Ubisoft (NASDAQOTH:UBSFF) recently announced that Assassin's Creed Unity, the first fully next-gen chapter of the Assassin's Creed series, will include in-game microtransactions. Early reports indicate that real-money transactions will allow players to obtain higher-level items earlier in the game.
Senior Producer Vincent Pontibrand told OXM at Gamescom that Ubisoft wouldn't "make any compromises" that could turn the game into a pay-to-win affair. But despite those reassurances, it's clear that Ubisoft risks pushing its top franchise down a slippery slope.
Let's take a look at why Ubisoft is adding microtransactions to Unity, and what it could mean for the future of the series.
The business of add-ons in Assassin's Creed
The original Assassin's Creed in 2007 did not include any DLC packs. Its sequel, Assassin's Creed II (2009), added two DLCs. The third game, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (2010), included five DLCs, one of which was a PS3 exclusive. The fourth game, Assassin's Creed: Revelations (2011), only had three DLCs, but offered more limited edition content for pre-order editions.
When Ubisoft launched Assassin's Creed III in 2012, it introduced a "Season Pass," which allowed gamers to pre-order a series of DLCs at a lower price. The $30 Season Pass for Assassin's Creed III let gamers play The Tyranny of King Washington, a three-episode story arc, along with two single player and multiplayer DLCs. All five DLCs initially cost $40 separately. PC and PS3 players also gained access to the additional Benedict Arnold DLC.
Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag continued the tradition of Season Passes, which included access to seven single player and multiplayer DLC packs. An eighth add-on, which was exclusive to the PS3, PS4, and digital deluxe and gold versions on the PC, allowed the player to play new missions starring Aveline, the main character from Assassin's Creed III: Liberation.
While the change over six games was gradual, the "full" Assassin's Creed experience in one game now costs nearly twice the price of the original game.
The business of balancing blockbuster budgets
Those changes were necessary because the Assassin's Creed games were getting increasingly expensive with every new chapter. The first game reportedly cost $24 million to produce, but Black Flag had a rumored budget of $100 million. Unfortunately, Ubisoft sold 2 million fewer copies of Black Flag than the original Assassin's Creed -- a bad deal considering that it cost more than four times as much to develop.
Whereas the first game was developed by a single studio, Black Flag required the combined efforts of around 900 people at nine studios. Assassin's Creed Unity will also be developed by nine studios, while its last-gen counterpart, Assassin's Creed Rogue, will only be developed by one -- Ubisoft Sofia.
The problem with Assassin's Creed is that while production costs are soaring, sales aren't. Sales of all six main Assassin's Creed games have remained between 6.5 million to 12.5 million. That's a lot weaker than Activision Blizzard's Call of Duty: Ghosts, which sold 22 million copies, and Take-Two's GTA V, which sold 36 million copies.
This means that to make the same amount of money that it did with the first Assassin's Creed, Ubisoft has to repeatedly pile on more DLCs and paid extras to balance out the costs. Ubisoft can't simply stop making Assassin's Creed games, either -- Black Flag accounted for nearly half of the company's top line last year.
Why microtransactions could be a problem
The problem with microtransactions is that they are generally associated with free-to-play games like Candy Crush Saga or subscription-based MMOs, not full-priced triple A games like Assassin's Creed Unity.
The system of DLCs worked for the series in the past because it didn't affect the main single player experience. In Assassin's Creed III, the King Washington chapters were distinctly separate from the main campaign, as were Adewale's side missions in Black Flag's Freedom Cry. Advanced gear was earned by collecting various items or completing missions in single player mode, and leveling up in multiplayer mode.
Letting players buy better armor and weapons in the single player mode breaks the tradition that started back in Assassin's Creed II, which allowed the player to unlock top-tier items by gathering various keys or tokens across the game world.
The same problems apply to multiplayer mode as well. The multiplayer mode in Assassin's Creed is characterized by leveling up to get more powerful weapons like guns. In Black Flag, Ubisoft prevents higher level players from completely dominating matches by giving lower level players an option to temporarily "clone" their advanced loadouts to briefly gain access to better weapons.
If Ubisoft starts selling better items for real money in both modes, it could turn a challenging, balanced experience of Assassin's Creed into a "pay to win" experience. Endgame gear could become frustratingly hard to obtain, or overpowered weapons in multiplayer mode -- like the DLC-only Ripper and Maverick guns from Call of Duty: Ghosts -- could completely break the game.
The Foolish takeaway
In conclusion, it's still too early to say how far Ubisoft will go with its microtransactions strategy in Assassin's Creed Unity. But considering Ubisoft's issues with rising production costs and stagnant series sales, it's clear that the company needs to add more optional purchases to keep the series profitable.
Despite the massive success of the Assassin's Creed series, Ubisoft finished 2013 with a net loss of €49.3 million ($66 million) -- down from a profit of €69.2 million ($93 million) in 2012. Therefore, it will be interesting to see how many microtransactions Ubisoft will squeeze into Unity to boost its bottom line, and whether or not they will tarnish the reputation of the franchise.