I Spent $100 In Assassin's Creed Unity So You Wouldn't Have To

I Spent $US100 In Assassin's Creed Unity So You Wouldn't Have To

Ten hours into Assassin's Creed: Unity, I'm having difficulty finishing up memory sequence 6. That's just about the middle chapter of the game. I think my character is too weak. His armour isn't strong enough. Neither are his weapons.

I could stop working on this memory, instead grinding on side missions and locating chests until I have enough Livres to buy more powerful gear. Instead, I open up the eStore and without first looking into what I can buy with Helix credits, opt for the $US100 package, the biggest in-game purchase available from Ubisoft, a publisher that would presumably love for me to buy it.

I Spent $US100 In Assassin's Creed Unity So You Wouldn't Have To

Five and a half hours later, when the credits roll (and roll and roll) on the story, I am decked out in 5-diamond Legendary gear. Great, but there is a problem. I have a balance of $US56 worth of Helix credits and have nothing meaningful to spend them on.

MTX's 'Horse Armour' Moment

When Unity launched last week, piled on top of claims that this is a low point for the series was a frustration with the relevance of the extra hooks the game has to products and services outside the main game: the companion app, the Initiates program and the Helix credit microtransactions in the game. As a professional game developer, I'm no stranger to companion apps or in-game purchases. Not only have I spent the past two and a half years working as a monetisation design consultant, but before that I spent four and a half years as a producer at EA, where I led development on companion games that unlocked exclusive items inside of Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II. From my insider perspective, it feels as though we have reached our Horse Armour moment with in-game purchases.

We're at the point where there is public outcry over a business practice which will ultimately become common. Player's stated preferences on Twitter and in comments may be a hatred of all things microtransaction (MTX), but as it becomes clear to companies that they actually buy these items in meaningful quantities, in-game purchases will become as everyday as Day 1 DLC, Season Passes and purchasable cosmetic items.

The launch of the previous console generation brought us HD gaming, higher development and marketing costs, a $US60 price tag and downloadable $US2.50 horse armour. This current generation brings us even more beautiful games, even higher development and marketing costs and yet the $US60 price tag remains. Adjusted for inflation, a $US60 game costs the equivalent of $US51 in 2006. When it takes 10 game studios working together to create Unity, experimenting with in-game purchases and companion apps as a way to generate additional revenue isn't greed, it's survival.

Given that price tags are likely to remain anchored at $US60, more and more blockbuster games will turn to in-game purchases. However, just because I think that Unity's use of MTX and a companion app were inevitable, it does not mean I think they were particularly friendly to those players who bought this new Assassins Creed on launch day (especially those players who pre-ordered or bought it before the review embargo was lifted).

Going Full Ubisoft

For the first 10 hours of my time with Unity I played it as I would naturally. I focused primarily on the story until missions got difficult. Then I would hunt down unopened chests and grind on side missions to earn enough Livres to buy new gear. By the end of 10 hours I was rated at the 3 diamond gear level and was struggling through memory 6-3.

I Spent $US100 In Assassin's Creed Unity So You Wouldn't Have To

At that point, I decided to role play as the ultimate form of Unity consumer. I spent $US100 on Helix credits. I installed the companion app, linked my uPlay account and started unlocking those blue chests. Prompted in-game, I signed up for Initiates to unlock yellow chests. What I encountered was mostly frustration.

In the "what went right" column I was able to charge through the single player campaign with relative ease. Decked out in fully upgraded 5-diamond gear, I finished the campaign straight through without the need to grind.

I Spent $US100 In Assassin's Creed Unity So You Wouldn't Have To

Gearing up wasn't exactly the same as using a God mode cheat, but I was able to complete the story without too many deaths. Unless I was completely surrounded, tricky combat situations could be overcome by cheesing the smoke bomb and mowing down startled soldiers. I wasn't exactly transformed into Mordor's Talion by spending money, but I did not need to act assassinly unless I wanted to. Had I chosen to spend money two and a half hours in, at the moment when I first unlocked the ability to purchase gear, I probably could have rushed through the game in 12 hours or less.

In the "what went wrong" column was everything else.

The most egregious was the $US100 currency package. My #1 rule as a monetisation design consultant is that you have to respect your players: a long term relationship with your players is the foundation of all game monetization. As a player who purchased the $US100 option, nothing made me feel more disrespected than finishing the game with $US56 of Helix credits and nothing to buy. The only options left were gear I hadn't unlocked (and had no need for) or else buy 74 premium boosts that I did not need thanks to my high powered gear. I'm not usually a season pass person, but I have more than enough Helix to cover the $US30 price tag if only the game would let me.

I Spent $US100 In Assassin's Creed Unity So You Wouldn't Have To

The Initiates program was also a frustration. I pulled the trigger in front of a random yellow chest after a message explained that I needed to sign up for Initiates to unlock it. I signed up for the program, whose purpose I do not really understand, and went to open my chest. Only after I had signed up did the game inform me that I needed to be a level 9 Initiate to open that particular chest.

I Spent $US100 In Assassin's Creed Unity So You Wouldn't Have To

Later I would go back to try and figure out just how to level up in Initiates. The webpage I pulled up marked the ability to "keep track of my progress and gain XP" as Coming Soon. At that point I wrote off the idea of opening up a single yellow chest. (Note that Ubisoft finally got that feature working over the last 24 hours, nine days after the game was released. It lists me as a level 2 Initiate and notes that I've started the game's story, even though I've finished it. Another Initiates feature, "Daily Drills," is still listed as Coming Soon.)

The companion app was just a mess. Plagued with uPlay connectivity issues, even when the app was working it was a sore spot. First, it requires me to open both app and game at the same time in order to update my in-app view of the world and unlock new locations for appointment missions. One of the big benefits of server-side features and unified accounts is that servers can talk to each other. A minor annoyance for sure, but I find it baffling that the app cannot read my cloud save and update my progress accordingly. As far as I can tell, the companion app was designed around the idea that I would have it open while playing Unity and not — as one would expect from a companion app — when thinking about my game on the go.

I Spent $US100 In Assassin's Creed Unity So You Wouldn't Have To

But I persevered, finishing glyph puzzles, grinding appointment missions and collecting Nomad Points in the companion app until I unlocked a blue chest in the game. This was my sole incentive for using the companion app. Once I unlocked a chest, I was instructed that Arno could pick it up in-game or else an agent would retrieve it in 24 hours. I went to (what I think was) the chest in-game, tried to open it and was met with the familiar "Play Nomad Missions in the Assassin's Creed® Unity Companion app to open this chest."

I promptly deleted the Assassin's Creed® Unity Companion app.

Balancing Respect And Monetisation

This all begs the question, how can Ubisoft do MTX and companion apps better in Unity? Given comments on previous pieces I've written on monetisation, I expect the majority of players would say to remove them entirely. As I acknowledge the business reality here and expect these elements to become more prevalent in future blockbuster games, this is not a reasonable answer. From my perspective, a few minor changes could make these elements more palatable for gamers while retaining Ubi's ability to earn additional revenue.

There are a number of easy fixes to be more respectful of players. The most obvious is the currency packages on offer. Simply put, a game should not allow me to spend $US100 in-game if there is not $US100 worth of stuff to buy.

Further, the pacing of features was off. Even the most optimistic monetization designer should recognise that MTX and companion apps will only appeal to a very small percentage of the overall Unity audience. On the flip side, a large population of players are not only disinterested in these elements, they are repulsed by them.

The ability to buy Helix is available in-game from minute zero. Yet I was unable to purchase additional gear which would require Helix until two and a half hours in. Seeing this MTX option on the eStore menu when a player is forming their initial reaction to the game (which based on the review scores is likely disappointment for long time fans) is a mistake. Given that this is a premium game a player spent $US60 on, one can assume that if they are going to buy MTX it will not be until a few hours in to the game. The ability to purchase Helix should be hidden until the player has reached the point in the game where gear is unlocked.

I Spent $US100 In Assassin's Creed Unity So You Wouldn't Have To

The companion app and Initiates program are more overtly thrown in the player's face. In my first mission as Arno, 30 minutes into my play session, I encountered prominently placed blue and yellow chests locked behind these features. I was not surprised that their inclusion in the first hour of play set off players' and critics' rage meters.

These features should be introduced later in the game. One can assume that, unless a player is a few hours invested into the game, they have no desire to opt-in to marketing programs. The first few hours of the game should be focused on creating the maximum amount of player delight. Only after a player has bought in to the game should they be presented with the option to engage with these ancillary features.

The other way the companion app and Initiates chests disrespect the player (other than not working) is through a lack of context.

I am given startlingly little information about the Assassin's Creed® Unity Companion app when I am blocked from my intended action of opening a chest. What is the companion app? What platforms is it for? Why would I want to play it? None of these questions are answered by Unity's vague messaging.

The Initiates program does a slightly better job of serving a pop-up notification with text explaining why I would want to join it, but completely fails to tell me what it is in-game. The lack of context in both instances increases my rage meter.

Moreover, I expect that many players would like the ability not only to hide these chests in the HUD but to remove them completely from the game.

A small set of tweaks could make these programs (which are largely marketing and customer retention features) more palatable. When the player encounters these features, they need more context. An optional video that explains to me what these programs are, why they will result in me having more fun and what my incentives for using them are will go a long way to reducing (but not eliminating) the rage inducing effect.

Additionally, a dialog box that would allow me to play this video should also allow me to turn these features off completely. The same way the vast majority of players will never spend money in a free-to-play game, the vast majority of players of AAA blockbuster games will never download a companion app. A simple checkbox on the bottom of a dialog with the option "Do not show me companion app features" will go a long way towards proving to players that you respect them. If you want a player to come back to your game year after year to give you $US60, you need to prove that you view them as person and not a wallet.

Who Is Helix For?

Upon finishing the story in Unity role playing as a big spender, I was left with a big question. Who are Helix credits for? Just because I have spent the past few years focusing on monetization design does not mean I fully understand those players who regularly spend money in every type of game. As a player type, I am more of a dabbler. With a backlog of unplayed games literally hundreds deep, it is rare that I am compelled to complete a game. Unless it is something like Shadow of Mordor that hits all my gamer happy buttons, faced with the choice between grinding side missions to gear up or spending money on in-game currency I am most likely to just quit for another game.

To find out more, I've put together this short survey about game purchasing, DLC and MTX. Whether you do or do not spend money inside of premium or free-to-play games, I would love to hear from you so that I can come back with answers in a future article.

Picture: Sam Woolley

Ethan Levy is an 12 year veteran game designer and producer. Starting as an intern at Pandemic Studios on Star Wars: Battlefront, he has contributed to over 45 shipped games across every genre and platform. He has worked at companies including EA/BioWare, PlayFirst and iWin. In 2012, Levy founded FamousAspect to serve as a monetisation design consultant with a focus on free-to-play games for mobile, tablet, PC, web and console.


    *Brilliant* article. Loved every moment of it. It made me ANGRY and RESENTFUL reading it, which is kudos to the author in a big way. God, wtf were they thinking. This game should've been released for free or a massively reduced price of 20 dollars if it's a grindfest reliant on microtransactions...

      It's not a grindfest. If you just upgrade your cafe and social clubs (2-3 hours tops) you're just swimming in money. Not to mention that the game gives you gear as you complete missions. I'm halfway through the game and I'm in 5 diamond armour. It's not hard. And the blue unity chests are trash. They give you very little. Also, co-op missions give you excellent gear if you have mates to play with.

        This. If you ran out of money or couldn't afford good enough gear, you were stupid and didn't invest in the cafe or the lockpicking skills (as the red locked chests have amazing amounts of money in them). If you'd played AC2 you'd realise that this is the best way to play the game. I'm honestly more offended by the fact that the author gave Ubisoft one hundred dollars towards their ripoff practices than the fact that they do it in the first place.

        Also the app-locked chests are stupid but I really found that there's not many of them and they're coloured blue or yellow so you can safely ignore them. I never accidentally opened one locked to me. I tried to open the first blue one I saw, it said "play the AC companion app to open this" and then I did not go near one for the rest of the game. People are acting as though random chests that look normal con you and tell you that you need to play the app to open them, when that's not the case at all.

        Yes, the microtransactions, shitty performance, locked chests and bugs are all a huge shame, as are the terrible co-op missions which nobody seems to complain about and I find it a bigger problem than anything else. But overall I found the game to be pretty solid and also found that it's pretty easy to ignore the microtransaction and chest BS. Does that mean I tolerate it in principle? No, it's still bullshit. But looking at the game objectively it didn't bother me.

        Last edited 22/11/14 9:41 pm

          " If you'd played AC2 you'd realise that this is the best way to play the game."

          That's a roadblock to people who are not interested in playing a previous game in the series but interested in a specific theme in a current edition.

            It's not really a hugely difficult concept. I try to do it in every game where there's micromanagement of that kind. Try and upgrade everything ASAP and forgo wasting money on gear and stuff in the early stages of the game so I can enjoy the later parts of the game with more money than I could possibly require.

            In AC, especially Unity, it's dumbed down to the point you only need to go to your player base, press A to pour money into it, and wait until you have more money than you require.

        Here's the thing though - some of us DON'T want to play co-op. I, using myself as an example, want to complete the game through my independence - I want to be able to get the best achievements I can, get the best synch I can WITHOUT having to play with someone I don't even know, can't communicate with, and probably doesn't play the way I do. I want to be able to hole myself up, not have to interact with a single soul, and marathon this game to the best of my ability. With the co-op missions you can't even get all the sync points without playing co-op. I don't know about the gear because it doesn't tell you the parameters you have to meet to RECEIVE the gear.

          You can play all of the co-op missions solo.

            Except for the club missions.
            Isn't that annoying????????????? -_-

          I AGREE!!!
          That's WHY I hate the club missions to unlock freaking armor! -_-
          Thank you!

        The above comment was addressed to shadow, btw.

      I hate having to do the club missions to unlock armor as well! I don't know if I'm the only one who thinks this way but I'm the kind of person where if my friends are not ever around to help me complete the club missions and unlock Armor, I wanna do it myself, but NO. I'm forced to wait for them even if they're never gonna play again. I even try joining other clubs in the hopes of working on those club missions but it's the same crap! It's annoying and the bullishness don't think about that. There are people who don't have Ineed net either and they can't even play
      Co op to unlock the armor that they want. We should ATLEAST have the option of purchasing a single item for a small fee -_-

    So, what you are saying is that AC Unity should have cost $160, cut out open world grinding and leave the disappointing 6 hour story and broken co-op?

    I laughed a lot when you said next gen consoles were beautiful. We all know that isn't true.

    This shit... the in your facedness of it... this is the reason I returned Unity.

    You could have just used trainers to get those

    The only game i've bought real money skill points for was nba2k, that was to get players skilled up quickly for online play and in 2k14 I hated that my myplayer got drafted 4th yet was entering the league wit ha terrible rating. Never spent much though.

    Would you be able to claim the $100 dlc purchase in tax seeing as it was done for work?

    I really don't get the sentiment that it takes "grinding side missions" to get more money and gear in AC Unity. The side missions have stories, dialogue and characters attached and each have unique activities from preventing a book burning to rescuing a hostage. It honestly sounds to me like someone is saying "the game doesn't hand me the gear I need, the game expects me to play it in order to earn it which is unreasonable".

      If you put a reward at the end a lot of people will only see the end result and not the journey.

    I really think the author is overstating the position of developers and publishers in relation to consumers. I mean, despite droning on and on about apparently respecting customers, he still talks down to the reader and attempts to appeal for empathy over dumb shit like this without providing any himself. Actually pretty dismissive of the consumer's argument, which is what i though the general issue was here in the first place, that consumers hate stuff that is stupid.

    Still, the perspective is valuable and i'm glad i read it. Just sad to see how casually resentful the industry is of consumers perspective.

    Last edited 22/11/14 12:55 pm

    i stopped playing Ass' Creed after Brotherhood. If fragmented exlcusive DLC bullshit wasn't bad enough, microtransactions that feed on people's addictions make me never want to play another AC game.

    Seriously, you should get a refund on the remaining balance. These microtransactions just make gaming terrible for everyone.

    simply W T F ! 0_0 is this some joke? in all my years of pc gaming I thought I had seen and heard it all.........Ubisoft you have really have hit the bottom of the shit barrel haven't you. whats worse..... ubisoft knows theres enough idiots, no , MORONS out there that just waste money like this. I hope you enjoyed you $200 game...... seriously brains vs money...... just wow.

    Ubisoft really are the worst of the worst. They make Activision and EA look good.

    Im 20 hours in and i didnt even know microtransactions were a thing. I thought you got the helix points through the companion app, which i never used anyway.

    Butthurt internet is butthurt, i guess.

    I find myself quite annoyed at the attitude of the writer that we just have to accept MTX. Look at Unity a 5th? or more likely 8th/9th game in the franchise and it's plagued by bugs and other problems. Review Embargo's, glitches, unexplained Apps and websites. All this says they don't care about the player they just want their money. I know games are a business, I know they want to make money and I think they should make money. But they shouldn't be looking at us like walking piles of cash.

    I also know that these decision are coming from the people who don't know anything about actually making the games.

    How about this companies need to put Micro-transactions on the box in big bold letters, they need to tell people what they are before the game even releases. They won't it would kill sales big time. They try to sneak them in, some companies have been doing it for years with the unlock everything cheats that are now done with credit cards rather than cheat codes or completing the game.

    I know that development costs are shooting up and I know that more money in the coffers will see more original IP coming out and not constant rehashes of the same franchise but you need to give us this kind of information before we start. I don't mind the concept of an app being married to a game, but it's got to be working 100% before you release things.

    Companion Apps aren't bad, I used to love them on the Dreamcast VMU, now we can have them on our Smart Phones which is a lot more convenient. But they need to be good. Imagine if upcoming Ubisoft game "The Crew" had an app where you ran an auto parts store and the profits where sent to your in game character. The app needs to be fun even for people who don't have the game, and I don't mind you putting the Micro transactions there.

    I learned my lesson with Watchdogs, so I didn't even consider buying Unity. Ubisoft have joined EA on my "do not buy from" list.

      You're not wrong. I played "The Crew" Beta a few weekends ago and it's so bad. The game drives like Watchdogs, but somehow worse, which is surprising for a game where driving is its core mechanic. Not to mention the terrible characters and dialogue. Unless they can remake the game in a month, I am not expecting good things.

        I played the beta too but I thought it played pretty well if it were a single player game. I enjoyed the time I spent with it and I wish I had more time to explore the map.

        The crew system (apparently the whole idea of the game) didn't work for me at the time and the other players I did see were all sketchy avatars jutting around the roads. I think there was one occasion where I played cat & mouse smoothly with a random but that was short lived.

        Even though I really want The Crew to succeed I can't help but be highly skeptical of Ubisoft as a publisher. I am nowhere near as interested in The Crew given the shoddy practices and broken launches and I am even more cautious of the always online MMO direction The Crew is going.

        Such a shame though. The game world is pretty damn amazing.

          I had high hopes for this game, especially the "detailed" car customisation, but it just seems to be the same at NFS Underground and to be honest, GTA online has a better customisation system, the cars drive better and it's more social. So, why would I buy "The Crew"?

    In your establishment of the argument for MTX required to offset the locked $60 price tag you failed to mention the increased player base. The economy of scale theory dictates products become cheaper to produce as more customers become available. I would be interested to see a comparison of customer base between the previous and current generation consoles in the first year of sales.

    Are the helix credits usable to unlock things in the competitive multiplayer portion of the game? I remember that kind of thing in the previous games, so perhaps that is where they expect you to spend the other $50 of credit.

    Of course, that's not much of a consolation if you don't actually play that portion of the game.

    What. I can't even synchronize the app with my uplay account at all since launch.

    Just because it's Monday and work is boring me:

    Setting—Internal, Day, regular office building. 2 execs at Ubisoft having a conversation (imagine them as Chris Farley and David Spade).

    CF: We really need Assassin's Creed Unity to pay off.
    DS: I've got a great idea. Let's hit them with a pay wall and microtransactions. Those mobile gaming douchebags have been doing it for ages and getting away with it. We should start using 'Saga' in more of our titles.
    CF: Aw gee, we can't do that. We're a major games developer worth millions. Won't the customers kill our rep on the internet (living in vans, down by the river)?
    DS. Pfft, the knuckle-dragging jerkwads who play these things will do whatever we want if we just play at off as the cost of making AAA games. We just need to put out statements about high pressure development cycles and the size of the team and how they need to get money to buy food for their rugrats or some shit.
    CF: Didn't you just get a $1 mil bonus for last year's sales figures?
    DS: Yeah, but they don't need to know that. And we should also add some pointless enhancement chaff like a companion app that doesn't really do anything and a social network program so we can mine for other potential suckers.
    CF: But won't that seem really obvious?
    DS: Obvious schmobvious. The basement dwellers still have some love for this IP even after all the shit we've done to it, so why are they suddenly going to notice this? Hit them with enough fancy marketing and buzzwords like 'connectivity' and 'immersion' and 'game-changing' and they'll be dropping their shorts and bending over while they fork out for preorders.
    CF: You're the devil, aren't you?
    DS: You know what, screw it. Let's go balls out. Let's put in a made up currency that the suckers can pay real money for, make it something ridiculous like $100.
    CF: That's more than what we'll sell the game for! Not even mega-fanboys and crazy people are going to fall for that.
    DS: Yeah, maybe you're right... [in that jokey, whisper voice] Oh my God, they're doing it.


    Seriously though, it comes back to that persistent notion that game companies will keep pushing the boundaries of monetisation until the majority of customers says enough is enough. Hopefully when they start putting a 5 life max on COD multiplayer (where you either have to wait 24hrs to regen, or pay for more lives) people will call shenanigans.

    How stupid do you have to be to not utilise the Social Club and Cafes? I spent two hour upgrading and a little more doing the various missions and I had five diamonds before sequence 5

    The only microtransaction I would pay for is one that turns off microtransactions.


    I just gotta say anyone who spends $100 on in game cash is an idiot. Also Assassin's Creed games are way easy I don't know how u couldn't of gotten past sequence 6 without spending that kind of money lol.

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