In 2006, France's Ubisoft was a mid-sized video game publisher with annual revenue of €547-million and 3,500 employees. Today, the company is one of the biggest independent publishers in the world, not far behind Activision Blizzard and Electronic Arts with revenue of a billion euros and 9,200 employees, nearly a third of them in Canada.
Where did that explosive growth come from? Two words: Assassin's Creed.
The inaugural game, a historical action-adventure fantasy conceived and developed in Montreal and released in 2007, kicked off an ongoing blockbuster franchise that has become synonymous with Ubisoft.
Prior to this holiday season, there have been six main entries in the series, numerous downloadable add-ons, comic books, toys and clothing lines, and there's a movie in the works. Company executives are on record as saying there's a roadmap for the series through at least 2019. With 73 million copies sold, it's an understatement to say the series has been the turbo-charged engine of growth for the company.
But how much Assassin's Creed is too much? According to the market, we may already be past the point of saturation.
Last year's entry, Assassin's Creed: Black Flag, still sold an impressive 10 million copies over the holiday period. But that was off significantly from 12 million of the previous instalment over the same period a year earlier.
Management this year made the unusual decision to release not one but two games, Assassin's Creed: Unity for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and Assassin's Creed: Rogue for the older Xbox 360 and PS3, in an effort to maintain interest.
Both games were released on Nov. 11 so it's too early to gauge sales, but critical reception has been lukewarm. Both are maintaining respective Xbox console review scores of 76 out of 100 on aggregation site Metacritic. A 76 average for a movie is pretty good; for games, which are generally rated between 70 and 90, it's a veritable kiss of death.
Reviewers are panning the duo for being too similar to previous releases or for technical problems. The underlying message is the same: the games are being released too frequently.
"I don't get doing [Assassin's Creed] every year and I think I'm pretty typical," Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter presciently said in a 2012 interview.
So what happens if the series needs to take a break? Do the wheels fall off the engine?
Not necessarily, because Ubisoft does have another figurative motor revving. It's called Far Cry.
A few short years ago, Far Cry was something of a sleeper franchise. A curious attempt at delivering the first-person shooter experience in an open world, it appealed mainly to PC gamers in Europe.
Then, in 2012, Far Cry 3 sold 4.5 million units over the 2012-2013 holiday season, representing a big jump from the 2.9 million of its predecessor over the same time frame four years earlier.
The game went on to post Assassin's Creed-like numbers with more than 10 million units sold, vaulting the franchise into the big leagues. Call of Duty: Ghosts, last year's entry in Activision's perennial sales-chart-topping blockbuster series, sold 14 million units in comparison.
(Call of Duty is another franchise in decline, with Ghosts' sales considerably off the 26 million units sold of Modern Warfare 3 in 2011-2012.)
Far Cry 4 came out on Nov. 18, and seems to have met the huge expectations from critics, fans and Ubisoft management alike. Its Metacritic rating is 85, with several 90 scores from games critics, which puts it on the right side of that 70-90 scale. Yannis Mallat, who oversees Ubisoft's studios in Montreal and Toronto, expects the game to outsell its predecessor.
"What we learned in Far Cry 3, we've mastered it in Far Cry 4," he said in an interview. "You'll probably find what you loved in Far Cry 3, but better, and also some new innovation."
Executives aren't ready to commit to it as the new flagship, or to annual releases, but they do have big plans for the series. "It's on a similar roadmap" as Assassin's Creed, Mallat said.
"I think people are actually pleased that they can count on an annual release of their favourite game. As long as you deliver them a quality product, those people are the happiest in the world."
The first Far Cry game, published by Ubisoft in 2004, was developed by Germany's Crytek. The story was set a tropical island and featured a former American special forces operative fighting against mercenaries, with both sides under threat from a pack of genetically altered beasts.
For the second game, development moved to Ubisoft Montreal and the setting shifted to an unspecified Central African nation. Players were given the task of tracking down and eliminating a vicious arms dealer in the midst of a civil war, and the science-fiction elements were eliminated entirely.
Despite modest sales, Far Cry 2 garnered critical acclaim for its realism and the advanced artificial intelligence of its characters.
Far Cry 3's follow-up success didn't come as a surprise, Mallat says, because of the technical work that had gone into its predecessor. Particular effort was put into making the open-world FPS concept work on consoles, an important step if the franchise was to gain traction in the U.S. and Canadian markets, where more people were playing on Xbox and PlayStation than on PC.
In that way, the franchise evolved similarly to Assassin's Creed, where the inaugural game received passable reviews, but laid the technical basis for its sequel, which exploded.
"We knew we could iterate on it and we knew the groundwork was done," Mallat says. "When you start Far Cry 3 with the expertise and the team down, of course you tame the subject and you master it better. From that standpoint Far Cry 3 was a better experience."
Ubisoft Montreal headed development on Far Cry 4, with the company's Toronto studio contributing significant sections. The game is set in fictional Kyrat, a Himalayan kingdom ruled by the self-appointed despot Pagan Min. Players take on the role of Ajay Ghale, a traveller who winds up in conflict with Min and his henchman. (You can read our review here.)
Thematically, the game explores much of the same ground as its predecessor, where the proverbial fish-out-of-water protagonist must learn to survive against a pack of vicious predators, both human and animal.
Gameplay-wise, the experience will also be similar to the 2012 release, which centred around infiltrating and overtaking enemy forts. As with other open-world games, players can progress through the main story at their leisure, with a plethora of distractions – from side missions to hunting quests and mini-games – to choose from.
Far Cry 4 also brings back the key to its predecessor's success, a system that Ubisoft calls the "anecdote factory." The game generates random encounters, which results in different experiences for anyone playing. As a result, Far Cry 3 inspired so-called watercooler conversations where players traded anecdotes about their own unique experiences, which helped build buzz for the game.
Mallat declined to share sales projections, but said that all eyes within Ubisoft are on the game.
"Instead of milking the brand, on the contrary we're making sure we are investing time, energy and talent into it," he said.