Exploring and Uncovering the Dreaded Ubisoft Tower

Mike looks back at one of the open-world mechanics that feels like its everywhere these days.

Article by Mike Williams, .

Hidden in my review of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild were two words that gave a bunch of folks pause: "Ubisoft towers". Just mentioning them caused some folks to stop in their tracks and rethink their Zelda-playing future. Why does this one mechanic cause people to freeze up in fear?

Whoa. Calm down. Stop screaming for a moment.

Let's first define what has become colloquially known as the "Ubisoft Tower". In open-world games, players are offered a large space to explore and play in, but the pace of discovery is managed by the developer. Developers can offer a boundless world with no guidelines like Minecraft, but some want to straddle both lines, offering exploration, but providing certain funnels towards the intended experience.

One way to focus that player experience is to parcel the game world out into distinct, playable chunks. The player's map is covered in a fog of war and subdivided regions, essentially acting as defacto levels. This isn't the only way to go, as there were and are open-world titles without a mini-map or non-diegetic (something that does not exist in the game world) map screen, like Shenmue and its sequel.

You could have the player clear the fog of war manually by walking over every square-inch of the map, but that's rather time-consuming and tedious. At that point, it's almost better to return to completely open-ended exploration. So instead, a developer introduces a challenge mechanic, which when completed, will clear the fog and show you layout of the current area. In The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, you reveal regions of the map by hunting for Fishmen and feeding them bait. Opening up these areas on an in-game map allows the player to feel like they're working towards something tangible. (Some players need carrots.)

Open-world games aren't new, but the technological power to build complex and detailed worlds is, and as fidelity trends upwards you need ways to let players know where they can go and what they can interact with. (The latter issue gave rise to Detective Vision, another prevalent mechanic in recent games.)

Given a naturally-styled and high-fidelity open-world, you want points-of-interest to stand out to a player. Continuing the Wind Waker example above, the Fishmen make themselves known by leaping up out of the water; given the vast blue ocean, this movement stands out. Developers are also known to offer direct waypoints and breadcrumbs to a specific structure, in-game highlights via a marker, or an alternate vision mechanic (Detective Vision strikes again). Back in 2007, Ubisoft decided to go with one simple way to solve that problem in its open-world.

Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed was the first title to really offer what would become a staple of the entire publisher. In that game, Ubisoft differentiated your map view points by making them the tallest structures in any region. In the relatively flat cities of the first game, these focal points would draw the player's eye simply by standing above everything else. Given Assassin's Creed's early focus on climbing, seeing a tower offered a natural challenge to a player: "See if you can scale me."

Once you had figured out how to crawl to the top of the tower, you were not only rewarded with a view of the city below, but you also uncovered specific missions within that region of the city. The point was to funnel the player back towards the core game experience: the assassinations.

That's different from something like Far Cry 2, which has a simple in-game map and open exploration, because the focus there is the player surviving against the environment. In the first Assassin's Creed, the open world was a detailed backdrop for the primary conflict; it was built for immersion, not so every part would be an hotspot for useful and engaging play.

The Ubisoft Tower is an expansion on this point. In Assassin's Creed, it's always a series of towers and high vantage points that need to be climbed. This extended into Far Cry 3 and 4, which had Radio and Bell Towers respectively. In Watch Dogs, the ctOS towers didn't necessarily have to be climbed; the challenge was in figuring how to gain access to the server itself. On the back of those three franchises, which released a total of 15 titles since 2007's launch of Assassin's Creed, that the idea of the "Ubisoft Tower" came to be.

To be clear, it's not only Ubisoft's own games that use the tower mechanic. Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor has actual towers and enemy bases, Batman: Arkham Knight has watchtowers and checkpoints, Infamous: Second Son has D.U.P bases and towers, Mad Max has towers you have to pull down, and Dying Light has antenna towers. That's only a few of the open-world games that use towers and other structures to open the map for players.

The issue is that while the mechanic is mostly sound, there's a large amount of growth in the number of additional things you do in an open-world game. While Assassin's Creed began with just the assassination missions and feathers, later games have added more things to do and more stuff to collect.

Yup. Way too much.

In Assassin's Creed Syndicate, which is slightly better than the infamous AC Unity about how it handles its map, there are primary missions, a host of region conquest activities, London Stories, map viewpoints, fight clubs, beer bottles, illustrations, pressed flowers, royal letters, and randomly-generated Cargo hijacks. Whereas having a fully-open map in earlier open-world games like Elder Scrolls: Oblivion caused people to become dizzy over the sheer scope of the world, now the issue is the sheer amount of minutiae to deal with. (I tend to just turn the icon filters off.)

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild undeniably has Ubisoft towers, which you climb in order to reveal huge chunks of the map. It's full of a ton of things to find and collect. The difference is in the presentation. In Breath of the Wild, nothing is given to you other than the topographical layout of a region. You scale a tower and look down on high to find physical points of interest that speak to you, and then place your own pins and stamps on the map. It's map-making, which speaks to the wanderlust of certain folks.

I don't particularly have a problem with the Ubisoft Tower, but I understand why others do. I get why people are enjoying that aspect of Breath of the Wild or cheering the lack of towers in Ubisoft's own Watch Dogs 2. It's not a bad mechanic, but it's also not a mechanic that works for every open-world game out there. Part of game design is finding the mechanics that bring out the best in your game. Sometimes I feel that developers may forget that, and instead just take the easy way forward and that does a disservice to their game.

A small section of Breath of the Wild, presented like an AC map. [Via Zelda Dungeon].

This article may contain links to online retail stores. If you click on one and buy the product we may receive a small commission. For more information, go here.

Comments 6

Comments on this article are now closed. Thanks for taking part!

  • Avatar for donkeyintheforest #1 donkeyintheforest A year ago
    I think the reason I like them in Zelda is because, when you couple them with the paraglider, they actually create literal jumping off points that can get you pretty far distances quickly. They're also good vantage points for exploring with your eyes (though the mountains work well for that too). I didn't really care whether they opened the map up or not.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #2 SatelliteOfLove A year ago
    Stuff like the Ubitowers and Detectovision, and ironsights, and dialogue wheels to me comes from alot of uber-successful evergreen "winners" of Gen 7 whose intriguing solutions to the problems inherent to their development in the halcyon days of 2006-09 became marching orders bordering on cargo cults for many desperate studios after that.

    Like those people, riches didn't come for many of those studios, and game design at the forefront of the technological spearpoint, a force that had so far thrust the industry thru innovation after innovation at a dizzying speed up to that point, ground to a halt. Luckily, Mobile and PC yanked the industry out of this ludditic daze.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for VotesForCows #3 VotesForCows A year ago
    @SatelliteOfLove If there's one mechanic that'll completely turn me off a game, its detective-vision or its equivalents. God damn I hate that. Turning all the artwork brown does not make the game more enjoyable, for me anyway.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for sketchlayerjosh #4 sketchlayerjosh A year ago
    @Ohoni I'm on the same page as you. To me, the exploration aspect IS the game with these open-world titles, and the Towers or equivalents give me a nice, measurable way of doing so.

    As for the resulting collectibles, I actually think Horizon did something cool with a few of those. I don't love the "mark the exact location on the map where the collectible is and just go to it" thing that Assassin's Creed does, but the metal flowers, vantage point, and Banuk figurines all just have you a small radius of where the item is on the map. To me, this hits the sweet spot between encouraging exploration while, at the same time, giving me just the tiniest bit of challenge to make it feel less like an errand. I dug it.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for MojoBox #5 MojoBox A year ago
    My personal beef with map icon clutter, which is the heart of the problem with the Ubi tower, is the same beef that I have with minimaps with GPS guidance: You aren't learning anything, you're just doing what you are told.

    A large part of the joy of games to me is the ability to exercise the spatial orientation muscles of my brain. A new game, a new location to learn, a whole new set of navigational problems to internalize. It's fun to me! The problem with modern game design to my tastes is that Developers have become terrified that anyone get left behind. Despite a mountain of evidence that most players don't finish games no matter what you do, Developers keep cranking up the hand holding in order to try and make it as easy as possible to get through the core of the game, and with most open world games easy to make sure you've wrung every drop of capital C "Content" out of a game (another scourge to discuss at another time).

    I know there are people out there who get a thrill out of doing everything, collecting everything. But I'm not one of them. In fact, I can't help but view that sort of mentality as a sort of messed up compulsive pathology (kidding. kinda.)

    BOTW is brilliant to me because it's confident in my ability to learn it through play and values my inherent desire to explore and play. It has no problem cutting me lose to tinker, explore, and play on my own terms. And that confidence manifests itself in more ways than just how the map is presented.
    Sign in to Reply
  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #6 brionfoulke91 A year ago
    @MojoBox Wow, you're the hero of this comments section. You perfectly summed up the problem I have with "towers" and "detective vision" and the like. And you make a great point: lots of people don't finish games. That's always gonna be true. I really hope that developers learn to stop being so scared of that, and curb their addition to hand-holding.
    Sign in to Reply