After a tepid start in 2015, Ubisoft's tactical shooter found its feet last year and is now one of its most important games, with an audience of 15 million
On February 7, Ubisoft released the first 2017 content update for Rainbow Six Siege, dubbed Operation Velvet Shell. It includes two new operators, a new coastline map set in Ibiza, and the reveal of an upcoming lootbox system that replicates what you might find in Battlefield 1 or Gears of War 4. The intention is clear: turn Siege into an ongoing cash cow like Overwatch or League of Legends. It’s the same aspiration we see from every major publisher these days, but it’s incredibly auspicious for Siege considering where the game was a year ago.
The original 1998 Rainbow Six was the very first game published under Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy brand (the company later acquired the rights to Clancy's name in 2008,) and it was a beautiful tribute to the tactical brilliance of an elite counter-terrorism strike. Each mission was stuffed with a lengthy briefing sessions where you plotted out the exact dimensions of your attack. You micromanaged your AI squad down to their specific shades of camouflage, and the lethality of a single bullet was never taken for granted. This was 1998, years before Counter-Strike, SOCOM, or Full Spectrum Warrior. Rainbow Six was a genuine reimagining of the first person shooter when most of us were still rocket-jumping through Quake arenas.
Since then it's been all over the map. 2003’s Rainbow Six 3 was an early highlight for Microsoft’s Xbox Live service, and 2006’s Rainbow Six: Vegas uprooted the franchise’s hardcore trappings for a flashier (and more approachable) romp through a mercenary-occupied Las Vegas Strip. Ubisoft published a sequel to Vegas in 2008, and then – nothing. Rainbow Six went dark. A reboot called Rainbow Six: Patriots was announced in 2011; it promised a traditional single player campaign centered on a group of domestic terrorists eager to hold Wall Street accountable for their greed, but was unceremoniously cancelled in 2014. Instead, Ubisoft went in a completely different direction. They gathered Patriots’ bones, and repurposed them for the multiplayer-only Rainbow Six Siege.
Siege felt uniquely next-gen from the start. It’s a five-on-five objective-based shooter in a destructible environment with no respawns. One squad is trying to break into a fortified location to rescue a hostage, defuse a bomb, or secure a biochemical agent, and the other is trying to stop them. Each player takes control of an "operator," a character within the universe that has a distinct set of skills. For instance, "Sledge" brandishes a giant hammer that can knock down walls, and "Caveira" can interrogate players to learn valuable intel. Think of it like Overwatch, except set in a grim 21st century dystopia.
The game launched in December 2015, flanked by a bevy of high-profile titles like Fallout 4, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Star Wars: Battlefront, and Halo 5. It generated decent review scores, with a sturdy 79 percent on Metacritic, but the buzz was tepid. Players immediately reported connection issues, unacceptable lag spikes, hit detection weirdness, and a matchmaking service that routinely pitted complete scrubs against elite marksmen. Siege was expected to move at least seven million units. In February 2015, based on data pulled from SteamSpy and VGChartz, it was estimated that the total sales number was closer to three million. The number one thing a multiplayer-only title needs to nail is a capable matchmaking service. Ubisoft had failed, and the future looked bleak.
But then, slowly but surely, Rainbow Six Siege pulled itself up by its bootstraps. Ubisoft released four expansion packs in 2016 – Operation Black Ice, Operation Dust Line, Operation Skull Rain, and Operation Red Crow. Each of these content updates introduced a handful of new weapons, a new map, and two new operators pulled from a particular country. Dust Line offered two US Navy SEALs and a map in a Middle Eastern customs border, while Black Ice brought members of Canada's elite Joint Task Force Two and set its map on a frozen luxury yacht. The new operators always have an immediate effect on Siege's meta. A good example is Valkyrie, one of the SEALS introduced with Dust Line last May. She can attach small, optical cameras to any surface in the game, giving the entire defending team a visual pipeline to crucial intel. This fundamentally altered tried-and-true strategies for offensive teams. Do you move more erratically? Do you feint? Or do you counter-pick with an operator like IQ, who's equipped with an electronics detector and will allow your team to scout for cameras before entering a room?
Those are the sort of questions that make multiplayer fun, and have helped its burgeoning ESL-hosted esports scene – now in its second year – evolve. Ubisoft has done an excellent job disrupting the shape of Siege's gameplay with their operator design. It's a tip they picked up directly from MOBAs like League of Legends. Riot Games is constantly introducing new champions, and each one unearths new potential synergies and builds for a hungry community. The game never gets stale. In many ways, it feels like Ubisoft set out to build Siege so that it will never need a true sequel.
"The key thing was the operators. That's the content that keeps coming," says Chris Early, Vice President of Digital Publishing at Ubisoft. "You get maps, you get new places to play, but the real differentiators in play are the skills the operators have. Players are having fun figuring out what skills go together. How do the skills in your team’s composition compliment each other? How do they strengthen your play?"
We greenlit ongoing development for a year after release. As the game continued to do well we greenlit another year after that.
Last August, after the release of Operation Skull Rain, IGN reported a 40 percent spike in daily Siege user totals compared to launch statistics. In November, Ubisoft announced a season pass for the second year of Siege's DLC, effectively confirming that the company intended to support the game throughout 2017. On February 9, Ubisoft released its third-quarter fiscal year report, noting that Siege had surpassed 15 million registered users.
In an interview conducted back in early December during the Assassin’s Creed film premiere, Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot expressed his happiness with Siege's growth. "Lots of people came for the new season, last weekend was huge," he said. "We saw it with The Division as well. We had to fix a number of problems, but it’s growing again dramatically. It's really good to see that there’s two ways to play; new games, and old titles that are enriching themselves with time."
Of course none of that would matter if Rainbow Six Siege was still broken. The core gameplay was always stellar – it's a natural, 21st century leap from the high-stress, cat-and-mouse paranoia of the old-school, pre-Vegas Rainbow Six series, and there was always a feeling that Siege could really shine if Ubisoft could fix its server issues. The company released a series of patches in the month after release ironing out those bugs and the community rejoiced, but there was still much more work to be done.
"I was really worried about this game after the second DLC [Operation Dust Line,]" says Doug "NukemDukem" Le, one of the most prominent Rainbow Six YouTubers on the internet. "The cheating problem became so rampant. One of my best video series was just me catching a bunch of cheaters and exposing them."
Le's videos became his own tacit protest against Ubisoft's inability to police Siege’s servers. He lists the offending user's gamertags in the title to personally put them on notice. Vision is crucial to Rainbow Six Siege, and a trusty wallhack through destructible surfaces offered easy mapwide headshots. Ubisoft banned plenty of cheaters, but they lacked a robust preventative anti-hacking module in-game, which meant these incidents occurred over and over again. NukemDukem uploaded 10 cheating videos between January and August, and a Change.org petition called “Stop The Hackers in Rainbow Six Siege" earned 351 signatures.
"I am talking about blatant use of third-party tools to see through walls, and sometimes assisted aim. This breaks the core of the game, which is supposed to be intense and tactical, and makes it frustrating and incredibly punishing for doing the right thing," the petition read. “Ubisoft, your game is broken. You will lose your player base. We don't want to play another game. We do not want to accept these problems in our community."
Ubisoft eventually took action. They introduced BattlEye, a trusted third-party anti-cheat program last summer, which quickly eliminated 3,800 offenders. Le was satisfied, and suspended his advocacy. "Now there weren't 5,000 cheaters running around the PC community," he said. "That's when I started seeing the YouTube numbers grow and people started getting interested in playing the game, and when [Ubisoft] saw higher numbers for their esports."
Early says that Ubisoft always knew they were going to support Siege because of the season pass they sold before release. No matter what happened, they put themselves on the hook to support the game. "It was part of the design. It was part of the funding of the game," he says. "We greenlit ongoing development for a year after release. As the game continued to do well we greenlit another year after that." Attaching yourself to an unsure proposition before the audience materializes is bold, but it turned out to be one of the best decisions the company made.
Obviously none of that excuses Siege's technical struggles. Buying a half-finished product sucks, and things like connectivity problems and anti-cheat regimens should be ironed out on day one. But we don't live in that era anymore. People are routinely shelling out $20 for bare-bones early access prototypes on Steam. A game like Destiny was a gigantic success despite essentially being in active development for the first year of its lifecycle. There used to be no recourse for a feature-bereft shooter. A bad game was a bad game. But today, you can always expect a developer to step in and tighten up the technical problems.
Right now, Ubisoft is making noise about someday hosting a cast of "50-100 operators," which approaches League of Legends territory. They’re giddy with success, and they’re not slowing down anytime soon. Rainbow Six Siege is not the ideal example of how to launch a video game, but its triumph proves that we can’t judge games on their first month anymore. Ubisoft listened, and they found a community eager to forgive them.