Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how interesting a good looks or sounds on a conceptual level, or how much it seems destined to succeed. Sometimes, the stars just don’t align, and games fail to even come out, to say nothing of actually releasing and being critical and commercial successes. Pretty much every company has had at least one such game in its history- when it comes to Ubisoft, Skull and Bones instantly comes to mind as perhaps the most prominent recent example of a promising project that just hasn’t managed to get off the ground (as does Beyond Good and Evil 2, for that matter, but that’s a different story).
Announced several years back, Skull and Bones looked set to be Ubisoft’s next big major franchise. Building on the incredible success of the naval sections of Assassin’s Creed 3 and Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, Ubisoft decided to make an entire game focused purely on that, and everything that was shown of their new pirate utopia – and they showed quite a bit of it – looked quite promising. But several delays and development reboots later, Skull and Bones remains as elusive as ever. Now, years on from its initial announcement, we all can’t help but wonder (or continue to wonder, as we have been doing for a couple of years at this point)- what the hell is going on with Skull and Bones?
That question is asked often, and it’s easy to understand why, because back when the game was first unveiled, it looked… ready. Or close to being ready, at least. Back at Ubisoft’s E3 2017 show, Skull and Bones debuted with plenty of gameplay footage, which, as we all know, is rare to see these days for a newly announced game. What’s more, that gameplay actually looked good. Shortly afterward, beta registrations went live as well, with the game being scheduled for a release just a year later. And Ubisoft clearly believed in the game’s concept as well, immediately claiming that they’re looking at Skull and Bones as a new long-term IP for them, and even announcing a couple of years later that they were working on a TV show adaptation.
Which seems laughable in retrospect, because even the very first game itself has failed to get off the ground, much less a TV show adaptation of it. May 2018 saw what would be the first of many delays for Skull and Bones, with Ubisoft confirming that it had been pushed back to 2019. A year later, the game was delayed once again, this time to 2020 (even though in the interim, we did see another meaty gameplay demo at E3 2018). And then to 2020. And then, news and updates started drying up. Just as people began wondering whether Skull and Bones was just shovelware at this point, earlier this year, Ubisoft confirmed that it was still in development, and now would launch in fiscal year 2023, which means sometime between April 1, 2022 and March 31, 2023.
And looking at this long string of delays and reports of what’s been going on behind-the-scenes, it would be an understatement to say that the game’s had a very troubled development cycle. In early 2020, journalist Jason Schreier said that Skull and Bones’ development had been rebooted “several times”– even as early as back in 2018, which is when the game was originally supposed to launch, and that first reboot was even accompanied by the game’s creative director at the time leaving the project. And there have been more reboots since that was reported as well, if subsequent reports are to be believed.
In July last year, a report by VGC claimed that in 2019, Skull and Bones was rebooted once again, with the creative director position also changing hands from Justin Farren to Elisabeth Pellen, who previously worked on 2003 shooter XIII and Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow. The purpose of this reboot, according to the report, was to reimagine the game as a live service model rather than a premium title. Originally envisioned as a shared world game with a PvP twist, following the reboot, Skull and Bones reportedly looked to carve out a unique identity for itself with a focus on community-driven live storytelling. This was essentially confirmed by Pellen herself, who towards the end of 2020 that development on the game was “in full swing with a new vision.”
You’d think that that would be a solid enough platform for the game to build itself on, but apparently, that still wasn’t the last of reboots for Skull and Bones. Just recently, earlier this year, a report by Game Luster claimed that Skull and Bones had recently been rebooted again, and would likely fail to launch even in 2022. Comparisons to Sea of Thieves are, of course, unavoidable, and sure enough, reports have certainly suggested that that’s been a consideration in development, with the VGC report stating that the game was moving in a direction similar to Sea of Thieves, and the Game Luster report stating that it was even switching to put players in a first person view when sailing ships.
Earlier this year, Ubisoft CFO Frédérick Duguet said that Skull and Bones’ development had been proceeding very well over the preceding 12 month period, which would suggest that following its most recent reboot, the game had actually managed to stumble upon the direction it wanted to take and the development team was building on that foundation in a much more conclusive fashion at that time. Of course, this wasn’t the first time that it been claimed the game’s development was progressing well, but the hope is that after multiple reboots, Skull and Bones has finally carved out an identity for itself.
Meanwhile, there has been other turmoil at development studio Ubisoft Singapore as well, as if all of the constant rebooting wasn’t enough to drive developers (and those looking forward to the game) up the wall. Notably, it was confirmed in late 2020 that Hugues Ricour, who was at that time the managing director of the studio, had been removed from his position (though was still employed elsewhere at Ubisoft). Ricour was amongst several Ubisoft employees to be named in allegations of misconduct, abuse, and harassment, and Ubisoft’s chief studios operating officer Virginie Haas stated that what Ubisoft had discovered in their own audit had made it “impossible for [Ricour] to continue in this position.”
The question, of course, is that following all that turmoil and development reboots and delays, what is Skull and Bones even going to look like? We can safely assume that it’s going to be a long-term live service product, and given the incredible success of Sea of Thieves, it’s probably also safe to assume that Skull and Bones is going to take plenty of cues from Rare’s game. There are other questions, though, that need answering- for instance, with Ubisoft shifting to put a larger emphasis on free-to-play games going forward, should we expect Skull and Bones to adopt that model as well? It would make sense, honestly. It’s a live service multiplayer game, after all, which is the one kind of game that is particularly suited to the free-to-play model.
Honestly, it’s hard to be sure about anything at this point. Even back when Skull and Bones was first unveiled, it looked solid and ready to go- and look how that turned out. Ubisoft clearly believes in the vision and idea of this game- they’ve spend millions of dollars on it, and even after all the struggles its protracted and tortured development has faced, they’re still not giving up on it. One has to wonder whether the game will actually be worth all the wait and all the trouble when it’s finally out- but you know what? That’s getting ahead of ourselves. First, it needs to actually come out. And at this point, who knows when that will be.