Skull and Bones is one of Ubisoft's biggest mysteries. Sure, we haven't seen any in-game footage of Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora and, no, we don't know what Assassin's Creed Infinity really is – but Skull and Bones has been in some form of production for almost 10 years. Entire franchises have come and gone in that time, let alone an entirely new console generation. That's one of the reasons we've spent so many years fascinated by Ubisoft Singapore's pirate adventure.
Well, Ubisoft finally pulled back the curtain – revealing brand new gameplay, clarifying the live service focus, and detailing the improvements made to naval combat. You can read all about that in our Skull and Bones hands-off preview. But if you linger here for a little while, we'll walk you through five key areas of interest we had about Skull and Bones heading into this Ubisoft Forward, and the answers game director Ryan Barnard was able to provide us.
Why is now the right time to release Skull and Bones?
The development waters have been choppy for Skull and Bones. It entered production in 2013, was announced to the public in 2017, and now here we are in 2022 – the year we'll finally discover what condition the ship is in after Ubisoft Singapore spent a decade steering it into port. Game director Ryan Barnard alludes to the fact that it hasn't all been all smooth sailing for the studio. When asked why now is the right time to release Skull and Bones, he says:
"Since having found our current direction with our creative director, Elisabeth Pellen, we have been hyper-focused on creating a game that delivers on our pirate fantasy. With the hard work from the team, we feel we are ready and we're confident in delivering our gameplay promise."
That "current direction" seems to confirm a VGC report that Skull and Bones rebooted its development in 2019, following the exit of creative director Justin Farren. An internal shift towards a live-service model was made by Ubisoft, with the new direction spearheaded by Elisabeth Pellen. A 20-year veteran of the company with countless credits to her name, Pellen has spent the last decade on the Ubisoft Editorial Team to help bring shape to the publisher's biggest franchises.
How much of Black Flag remains in Skull and Bones?
Famously, Skull and Bones started life after the world fell in love with the naval battles of Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag. Ubisoft Singapore, who collaborated with Ubisoft Montreal on the naval aspects of AC3, AC4, and Rogue, had initially set out to build a Black Flag expansion before its ambitions allegedly grew. So, given that Skull and Bones has its developmental roots in a game that was released all the way back in 2013, how much of Assassin's Creed can be felt in the final release?
"The team developed their expertise in Naval Combat through their co-development work so we decided to capitalize on that to create a totally new world – the world of Skull and Bones," says game director Ryan Barnard, who joined the project in June of last year after "the team had just passed a major internal milestone." It's worth remembering that Ubisoft delayed Skull and Bones into 2022 back in May 2021 – so whatever that milestone was, Ubisoft liked what it saw enough to allocate a year of additional resources behind the project.
"Since I joined, my focus has been about taking the creative vision to life," he says. Barnard says his key focuses are in ensuring that there's "depth to the naval combat" and "looking at the progression system with Infamy", as well as the "enemy factions you'll face" and "the depth of the crafting". So, where can Black Flag's lingering influence still be found most strongly through all of this? "The influence from Black Flag you will see in the naval combat, which is the common thread. The cornerstone throughout the whole development of Skull and Bones is having best in class naval combat."
Is Skull and Bones a multiplayer focused experience?
When it was first unveiled to the public, Skull and Bones was set to be made up of two components: a single-player campaign, which would allow you to sail the Indian Ocean by yourself as a customizable pirate captain; and a multiplayer experience, which would support five versus five players in tactical ship-to-ship combat across Disputed Waters. So, what does the Skull and Bones of today offer the world? "You can play the game entirely solo," says game director Ryan Barnard, "however, we do look at everything with a multiplayer lens."
We are not a classic narrative-driven game – we are a live game, which we are committed to for years to come. That said, there are prominent pirates you will meet along the way, which will unveil a narrative arc – we want the players to be creating their own story," he says, before noting the importance of multiplayer. "We want players to have advantages when they group up and pirate together. You can definitely play alone, but part of the risk in our world is that, if you are the lone wolf, you could potentially become prey for other players."
So, should you solo players out there worry about being accosted by other pirates while playing? Barnard promises that "multiplayer is something you choose to do – either through uPlay with your friends or in-game, you can invite players to join your party." Oh, and Barnard confirms this piece of great news: "yes, Skull and Bones is fully crossplay across PS5, PC, Xbox Series X, Stadia, and Luna."
Is Ubisoft committed to supporting Skull and Bones?
How long will Skull and Bones be free to sail the seas? It's a valid question, because Ubisoft has been a little inconsistent in this respect. If you look at something like Hyper Scape, the free-to-play battle royale from Ubisoft Montreal, its servers were taken offline fewer than two years after they were brought online. Whereas, Ghost Recon Breakpoint and The Division 2 have each received almost three years of support, while 2020's Assassin's Creed Valhalla received its most recent expansion earlier this year.
What of the live-service focused Skull and Bones then? Game director Ryan Barnard promises that Ubisoft Singapore will be "communicating soon about our live plans" but reaffirms that Skull and Bones is indeed "a live game" and will receive the necessary support to back that title up. "We intend to support the game, bring new content, and new reasons for players to come back day-upon-day, and week-upon-week over the years."
Is Ubisoft worried that Sea of Thieves stole its treasure?
You may not remember this, but there was a point in time where Ubisoft Singapore's Skull and Bones and Rare's Sea of Thieves were supposed to release within the same window of time. It was pretty exciting, the thought of Ubisoft and Microsoft going head-to-head with competing visions for bringing the pirate fantasy to life – one focused on competition, and the other on collaboration.
The delay of Skull and Bones to 2022 has given Rare four years to iterate and evolve on its original co-op experience, and it's difficult to know how the two will compare. From game director Ryan Barnard's perspective, Skull and Bones and Sea of Thieves are different enough experiences that the two can coexist, despite occupying familiar waters. He says: "That's a great game, but we don't see it as a competitor – it's a different type of pirate game experience"
"Skull and Bones is a grittier, more mature game – it focuses much more on crafting and gathering resources to build better weapons and ships. There is also a much wider customization for naval combat, and the world is much larger – exploration and uncovering the world is a very different experience."
As for whether Ubisoft has been paying attention to what competitors have been doing, particularly in a live service market that has changed so significantly in the years Skull and Bones has been in development, Barnard says that the studio's focus has been steadfast. "We don't actively set out to stay competitive in a changing market, once the vision and direction was set with the game. Our focus was more about making sure that, with the current tech, we are putting forth a AAA experience that brings our pirate fantasy to life."
The Skull and Bones pirate life is still firmly in Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag's shadow