Investing in Players: Why the Success of Rainbow Six Siege Matters
From lukewarm release to competitive juggernaut: why the industry should take notice
With over 130,000 concurrent players and 5 million total, Ubisoft’s squad-based tactical shooter Rainbow Six Siege is kind of a big deal. Rarely in its lifetime has it ever dipped below its spot in the top five most-played games on Steam, and its clout as both a competitive powerhouse and a spectator darling have only grown with time. It’s a game beloved by its fans, and admired by its competitors. But most people familiar with the game know that it wasn’t always this way, and it took developer Ubisoft Montreal a lot of faith and perseverance to make it the success it is today. It did something virtually unheard of among AAA games these days — it put the players first.
Rainbow Six Siege was born out of the failure of a more traditional entry into the Rainbow Six franchise. The team scrambled to salvage what worked from Patriots, and scrapped everything that didn’t. The result was a team-based competitive shooter that deviated from its series’ roots by ditching the single-player portion altogether. While the core gameplay was unanimously praised, the lack of content (and in-turn lack of value) was a major sticking point for critics and players alike. This type of complaint wasn’t uncommon in gaming at the time of Siege’s release — the first Destiny had been released the previous year to similar criticism, as had the multiplayer-only Star Wars: Battlefront just weeks earlier — but unlike its peers, Ubisoft Montreal wasn’t comfortable leaving its players feeling cheated. Two months later, their first DLC pack, Operation Black Ice, introduced a new map, two new operators, and a host of unlockable weapon skins for the unbeatable price of $9.99.
Oh wait — that DLC was free. And so was the next one. And the one after that. And so were the next seven. To date, 10 packs have been released, with more on the way for years to come, completely free.
While it’s true that Siege does offer season passes and has its own microtransaction infrastructure which expedite the acquisition of the new characters and cosmetics, nearly everything in the game can be unlocked without spending a dime. The maps are immediately unlocked for everybody, and the operators can either be purchased or unlocked with in-game currency. With each new update, Siege has grown by a map, two operators, and a handful of additional cosmetics at no additional cost. That’s about as much content as the Call of Duty franchise has routinely charged $14.99 for, for the better part of the past decade.
The biggest problem with Rainbow Six Siege at the time of release was its lack of value to the consumer, and they solved that problem by imbuing the base game with a slew of additional content and features. It’s a solution so refreshingly pro-consumer and yet so seemingly counter-capitalist that it’s jarring to see a major developer do so much for their fans for free.
Tragically, it’s a strategy so many miserly developers and publishers are unwilling to take a chance on, and they’re screwing their fans and themselves over in the process. The aforementioned Star Wars: Battlefront responded to the complaints of its inadequate value with awkward silence. Another EA-published game, Mass Effect: Andromeda, was heavily criticized for being unfinished (both with respects to its unresolved story threads and litany of bugs) and reacted to the poor reception by cancelling all planned DLC and putting the franchise of ice indefinitely. Bungie followed each of their underwhelming Destiny launches with a handful of expansions ranging anywhere from $15 to $40. What better way to fix the value discrepancy of your game than by charging more money for more content?
These developers are unwilling to invest in their games, or serve their fans unless it yields a short-term financial gain. They lack pride in their own reputation, and are far too comfortable grifting their fans — and then charging for the apology.
Of course, what Ubisoft is doing isn’t just ethical business — it’s good business too. They had faith that if they served their fans well, listened to their complaints, and gave them what they deserved, they’d repay it with their support. Ubisoft has done a remarkable job not just acquiring players, but retaining them. Bungie sold millions of copies of Destiny 2 when it launched last year, but who’s still playing it? And yet, three years later, Rainbow Six Siege is still dominating the Steam charts, with engaged, passionate players participating in tournaments, hosting their own competitive scrims, and making careers out of streaming their matches. Instead of investing in a shiny lure and selling an empty promise, Ubisoft gave players something they actually wanted.
Developers and publishers like Bungie and EA have made a lot of money tricking people into buying their unfinished, half-baked games, but it comes at the cost of their integrity. Players can only be tricked so many times before they throw in the towel. They’re playing the short-term game and they probably know it (why else would EA burn through so many developers than to leech off their integrity until only a BioWare-like husk remains?). But when developers like Ubisoft Montreal invest in their players’ experience and plan for the long term — and then follow through — they get something genuinely special, and a long-term success where everybody wins.
The term “games as a service” has become dirty thanks in large part to Ubisoft’s peers. It’s an opportunity for developers to release the foundation of a product, and then see whether or not they want to invest anymore resources into it. It’s a gamble that all-too-often robs players of their hard-earned money. But Siege has proven that it doesn’t have to be this way; that doing right by your audience and following through with your promise to support the games they’ve put their money behind will yield long-term players and an ever-growing stable of loyal fans. It turns out having integrity pays off.
In other words: everybody else just needs to get their shit together.
I am by no means the first person to make these observations about the unprecedented comeback of Rainbow Six Siege, and I won’t be the last. I am most heartened by the respectful “customer-first” business strategy the game has employed and how it should be an inspiration to other developers, but if you’re more interested in how Ubisoft found enduring success through the mechanics of the game itself, Cleanprincegaming’s video essay on Siege has a lot of great insights. He does a great job covering the game’s seemingly oxymoronic balancing act of being hardcore and unforgiving, and simultaneously welcoming to newcomers. Check it out!