A couple times over the past few weeks, a giant Egyptian deity has sprung up in Assassin's Creed Origins for players to fight. In early November, it was Anubis, god of the dead. Around Thanksgiving it was Sobek, the crocodile god.
The gods weren't accessible when the game launched in late October and they each only hung around for a week, then departed. Oddly, they seem to have been too powerful for most players to defeat.
The deities are bonus boss battles that Ubisoft has been offering as part of a free, scheduled event called Trial of the Gods. The idea seems to be to extend the life of the game beyond its already lengthy initial run-time. The level of difficulty associated with the Trials, combined with publicly available Trophy data about how most people play Origins, presents a puzzle about who these add-ons have been for and what they mean for everyone who is playing the game.
Anubis showed up in the game on November 7, a little more than a week after Origins came out. Sobek popped in on November 21. Each time, players received an alert that a new level 40 god-slaying quest was awaiting them.
Quests in the game are associated with recommended player power levels, which are gained through the accumulation of experience points earned by completing missions, killing enemies and animals, ascending to lookout points and so on. Players who are under level 40 can try to fight these add-on gods, but this reporter got one-hit-killed by Sobek when taking him on as a meager level 31. Pity the masses who are weaker than that.
According to the game's trophy tracking system on PlayStation 4, about four in ten Origins players aren't even level 20.
The notifications that players receive for the Trials quests also tell them how many hours remain before the god goes away. Each vanishes after a week, though players can try defeating them as many times as they wish, a contrast from the one-chance-only Hitman contracts that enlivened that 2016 game every few weeks for months after its first episode released.
It's not like no one has successfully defeated Anubis and Sobek. Origins' subreddit and official message boards include posts from dozens of players discussing the battle and the Trials-specific legendary loot they received. A Ubisoft PR rep declined to share any data with Kotaku about how many people have gone through the trials but described them, over email, as "end game content meant to be a challenge for higher level players."
Ubisoft has indicated that there will be more Trials of the Gods and that all of them will cycle back through. "We can say that these events will continue to appear regularly," their rep told Kotaku, though did not offer any requested specifics about when they'd come back or how often.
The release of most major games these days is accompanied with an announcement of weeks or months of additional content. The message sent to players is that the game is worth getting early and then keeping (don't sell it back to GameStop!). The now-standard paid Season Pass is often accompanied with a promise of a flow of smaller free add-ons. For Assassin's Creed, the centrepiece of that free stuff was the Trials.
The Trials were always pitched as an elite challenge, but it's striking to see how far from the average player's current experience they have been tuned. It raises some questions about who post-release content is for and how many people are likely to even experience it.
Other PlayStation trophy stats indicate that two-thirds of players haven't even completed one of the game's papyrus puzzles, one of the most basic and abundant sidequest offerings in the game. Others show that about half the players haven't even done some of the game's earliest assassinations. And one shows that only 12% of players have even de-fogged (read: stepped foot into) every major region of the game's massive map.
Most Origins players, it seems, are still pretty early on in the game, even a month after release. This isn't a sign of a problem with Origins. It's a common sight when looking at completion percentages for most big games.
What purpose, then, does a Trial of the Gods serve?
They may simply be a reward to amuse the hardest of the hardcore, those who can hit level 40 in a huge game in just two or three weeks. They may be an incentive to keep that relatively small population pleased with the game and excited to proselytize it to others. They could also be a miscalculation, of course, an incorrect assumption that more players would be ready for them by now - or perhaps an overcorrection for the complaint many exhaustive players have that the huge games they burn through in days after release are suddenly out of content.
There's another possibility, though. The way these Trials come and go and are planned to return again present the rest of us a blinking goal, here one week, gone the next, back the week after that, reminding us that there's more being added to this game and if we can keep playing, perhaps we'll finally reach it.