Life begins at 30 – Ubisoft’s biggest ever year

Ubisoft really doesn’t want Vivendi to buy it.

CEO Yves Guillemot has no desire to give up the business he has spent 30 years building. But more than that, he can’t face losing it to a large media conglomerate that is unlikely to honour what makes the firm so unique.

Because it is unique. Ubisoft has never played by conventional business rules.

Take E3 last month. As its rivals adopt the ‘wait and see’ approach to VR, Ubisoft said it would have four full virtual reality games out by Christmas.

It was the only publisher to pledge support to Nintendo’s NX at E3.

It showcased a new South Park game – an RPG based on an IP that is well past its peak – at a time when the rest of the games business is moving beyond licensed games.

It revealed some of its biggest studios have been making quirky, small-scale indie projects like Grow Up and Trials of the Blood Dragon.

It also ended its E3 conference with an ambitious extreme sports game called Steep, which is a genre that has largely died out.

Ubisoft has legitimate business reasons for these gambles (it has shareholders, after all), but the real reason for its fearless attitude towards new IP and tech is because its studios just like making new stuff.

We have teams that want variety,” Ubisoft’s EMEA Boss Alain Corre tells MCV.

So we give them freedom, to a certain extent, to do games that are different. South Park is one, also Grow Up, which proves we can also give incentives to some of our smaller teams to express themselves.

Also, these small creations can lead to bigger games. [Upcoming action combat game] For Honor started like that. It was a small prototype a few years ago, and when the producer saw it, he thought there was more to it, so he got more money, and we ended up with For Honor – which is a new IP that will please a lot of people.

That’s the Ubisoft way, to find talent and give them freedom and independence to try things.”

That’s not to say Ubisoft is reckless with its decision-making.

Take Steep, for instance. The extreme sports game is being created by Ubisoft Annecy, a studio based in a part of the world famed for its outdoor pursuits and filled with employees that love snowboarding, skiing and paragliding.

The team in Annecy wanted to do a skiing game for a long time,” explains Corre. But we couldn’t find the right angle.”

Indeed, the extreme sports genre had been dormant for years, so Ubisoft didn’t just bow to the whims of the developers. If Annecy wanted to create an extreme sports game, it needed to do something brand new.

The team came up with the concept of an open-world extreme sports game whilst working on [upcoming action game] Ghost Recon: Wildlands, and it was an idea that impressed Ubisoft’s management team.

Extreme sports is a genre that has disappeared. It was super strong 20 years ago, it went away, it then returned with SSX and our own Shaun White Snowboarding, and then it vanished again,” Corre says. It was because there wasn’t enough innovation in the genre. Now, with new tech, open world and social features, it is the right time to start again.”

In the minds of Ubisoft’s management, Steep ticks both boxes – it is something Annecy was desperate to make, and it has commercial potential.

It’s the same with the new South Park game. It may not be the biggest licence in the world, but the first title was a moderate success (so it justifies the financial outlay) and the opportunity to work with [South Park creators] Matt Stone and Trey Parker was too good to pass up.

The first game, The Stick of Truth, was a big success,” Corre recalls. We took it [from defunct THQ] when it was in nowhere land, we put it back on the map and worked with the guys to make it happen. Matt and Trey were brilliant, they have been completely involved in creating it. Matt and Trey do everything on the TV series, and it’s similar with the game, they are creating all the artwork, all the animation, the dialogue and so on. They are super invested. We like that, because it is their spirit and their humour that is translated 100 per cent into the game. It is a completely unique game, completely controversial, but we like being able to work with these sort of creators, the ones you can’t control. They’re second to none.”

The most significant gamble for Ubisoft is VR. The publisher is fully committed to the headsets, with four games due this year: Eagle Flight, Werewolves Within, Trackmania and (our personal favourite) Star Trek: Bridge Crew.

Yet VR is a big unknown. Firms like Bethesda, EA and Warner Bros are making tentative steps in the world of virtual reality, but they remain cautious. HTC and Oculus have got off to solid starts, but the expensive hardware and the need for high-end PCs have restricted the opportunity somewhat. The industry now looks to the launch of the cheaper and more accessible PlayStation VR in October to gauge just how interested people really are in the technology.

In the mid-run, VR will be very big and change the way we play games,” Corre insists. This is Year One and all of the devices will be out this year. It will ramp up progressively. The more you sell, the more you have economies of scale and the price goes down. And then it will go mass market.

What is important are the games. There are a lot of experiences on VR already that are really refreshing. We feel that the spark is there, and that the fire will propagate progressively.”

He adds that the arrival of VR is like hitting the reset button on the sort of games being made: Each time you have a breaking revolution like this, it is a redistribution of cards. It gives new tools and possibilities to the vast array of creators. We are at the beginning of a new cycle. That is the beauty of it. Everything is possible because you don’t know which games will win. So you can bet, and there will be different genres that will be very successful that we were not anticipating.

If you look at the console market, that’s very established with the big brands. Those games are coming every year, iterated every year, selling many millions… and people are used to buying them each time. So that space is a bit locked. But with VR, everything is open again.”

The freedom Ubisoft gives its teams and its desire to be first on the ‘next big thing’ makes the company entertaining to write about.

Yet this almost scattergun approach to development does bring about its issues, and the company isn’t above criticism. In recent years, Ubisoft has angered some fans with bugs in Assassin’s Creed, or cheaters in The Division.

One game that received a bit of criticism was 2014’s Watch Dogs. The eagerly anticipated open world game was a success, but fans and critics had issues with the protagonist, the hacking mechanics and they were disappointed that the graphics had been downgraded from its original reveal.

It led to discontent online, and it’s something Corre says the team was acutely aware of when creating Watch Dogs 2.

We’ve heard what our fans were saying, and we think we have ticked all the boxes to improve everything they wanted, plus we

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