It was the game that promised everything - but while it delivered overwhelmingly in sales, GamesIndustry.biz can reveal how the fallout from the critical split over Assassin's Creed late last year has impacted the way in which the French publisher is now hyping its biggest properties to the media.
Pivotal holiday 2008 release Prince of Persia, another ambitious action-adventure and update to one of Ubisoft's most successful franchises, is now being promoted on a deliberately "compressed" version of the Assassin's Creed PR and marketing plan as a direct result of the firm's experiences with the medieval open-world title.
Following the sky-high expectations precisely set by a scintillating reveal campaign in the run up to the release of Assassin's Creed in November 2007, few industry watchers at the time predicted the critical gulf that would emerge between leading publications in the US and the UK.
But as the scores rolled in a surprising yet significant divide quickly became apparent: while GamePro (5/5), Game Informer (9.5/10), Gametrailers (9.1/10) and GameSpot (9.0/10) lavished praise on the game, IGN (7.7/10), Eurogamer (7/10), Edge (7/10), 1UP (7/10), EGM (5.83/10) and X360 Magazine UK (5/10) were notably more muted in their reaction.
And this led to a feeling among certain Ubisoft staff that expectations were set too high as a result of the campaign, which had a negative impact on the game's reception in some quarters once the final game had been delivered to reviewers.
Speaking to GamesIndustry.biz earlier this month at Ubisoft's Montreal studio, Prince of Persia creative director Ben Mattes confirmed a conscious change in strategy as a result of these developments, stating: "I think that played into our decision this time around, certainly."
Due for release this Christmas, the first footage from the title was only revealed in May at the publisher's Ubidays event, and the title will not be playable to the press at E3 this week, instead being demoed live by members of the team.
Mattes, whose team shared a floor with the Assassin's Creed team until the latter's completion, explained: "We basically took the Assassin's Creed style of marketing and PR of what to show when and we compressed it down. Teaser first, trailer plus hands-off second, another trailer plus hands-on third etc. We're following that same sort of pattern. But whereas they did it over a year, we're doing it over six months. But hopefully we'll generate suitable levels of hype and buzz."
Corporate communications representative Catherine Masson moved to play down any impact on ongoing strategy, commenting: "There's not one way of promoting our games around here. With Assassin's Creed this buzz was created and we went for it, and with Prince of Persia or another game, promotion might be different. We do not have one recipe."
However, she acknowledged the controversy surrounding Assassin's Creed, adding: "When we read the critics, what we wanted was to please the gamer. I think we had mixed reactions: reactions from the gamers and reactions from the press. But we tried something completely new and totally avant garde and in the end we're proud of that."
GamesIndustry.biz can also reveal for the first time how senior members of the Assassin's project were bracing themselves for a critical backlash at the eleventh hour before the game's release.
Speaking to this site last November in an unpublished interview, creative director Patrice Desilets spoke of his fears over how the game would be received, revealing: "The expectation of people is so high, and it's just a game. Am I stressed? Yes. At the same time, what I know is that we really tried to do something special and to make something unique. And not everyone will experience that. Whether they will like it or not? I'm basically not in control of that."
Desilets also correctly anticipated the divide amongst critics: "My concern about reviews is, journalists have a lot of reviews to do and a lot of different games to play," he said. "You ask if I'm nervous...well, if they play it only once, if they only have one experience of Assassin's Creed and the review will be based on that experience...it's never the same."
Yet while the publisher may have reassessed elements of its product reveal strategies, there is no question that Assassin's Creed has become one of Ubisoft's greatest commercial success stories of recent years, achieving sales of over 6 million units - with some offering the legitimate counter-argument that the marketing hype in fact enabled the title to transcend any negative impact from the more critical reviews.
Ubisoft Montreal remains the powerhouse of the firm's rapidly expanding internal development network. Currently employing 1,600 staff, the company last year announced aggressive expansion plans that will see a further 1,000 added to the headcount by 2013. The studio is working on some of the most anticipated titles currently in development, including Prince Of Presia, Far Cry 2 and Splinter Cell Conviction.
Masson confirmed that "we have 20-something projects going on at the moment, some of them announced, some of them unannounced, obviously." Pressed on whether that number included the widely expected sequel to Assassin's Creed, she said: "I'll let you guess. It is in our philosophy to build on franchises that are successful and I don't see why we wouldn't do it with Assassin's Creed."
GamesIndustry.biz also tracked down Desilets at the studio, but he refused to be drawn on current work, commenting: "I am still here, I am still working - that's the only scoop you're getting."
Masson did, however, confirm that Assassin's Creed producer Jade Raymond was "still with us" and "working on other projects" - one of which is rumoured to be a survival-horror title, with speculation rife that an announcement is planned at E3 this week.