassin's Creed III (6 studios) often contained disjointed gameplay elements that felt superfluous and incomplete. Assassin's Creed III, for example, introduced naval warfare, hunting, and other features, but none of the new features felt particularly polished or necessary.

AC4: Black Flag. (Source: Ubisoft)

Black Flag took those parts of Assassin's Creed III, evolved them, and tossed the player into a wide-open sandbox of the Caribbean ocean during the Golden Age of Piracy. Naval warfare and hunting became key gameplay components, but the game also stuck to its Assassin's Creed roots by refining its land-based gameplay.

Ubisoft's web-like dependence on its own overseas studios is different from the way Activision Blizzard (NASDAQ: ATVI  ) splits its blockbuster Call of Duty franchise between two studios -- Infinity Ward and Treyarch -- which alternate between annual releases. But the interesting thing about Assassin's Creed Unity is that it was developed concurrently with the releases of Revelations, Assassin's Creed III, and Black Flag -- an incredible feat considering the manpower needed for those three titles.

Is the assassin losing his momentum?
It's hard to tell if Assassin's Creed is losing its momentum. However, Brotherhood and Revelations clearly sold worse than the first and second main chapters of the game, and sales of Black Flag have failed to measure up to its numbered predecessors:

Title (Year)

Platforms

Units sold (millions)

Metascore

Assassin's Creed (2007)

PS3, Xbox 360, Windows

10.89

79% (PC)

Assassin's Creed II (2009)

PS3, Xbox 360, Windows

10.86

86% (PC)

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (2010)

PS3, Xbox 360, Windows

6.43

88% (PC)

Assassin's Creed: Revelations (2011)

PS3, Xbox 360, Windows

8.74

80% (PC)

Assassin's Creed III (2012)

PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U, Windows

12.27

80% (PC)

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag (2013)

PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Wii U, WIndows

7.99

84% (PC)

Source: Vgchartz, Metacritic.

In my opinion, Ubisoft thought that the naming scheme of Brotherhood and Revelations (direct sequels to Assassin's Creed II) resulted in lower sales, so it brought numbered releases back with Assassin's Creed III, which became the best-selling title of the entire series. Ubisoft continued the tradition with Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag.

Yet despite strong reviews, Black Flag has flown at half mast with lackluster sales. Black Flag also cost an estimated $100 million and required a development team of 900 people. Assassin's Creed Unity will likely cost even more -- which means that it will need to make a huge splash for Ubisoft to justify such big production costs. By comparison, Assassin's Creed had a production budget of $20 million, and Assassin's Creed II cost $24 million.

Should Ubisoft follow Take-Two's example?
If Unity fails to meet sales expectations, Ubisoft could be forced to scale back on annual Assassin's Creed releases and possibly increase the number of side releases for handheld consoles and mobile devices.

Yet that wouldn't be a terrible idea. Take-Two (NASDAQ: TTWO  ) , for example, released GTA V (2013) five years after GTA IV (2008). GTA V was the most expensive video game ever made, with a production and marketing budget of $265 million, but it also sold 30.7 million units compared to GTA IV's sales of 21.6 million.

The GTA franchise wasn't completely abandoned during those five years -- Rockstar released two beefy expansion packs for GTA IV (The Lost and the Damned, The Ballad of Gay Tony) and a critically acclaimed handheld and mobile title, Chinatown Wars, in 2009.

Assassin's Creed Unity. (Source: Ubisoft trailer)

Ubisoft is reaching the point where it doesn't fully realize the potential in DLCs and expansion packs for the main Assassin's Creed titles before it releases its next numbered sequel. If Ubisoft bides its time, as Take-Two did, it could build up feverish anticipation for a new game, which could result in blockbuster sales.

Nothing is true...
Assassin's Creed Unity certainly sounds incredible. As a longtime fan of the series, I've always wanted to see Ubisoft portray Paris with the loving detail they used on Florence, Venice, and Rome. Yet as much as I love these games, I think that Assassin's Creed Unity needs to hit some high sales targets to justify additional annual releases.

What do you think, fellow gamers? Are you excited to see Ubisoft release next-gen Assassin's Creed title by the end of the year, or should the company slow down to build up some anticipation between releases?

Everything is permitted
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