Skull and Bones: A Wild and Turbulent Tale

For the past few years, many people assumed Skull and Bones was a ghost ship; the Ubisoft pirate game that would never make it to harbor. With six public delays, it is now one of the most frequently postponed games ever. The almost complete silence surrounding it year after year led people to believe it was either permanently anchored at the port of development hell, or that it had already sunk to the bottom of the ocean. However, within the halls of Ubisoft Singapore, hundreds of developers were navigating a storm of design problems in pursuit of their elusive goal.

Now, nearly seven years after it was first revealed, Skull and Bones is ready to set sail. But this final version is very different from the game we first saw in 2017. Across its development journey, the naval battler has taken on various forms, and its final design emerged from a major reboot that prolonged development and left several prototypes shipwrecked. This is the inside story of Skull and Bones’ many delays, and the challenges that caused them.

In Skull and Bones, the Indian Ocean is your playground. You’re free to explore its open world and hunt down the food and materials you need to survive in the golden age of piracy. You can take on contracts that build your infamy and push you towards the ultimate goal of becoming a notorious pirate kingpin. Its story is minimalist, promoting your own adventures and the self-made tales of the other players that also sail these online seas.

However, Skull and Bones hasn’t always been this live-service, open-world survival game. In fact, Skull and Bones has been multiple different games – or at least ideas for games – before it evolved into what it is today.

Our story starts in 2017, when Ubisoft revealed a brand new pirate game at its annual E3 conference. The presentation was led by creative director Justin Farren, a member of Ubisoft’s Singapore studio and a veteran producer of Assassin’s Creed since the days of Black Flag. On stage, Farren explained that “Skull and Bones takes place in a shared, systemic world where you can sail solo or form a gang of pirates with your friends, and together terrorize the trade routes of the Indian Ocean.” But that shared world was not what Ubisoft showed in its gameplay demonstration.

The stage demo showed off a 5v5 multiplayer mode called “Loot Hunt”, which seemed to be a naval-themed take on hero shooters like Rainbow Six Siege and Overwatch, rather than the sort of seafaring MMO Farren had described. However, Ubisoft assured that Skull and Bones would be larger than what we’d seen; it would have a shared world, seasonal content, and a narrative campaign that would flow into the multiplayer experience.

All of this, Ubisoft said, would launch in the fall of 2018. One year later, just weeks before E3 2018, Skull and Bones was pushed back until “at least 2019”. Despite the delay, it was still part of Ubisoft’s E3 conference, and it looked radically different to how it did in 2017. Rather than 5v5 multiplayer, the new demo showcased a cooperative game in which players teamed up to take down a powerful enemy warship. Was this the shared world that had been promised the previous year? Or had Skull and Bones morphed into a different game entirely?

“We like to see it as an evolution of the game, and not a different game necessarily,” says Kris Kirkpatrick, lead technical art director at Ubisoft Singapore and a long-serving veteran of Skull and Bones. “We knew we had something great. It was feeling great. It was looking great. But why don’t we offer more?

“We wanted to do the biggest pirate and Naval open-world game we could do,” he says.

After E3 2018, few people would have expected that four years would pass before they saw Skull and Bones again. The following year it was delayed until sometime after March 2020, and Ubisoft’s E3 2019 conference proceeded without even a single new screenshot. Just months later, a third delay was announced. In 2020, Ubisoft revealed that the studio had found a “new vision”, which subsequently led to a fourth delay. Faced with the years and delays, not a single thing was seen of Skull and Bones.

In July 2021 the long silence was broken, but not by Ubisoft. A damning report from Kotaku painted a picture of a studio in chaos. It claimed that over the course of eight years Skull and Bones had been helmed by three different creative directors, each of which worked to different documents, meaning that many concepts – including an Assassin’s Creed spin-off and the modes we’d seen at E3 – had been scrapped in favor of building different designs. Anonymous interviews with current and former developers suggested that the project was a mismanaged nightmare lacking direction. It was a report that raised dozens of questions, but the biggest of them was the simplest: what on Earth was happening inside Ubisoft Singapore?

There’s nothing in the video game industry that’s harder than building a new IP.

Ubisoft Singapore started life in 2008 as a small support studio. Over the years it has grown from a handful of people to a few hundred staff, working on game franchises such as Prince of Persia and Ghost Recon. Its most famous creation, though, is Assassin’s Creed 3’s naval combat, which went on to form the foundations of AC4: Black Flag. With that series-defining success, the Singapore team saw a new and exciting future for themselves. They wanted to be more than a support studio. They wanted to take naval combat to the next level and create an original game of their own. But making a great game is far from easy, particularly when it’s your first time as a lead developer.

“There’s nothing in the video game industry that’s harder than building a new IP,” says Darryl Long, managing director of Ubisoft Singapore. “You think you know what the game is, but you’re really, in many ways, discovering as you go and finding out what resonates with your players. You need time to explore that.”

“You’re trying to find the recipe. You’re trying to find that core gameplay loop,” explains Kirkpatrick. “Not everything makes it, but you learn from all the things that don’t make it and hope that what’s left is the best it can be. It’s a journey.”

Creating a new game is difficult, but it’s even more of a challenge without leadership. In late 2018, creative director Justin Farren was making preparations to depart Ubisoft Singapore. He would leave the following summer. But the need for a new creative director raised questions about more than just leadership. What was this game’s identity? Was it a PvP multiplayer arena, or a co-op open-world? Was it a narrative campaign or a live-service game? If Skull and Bones was to survive this development storm, it needed help. The search was on for a new captain.

Ubisoft knew that Skull and Bones was in need of an experienced steady hand. That seniority was found in Elisabeth Pellen, a twenty-year plus Ubisoft veteran and Vice President of its Editorial Team. Pellen had significant experience in directing games with online features, and so it was believed she was ideally suited to a project attempting to work out its own multiplayer identity.

“[Ubisoft was] looking for someone to help them […] to turn the most promising prototypes and demos into a fuller game experience,” recalls Pellen.

Prototypes. Demos. Despite having initially planned for a 2018 release, Skull and Bones was still in the prototyping phase by the end of that year. And while the open world had been showcased at E3 that summer, Skull and Bones was still a small-scale multiplayer game.

“The five-versus-five was fun to play, but sometimes it was difficult for the player to manoeuvre inside an arena with such big ships,” Pellen says. “Because the ships didn’t have a lot of customizable options, it was difficult for us to project on the long term. With the open world, the game experience added more potential.”

But that potential was still in its early stages. Despite having been discussed as part of the initial reveal, the open world still didn’t exist beyond the demo built for E3 2018. So far, it was just a taste of what Ubisoft Singapore hoped Skull and Bones would one day become.

“The chunk of open world was a 15-minute demo that showcased different classes of ship. It was not yet an entire open world,” Pellen confirms. “[The development team] tried to develop the PvP arena and the open world in parallel, but it was a little bit challenging for the team because it was the first time that most of the talents had the opportunity to create their own IP.

“We thought that it would be safer and maybe more interesting for other players to fully focus on the open world,” she concludes.

Why has this game continued for so long? I think that in many other companies, maybe it wouldn’t have survived as long as it has.

If Skull and Bones was to succeed, the Ubisoft Singapore team would need to find its focus. On Pellen’s advice, all staff would move to the open world design and build that up from a demo into a full game. Any other ideas the team wasn’t fully capable of building in parallel would be cancelled, and so the 5v5 mode was abandoned. A third mode – the previously promised narrative single-player campaign – was also in development, and that would also need to be scrapped.

“Building a solo campaign is really time-consuming,” Pellen admits. “We didn’t have the full team to deliver a full solo campaign.”

Beyond the issues with the development of the game itself, Pellen observed that the Singapore studio was “isolated from the other studios and [Ubisoft] HQ”, and so believed that the team needed someone experienced in building and launching a complete, original game to provide this expertise. Her long-term Ubisoft career put her in a good position to offer this expertise.

With Pellen as the ship’s new captain, Ubisoft would finally find its true heading – the “new vision” that was later announced in 2020. But why a new vision? Why, after years of development, old visions, and little genuine progress, did Ubisoft not just cancel the entire project? Why were staff not reassigned to other games?

“That’s a question I’m sure many people have,” agrees Darryl Long. “Why has this game continued for so long? I think that in many other companies, maybe it wouldn’t have survived as long as it has.”

“Ubisoft supports projects they believe in, teams they believe in,” says Ryan Barnard, former senior game director on Skull and Bones. “This didn’t feel quite right, but they wanted to see what they could do and so they asked a very experienced creative to come in and take a look at how she could influence the project.”

There was, apparently, another factor, too. Kotaku’s report claimed that the studio made a deal with the local government that requires Ubisoft Singapore to launch an original game within the next few years. In short: the studio may be legally required to deliver Skull and Bones. When IGN asked if this is true, Ubisoft declined to comment.

Regardless of the details keeping it in development, one thing was clear: Skull and Bones needed reworking. It needed to leave its campaign and 5v5 mode behind and fully focus on the shared open-world that it had promised. And so Pellen moved to Singapore and took over as creative director, ready to rally the team around a new vision.

“I arrived on the project with one simple question: ‘How do you become a pirate?’” says Elisabeth Pellen. “What blew my mind was that, [during the age of piracy], all those legendary pirates in the Indian Ocean started with almost nothing. To become the rockstars of the 17th century they had to face unpredictable storms and survive mutinies, shark attacks, and sometimes starvation.

“Suddenly for me, it made this fantasy more relatable because it means that anyone could become a pirate.”

The idea of that journey became the foundation for Pellen’s vision: a live-service, open-world game all about survival. This new version of Skull and Bones would feature resource gathering, trading, and crafting. A deep progression system would chart your rise from a nobody to a notorious kingpin. If it was a key part of the dangerous life of a pirate, Pellen wanted it in the game.

We could not really reboot the game, because we could not run down the team. We had to continue to work with 500 people.

“We really wanted to give the opportunity to the player to write their own story,” says Pellen. “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’s vision was effectively a reboot that refocused the team back to its original promise of a shared, systemic world. But where a reboot at Ubisoft would typically see a team reduced down to its core creatives and then slowly built back up as the game took form, Ubisoft Singapore was unable to do that.

“All the new IPs at Ubisoft went through one or two reboots,” Pellen explains. “In the case of Skull and Bones, we could not really reboot the game, because we could not run down the team. We had to continue. We had to make some adjustments, but to continue to work with 500 people.”

But the development team faced that challenge head on. By building the new vision around the core naval combat systems that the studio had already crafted for 5v5 multiplayer, they ensured that Skull and Bones did not have to be started again from scratch. Much of the team’s previous hard work would not be lost.

“There’s always things that you can salvage,” says Barnard. “A reboot is never a total reboot. The navigation, how the ship felt, all of those things [that were] in the game you saw [at E3], they felt good. But how do we bring that into a progression system for the player? How do we add more depth to that combat, and not just more ‘arcadey cannons go boom’ type of gameplay? All of that needed to be introduced to the game.”

“It got a lot bigger and technically it got a lot more complex,” recalls Kirkpatrick, lead technical art director. “It is part of the reason why we need more time.”

Rallied around this new survival vision, the Singapore team geared up into full development. And by July 2022, four years after its last public showing, Ubisoft was confident enough in Skull and

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