Ubisoft Singapore’s piracy sim Skull And Bones started development in 2013, and during the subsequent decade-and-change it has seemingly collided with every possible reef in the ocean of videogame production, undergoing a series of delays, reboots and staff departures. Perhaps it will take you the same amount of time to sail across it: this is Ubisoft’s “biggest open world” offering, in the words of former creative director Elisabeth Pellen.
IGN has an extensive interview feature on Skull And Bones with Ubisoft developers talking on the record. I imagine Ubisoft are hoping that it will serve as a kind of redemption narrative for the game, recontextualising the many disruptions reported by Kotaku in 2021 as a thrilling journey to completion. But it’s an engrossing read all the same. The piece touches on the effects of the 2020 allegations of widespread misconduct and toxicity at several Ubisoft studios, which led to the removal of Ubisoft Singapore’s managing director, together with the benefits of abandoning the game’s planned arena-style multiplayer and single-player campaign mode.
Skull And Bones was announced at E3 2017. At the time, Ubisoft described it as mixture of narrative campaign and online “shared world” a la Destiny, with seasonal content drops and multiplayer modes including the 5v5 Loot Hunt. Ubisoft also showed the game off at E3 2018 with a slice of open worldy co-op sailing. But then came delay after delay.
Pellen herself was brought on after previous creative director Justin Farren left the project in 2018. A long-serving Ubisofter and vice president of the company’s editorial team, her job was to right the ship and “turn the most promising prototypes and demos into a fuller game experience”. This became a process of paring away big chunks of the Skull And Bones concept with a view to focussing the team’s resources.
After Pellen joined, all Skull And Bones staff shifted over to the game’s open world component, ditching the 5v5 mode and the narrative single player campaign so as to build up the E3 2018 demo into a full game. “Building a solo campaign is really time-consuming,” Pellen comments in the piece. “We didn’t have the full team to deliver a full solo campaign.” She later adds: “Instead of working on a solo campaign that would have prevented the team from creating a really deep open world, we built lore that can be consumed like a puzzle in the order you want.”
Pellen moved on from Skull And Bones in mid-late 2023. Under her eye, the game has become an open world, live service survival sandbox built around a progression system with minimal story – “a full seamless PvE and PvP experience supported by PvE servers”. Which brings us to the headline quote: “We developed it into a huge open world. I think it’s the biggest open world that Ubisoft has ever created. Now this open world offers a lot of opportunity to develop new activities, new narrative layers. We planted a lot of seeds that are exciting to grow.”
How big is biggest, here? Well, back in 2022 game director Ryan Barnard described Skull And Bones as 625 square kilometres in size, next to Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s 95 square kilometres. I don’t know how much of that is still true. It’s a deceptive comparison, of course, because you do not rove around Valhalla in a bloody great galleon, but still, that’s a lot of blue water. Whether the game earns its scale is another question – there are plenty of open worlds out there that could do with a haircut.
All going to plan, we’ll be able to ply these waves and finally see what all the fuss is about in just over a week – Skull And Bones launches on February 16th, 2024.