A new note on the “Liberation” Steam page states that players who previously bought the game can still play it, but clarified that they will lose access to multiplayer and any paid DLC after Sept. 1. Past that date, the title will be delisted, meaning new customers will not be able to purchase the game.
“We don’t take the decision to retire services for older Ubisoft games lightly, and our teams are currently assessing all available options for players who will be impacted when these games’ online services are decommissioned on Sept. 1, 2022,” Jessica Roache, senior corporate communications manager at Ubisoft, told The Post.
Earlier in July, Ubisoft announced that it would be shutting down online support for over a dozen titles including “Assassin’s Creed II,” “Rayman Legends,” “Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands” and more. This is an exceedingly common practice in the video game industry, and Ubisoft has already retired dozens of games. For multiplayer games such as “The Matrix Online,” it’s a death sentence. For titles with single player modes such as XCOM 2, it usually means that the multiplayer is disabled but the single player functionality remains intact.
The initial miscommunication and confusion happened at an awkward time. Ubisoft is currently celebrating the 15th anniversary of Assassin’s Creed, a four month event featuring new DLC for numerous Assassin’s Creed titles, sales, merchandise, fan cosplay and even a history podcast.
Some Assassin’s Creed fans were not happy about the news, responding with memes sharply criticizing Ubisoft and review bombing the “Assassin’s Creed Liberation HD” Steam page with over a hundred bad reviews, specifically citing Ubisoft’s delisting announcement.
Ubisoft has faced numerous controversies over the past few years, from worker abuse and harassment allegations, to repeated delays of its new pirate game, “Skull & Bones,” to its much maligned push into the NFT market. After Ubisoft failed to hit its financial targets, CEO Yves Guillemot took a $327,000 pay cut, as reported by Axios.
Guillemot had also been blamed for “institutional harassment” in a complaint filed by two former Ubisoft employees and a French union in a French criminal court.
Consumers’ fears over the delisting of “Assassin’s Creed Liberation HD” hint at a broader concern: players don’t really own video games anymore. Physical copies of video games have been a niche market for years, and that market is shrinking. Digital distribution, meanwhile, offers many advantages over physical games to both consumers and distributors. Digital games can’t be destroyed, sold out or bogged down by physical production costs.
But purchasing a digital game also means you are only buying a discretionary license to play the game, not to own it. Archivists attempting to preserve old video games have been locked in copyright battles with publishers for years. From a consumer perspective, games are no longer a product. They’re a service you pay for indefinitely until the publisher decides to pull the plug.
Games can get delisted for reasons outside of a distributor’s control. For example, Remedy Entertainment announced in 2017 that its beloved thriller game “Alan Wake” would be delisted because the licenses for several songs used in the game were expiring.
Sometimes, simply offering games can become prohibitively expensive. Most digital games come packaged with a digital rights management system to protect against piracy and reverse engineering. DRM-protected games verify their authenticity by connecting to a server. Many games, even single-player ones, need a constant internet connection to run. If a game is very old, the publishers could lose money by reserving server space for a game that people barely buy or play anymore.
Some distributors such as GOG.com (a subsidiary of CD Projekt of Witcher and “Cyberpunk 2077” fame) solve this problem by selling games without any sort of DRM. However, these platforms are the exception — not the norm.
“The space and infrastructure required to host a huge library of games is something it looks like Ubisoft is running up against,” Adrienne Shaw, an associate professor at Temple University and founder of the LGBTQ Game Archive, told The Post. “All distribution companies have to consider that these days. For example, it’s not possible for Netflix to make all film and television from all over the world available simultaneously … There simply isn’t enough server space to manage and support that type of access.”
The Assassin’s Creed franchise follows a secret war between two ideologically-driven factions spanning all of human history. But despite the global nature of the conflict, most of the Assassin’s Creed games star European protagonists. “Assassin’s Creed: Liberation” is the only one that features a Black woman — the daughter of a prominent French merchant and an enslaved African woman — as the protagonist, making it an outlier not just for the franchise but in the broader industry’s offerings.
The cultural disparity in what media get preserved is something that media scholars have long considered, Shaw said.
“[Media studies scholar] Alfred Martin has pointed out that while VHS/DVD sets, copies and syndicated versions of a lot of white-cast sitcoms from prior to 2000 are easily accessible to scholars, Black-cast sitcoms are much harder to find,” Shaw said. “Early films by women directors were much less likely to be saved than those by male directors. And so yes, that [Ubisoft is] deciding to not support a game which is representationally interesting as ‘Assassin’s Creed Liberation’ is disappointing but not surprising per se.”
The unique value of “Assassin’s Creed: Liberation” as an important artifact in video game history hasn’t gone unnoticed. Social stealth — the ability to hide out in the open by blending into various crowds and public environments — is a hallmark of the Assassin’s Creed series. The hero of “Assassin’s Creed: Liberation,” Aveline de Granpré, is a fantastic example of a protagonist’s characterization synchronizing tightly with game design. Aveline is adroit at navigating through 18-century Louisiana by presenting herself as a high society business executive, adventurer or enslaved worker. Soraya Murray, an associate professor at UC Santa Cruz and author of “On Video Games: The Visual Politics of Race, Gender and Space,” delivered a presentation on precisely this, entitled “Three Faces of Aveline: an Intersectional Feminist Reading of Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation.”
“I get the technical reasons for the choice,” Shaw said, referring to Ubisoft delisting “Assassin’s Creed: Liberation” from Steam. “But we can still question how [publishers] decide what games they delist.”