On April 3, Ubisoft announced its “Year 2” content plan for Ghost Recon Wildlands, and it marks a shift away from the paid-expansion release model we’ve seen from the game thus far. In place of selling new levels and activities for extra cash or as part of a season pass, the developer will update Wildlands with regular content updates, called, “Special Operations,” which add extra missions, items, modes, and maps. These will be completely free to all players, though Ubisoft will also sell a Year-2 pass that gives players early access and some additional loot boxes.
This structure for “live games” has grown more popular in multiplayer games lately.
This structure for “live games” has grown more popular in multiplayer games lately. Instead of breaking up its player-base, separating games by who’s paid for what, as Activision and Electronic Arts do with the Call of Duty and Battlefield games, Ubisoft gives all players access to the game’s new maps for free. Anyone who purchases the game will be able to keep playing with their friends, and they can earn additional characters by spending in-game currency. Those who pay for season passes receive the new characters earlier than other players, along with discounts in the in-game shop, boosts in currency acquisition rates, and additional cosmetic items.
Though the distinction may seem technical, it has been a winning strategy for publishers looking to keep their multiplayer-focused game communities alive longer. It’s certainly worked for Rainbow Six Siege, which began its life with lukewarm reception, but managed to gradually build up a community who were impressed with its continued improvements.
During the company’s fiscal earnings report back in May 2017, Ubisoft reported it had seen an increase in “player recurring investment,” referring to those customers who continue to pay money in games they already own. Even though the average Rainbow Six Siege player might not care about getting access to the game’s 77th post-launch character before anyone else, there is a group of players who will, and their willingness to spend results in a better game for everyone else.
You can already see shades of Siege in the post-launch plans for many of Ubisoft’s modern games, including, ironically, Assassin’s Creed: Origins. Free updates have added the combat-free “Discovery Tour” mode, as well as additional missions that prepared players for the full-fledged expansions to come. They didn’t outright replace larger chunks of paid content, but they did manage to exist alongside it.
It makes sense that Siege would be the template for building other long-running multiplayer games. but is this a one-size-fits all solution? We’ve seen Ubisoft attempt to replicate certain gameplay structures and mechanics to emulate it’s successful titles. Until fairly recently, the past generation of Ubisoft games has featured at least some of Assassin Creed’s DNA — Towers to climb in order to open up a map, outposts to clear out, and collectible items to discover. It worked for a time, but eventually the expectations surrounding the publisher’s games became too predictable. We didn’t anticipate being surprised, because Ubisoft didn’t intend to surprise us.
Is Rainbow Six Siege going to the prototype for what we think of when we hear “Ubisoft game” in the future? It appears the company wants it to be, but – despite the Clancy branding – Ghost Recon Wildlands bears very little resemblance to Rainbow Six Siege. It’s largely a cooperative and solo shooter that relies on emergent encounters and story content to keep its players engaged. That traditionally hasn’t been the type of content that keeps players coming back again and again for weeks or months at a time. Instead, they log on when a new expansion is released, play what it has to offer, and move back to competitive multiplayer games like Rainbow Six Siege or Overwatch. The average player-count for Wildlands on Steam pales in comparison to Siege’s, despite the former game being among the top-selling titles of 2017.
For it to be worth players’ time to fire Wildlands back up and take time away from those games, the game must offer a steady stream of meaningful content. A couple of missions meant to show off a new vehicle or class will not satisfy users enough to keep them engaged for weeks on end.
It isn’t clear that Ubisoft is prepared to meet that bar: On April 10, the first of the game’s Special Operations will release to players. It contains one campaign mission. Assuming the following three updates have a similar structure, that’s around four new campaign missions in 2018. The second paid expansion for the game, Fallen Ghosts, contains 15 missions.
The model used by Rainbow Six Siege makes sense for that game because, as a competitive game, it’s inherently repetitive – players already expect to play similar multiplayer matches over and over again. Ghost Recon Wildlands functions differently, as players expect missions to offer something unique each time they load the game up. By focusing much of its free content updates on classes and multiplayer maps instead of new story content or missions, Ubisoft will be ignoring the main draw of the game, and players will be more likely to mirgrate to a game made for these types of updates such as Overwatch.
It’s great that Ubisoft wants to give current Ghost Recon Wildlands players more content without making them pay more money, but by relying exclusively on this strategy, rather than something condusive to the game’s format, they’ll be leaving its most dedicated players with fewer reasons to turn the game back on. As the company moves to incorporate the “live-service” model, Ubisoft may have to accept that different games need their own roadmaps to stay alive. Antiquated as it may seem, there may even be times where charging customers a large chunks of content will still offer players the best experience. The universal component is not mechanical, it’s the simple fact that fans will generally be more than willing to come back to play more of the games they love.