Inside Ubisoft’s gamer charm offensive

The last time we spoke to Ubisoft we discussed how the firm has come in for a fair bit of flack in recent months.

Whether it was for its support (or lack of) for PC gamers, or the fact Watch Dogs didn’t quite change the world like everyone thought it would, or the absence of a female playable character in Assassin’s Creed Unity, or more recently the mixed messages over game resolutions and frames per second expectations – gamers and journalists have had plenty to criticise the publisher for over the course of the last six months.

At the time we wrote that although such criticisms (some fair, some not so much) may hurt, they come with the territory that Ubisoft now finds itself. It’s no longer the incumbent, the European up-start trying to give the big, bad EA and Activision bloody noses. It’s well and truly amongst them thanks to the likes of Just Dance, Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry, plus the swathe of impressive-looking new IP that have managed to raise expectations to unobtainable heights.

When you get big, you become a target and gamers expect you to deliver more. And if for one second you fail to do so, they’ll let you know.

It’s a sign of Ubisoft’s progress. But that doesn’t mean the Rayman creator should start patting itself on the back on a job well done. If gamers are unhappy then the onus is on Ubisoft to fix that and prove that it’s not another corporate giant chasing bigger profits, but a games business that genuinely cares what its fans think.

And Euro boss Alain Corre would not have that any other way. He tells MCV that the firm has thrown its doors wide open to gamers. This includes rewarding them via its Uplay service, and even inviting fans to E3 and Gamescom.

Also, we’ve listened to feedback from players and continue
to adapt accordingly; for instance, we switched to a simple,
one-time activation for our PC games – a standard practice
in the industry. We’re also doing our best to bring our
games to PC at the same time as the console versions.
Assassin’s Creed Unity and Far Cry 4 for example will be
released simultaneously on console and PC, and this will
continue to be the goal for all our major titles. Finally, we
also are committed to improving the optimisation of our
games for each platform on which they’re released,
and that includes for PC.”

Alain Corre, Ubisoft

We ensure we have teams who are 100 per cent dedicated to talking to our communities,” he says. We’ve made a strong push on social networks over the past couple of years – we have over 45m fans across our brands on Facebook, over 3m followers on Twitter and we’re in the Top 10 largest brand channels on YouTube. We’re also present on local social networks, including Weibo in China and VKontakte in Russia. Other outlets like Snapchat, Instagram and Pinterest are important as they provide channels via which we can pursue different types of audiences.

Finally, we’re involving our fans in the development process itself. For example, our user research labs test games throughout the creative process, optimising and improving games based on their feedback. Betas are also becoming more important and accessible – one of the most recent examples is that of The Crew, for which the PC closed beta registered a record number of subscriptions for Ubisoft just after it was announced at E3. Their input is key for us to be able to create the type of games they want to play.”

Getting gamers involved in the development process is hardly a new concept. Most studios do it, either via focus testing, Kickstarter, betas or Early Access. Yet Ubisoft has gone one step further by letting fans passively provide their input.

Take last year’s Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Players effectively took on the role of a games tester, and after each ‘mission’ they were invited to rate the experience. It was part of the game, but it also gave Ubisoft valuable feedback on what levels worked, what didn’t and how to improve things with any additional content.

With the arrival of Watch Dogs, that idea has become more subtle and personal. That title responds to how individual gamers play. For instance, if they continually accept a certain type of side-mission or challenge, then Ubisoft will increase the number of these that appear. If they keep declining them, the publisher will reduce them.

This is one of the benefits to online or connected games,” says Corre. We no longer launch a title and then move on to the next one. Almost every game has a post-launch, live operations team, such as the Ghost Recon Phantoms team in Singapore.

We’re also integrating more ways for players to give feedback, whether it be in-game level rating, feedback like in Assassin’s Creed, or on our forums. And then we build other games like Rocksmith that adapt the level of difficulty according to a player’s ability. It is becoming a component of everything we do. We’ll continue to research new ways to make the gaming experience more personal and relevant for every player.”

Today’s consumer can be an unforgiving sort. Even if you fix a game post-release, if the launch didn’t go to plan fans won’t easily forget. Ubisoft has talked in the past about better planning its products to allow time for polishing. But it’s clearly not been easy. The Division, Watch Dogs, Assassin’s Creed and most recently The Crew have all suffered delays over the last nine months alone.

Watch Dog’s delay wasn’t easy for us, but very quickly after their initial disappointment the fans expressed confidence that it meant they would get an even better game,” recalls Corre.

We’re very grateful for their patience. At the end of the day, By being transparent with our fans, and explaining the situation honestly, we were able to show them that it was the right thing to do. The success of Watch Dogs is proof that this strategy was the right one.”

Elise was always an important part of Arno’s story, and
part of the original concept for the game.That said, we
heard the feedback about playable female characters, and
we will continue to showcase diverse characters in our
upcoming titles. Ubisoft’s games are developed by a
multicultural team of various faiths and beliefs and we hope
this attention to diversity is reflected in the settings of our
games and our characters.”

Alain Corre, Ubisoft

E3 2014 was shaping up nicely for the team at Ubisoft. On the back of Watch Dogs’ blockbuster launch, the firm arrived in Los Angeles confident and delivered another impressive press conference.

But that mood quickly changed when a Ubisoft developer stated it would have required too much work to put a playable female character in Assassin’s Creed Unity. It was a surprising statement from Ubisoft because the firm has historically been relatively diverse with its character choices, and the firm found itself under fire from all corners –

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