INTERVIEW: Ubisoft Digital

Every publisher is busy shaping up their digital offering. And Ubisoft is no different. In fact, it has been quietly but confidently prepping a beefed up digital offer, last year hiring a dedicated VP for digital games, Chris Early – the former head of Microsoft’s casual games business.

His job is to oversee the quarter of the Ubisoft business working on online and digital games – Facebook, mobile, free-to-play, download. And Ubisoft is working on a lot of titles for all these areas, from Xbox Live Arcade games to ambitious cross-platform offers that unite console and social networks.

For Ubisoft, the strategy is all about its intellectual property. These new routes to market are ways to grow the already popular franchises like Assassin’s Creed or Ghost Recon.

Digital for us is essentially anything that’s not destined for plastic and that goes from social games and mobile games through to our core console high definition games that are distributed through digital means.

We look at digital as a very strong way that we can continue to help our players stay engaged with the brands that they love – it’s part of the big strategy change for us. We have moved away from being a company that releases software every couple of years to a company that is focused on delivering experiences to players anytime and wherever they are. This includes companion games on different screens, on different devices and in different ways.”

He adds that this is something Ubisoft has embraced with gusto: The best thing about my job is that at Microsoft I was used to being told ‘You can’t do that.’ It’s not a Microsoft problem – that’s how most big companies work.

But at Ubisoft, I was surprised to be regularly told ‘Yeah, why not,’ by Yves and the rest of the team. There’s real freedom here as we explore this model.”

How fast do you see theindustry’s transition towards digital content progressing?

Digital distribution follows the availability of high-speed bandwith to the consumer. The faster there is access, the more we’re able to distribute data.

What we’re seeing at the market level is that there’s some percentage of all sales that now go through digital platforms. At Ubisoft we don’t believe that digital is killing the retail market. I think they’re both going to co-exist quite well. It’s all convenience for the players. I have a different experience when I go into a retail store than I have when I’m online and so they’ll be times when I buy things online and there will be times when I buy things in a store.

That’s certainly the way we’re approaching it from a publisher as well. When you look at some of our key retailers, they’re also looking at how do they bring digital into their storefronts as well – they can participate in that full spectrum of distribution.

Ubisoft is pushing hard into free-to-play. What’s the attraction in that space?

We believe strongly in this area – you can see it in our Facebook games like CSI: Crime City and upcoming titles like Ghost Recon Online. The latter is a triple-A as-good-as-console game that’s coming out free-to-play on the PC.

In those games, free is like a trial version on an Xbox Live Arcade game or a demo on a disc of a retail product – it’s the ability for someone to experience a game with less risk on the player’s behalf. That low risk trial is what the free is aiming at.

No publisher really plans to make a free game where no one pays or compensates them for it in any way. There might be ways that the player never pays if it’s sponsored through advertising or through some over way, but at the end of the day the person who is creating the games does look to get paid in some way.

So in many of the free-to-play cases, the question is: ‘Are you making a game that is good enough that people want to keep playing?’ Because if not people are not going to keep playing. Therefore you’re not going to be able to, whether by advertising or microtransactions, ever make a return on that game.

Quality is important to the free-to-play space. In a digital market where everything is one click away it’s much more incumbent on the publisher or the creator of the games to make a good product that you’re going to be interested in.

You mentioned companion gaming. What is it?

Companion games exist in the same brand universe, but on different platforms. They are independent games that you can play which have a residual benefit for another game on another platform in that same franchise.

We experimented with this last year with Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood and Project Legacy. When you played Legacy you could earn currency and unlock items in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood. When you played Brotherhood and you accomplish certain things you earn currency and experience and items in the Facebook game. They were both independent games, but symbiotic. You didn’t need to play one to play the other one. But when you did, it was a better experience overall.

Did people play both Assassin’s Creed on console and Facebook?

They did. It was an experiment for us, we didn’t market the game and didn’t put any form of monetisation in the game cause we really wanted to see if we could have a hardcore player go and play a Facebook game. It turns out they do, especially when it’s tied to a franchise that they’re enjoying.

80 per cent of the people that played the Facebook game were people that linked in from Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood.

That stat surprised us and it’s something that led to us to the free-to-play Ghost Recon Online for the PC, which connects to Ghost Recon Future Soldier on console and the new Ghost Recon Commander, a social network game. It’s a Facebook game centred on the Ghost Recon universe that I hope my wife, who is a non-gamer, will play. There will be a Ghost Recon mobile game app too.

Tell us more about the Ghost Recon plan.

They’ll be four games that fit together in this Ghost Recon universe that all offer advantages to the other games when you play any one of them. So when you play the Facebook game during the day, you could unlock some items but you could also earn some currency or consumables that you then may use that night when you play Ghost Recon Online.

The thing I notice, as a gamer myself, is that I definitely enjoy sitting down in front of a big TV on my couch with a console experience, but there is only certain times in the day that I can do that. That’s the experience we want to provide for our players all the time when it comes to the brands that they love around our games. We’re really defining the future of companion gaming here by letting all four of those games interact and each time you play one of them you’ve got that residual value that carries on to another game.

How mindful are you of Zynga, which dominates the platforms you want to move onto?

I think there is plenty room in the marketplace overall and definitely room for all of us to learn from each other. I think most importantly, from the way we’re approaching it, is by bringing our brands to each of these platforms we’re letting people have an experience of what they like and what they love. When we bring the CSI game to Facebook, it’s not that we’re trying to convert all the people who play some other social game, which has been the strategy in Facebook games otherwise. We’re helping our brands become more relevant to more people.

What’s the split at Ubisoft between how many digital products you make versus the number of boxed ones?

About 25 per cent of our company is focused on digital products. It varies by territory, though, so San Francisco office has more of a focus on social games there. Different studios focus on different things.

How do you see that growing in the next 24 months?

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