Corrupting journalists. Misrepresenting women. Misleading gamers... even a bizarre accusation of racism. Ubisoft has been criticised quite a bit lately.
Some of the complaints have been fair, others have been absolute nonsense but regardless, the organisation behind Assassin’s Creed and Just Dance has found itself under intense scrutiny over the last few months.
And for good reason. Ubisoft is no longer that charming European business that likes to experiment with odd games, but a publishing powerhouse with a line-up that comfortably rivals anyone.
Suddenly CEO Yves Guillemot’s 2011 comment – where he said Ubisoft could topple EA as the world’s biggest games company – doesn’t seem so ludicrous.
“What matters for us is bringing in new creativity, innovation and trying to find ways to bring more fun and emotions to our players,” says the company’s European boss Alain Corre, playing down the firm’s previous bullish assertion.
“All of our creators really have that in mind. It also helps that within our creation process we challenge each other to be better – it’s a very virtuous circle. The motto for us is to bring something fresh, new and surprising. It works particularly well.”
Corre may have been dodging the question about taking on EA, but you can’t blame him for pointing at its games. Ubisoft’s 2014 line-up includes new titles in its biggest franchises – Assassin’s Creed, Just Dance and Far Cry – experimental new concepts such as Just Dance Now and Rabbids Invasion, plus an entirely new racing game called The Crew, which is co-developed in the UK at Ubisoft Reflections.
“Watch Dogs did a lot better than we expected sales
wise. We are still tweaking some aspects of the
gameplay. We’ve built some tools and processes
that could make it a huge brand for the company.
We are already doing some extra content and you
will see more and more of the franchise’s
possibilities quite soon.”
Yves Guillemot, Ubisoft
And of course the firm has already launched the biggest game of the year so far in Watch Dogs. The hacking title was generally well received (though it had little hope of living up to its astronomical expectations) and its sales have been enormous. In just over a week the game sold over half a million units in the UK. It’s the fastest selling new IP in history.
“Watch Dogs did a lot better than we expected sales wise,” says CEO Guillemot. “We are still tweaking some aspects of the gameplay. We’ve built some tools and processes that could make it a huge brand for the company. We are already doing some extra content and you will see more and more of the franchise’s possibilities quite soon.”
Watch Dogs is a decent game filled with experimental new features. It wasn’t perfect – few new IPs are – but it laid the groundwork for what will surely be a major franchise. Comparisons are already being made between this game and the firm’s other smash hit open world series Assassin’s Creed. So can we expect Watch Dogs to also become an annual event?
“To start with we will take time on Watch Dogs, to make sure – like with Assassin’s Creed II – we can come back with something that takes full advantage of everything we created in the first game,” says Guillemot. “After that, we will see. I can’t say now if it will be an annual release, we will see in time how it works out depending on the overall ability of the very talented teams that look after the brand.”
Says Corre: “Each creative team that we have has different talents and a different way of working. With Assassin’s Creed we have several teams working on it on and off, and so far we have been able to go to the next level with each game. But the quality is at the centre; if we feel that we can bring enough innovation and quality every year then we go for it, otherwise we allow more time so that we can deliver something outstanding.”
Watch Dogs was part of a triumvirate of new IP Ubisoft has been readying for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One – the other two being The Crew and new open world shooter The Division. And all three games have something else in common: they have all suffered significant delays.
Did the complexities of the new consoles take Ubisoft by surprise?
“It has been harder. There are so many things you can do, so many possibilities,” explains Guillemot. “With Watch Dogs, we had to make sure your mobile works with seamless multiplayer for instance, and with all these things going into our games, it is more complex. But it is just the beginning of these consoles, so with time – starting next year – things will be easier.
“And it’s not as difficult, say, as PlayStation 3 was. Going forward we should reuse more things. Today, we will create a car in one studio, and we don’t reuse that car in any other games. We need to make sure we can reuse items that people won’t care about. That is one direction we can take to optimise the investment.
“Another thing is to have a budget – like in the movie industry – that has lots of elements in it, before we greenlight a game. So we make choices early on in terms of where we put the money. We will improve the efficiency.”
“What we see more and more is that we need
time to do even more polish than what we do
today. We were tweaking Watch Dogs right
until the last minute, we changed some things
right at the end. So what we have decided to
do is finish the game earlier so that we can
test things more and more and change a
certain number of parameters.”
Yves Guillemot, Ubisoft
Indeed, Ubisoft has been discovering a few things about the movie industry since it launched its Motion Pictures Division, which is currently working on films based on its Rabbids, Assassin’s Creed, Splinter Cell, Watch Dogs, Ghost Recon and Far Cry franchises.
And those learnings include the ability of the film industry to finish their movies months before they’re due to hit cinemas.
“What we see more and more is that we need time to do even more polish than what we do today,” continues Guillemot. “We were tweaking Watch Dogs right until the last minute, we changed some things right at the end. So what we have decided to do is finish the game earlier so that we can test things more and more and change a certain number of parameters.”
Ubisoft’s upcoming core games – The Crew, Watch Dogs, Assassin’s Creed, The Division and Far Cry – all represent the firm’s love of the open world. All of these titles invite fans to explore and are rammed with things to do outside of the main story.
“We’ve been doing open worlds for a long time – we’ve released nine open-world games to date and we have four currently in the works,” reminds Corre.
“An open world brings more freedom and it gives you tons more possibilities. Our top creators at Ubisoft had a vision a long time ago that the games would have to be seamlessly multiplayer in an open world, and I think their vision was right.”
Yet Ubisoft is not just making a tonne of open world action titles for core gamers. It’s also experimenting in markets its rivals have long abandoned.
Fitness, music and kids markets have declined significantly over the last few years. Ubisoft’s reaction to that – in stark contrast to some of its competitors – was not to give up on these sectors, but to invest in them.
At E3, Ubisoft unveiled a new fitness game in Shape Up. It showed off its Rabbids Invasion interactive TV project. It reacted to waning sales of dance games but announced two Just Dance titles.
It seems foolhardy to invest in declining markets. So why do it?
“Because we have a lot of good teams that want to make those kinds of games,” insists Corre. “If you take Just Dance, we have been going from strength to strength with product’s quality. We have a team that is completely passionate about Just Dance, about the choreography and the music and how it can allow more people to play together.
“On the other side with Shape Up we have been doing these kinds of products for 10 years now and we have another passionate team, so we decided to take a different angle and to make it more fun, because fitness and
fun is the right combination in those products.
“We carry on doing these products because we have the talent that wants to express themselves through those kinds of games. When we find projects have good potential then we green-light them.”
To run through everything Ubisoft is up to would require more than the space we’ve allocated here. There’s its motion pictures division. Its improvements to its oft-criticised UPlay PC service. There’s its growing merchandise department (Guillemot says that the firm is selling upwards of 100,000 units on certain pieces of merchandise) and its investment in free-to-play and mobile.
There’s also Just Dance Now, Ubisoft’s foray into smart TV gaming where fans can use a smartphone as a Wii Remote to play.
“In order to expand and to please more people, the idea was to have a compelling experience on tablets and mobile, which everybody owns,” explains Corre.
“If Wii U’s sales continue to multiply, it will quickly come
to a mass market. We need the sales to increase so it
becomes more mass market, and then we will have the
volume we need to justify big marketing campaigns and TV marketing. Smash Bros has always been a big, big property
for Nintendo and for gamers. We all know that there are lots
of Nintendo fans that are waiting for these big games. When
I speak to the fans that come to E3, 90 per cent of them are
crazy Nintendo fans. They really love Nintendo and the
games they do. If they can quickly come and buy a Wii U,
it would be good.”
Yves Guillemot, Ubisoft
The other thing Ubisoft is doing is supporting Nintendo. Poor sales of Wii U has resulted in a disappointing lack of thirty party. Ubisoft continues to release games on the platform, but even this has reduced. Guillemot even told MCV last month that Ubisoft has a finished Wii U game that it won’t launch unless sales improve.
Yet the publisher is bullish about Nintendo’s plans.
“If Wii U’s sales continue to multiply, it will quickly come to a mass market,” says Guillemot. “We need the sales to increase so it becomes more mass market, and then we will have the volume we need to justify big marketing campaigns and TV marketing.
“Smash Bros has always been a big, big property for Nintendo and for gamers. We all know that there are lots of Nintendo fans that are waiting for these big games. When I speak to the fans that come to E3, 90 per cent of them are crazy Nintendo fans. They really love Nintendo and the games they do. If they can quickly come and buy a Wii U, it would be good.”
Corre adds: “I was very happy to see Nintendo doing well with their E3 conference and unveil the new open-world Zelda. Miyamoto is back creating things, and that’s excellent for the industry. Smash Bros and Mario Maker – these concepts are second to none. We are really happy to see that Nintendo has a lot of good franchises, because we feel that it still has a love affair with families, and we really need the living room to offer possibilities to families to play games.”
So could Ubisoft manage what it has threatened to do, and topple Electronic Arts as the world’s biggest games company?
They’re not there yet. EA’s line-up of big franchises and sports games will keep it ahead of the pack for some time to come. But that gap isn’t quite as vast as it used to be. Ubisoft is now viewed as the true publishing giant it always was. And it will find those questions that gamers and critics are asking of them will only get tougher and tougher.
Yet with a line-up like the one it’s currently touting you can see why Guillemot and Corre are in such confident mood.
“All-in-all this industry is in a buoyant mood right now and some of the people who left the industry are coming back because they feel that these new technologies are offering new canvasses for creators to bring something we’ve never seen before,” concludes Corre.
“Both Sony and Microsoft have managed to put some oil on the fire of the passionate gamers, and we thank them for that. We think that moving forward the high-end video game business is back and we are going from strength to strength. Because what we will bring in the next 18 months in terms of games are really beyond anything we’ve been able to experience before.”