Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag sets sales for 8 million copies
FORTUNE — Since 2007, gamers have been exploring the rich fictional universe of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise, which dives into different historically accurate periods of history to reveal the never-ending fictional conflict between a pair of secret societies: the Assassins and the Knights Templar. The latest game, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, is set during the 18th century and features the real pirates of the Caribbean, not the whimsical Disney take. The game’s story introduces protagonist Captain Edward Kenway (the father and grandfather of protagonists in previous editions) and spans 1713-1722. Historically, this period saw the world’s most famous pirates — including Blackbeard, Bartholomew Roberts, and others — gather in Nassau, Bahamas to build their own democratic republic.
“Players will be able to interact and play with the most infamous pirates of all time,” said Jean Guesdon, creative director at Ubisoft (UBSFY). “BlackBeard, for example, is really interesting because he is a ‘character.’ The real historical man was named Edward Thatch (or Teach), and he voluntarily, on purpose, created the character of BlackBeard to appear as frightening as possible and avoid violence as much as he could. This was a strategy to win easily. This is the kind of thing we want players to discover through the course of the game.”
“The Assassin’s Creed franchise is one of the biggest console/PC franchises around with sales of over 57 million copies through retail,” said Peter Warman, founder of video game research firm Newzoo. “At least 50 million Americans and 40 million Europeans still play an Assassin’s Creed game from time to time. The pirate theme will appeal to the younger demographic that Ubisoft attracts with this franchise. Fifty-one percent of Assassin’s Creed players are under 35, compared to 44% of Activision’s Call of Duty players.”
Gamers around the world have enjoyed interacting with historical characters over the years. The first edition of the game was set during the Third Crusade and along with protagonist Altair ibn-La-Ahad featured real figures such as Richard the Lionheart and William of Montferrat. Assassin’s Creed II, the franchise’s most popular installment (spanning multiple games set in Renaissance Italy), featured Leonardo DaVinci as a central character who designed gadgets and devices for its protagonist. Last year’s Assassin’s Creed III, set during the American Revolutionary War, featured a huge cast of historical characters including George Washington, Ben Franklin, the Marquis de Lafayette, Charles Lee, and Paul Revere.
Michael Pachter, video game analyst for Wedbush Securities, forecasts sales of 8 million copies for Assassin’s Creed IV. On average, the games sell between 7 and 8 million copies, but Assassin’s Creed III topped sales of 12 million.
“I think Assassin’s Creed is successful because of its novelty,” said Pachter. “It’s a third-person adventure game with a pretty easy-to-learn fighting style, the historical setting is novel, and the role-playing game features make it an interesting hybrid. That gives it something for everyone.”
Although the gameplay is set in accurately depicted time periods — AC IV features ports like Kingston, Havana, and Nassau — the game has a science fiction-based, present-day overlap in which a descendant of the assassins uses technology to revisit the memories of his ancestors through their DNA. There are also several hours of gameplay set in the modern day.
“This [storyline] allows us to connect any time period we want to explore into a cohesive and persistent transmedia universe,” said Guesdon. “This is how we can switch between different time periods and historical events without creating a new world every time.”
Guesdon said the process of choosing a new time period involves several different variables. First and foremost, Ubisoft wants to tell stories taking place during pivotal historical events; moments that have shaped the world that we know today. Then there is also the desire of the creative teams to explore and dig into these periods.
The game’s open world nature will keep players busy well into the first DLC (downloadable content). The addition of second-screen gameplay through tablets, which allows a second player to work with the console player, will unlock new islands and other content. Ubisoft has also expanded the multiplayer gameplay, which continues the franchise’s cat-and-mouse experience with players hunting down other players in “Wanted.” Team-based multiplayer switches things up between rounds with those who are hunting and those who are being hunted. Up to four players can team up and play through the Wolfpack cooperative gameplay adventure story. And the new Game Lab allows players to devise their own set of rules to play through the multiple maps and modes with customizable characters and experiences for trillions of options.
Assassin’s Creed IV launches Oct. 29 for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii U. A PlayStation 4 and Xbox One version will be available on November 15 and 22 with the launches of those next-gen consoles. There’s a separate Assassin’s Creed Pirates mobile game launching this fall. Assassin’s Creed Liberation HD, last year’s PSP game, is heading to consoles in January 2014. And Jade Raymond, the co-creator of the franchise, is already working on another Assassin’s Creed story out of Ubisoft’s Toronto studio. Typically, Ubisoft utilizes teams from across its global studios to help develop each new Assassin’s Creed game. Ubisoft’s Shanghai studio helped the Montreal lead studio on AC IV with the naval gameplay and Ubisoft Annecy worked on the multiplayer, for example.
Hollywood has also taken interest in Assassin’s Creed. A movie based on the original game is in development at Ubisoft Motion Pictures and New Regency with Michael Fassbender attached as the lead. Scott Frank is writing the script for the film. There are also novels, comics, clothes, and toys to support the entire franchise. But it’s the games that drive the adventure. And the pirates of the Caribbean are a welcome addition to the franchise.