Made-in-Singapore Skull & Bones: All you need to know about online pirate sea battle game

Screenshot of Skull & Bones, the first triple A game to be developed by Ubisoft Singapore.
Screenshot of Skull & Bones, the first triple A game to be developed by Ubisoft Singapore.PHOTO: UBISOFT SINGAPORE

SINGAPORE - French video-game developer Ubisoft of Assassin's Creed fame made a surprise reveal on the eve of the Electronic Entertainment Expo that its Singapore studio is making a new online pirate sea battle game, Skull & Bones.

The title, announced at Ubisoft's press conference on Monday in Los Angeles (Tuesday, June 13, Singapore time), is the first triple A (AAA) game to be led by its Singapore studio, the company said.

Ubisoft Singapore, based in Fusionopolis, has more than 300 developers, half of whom are Singaporeans and permanent residents.

Two other Ubisoft studios, Blue Byte in Germany and Ubisoft Chengdu, also helped with the game's development. The game is slated to release in 2018 on the PC, as well as Xbox and PlayStation game consoles.

The announcement gathered considerable media attention from the video game community, from game news sites such as Polygon, GameSpot and GamesRadar, to prominent YouTubers specialising in games like TotalBiscuit.

Ms Sylviane Bahr, communications director at Ubisoft Singapore, said the idea for Skull & Bones started with the good reception to the pirates battle segment of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. Those naval battle sections were done by Ubisoft Singapore.

In this new intellectual property game, players can helm a powerful warship and lead a crew into sea battles, whether on their own or as part of a pirate gang. They will also be able to build their own fleet of ships that specialise in different battle conditions.

But why is Skull & Bones' announcement at E3 as a AAA game so significant to Singapore? Here are some answers to shed some light.

What is an AAA game?

Skull & Bones has been described as an AAA game. But what an AAA game is exactly is quite vague.

Typically, it describes big budget, blockbuster games. The scope of these games tends to be large as well.

A Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) Game Lab spokesman said that the AAA title is mostly an informal label used to describe games that are made on large development and marketing budgets.

"AAA studios can have very large development teams, the smallest could be as many as 50 dedicated developers, up to hundreds, for one game title," the spokesman said.

"Similarly, costs are very high and can reach hundreds of millions of dollars. Often, development can stretch to two or more years, with some spanning as much as half a decade. The resources and manpower required are increasing over the years for AAA games, making them clearly distinct from other video games despite the informal classification."

Mr Allan Simonsen, coordinator for the International Game Developers Association's (IGDA's) Singapore chapter, said that it's "rare to see AAA games with budgets below US$20 million, and it's becoming common to see budgets of more than US$50 million, with usually equal amounts spent on marketing".

"This is quite similar to a blockbuster movie, both in revenue potential and in cost and complexity," added Mr Simonsen, who is also the technical director and co-founder of Singapore-based casual games developer Boomzap.

In November 2009, the Los Angeles Times reported that the launch budget of Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was US$200 million, including marketing, distributing and production costs. Modern Warfare 2's sales within five days of launch was US$550 million. And, within two months, publisher Activision estimated sales to have hit US$1 billion.

That's pretty close to a blockbuster movie. The Avengers superhero movie from 2012 grossed over US$1.5 billion globally on a production budget of US$220 million, according to Box Office Mojo.

What is E3?

E3, where Skull & Bones was announced on the back of, is one of the biggest trade shows for video-game industry professionals, such as publishers, developers, and distributors.

It is usually held in Los Angeles, California. Before this year, the show was open only to professionals working in the video-game industry as well as the media.

Major developers and publishers - such as Bethesda, Electronic Arts, Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony and Ubisoft - use this occasion to reveal the biggest video-games expected for the coming year and beyond.

For instance, Ubisoft announced a new Mario game at its press conference this year with well-known Japanese video-game developer Shigeru Miyamoto from Nintendo.

"E3 is considered by most to be the largest annual gaming expo in the world," said SUTD Game Labs' spokesman.

"It was born out of the need for a dedicated video game trade show as a premium marketing platform. Fans, retailers and investors alike look to E3 as the most prominent showcase of the year's upcoming games, and at times, new console hardware."

The spokesman added that with so much media and fan attention on E3, popularity and evaluation of different platforms, games, developers and publishers can shift significantly depending on their E3 performance and showings.

E3 has traditionally attracted a large following. Last year's show was attended by more than 50,000 people from all over the world. Hundreds of thousands more catch trailers, gameplay videos, streams and recordings of press conferences from the event. Some online E3 video clips can attract millions of views within days.

Said IGDA's Mr Simonsen of E3: "It's... usually used for important launch announcements by the big Western (game) publishers. Smaller studios usually avoid it because it's hard to get noticed through the noise."

Why is the announcement of the game at E3 significant?

The announcement of Skull & Bones was made in front of the world's technology and gaming media at the Orpheus Theatre, which has a capacity of 2,000. It appeared to be packed during Ubisoft's press conference.

"The fact that, for the first time, an AAA title like Skull & Bones is led by the Singapore team is a big step for the games industry here," said a DigiPen Institute of Technology spokesman.

"Having a big-budget game led by a Singapore studio and announced at E3 is quite a rare affair. For such a game to receive considerable media attention is no mean feat."

The unveiling of the game at such a platform has also captured the attention of gamers worldwide, with established video-game websites like Polygon, GameSpot and GamesRadar giving their first impressions of the game, based on the trailer and gameplay demonstrations.

The game's cinematic announcement trailer on the official Ubisoft US YouTube account had at least 849,000 views as of Wednesday 9.25pm in Singapore. In contrast, the announcement trailer for Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, which features more established characters like Mario, garnered about 2,441,000 views.

Both trailers were posted on Monday, US time, which means they could have been uploaded early Tuesday, Singapore time.

Mr Daniel Tan, director of Nanyang Polytechnic's School of Interactive and Digital Media, said that Skull & Bones "is a pretty big announcement".

"Ubisoft Singapore should be really proud of it, as it is a game that Singaporeans have helped develop," he said. "The launch of this game would emphasise that Singapore do have the talent at this level of game development."

What are some initial reactions to the game?

Reacting to Skull & Bones' announcement, popular YouTuber TotalBiscuit said it had "a ton of potential".

"I've been waiting for a good single player rag to riches pirate game for a bloody long time since Sid Meier's Pirates and we might get that here," the YouTuber said. He has 2.2 million subscribers on his gaming channel.

Another well-known YouTuber, ProJared, who has 916,000 subscribers, said that Skull & Bones "looked really cool".

"It was really well done," he said. "Conceptually alone, very, very strong."

Polygon had some positive reactions from its hands-on with the game. The news outlet's senior reporter Charlie Hall thought the game was "really good". He added that he could see the game "really taking off as far as micro-transactions (go)".

"I want another first mate, another bosun to call out commands, I want to decorate my ship, I want to do all these things with this beautiful vessel that I've got," he said.

Micro-transactions are optional purchases usually present in free-to-play games that can be played for free without an initial purchase cost. These real money purchases are typically a fraction of the cost of a typical US$60 game, and allow players to buy a permanent or temporary perk, such as an item or service.

Such mini-purchases are a source of contention among players. Some players think the perks micro-transactions bring are justified, while others think the costs of playing games with such purchases could end up being more than a US$60 game.

It is unclear if Skull & Bones is a free-to-play game, a regular priced game or has micro-transactions.

Some gamers like prominent YouTuber boogie2988, who has 4 million subscribers, said that he thought Ubisoft was trying to recycle the naval combat portion of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag into a multiplayer online game, which was a common concern with other gamers, one of whom called the new game a "Black Flag expansion".

However, Mr Alex Newhouse, a GameSpot reporter who had a hands-on session with a demo of Skull & Bones, said that the gameplay of the new game has changed from Black Flag.

"No longer is the game about exploring the Caribbean in a pirate ship; now the core gameplay involves piloting that ship through shifting wind and narrow straits in order to take on other ships and collect loot."

Ms Bahr of Ubisoft Singapore said that the Singapore studio has learnt much about operating an online game from the title it previously developed, Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Phantoms. That online game, launched in 2014, was closed in 2016.

"As Skull & Bones is a live game, it seems that our two sets of expertise, (developing an AAA game) and online has been very useful and inspiring for us," she said.