Ubisoft and Cross-Franchise Appeal Through Effective Iconography

Good graphic design matters.

Just earlier this week, Ubisoft gave away their winter sports one-off Steep on the PC, and I’ve been enjoying myself quite a bit with it. But as I started to dive deep into this game’s systems, I realized it follows a similar pattern that I’ve seen in previous Ubisoft titles, which has notoriously fed into the whole “Ubisoft titles are in one universe” theory, but I truly don’t think it runs that deep. What Steep’s relatively story-devoid structure allows it to best illustrate, is how Ubisoft iconography is some of the most effective in the gaming industry, and how title cross-appeal further bolsters the strength of the brand even when different intellectual properties thematically have little to do with each other.

My love affair with Ubisoft started a bit earlier than most people’s. For the majority, Ubisoft started to become a more recognizable name in the industry after the release of their blockbuster hit — and arguably one of their best titles — Assassin’s Creed 2. But for me, this goes way back to the old Prince of Persia days, a franchise I still very much cherish and would wish to see make a comeback sooner rather than later. When playing Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time for the first time on my computer, I simply could how well-nailed the artistic direction was–the graphics were not only sufficiently advanced for the era, but the game’s unique atmosphere contributed lots to it, and it was too quite a departure from the military-shooter-infested medium as franchises like Call of Duty started to gain a bit more traction. At that point, it was “take it or leave it”, and a game with even the tangential references to non-Western cultures was all it took for me to get absolutely hooked. That tradition of breaking the cultural norm continued on with later Ubisoft releases, and they continued to sack me of money as they keep introducing crazier ideas and crazier concepts into their releases, but I realized simultaneously that this carefully premeditated attachment to the Ubisoft brand slots in at the minority of their consumer base. Most are prone to Ubisoft’s marketing tactics, and one important facet of that business, is cementing a memorable iconography to each and every franchise, and establishing crossover appeal through textual references, or in-game purchasable items.

If you look at the stickers you can equip, there are quite a fair bit of Ubisoft staples on there. Some of them subtle, some of them overtly relate to one another. For Watch_Dogs fans, they can show their patronage by donning a DedSec sticker; if you like For Honor, there’s a Medieval-themed sticker you can put on; you’ve enjoyed playing Just Dance and like the color palette and punchiness of its color scheme? You can pick that as well; for fans of the Division, the logo of the SHD is almost a one-way ticket to a post-outbreak fanfiction of one agent’s winter vacation; Ghost Recon aficionados will be equally as served with a Bolivia-drug-hunt-themed sticker; and on the next page, there’s even an Assassin’s Creed Origins sticker for those who enjoy the franchise and want to infuse its very memorable iconography into their winter sports gear. All of that is to say, that no matter how thematically opposite games can be, they can still feed into each other’s sense of interconnectedness. It’s as if each of their respective universes includes all other references to each other, whether it’s done in pure service of fans, or just as a way to further ground their franchises into pop culture without having to license yet another intellectual property.

Those stickers however, don’t work on a pure “Look, we also made this!” level, they do also function very effectively due to their recognizability. Even if most Ubisoft franchises don’t have a unified sense of identity around one piece of iconography, it can’t be denied that Assassin’s Creed especially, dons one of the most memorable iconography schemes in gaming history.

How one can properly evaluate the effectiveness of an icon is how well it does outside of its intended context. Superman’s emblem for example, is very recognizable even when it’s stuck on a notebook, school gear, or things that are not known to immediately be superhero-adjacent. The Assassin’s Creed logo works on a fundamental level because it is recognized outside the bounds of gaming culture. It is the visual feature by which the franchise distinguishes itself from its closely-associated relatives, aside from parkour, the hidden blade, and the infamous hood. All the latter you could not include into a game without breaking immersion (unless you’re Monster Hunter and you crossover with everything) but the Assassin’s Creed logo is just benign enough, and recognizable enough, that you could stick it into any piece of media without fear of it implying anything explicit about the involvement of the franchise’s characters in a universe that is not their own.

The same applies to Watch_Dogs, although in a much less definitive manner. There’s the logo, which is distinct and unorthodox on its own, and then there’s the visual palette of fictional hacker group DedSec that permeates shit-posting aesthetic all throughout. The visual style of this one takes inspiration from the internet, and it is as the logic of writers dictated, that those involved in the hacking community would be incredibly in-tune with internet culture as they try to round up support against the government’s open assault on their constitutional rights through the use of surveillance by way of everything being connected. The Watch_Dogs artistic palette comprises a lot of what one could think of as vaguely internet-adjacent–the art is clearly pro-grade, but it’s just amateurish enough that it could conceivably be made by some bored bloke on a cheap Wacom tablet hooked up to a laptop. It feeds from and into the universal conceits we have of creativity in the age of the internet, infused with a dash of humor and camp that’s come to define — especially the second entry — as one of the most endearing entries in a long-spanning trend of open-world games, each more hopeless than the previous.

I can confidently say the same thing about the Splinter Cell logo — not featured in the aforementioned Steep apparel store since the franchise has been defunct for years now — wherein the sight of its triple-eyed goggles remains a defining visual language for the franchise. Now this one isn’t so much a logo as it is a visual feature of the character that’s come to be retrofitted as a logo. When sneaking through dark environments, Sam Fisher’s main tactical advantage is to have vision where those he tries to evade — or otherwise knockdown or kill — have none. It created this iconic sight of a 3rd person perspective where Sam Fisher dons the iconic goggles, and even as their properties started to become less defined and more diverse by Blacklist, their initial use on the character proved an emotionally evocative piece of visual information that Ubisoft stuck with it and even embraced as the casual apparel selection, or even brief cameo before the franchise took on a seemingly-eternal slumber towards obscurity.

One such experiment in cementing memorable iconography has been the Division. I remember playing the first entry back in 2016 when it came out, and only retaining that it literally was Christmas all year long with no end to snowfall within sight. The story suffered from the usual beats of looter-shooters and their emphasis on filling up bars rather than emoting the player, but what stuck with me from that experience out of all, was the Division’s logo. This task force assigned the return to a once-prosperous and economically stable America — after a society-disrupting viral breakout — operate extrajudicially, which means like all morally-defunct organizations in America, they needed a logo that’d immediately catch troublemakers’ eyes as troops of self-ascribed righteousness approach–enter the Strategic Homeland Division, aka the SHD. For that to function, Ubisoft had to come up with a distinctive look that doesn’t draw on preexisting organizations with actual judicial power too much, but one that wouldn’t deviate from the United States’ longstanding national-security-preserving agencies. They settled on something minimalistic, while dashing it with a bit of orange you can see in peppered elsewhere in the visuals.

Other logos have lower chance of success at immediately swaying eyeballs their way, but they nonetheless prove that Ubisoft recognized the strength in maintaining a consistent brand of visual iconography across their franchises. It’s not a different tagline, nor a different battle-cry for each new entry. It’s developers on the higher echelon of decision-making that have thought it appropriate to preserve some of their franchises’ most memorable visual presentation, and repurpose that as a consistent visual style across all of them. This does pertain exclusively to iconography, as it very well extends into other aspects of gameplay, and audiovisual presentation as well.

Take the competition for example: Call of Duty and Battlefield to pick popular examples. What distinguishes these two can often be a toss between the lack or abundance of instant feedback, a likening to depicting historical set pieces of warfare, or the different font they chose for their cover art. That’s about all there is a distinction between the two aside from the fundamental core of gameplay and an appeal to photorealism on the Battlefield side. However, what’s not discussed enough, is how utterly hard it is to translate the visual language of both these titles into something that fits a square canvas, and can be visually read as their own in isolation.

If you try to fit the iconography of Call of Duty, or Battlefield into a small scale detectable visual object that upon first sight you’d immediately recognize as their own, it will either end up referencing one single entry, one single sub-franchise, or it would simply confuse those who tap into gaming on the periphery.

I tried to think of a game part of a franchise as mainstream as Assassin’s Creed, and one that simultaneously holds appeal outside the gaming medium with a recognizable emblem, that Jimmy Kimmel would present to a group of pedestrians in downtown LA without proper context, and that they’d immediately recognize. Outside of Overwatch’s ominously peace-sign-resembling look; Counter Strike’s military-drill-warning adjacent aesthetic; Wolfenstein’s very distinct but quite unobtrusive W opposite-facing-eagles sign; Witcher’s Wolf-School medallion; or Destiny’s logo which quite honestly looks like that of a sex-toy company, are there ones you can immediately see and be like “Yes! I know where that’s from!”? The answer for me while a great unknown, can quite predictably tip in favor of Ubisoft’s franchises more than it would for any other. Save perhaps for Pokémon which is more a has more crossover pop-culture appeal than video game franchises tend to typically have.

Make no mistake–the feats of an effective iconography while attributable in great sum to artists, is also a great feature of effective marketing. Ubisoft’s franchises have been quite forcibly inserting themselves into gaming culture without the historical cachet a company like Nintendo organically has. It’s a working strategy in an age where having your game be incredibly forgettable, can be the difference between someone taking a break from Fortnite and playing it, or forgoing it altogether. Ubisoft’s cross-promotional efforts especially strike me as genius–not because they’re unprecedented, but because it’s so easy to insert a small visual portion of a game’s identity into something as small as a sticker that you can wear on the back of your jacket while you scale the high mountains of the Alps only to fall flat on your face breaking every single tooth as you try to show off on your sick apparel.

If PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo have been the vanguards of ultimate iconography in the gaming industry, their lead is immediately followed by Ubisoft. The French company has been very effective at weaponizing its far-extending reach into the gaming industry by inserting bits of their franchises into others, and even indulging in their own set of crossovers inspired by the success they’ve accrued from such a successful strategy. It is a mark of success, when you can attribute to that success a clear and recognizable mark, and that, Ubisoft have been able to adequately accomplish for a great portion of their lifespan as a company first, and as a cultural entity second.