Ubisoft says it will improve PC support: Do we believe them this time?

18 Aug 2014  by   Peter Parrish
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Ubisoft has re-entered the “I’m sorry baby, I can change” phase of its uncomfortable relationship with PC players. Speaking to trade magazine MCV during Gamescom, the publisher insisted that “We recognise the importance and needs of PC gamers, and want to continue to improve how we create and support games for PC.”

This is kind of like the time Ubisoft chatted with MCV in February 2013 and said “we want to improve out relationship with the PC community.” Or maybe it was like August 2013 when the company was absolutely sure that it would be “committed to offering PC players the best possible experience with our games.”

Ubisoft logo black

Why do you keep hurting us, Ubisoft?

You can see the pattern here. Supporting PC games and PC players is very easy to talk about. Remarkably easy to talk about if you’re Ubisoft, apparently. But it’s not quite so easy to actually act upon.

Before we bring out the exhibits of Ubisoft’s rocky history on the PC, let’s actually give them some credit for a couple of things. They did, eventually, get rid of their horrific always-online DRM scheme that plagued titles like Assassin’s Creed II. Presumably after noticing that it did nothing to alter piracy rates, and mostly just prevented paying players from accessing the game. It also sounds as though the company may finally be addressing the consistent (and almost certainly piracy motivated) delays to PC versions of their games.

That’s good. Pretty low-bar stuff, considering most publishers can manage to release PC versions of their games at the same time as console releases, but hey. Getting Far Cry 4 and Assassin’s Creed: Unity on time for a change will be nice.

Ubisoft also deserve credit for funding games like Rayman, Child of Light and Valiant Hearts. That’s not exactly a PC issue, but it’s encouraging to see a publisher willing to back some less-conventional stuff.

valiant hearts (2)

There aren’t many good WW1 games, so well done there Ubisoft.

Alright, that’s quite enough muted praise. Now it’s time to demonstrate why Ubisoft feels compelled to keep stressing how much it really wants to love PC players, and honestly didn’t mean to hurt us that last time. The litany of problems.

Uplay, Ubisoft’s proprietary digital platform, is a major point of contention. Part of this animosity is because people resent having to fill up their PCs with all manner of incredibly specific digital gateways just to play their games. That part isn’t going to change any time soon. As a major publisher, Ubisoft want as large a slice of the digital pie as possible. Selling their games through their own platform lets them eat all of the pie. Pie-sharing isn’t on the horizon, so Uplay is here to stay.

A much bigger and more significant reason for the negativity around Uplay is because it has an unfortunate history of going wrong.

That was launch day for Far Cry 3.

Hello, launch day for Watch Dogs. Sorry, Aiden Pierce’s iconic Watch_Dogs.

There was also a bit of nonsense in January this year when all Uplay-enabled games were blocked by the BT Infinity service in the UK. That may have been BT’s fault though.

Uplay

Booooooplay, more like.

As far as I know Uplay managed to avoid launch day server issues with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Hooray! Instead, that game had a problem with Uplay Cloud Saves where your 30 hour+ saved game could mysteriously go missing at the drop of a pirate’s hat. It also had strange issues with the executable crashing for no apparent reason. And weird PC performance from the AnvilNext engine in general.

Splinter Cell: Blackbirds/Blackjack/Blacklist had its fair share of technical problems too, including the baffling inability for a sizeable minority of players to access the multiplayer portion of the game. This particular oddity affected IncGamers’ own Tim McDonald, to the extent that we eventually just had to run a single player only review.

Then there’s the more recent case of Watch Dogs. Oh, right, sorry. Watch underscore Dogs. Whatever. Alongside the Uplay launch day issues mentioned above, that game had all kinds of interesting and ridiculous problems on PC.

Watch Dogs - 05

The real potential crime here is the frame-rate.

In-game frame-rate stuttering was so bad in Watch Dogs that even the most recent Ubisoft patch (released two months after the game came out) admits it doesn’t really know how to fix it at the Ultra texture level. Meanwhile, SLI support for multiple graphics cards remains borderline non-existent, in spite of Ubisoft’s much-publicised buddy buddy partnership with Nvidia. For a significant number of PC players, Watch Dogs was kind of a mess.

This, of course, after the game was significantly scaled back from the original reveal of the game at E3 2012. Diligent PC users found reference to the original E3 settings in the game’s files (perhaps left there by conscientious programmers who wanted them to be found, it’s hard to know for sure) and mods like TheWorse do their best to bring back what was removed. But while modding work is always appreciated, it shouldn’t have been necessary in the first place. Ubisoft still hasn’t provided an adequate explanation for the E3 settings being abandoned on PC.

This isn’t even approaching an exhaustive list of the problems Watch Dogs has on PC, but as the most high-profile recent example of Ubisoft’s work on the platform it demonstrates why the company suddenly feels the need to roll out another charm offensive. Those copies of Far Cry 4 and Assassin’s Creed: Unity won’t sell themselves.

Assassin's Creed Unity - 01

Let’s make this one work properly on PC, eh?

Developing for the PC can’t be easy. The flexibility of the platform means players will have hundreds, if not thousands, of different hardware combinations. With pretty much every PC launch I expect a few accompanying forum threads for individual technical issues. No amount of testing is going to rule out everything.

But a few naturally occurring technical issues are quite different to selling a game with dubiously neutered graphics, widespread frame-rate stutter that even patches struggle to fix, and serious question marks over optimisation. Nor is it the same as persisting with a digital service that seems happy to break on busy launch days and eat saved games. There’s no question that we’re a demanding bunch in the PC community. But it’s not impossible to cater to our needs, as ably demonstrated by companies like CD Projekt Red, who, in turn, get to bask in plenty of adulation.

Ubisoft have the structural and financial clout to turn out magnificent PC versions that meet the standards their PR mouthpieces keep setting for them; but do they have the desire? Or will we just be back here in 2015 with another empty “no, seriously, we want to do right by the PC” quote from a man in a Ubisoft suit? I hope it’s the former. This endless cycle of disappointment and apology is getting tiresome and embarrassing.

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