INTERVIEW: Chris Early, Ubisoft

Publishers are honing their digital strategy as downloads become more popular.MCV speaks to Ubisoft’s digital VP Chris Early about what the worldsof retail and downloads can learn from each other…

Does digital need traditional retail brands like Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty and FIFA to grow?

Digital’s biggest challenge is one of brand – it’s all about discoverability. When you think about the variety of games you find online, the ads in digital stores are significantly fewer than you would see via physical retail shelves. You see a significantly smaller breadth of product.

If you’re searching for a game on the App Store, it becomes a question of brand recall. What are you going to notice first: an Assassin’s Creed game, or an unbranded Renaissance killing game? We have to find ways to aid players in seeing what titles are best for them.

Some services are getting there – things like Spotify recommendations, and friends’ activity on Facebook. That will help when it comes to gaming, and brands will take a little bit more of a back seat because I’ll want to know what my friends are playing. But right now, brands are exceptionally important in the digital space.

How do you go about trying to improve that brand recall if there are fewer ad spots available?

Economically speaking, there’s no way you’re going to take all the ad spaces for a long period of time. You might secure some around launch, but to imagine you’d be front and centre for a month or more is ludicrous.

The challenge becomes less about being on the front page, and more about being present when players are making their buying decisions. Consumers go through a cycle – they start thinking about what game they’re going to purchase next as they near the end of each title. They might start researching what other games are out there, and our challenge is to be where they go for that research.

There are limited possibilities in the bigger forms of media. Ads cost the same for a $60 game as they do for a $10 game, so it just makes sense to promote the $60 one.

Success at retail depends on launch sales, but this is less true for digital. What are the benefits of this?

The digital shelf space is unlimited. A game can be active for a long period of time, whereas at physical retail it might get pushed out for a newer title. So players who learn about a game later can still find it online digitally and you miss that long tail at retail.

But there are discoverability issues, unless you already know what you’re looking for. That’s one of the biggest problems. How do players, amidst that ever-growing digital shelf of full games and add-on content, discover what’s really best for them?

That’s one of the reasons why we think physical retail will never truly go away, because there’s still some value to the discoverability and aided selection process.

Are there any High Street perks that can drive download games?

We’re starting to see is retailers who want to be involved in the digital space as well. They’re either opening their own digital platform, a portal for selling digital goods online, or they’re trying to sell digital content in store with coded cards.

And if you think about it, that moment when you’re buying is the easiest moment for you to be convinced to add a little bit more to your purchases. They’ve been doing that for years in fast food places – would you like to add fries with that?

You can also pre-buy DLC when you pick up the game, by buying a Season Pass or specific add-ons. That’s an easy way for retailers to participate in digital sales, and it helps us as well. I know Activision had a tremendous sell-through at a retail level for Call of Duty Elite.

Retailers have come to rely on Christmas releases, but digital products sell throughout the year. Can these offset that dependency?

I think it can. I would encourage retailers to undergo the same transition that we as publishers are going through: focusing on a series of products that consumers can engage over a broader period of time.

If retailers concentrate less on selling each title, and more on everything a consumer wants to help them experience an IP, then they’re going to think about how they sell digital products as well.

We’ve already seen this with things like strategy guides. With every major release, the strategy guide is on shelves right alongside it. As a consumer, I sometimes wonder why there aren’t more bundles created featuring all the pieces. We’re seeing it with a few retailers, but I think we’re going to see more thinking about how they can service certain IP for the player over a longer period of time.

When do you think the industry will reach the tipping point, where digital outsells boxed products?

We’re there in some territories. Our PC retail titles in Europe are still really strong, but in the States downloads are greater than boxed sales.

I think that’s not a function of the players, but of the retail industry. Stores are shrinking their PC space, some aren’t even carrying it anymore – that drives consumer behaviour.

The question is how will this transpire in the console space. Microsoft has a delay period – at first a year, now six months – before you can distribute a digital title, which ensures that it’s only available at retail for a certain amount of time.

While policies like that are in place, there’s no chance that the majority of purchases will be digital – people want to play the game,so they’re going to go to a storeand buy it.

On PS3, there’s no such delay. It’s up to the publisher whether to do it day and date or to wait a while. If you look at Vita, Sony has mandated that digital versions are released at the same time as the physical product. It’ll be interesting to see what percentage of sales are digital across a platform like this.

Do you think Sony’s Vita policy will become the norm in the next generation? How will this affect your release strategy?

We’re going to have to wait and see where they go with the next consoles. But publishers can already form a strategy around how they approach that equal availability.

There’s still a bunch of factors to be considered there: are you going to have the same types of pre-order packages? What if someone wants a collector’s edition that comes with extra goodies as well as the game?

We’re starting to figure out our strategy now. We’re getting some good precursors with Vita and PS3, which means that however it changes in the future, we’ll be in a position to take advantage of that.

About MCV Staff

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