It’s through Ethan Gach’s work on Kotaku, and testimonials from over twenty developers who work or have worked on Skull & Bones, that we were able to discover behind the scenes of what has become one of the biggest Arlésiennes of recent years.
Initially imagined as a multi extension for Assassin’s Creed IV : Black Flag (2013) which would arrive after the game’s release, the so-called Project Freedom ended up standing on its own two feet. Responsible for the navigation phases in Black Flag, the developers of Ubisoft Singapore had to build on these bases a new proposal, with the help of the teams behind the free-to-play House, Ghost Recon : Phantoms. Became Skull & Bones, the title mainly promised naval battles aboard pirate ships in multi, but also in PvE. In any case, this is the ambitions that were displayed during its first appearance at E3 2017 and 2018. Because according to Kotaku, in the back room, no one really seems to know where the game wants to go.
The main problem that seems to eat away at the production of Skull & Bones according to the testimonies received by Kotaku would be the absence of a clear creative vision, and of a global course, both in form and in substance. The game would thus be its third creative director, Elisabeth Pellen, former vice-president within the Editorial division of Ubisoft. She succeeded Justin Farren, who left for Wargaming, and Sébastien Puel, veteran producer on Assassin’s Creed at Ubi Montreal. With each change of hands, a new direction for the project and a turnover frames. Without questions as fundamental as “Are we playing a pirate or a ship?“have not found their answer; the arrival of Elisabeth Pellen, for example, would have required the addition of a whole range of tools andassets to be able to manage the exploration on foot. An area for which the game had until then absolutely not been cut.
But this is just one of the last shoulder changes for the rifle Skull & Bones. Before that, it would have known countless forms and contexts: the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, a fantastic world called Hyperborea. It was first questions of PvP by teams, then of PvE with loot and cooperation, before leaving in 2019 towards a formula that would add crafting and resource management, with a side rogue-like in addition. Each time, Ubisoft would have followed the direction of the wind according to the successes of the moment (Rainbow Six Siege first then The Division or Rust and Ark : Survival Evolved).
“The game is still evolving”
And rather than downsizing to refocus on a small team, responsible for setting the final form of the game, the publisher has decided to increase its workforce, from around one hundred people in 2015 to four hundred in 2019 , according to Kotaku sources. So many people who have to work hard on elements that would be made obsolete with the next reorientation or the next change of technology. Hence a massive and continuous exodus of developers, worn out by the organization of the project and a management without taking with the ground. Today, many of them just wish they could launch their game, no matter how good it was, so that they could finally move on.
Obviously, Skull & Bones would have ended up exploding its budget, to exceed the 120 million dollars, thus becoming “too big to fail“to use the image often used for American banks at the time of the 2008 crisis. The economic model of the game, even if it is still nebulous to this day, could also fit into the trend of the publisher French to turn to the game as a service, El Dorado stable and predictable income streams. But according to three different sources, another factor is also preventing Ubi from giving up his game: a deal with the Singapore government that has committed “generous grants“in exchange for local hires but also for the creation of an original license within the studio.
According to a developer interviewed by Kotaku, “the game is still evolving“and”the design is just not decided yet“.