Game development is a long and expensive proposition for any publisher.
For AAA titles (that's the industry term for games made by major studios), the likelihood is that it will take anywhere between three to five years for a game to be developed and shipped to players. In that time, a game will go through extensive in-house QA testing, new features are trialed and discarded as necessary, and you have a small army of coders, artists, developers, all working toward one, single goal - the game gets out by the release date.
The long-held maxim of gaming is that a delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad. Attributed to Shigeru Miyamoto of Nintendo, the quote was initially uttered during the lengthy development for 'The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time'. The idea was that the game would launch with the Nintendo 64 in 1997, but instead, it was held back until late 1998 in order to facilitate further development.
Ubisoft first announced 'Skull & Bones' at E3 in 2017, with the game drawing heaving comparisons to 'Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag', with an initial release date set for the third or fourth quarter of 2018. The response to the game then may have spurred Ubisoft into action. Many commentators found issues with the idea of ship-boarding; a major part of 'Black Flag'. What were some of the most engaging parts of that game were in 'Skull & Bones' reduced to a cutscene. Others were drawing comparisons to 'Sea of Thieves', just released on the Xbox to middling reviews.
A year later, around the time of its intended release date, Ubisoft announced that 'Skull & Bones' was being pushed back to an unspecified date between 2019 and 2020. During their earnings report for the first half of 2018 in May, Ubisoft declared that the company "decided to give itself more time to develop 'Skull & Bones' to offer players an even more engaging experience."
Nine months pass, with no changes to its release date. A TV series based on the game is announced in early development, though no further footage from the game is revealed. In April of 2019, Ubisoft Singapore announces a recruitment drive for level designers for 'Skull & Bones'. In May, almost a year to the day, the game is delayed again.
In September of last year, Ubisoft Forward - the company's stake at E3 - came and went without any footage or input from 'Skull & Bones'. A statement by creative director Elisabeth Pellen laid out the scenario in comforting, vague terms.
"The answer is that we simply needed more time. We dreamt something bigger for 'Skull & Bones', and these ambitions naturally came with bigger challenges."
"These difficulties resulted in necessary delays for our game. Critical questions needed to be addressed over the past several months such as: how do we modernize the classic pirate fantasy? How do we ensure a more immersive and visceral experience? How do we create cool and memorable moments in-game? For most of these questions to be answered, it was clear that we needed more development time."
Fast forward to just over a week ago, Ubisoft confirmed to games press for the third time that 'Skull & Bones' is being pushed to 2022-2023, with unconfirmed rumours swirling that the game's development was completely restarted just a few months ago in the wake of firings at Ubisoft Singapore.
Taken on their own, it would seem that 'Skull & Bones' is merely going through the expected lifecycle of any AAA-game. There are production setbacks, delays, testing, redesigning - all of these things are normal. Yet, when you string them together and draw a four-year timeline from when the game was announced to now, you see a project in serious trouble.
By comparison, 'Sea of Thieves' - initially released to lacklustre reviews - is now being hailed as a triumph of the naval combat genre, with many in the games press hailing the post-launch updates as vastly improving the game and buoying its success. 'Skull & Bones', on the other hand, appears to be sinking to the bottom of a watery development hell.
Again, long-developed games aren't anything new. 'The Last Guardian', one of the greatest games ever made, took nine years to make. Valve's 'Team Fortress 2' spent a similar length in development. 'Starcraft II' spent years in development, as did 'Alan Wake' and 'Red Dead Redemption II'. Long-delayed games can eventually be good, but they have to be released at some point. The question remains - will 'Skull & Bones' ever be released?