2011 marks the firm’s 25th year in the business, but even without that, Ubisoft’s UK division has plenty to celebrate. Managing director Rob Cooper talks to MCV about notable achievements and an even more promising future...
Obviously you’re celebrating 25 years of Ubi this year, but it’s worth celebrating your present as much as your past, surely? Are these the best times you’ve known at Ubi – and what do you think has gone so right these last two years?
I’ve been at Ubisoft for 11 years now and I can honestly say that it’s been a wonderful experience to work in a company that allows you the freedom to make decisions and do your job in the best way you see fit.
The French business culture is such that if they trust you, they will run with you. I have great opportunities to develop the skills of the people working with me, which I think is vital in creating a high performing team that works well together.
That sense of collaboration runs through the veins of the company and regardless of ups or downs from a business perspective, teams feel they are working together to make things happen. Ubisoft is a company that believes in and embraces family values; employees benefit from the company’s desire to see them achieve a good work/life balance and this creates an immense loyalty to the business on a global scale.
I love working for this company, the products and the people I work with.
Was there a key moment when you felt the company shifting up a gear?
The launch of the original Splinter Cell on Xbox in 2002 definitely marked a turning point for the company.
This was our first triple-A game and we were enjoying all the emotions involved in having a success, both from a sales perspective and from having Microsoft’s vote of confidence in the game as one that could drive consumers to buy its new hardware.
We had up to this point spent a long time investing in our internal development and this marked the start of a fantastic run of critically acclaimed titles which went on to include the likes of Prince of Persia, Beyond Good and Evil and XIII.
How important has the Just Dance phenomenon been – and how surprised have you been by the scale of its initial success and the longevity it seems to have found?
Dance Dance from Konami always sold well so we shouldn’t have been surprised by the interest in Just Dance when it launched. However, the reality is that it did take us by surprise (in a nice way). Sales started well at launch, and then continued to increase week by week.
We were fortunate that Nintendo was able to keep up with the demand we were faced with. Those early days of the Just Dance brand taught us a huge amount about the casual market and the buying processes they go through, which is very different to how core gamers make purchase decisions.
With Just Dance 3, we now have a game that is not only fun and true to the brand, but has a fresh new look and some fantastic new features. Following tremendous success with the previous games on Wii, it was exciting to be launching on Kinect this year. We’re the only Kinect dance game in the market to offer a four-player mode, and the “Just Create” feature which allows you to choreograph your own moves has been brilliantly received by both press and retailers since we started showing it at E3.
We’ve also had a really exciting partnership in place with Katy Perry for the launch of Just Dance 3. She’s a huge global star who has adopted the JD brand because she loves the game so much. The last game featured in her video for Last Friday Night and we’re sponsoring her tour.
How important was the blossoming of Assassin’s Creed in your recent success – and in boosting your standing amongst critics and hardcore gamers?
The original Assassin’s Creed was one of the most beautiful games created at that time. It had a real visual wow factor with some utterly mesmerising moments that showed the sheer scale of the game.
From a gameplay perspective we found that there were some areas that needed attention, but we listened to the feedback we were getting from our consumers and we were able to give them what they were looking for in subsequent instalments of the brand. Our wonderfully talented development team was able to retain the stunning environments whilst enhancing the gaming experience.
I think the whole Assassin’s Creed franchise has demonstrated to both core and more mainstream consumers that we are capable of bringing something entirely fresh and original to the market.
Revelations is going to be a fitting conclusion to a brilliant sequence of games and will pave the way to a new generation of gameplay and storyline in the Assassin’s Creed franchise.
You’re the No.3 publisher in the UK, in terms of value – is it a question of consolidating that position and putting some clear blue water between you and fourth, or do you have to gird your loins and try to catch up with EA and Activision? Is that a realistic goal?
Earlier this year, Yves told MCV that his vision was to be number one in this industry and that’s the goal that we keep in mind.
We’ve had a meteoric rise over the past decade and reaching the number three position back in 2007 was an immense achievement of which we’re very proud.
But we’re ultimately striving to be the best. Looking at our diverse studio network and the talent it holds, there’s every likelihood we will reach that goal.
What are your ones to watch?
Our Christmas quarter is typically Ubisoft. That is to say it’s varied, quirky in some cases, but also characteristically high quality and beautifully artistic.
How has the company changed since you’ve been there – both the corporate culture of Ubisoft overall, and also the UK office which you’ve been so instrumental in building?
The culture of Ubisoft has remained very consistent since I’ve been here and this is entirely down to Yves and the way in which he runs the organisation.
He’s extremely approachable, operates a relatively flat structure and is very open to hearing new ideas from different parts of the company. He’s an inspirational leader within our business and he has worked hard to maintain a relaxed family feel, despite its growth into a major global publishing group.
This is why our staff stay with us as long as they do, and this is why we’re capable of attracting the industry’s best talent.
Another very key aspect to the company’s identity is supporting people to broaden their experience within the Ubisoft family.
We have a large portfolio of development studios and business units across the world, and this in turn leads to lots of opportunities for our people to really grow their knowledge. And we encourage it wholeheartedly.
From a UK perspective, our subsidiary has certainly become more professionalised as it has grown. My focus has been on building a team of talented professionals, across all areas of the business, and creating an environment in which people want to remain. My staff are empowered to take the lead in their individual areas.
In my experience, people get far more satisfaction from the things they have achieved themselves, than the things they have been told to do. We encourage fun, learning and hard work, but also a strong sense of team spirit and this is what makes people go the extra mile. We have a shared sense of purpose and I’m immensely proud of working with these people every day.
In terms of the more traditional model, presumably you’re looking forward to the next wave of new home consoles, as that’s when Ubisoft thrives – why is that?
The launch of a new wave of consoles is always an exciting time. It allows us to develop new IP and to harness our huge internal development resource. Not every company within the industry has the capability to jump on new technologies like we can and we’ve consciously tried to position ourselves as leaders in technology.
And, of course. working on things that are at the cutting edge is hugely motivating for our development teams. In addition to that, our typically varied range of games has always been appealing to the first parties as we can potentially reach out to a range of audiences and encourage different kinds of consumers to buy into the consoles from launch.
How happy are you with your progress generally in the digital space compared to other third party publishers?
This is a hotly contested space and we’re making the right acquisitions and internal investments to continue to be competitive and successful. In our most recent quarter, we saw a 45 per cent increase in online sales, with XBLA titles like Outland and Might & Magic Clash of Heroes performing well, with quality review ratings close to 85 per cent. We’re making steady progress, and we’ll have more announcements and titles in this space very soon.
How important is the digital games space to the future growth of Ubisoft?
It’s very important to us. We have roughly 25 per cent of our workforce committed to this area, and as I just mentioned, we are seeing excellent progress.
Any final thoughts?
Ubisoft’s first 25 years have been incredible – the company has been on an interesting journey and changed its face from a distribution business to a leading global publishing force. But the next ten to fifteen years will be even more exciting, now that gaming has been widely accepted as a form of mainstream entertainment and technological capabilities are advancing at a much faster pace. It’s almost impossible to imagine where we will end up, but we know for sure that we are well placed to continue to create amazing gaming experiences, whatever the platform.