Talking Skull and Bones representation and expectations with Ubisoft Singapore

Posted on February 13, 2024

After 11 tumultuous years in development, Ubisoft’s Skull and Bones is finally releasing and it feels somewhat surreal. There were certainly moments throughout this game’s history where a betting man would have said the project would never launch. Yet after many delays, development changes, and statements to the community, this open-world seafaring adventure is now an official actuality.

Part of the game’s release celebrations included a Launch Party in Sydney, which I was lucky enough to have been invited to attend. Also in attendance were two important figures from Ubisoft Singapore, Skull and Bones Associate Content Director Gabriel Tay and Skull and Bones Project Manager Jessica Chung. Having a sit-down with the two, we talked about the game’s long development history, how it differs from comparable games, and what kind of impact the community’s negative comments have created.

Tay and Chung are both clearly passionate about the work they do and believe strongly in the project. They started working on Skull and Bones about 4 years ago, meaning they couldn’t completely discuss the game’s development legacy or what led to the constant reiteration and delays. In fact, they view themselves as being there “from the beginning-ish”, saying “We joined for the version [of Skull and Bones] you’re currently seeing”.

It’s an interesting thought, almost entirely removing the previous 7 years of development, rescrapping and restarting fresh for a 4-year development cycle. The two admitted to building on the assets and ideas that came before them but viewed their work as essentially starting from scratch, and couldn’t comment on what went so catastrophically wrong before they came in to build the game we now see today. So what is Skull and Bones today?

The Skull and Bones open beta gave us a definite understanding as to exactly what this game is, and it’s surprisingly faithful to the original pitch that many pirate fans initially bought into, with perhaps just a few caveats. That open beta launched whilst I was in Sydney for the party, and was actually playable at the event hosted by Ubisoft Australia. Jumping in and you could see the DNA of what Skull and Bones always wanted to be. Dramatic cutscenes set the tone for epic ocean adventures as you were sent on quests across the vast seas. Ship combat played a major role as we were directed into cooperative battle with a massive sea monster. I could clearly see who this game is for, as pirate-clad eventgoers lined up to have their 20 minutes with the title. There’s a massive market for a game allowing you to live the pirate fantasy, and Skull and Bones is going to fulfil that fantasy for many. Though even with my limited exposure, I could also see the cracks.

Voice acting and characterisation in this release is full of life yet missing some authenticity. Questing can feel a bit by the numbers, there’s no hand-to-hand combat, and you’ll be met with repeated content ideas a bit too quickly for my liking. Though I also can’t deny that the multiplayer functionality and open world are all there. All the building blocks are in place for an amazing adventure, and this genre of game is ripe for post-release content that turns something decent into something exemplary. On that note, I couldn’t help but ask the developers about what is possibly their biggest competition—Sea of Thieves.

“There’s a lot of great lessons in Sea of Thieves’ trajectory.”

“We definitely are looking at competition as well… There’s a lot of great lessons in Sea of Thieves’ trajectory. But at the same time, we knew that we had a very unique take on the pirate genre as well. We were doing something that was historically inspired and representing that gritty pirate fantasy that is also taking place in a setting that’s not really commonly seen… What we have on offer is something that’s really different.”

An important note that was reiterated to me during our conversation was that Skull and Bones is to be built “with the community”. I was told that the developers were “very much open to what the community is asking in terms of the gameplay features and the kind of content they would like to see in the game”. This makes sense, as those games that have grown with their community continue to be the shining examples of longevity in game design. Though, of course, not all feedback is positive. And releases like Sea of Thieves get more than their fair share of criticism and negativity. On this topic, the developers had the following to say:

“Comments do affect us… there is a silver lining… it just shows that there is passion in the community that they want to feel something strongly about the game, whether it’s positive or negative… It gives us a lot of info to take all this feedback and see how we can incorporate it. Take it to the kind of game they would want to play”.

During our extended chat, Tay and Chung began discussing the unique cultural lens that was being represented in the game. It’s fascinating too, as I can’t think of many games whatsoever that are set in the Indian Ocean. From the coast of Africa and stretching all the way to the East Indies, there’s so much that can be uncovered in these regions. That’s the point of difference here for Skull and Bones. Ubisoft knows how to tell a historically grounded story and capture culture in a setting. Even after all the redevelopment, there’s still that Assassin’s Creed identity that’s hidden in the background.

“The sheer diversity of cultures and locales that we’re representing in the game… The first mate that you have on the ship is also something we’re really proud of because she’s South East Asian and this is something uncommon in the AAA space… We also have investigations that allow you to uncover rich stories about these different cultures.”

“The sheer diversity of cultures and locales that we’re representing in the game…”

It is fantastic to hear and see how important these locations, characters, and cultures are to the development team behind Skull and Bones and it’s for me the most tantalising part of the experience. I want to see that representation and those locations, I want to explore that diversity because it’s fascinating and different from what we typically see in this space. I can’t speak to how successful those efforts have been as of yet, but at the very least, there are some great ideas here backed by a passion that can continue to be expanded on should the game have the longevity to do so.

Skull and Bones is soon to officially release on PC, PlayStation 5, and Xbox Series X|S. There’s no way this game is going to be remembered for a seamless and drama-free launch, but it’s possible it will be seen as a post-launch success story some months/years from now. That’s wholly dependent on whether or not the developers are able to learn from those games that came before it, listen to the feedback, and lean into those aspects that make the release special. According to Tay and Chung of Ubisoft Singapore, that’s exactly their plan.

A big thank you to Gabriel Tay and Jessica Chung for taking the time to talk with me. You can find more details on Skull and Bones on the official website, or keep an eye out for our review in the coming days.