For much of the past three decades, having a game become an annual franchise has been the dream of many publishers - transforming the success of a single title into a golden egg laying goose that blocks out a couple of weeks in the calendar and delivers reliable financial rewards every 12 months.
Criticism of this model is as old as the model itself; a genuinely good game that delivers serious innovation over the previous release takes more than 12 months to develop, after all, and rotating between studios creates its own problems with inconsistency. The rewards of the model, however, outweighed most if not all concerns. In an industry driven powerfully by seasonality and brand recognition, an annual franchise could become a supporting pillar in the middle of an otherwise unpredictable release schedule, and a steady foundation for a firm's financials.
"If Ubisoft wanted to launch an Assassin's Creed game next year, I have no doubt that it could do so"
Hence it really says something fundamental about how the industry has changed - is changing - that Ubisoft has just announced its intention to give the Assassin's Creed franchise, a series it worked tirelessly to promote to the level of being just such an established annual franchise, another year off. 2019 is to be a gap year for the Assassin's Creed core series, following fairly hot on the heels of the previous gap year in 2016. In essence, the foot is coming off the pedal; for all intents and purposes Assassin's Creed is now releasing every couple of years rather than every year.
On paper, that's a pretty big decision. Assassin's Creed is a very big deal for Ubisoft - an enormous franchise that's come to form a major part of the publisher's core portfolio. Dropping it from the schedule for another year leaves a bit of a gap, but it's unlikely to create much breathing room for titles from rival publishers - Ubisoft will no doubt have plans to fill that gap. When Assassin's Creed went on a break in 2016, the company had the pretty sure-fire hit Watch Dogs 2 ready to fill the gap; it remains to be seen what will take Assassin's Creed's space in the company's financial performance reports in 2019 (in fact, another Watch Dogs sequel might fit the timing nicely).
Here's the thing; if Ubisoft wanted to launch an Assassin's Creed game next year, I have no doubt that it could do so. It has two full-scale studios working on these titles now (2017's Origins and 2018's upcoming Odyssey were developed in the publisher's Montreal and Quebec studios respectively); the strongly positive reaction to Origins could easily have pushed the publisher to simply pump resources into another Montreal studio game and get it out the door within that timeframe, had it really wanted to. The decision not to do so is precisely that, a decision; Ubisoft's hand has not been forced.
Why, then? Why turn against decades of game publishing logic and give a gap year to a series that's just enjoyed one of its most popular releases in years? One simple answer is that Ubisoft is acknowledging that the gap year in 2016 was in fact part of the reason for the success of 2017's Origins; taking a year off allowed the game itself to be better, but also alleviated consumer fatigue with the franchise and built up anticipation in its place. A more high-quality game delivered to a more enthusiastic public; that's surely a recipe for success that the publisher would want to replicate, no?
"Securing the notion of "it's the time of year for a new Assassin's Creed" in the public mind may even have become more of a liability than a bonus."
Yet precisely the same factors have existed for years, and publisher wisdom has almost always been that it's better and more effective to keep pumping out games on the 12-month cycle. Something more fundamental has changed which has allowed Ubisoft to step outside that logic and make this decision for Assassin's Creed - and if moving away from short 12-month cycles and annual franchises makes sense for Ubisoft, the chances are that the logic has changed for everyone else too.
Quite a few things have changed in recent years which could well play a role in that decision making. The landscape of the industry itself has shifted, for a start; "evergreen games", which are sold and played over many years rather than being front-loaded into a massive launch week, are now a major new landscape feature. I talk a lot about GTAV in this context, but other titles like Fortnite and Overwatch are also changing how consumers relate to games by turning them into ongoing, evergreen experiences rather than one-off events.
In turn, this changes the calculus for what players are willing to pay money for; the notion of a content-starved consumer is starting to sound faintly ridiculous in an era of countless indies and behemoth evergreen titles. That drives consumers to more selective and harsh in their purchasing decisions - and likely makes franchise fatigue set in all the faster. For all that annual franchises were a license to print money in the past, there was also a tacit understanding that eventually they'd have to be put out to pasture (annual sports titles being the notable exception) as consumers got tired of them; the changing landscape likely means that that retirement age has become a whole lot younger.
"Perception is important, and the perception of a one-year cycle may end up being damaging for consumers and critics alike - which would be unfortunate for Odyssey"
That trend links in to another slow-burning change in the industry, which is the decline of seasonality. The Christmas season is still important, of course, but far less so than in the past - which is to be expected given that the vast bulk of gaming consumers have aged out of waiting for their parents to buy them games or consoles for Christmas. The seasonal Christmas rush continues, but it's got a whiff of self-fulfilling prophecy around it; publishers believe that Christmas is a vital sales season, so they launch all their biggest titles around then, which makes Christmas into a major sales season, and thus the merry-go-round continues.
Many executives are likely wondering whether their sometimes lemming-like fascination with launching everything in their arsenal in October and November might be really required - whether it's just decision inertia, rather than a good, logical response to a real underlying trend - especially in light of seeing a game like God of War launch in a traditionally moribund quarter and end up making a substantial bump on Sony's bottom line.
If you're Ubisoft and you're looking at Assassin's Creed, then; or indeed any publisher with a core title on a punishing 12-month cycle; it makes a ton of sense to experiment with ditching the idea of annual updates. Ubisoft is testing the water, but this second gap year suggests it's comfortable with bailing on the annual schedule fairly regularly, if not entirely. Securing the notion of "it's the time of year for a new Assassin's Creed" in the public mind may even have become more of a liability than a bonus.
Odyssey is a few months from launch but there are already concerns about negative buzz due to being launched too close to Origins - despite the games being developed by separate studios and each having a perfectly lengthy development cycle. Perception is important, and the perception of a one-year cycle may end up being damaging for consumers and critics alike - which would be unfortunate for Odyssey but a vindication of Ubisoft's more long-term planning. Add to that the fact that securing a spot in the annual calendar no longer really seems to bring any major benefits anyway, and you hit a pretty logical point for the company's decision.
The same logic and reasoning can be applied to any annual franchise - from Call of Duty right around to the regular-as-clockwork sports titles that form the stable backbone of some companies' finances. It's entirely possible that all of these games are running into, or will shortly meet with, the same kind of resistance, pushback and franchise fatigue that has made Ubisoft decide to shift gears and leave its titles in the slow cooker on a more regular basis; the contemporary reality of the market outweighing the inertia of publisher decision-making.
The era of the annual franchise being the jewel in the publisher's crown may well be coming to a close; if it's replaced by an era of more sensible, careful and quality-focused management of franchise titles, then its passing will be cause for little lamentation.