The Real Story Behind Pioneer, the Troubled Sci-Fi Game Teased in Watch Dogs 2

By Jason Schreier on at

A tweet two weeks ago from a former Ubisoft director led the gaming world to believe that Pioneer, the sci-fi game that was teased inside of Watch Dogs 2, was cancelled. Is it, though? The answer to that question is hazy, and may depend on your definition of “cancelled.”

Some background: In November 2016, a side mission in Ubisoft’s hacking adventure Watch Dogs 2 tasked the player with infiltrating an in-game version of the company’s San Francisco offices. Play through the mission and you’d uncover a sci-fi trailer that looked a little too good to have been made just for Watch Dogs. It blended Western guitar twangs with gorgeous shots of colourful satellites as a small ship flew through space, reminiscent of No Man’s Sky. We did some digging at the time and learned from our sources that it was in fact a real-life Ubisoft video game project, code-named Pioneer, that had been going through some trouble.

News remained quiet on Pioneer until earlier this month, when former Ubisoft creative director Alex Hutchinson implied on Twitter that the project was dead. “RIP Pioneer,” he wrote on 14 January, with a link to the trailer. Naughty Dog animator Jonathan Cooper, formerly of Ubisoft, also wrote the same. The tweets understandably led gaming sites and enthusiasts around the world to believe that Pioneer was canceled.

Yet as I’ve asked around since then, I’ve heard from three people familiar with goings-on at Ubisoft that there’s still a project called Pioneer in development. It’s just very different now. “Old Pioneer is dead,” said one. “Pioneer’s half-undead brother is here.”

Those people, and others who talked to me about Pioneer, spoke anonymously because they were not authorised to speak to press about development at Ubisoft. Ubisoft declined to comment on this report.

So what is Pioneer, exactly? Originally conceived in 2013, not long after the launch of Assassin’s Creed III, it was at first envisioned as a non-violent space exploration game that would be made by a small team of people at Ubisoft Montreal. It was directed by ACIII’s Hutchinson, who would also go on to helm Far Cry 4 (2014), and its development happened in fits and starts over the years. “We wanted to be as new as possible: new forms of navigation, new ways of gaining objectives, no overt violence,” said a person who worked on Pioneer. “The scale of the newness made it very hard to coalesce into a finished game.”

As Pioneer progressed between 2014 and 2016, the Watch Dogs 2 team decided to design a mission in which you’d infiltrate fake Ubisoft, and they thought it might be fun if you got to steal a trailer for an actual Ubisoft video game. Pioneer was a good fit. “We needed something to leak that would be more fun than Division or Assassin’s Creed DLC,” said a person who worked on Watch Dogs 2. “And not a big announcement, like the next Assassin’s Creed. So the footage of [Pioneer] covered the right amount of ‘What the hell is this?’”

But a confluence of factors had led Pioneer to struggle, including tensions between Hutchinson and other staff. In the fall of 2016, Ubisoft removed him and other leads from the project and rebooted it with new creative leadership, according to three people familiar with what happened. Some of Pioneer’s leads, like Hutchinson, later left Ubisoft to go indie, while others moved to other internal Ubisoft projects or went over to EA Motive, which at the time was primarily working on the single-player campaign for Star Wars Battlefront II.

As Watch Dogs 2 came out in November 2016, we all saw the trailer for a project that was already in trouble, as we reported then. Pioneer continued under new creative leadership, however, and it turned into something of a running joke as staff at Ubisoft Montreal exchanged whispers about whether it might actually ever come out.

Then, in early January 2019, word came out that Pioneer was cancelled for real. Except it wasn’t. Instead, according to three people familiar with the project, Ubisoft actually rebooted Pioneer once again, transforming it from a non-violent exploration game into a coop multiplayer alien shooter that uses some of Pioneer’s old features. What’s more, Ubisoft has told Pioneer’s staff to use the Rainbow Six branch of the publisher’s Anvil game engine (in other words: the code and tech that helps make Rainbow Six games), suggesting that the new Pioneer may be related to or at least inspired by that series.

The Rainbow Six games are realistic military shooters, but in the past, according to two people familiar with the publisher, Ubisoft has greenlit and then cancelled a Rainbow Six spin-off in which you’d fight zombies and/or aliens. So this won’t be the first time the company has used Rainbow Six’s game engine for science fiction.

In other words, the project called Pioneer is still in development, and it may still even resemble the trailer that was snuck into Watch Dogs 2. But it no longer resembles the Pioneer that was originally planned. And we’ll have to wait and see if it ever actually comes out.

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