Since it was first revealed Ubisoft’s Skull & Bones has been, to quote Winston Churchill, a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” The pirate-themed multiplayer game first hit the scene when it appeared on Ubisoft’s E3 stage in 2017, with a deeper dive into the game the next year. After that, there was total radio silence from the game.
Now it seems that the game is finally ready to enter a playable alpha state, aiming for an eventual release somewhere between April 2022 and March 2023. In an interview with Kotaku, 20 devs sat down anonymously to try and make sense of just how rocky the road to this point was.
Starting at the beginning we finally got outright confirmation of what I am sure most of us suspected for some time. That is to say that the game began its life as a multiplayer element for Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag. While Assassins Creed III saw the debut of the franchises ship mechanics and combat, IV was designed early on to be a full Extention of that. After the popularity of it exploded it made sense to try to expand that into a full mode.
The decision was then made to spin it off into its own MMO-type game. However, the first plan for that was also a tie-in entitled Black Flag Infinite. A similar name is being used for what could be a live service Assassins Creed game now so perhaps they simply chose to reuse that subtitle. Eventually, this idea was scrapped as well, giving way to a new IP, though issues still surrounded the series.
Once it was a new IP, there were still issues surrounding where the game would be set. There was the idea to set the game in a real-world setting, while a fictitious world called Hyberborea was thrown into the mix as well. Shortly after the world was agreed upon, we saw our first gameplay at E3. Since those two showing though, it seems that the direction for the game has changed more than a few times.
This is not an unusual process for a game to undertake, narratives and gameplay directions have a habit of changing a lot. In the context of multiplayer games, a gameplay test that is less than stellar will often see tweaks or changes. In the case of Skull & Bones, this is more worrisome because we have yet to see these direction changes in practice.
In the case of one developer, they claimed to Kotaku that if this was any other developer then the project would have been abandoned by now. The reported agreement Ubisoft has with Singapore has kept the game alive, despite many people feeling like it should not have been. This developer went on to say that Ubisoft Singapore has a contractual obligation to launch original games in relation to subsidy payments. Due to this, and a reported 120 million already sunk into development, many have left the company in what has been referred to as a ‘mass exodus. This is without including the reported toxic environment in Ubisoft Singapore.
The game has had four major delays since its initial release date which was planned for 2018. We at least have some idea now of just what happened and how it has taken its toll on the team behind the game. An Ubisoft spokesperson stated:
“The Skull & Bones team are proud of the work they’ve accomplished on the project since their last update with production just passing Alpha, and are excited to share more details when the time is right. That being said, any unfounded speculation about the game or decisions being made only works to demoralize the team who are working very hard to develop an ambitious new franchise that lives up to the expectations of our players.”
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One developer stated that while on paper this concept may seem simple, in practice it is far from that. Multiple ideas have been thrown around for the game such as a more Sid Meier-inspired pirate game to more complex ideas. As it stands now the game is “Still evolving” and “Simply isn’t there yet.” What we will get at launch is anybody’s guess at this point.