Ubisoft’s digital boss on free-to-play, mobile games, eSports and the new UPlay

Ubisoft showed off its download line-up at its Digital Days showcase in Paris earlier this month, and MCV caught up with worldwide director of online games Stephanie Perotti.

The publisher’s digital boss shared with us the plan for the newly-relaunched UPlay downloads service, the ever-growing free-to-play sector, the promising eSports market and those all important mobile titles.

What plans do you have for the revamped UPlay? Will it just distribute Ubisoft, or will you offer third-party titles like EA Origin?

The plan for UPlay goes beyond digital distribution. We continue to evolve the service across all platforms, including PC, console and mobile. The more Ubisoft games you play, the more rewards you can get, as well as several online services that players would expect. On the digital distribution side, we remain open to opportunities. Right now, we’re starting the service with our own games, but as we go forward, we plan to potentially add other titles.

When the new UPlay app launched, your initial range of titles were available for just 1 each. Is there are danger that this can devalue your product?

That’s something we have to be careful about, but not something we see as a threat. This has been a one-time limited time promotion on some back-catalogue games. We would consider the pricing and promotion on UPlay in the same way we do with other partners and try to be as creative as we can on the promotional side without devaluing any of our games.

What effect do you think UPlay will have on your relationship with retailers? Will they see it as another online rival?

We don’t see that as competition. Retail is a very important part of our business and will continue to be so. Digital is complementary to that – you can already buy games from various digital distribution platforms, so it’s just another option we offer to consumer, not something to replace other options. We believe choice is important so the users and the players can decide where to shop for their games.

Earlier this month, you announced you were scrapping the controversial ‘always-on DRM’ in your PC titles. Do you think this protective measure has damaged Ubi reputation? What can be done?

It definitely created a lot of attention and feedback. We’ve listened to this feedback, to move away from that system. We want to prove to the PC community that we are still very committed. We have a lot of PC games [on the way], we’ve been supporting PC as a platform all along, and we intend to continue to create great games and great services for those players.

Are you still concerned about protecting your IP? How will you do so without this DRM?

We’re trying to find the right balance between protecting our IP and ensuring a great experience for our players. The way the system operates today, you still need to activate your game once when you first install it – that’s the standard way of doing things on PC – so that’s how we’re protecting our IP. We’re trying to balance that with less intrusive options.

Your Digital Days showcase featured several free-to-play games for PC. Do you think this model can work in the console space?

Actually, we have one game on XBLA and PSN that’s free-to-play: Spartacus Legends. We are looking at all evolutions of the market and the opportunities there are. So that’s going to be our first entry in the free to play market on consoles, and we’ll see how it goes.

One of the highlights was Mighty Quest for Epic Loot, a free-to-play title by Ubisoft Montreal. Is the fact that you have a flagship studio like this working on a F2P games a sign of how important the sector is to MCV?

I guess it is. It’s something we’ve always believed in – that whatever we do, we always have the same target in terms of quality and experience for the players. So it makes sense that all of our studios get involved in anything we are doing.

It’s also interesting that this came from the studio itself. The team had this great idea and its something that made a lot of sense for us.

Why do you think traditional boxed players have been resistant to free-to-play games?

It’s a very young market still, especially in Europe. And initial free-to-play games had low quality or unfair business models, like you have to pay to win, or you have to pay because you’re the worst and lack experience. So perhaps there’s this fear that nothing can be free and that at some point the game will try and trick them into something.

But what we see today is a lot of great games that are free-to-play, and I hope that at some point players will just see them as games. That the business model won’t matter to them, just the experience. People that play League of Legends today don’t do so because it’s free to play, they do because it’s a great game.

Moving on, I think combining the experience we have on the development side, our great teams and our great brands, we hope that this perception will go away because people will have fun with our games.

Can triple-A brands like Assassin’s Creed: Utopia help introduce more people to free-to-play?

Brands are important. A brand is made by its community, and certainly many of our brands have strong communities. Brands gives players something to trust when going into free-to-play or online because it’s something they’ve never done. So we continue to evolve our brands, to give those communities what they want.

It’s also a good way for games to stand out, although it’s not all about brand as we hope to show with Mighty Quest. It’s really dependant on when it makes sense to use brands, when you have the chance to reach out to new players. Free-to-play offers a chance to reach new players, and we want our players to be able to enjoy all brands no matter what platform they’re on.

How have you found the UK’s F2P market so far? We’ve heard it is falling behind that of Europe.

I would agree with what you’ve heard. The UK market might be a little behind, and there does seem to be a perception that free-to-play is not what gamers want – perhaps because there’s such a strong console market. Free-to-play has proven to be more successful in Germany where there is a strong PC market, which in the UK there isn’t historically. Germany adapted to change a little faster.

I think gamers want good games, so if you have a good game – even if it’s free-to-play – they will be interested in it.

What role can retail play in free-to-play’s success?

Retail really is part of our strategy for free-to-play. If you take The Settlers Online, for example, we had retail boxes to sell that game, even though it’s a free-to-play game, so that you could have extra content when you bought it. It’s a question of choice and having retail involved in the distribution of digital games – we’ve seen that to be very successful with titles on XBLA, and that’s something we’ll continue to support.

Another tentpole of Digital Days was ShootMania as part of your eSports offering? What impact can Ubisoft and this title have on eSports? Can you shake things up a bit?

We hope so, we certainly hope so. The game is perfect for that – it’s a very fast-paced, competitive game. Shootmania has been developed by Nadeo, the studio that created Trackmania, which was one of the flagship titles on all of the major eSports events of the last ten years. So they already had the expertise of being on the eSports scene and being present in that universe.

We think players are becoming more and more interested in watching what other players do, and we hope Shootmania will bring that feeling of being part of a competition. We also want to help them share their experiences so that can please the millions of eSports fans that watch videos on the web. The way that we’re approaching it is to engage communities and players early on so we can tailor the game to the eSports community.

eSports has not taken off in Europe as much as it has in Asia and the US. What do you think is holding it back?

Potentially it’s an issue of fragmentation, because Europe is made up of many different countries. Although France is pretty strong already in eSports – we have several major events happening here. That’s what we hope to bring with Shootmania: to educate the market in Europe about eSports and find the spots where that can grow.

Do you think eSports has a role to play on console?

Personally, I think so. I think competitive gamers can be found everywhere, and there are lots of console gamers that like to play online multiplayer games with the same competitive spirit as those that play StarCraft and Counter Strike in eSports.

The beauty of PC is that it makes it easier for teams to communicate, the platform is more open, you have more tools to create videos and share them, and I hope one day consoles have that.

Looking at your more traditional console games, it was interesting to see Call of Juarez: Gunslinger has taken the series towards a download-only model. It is too difficult to launch certain titles at retail now?

You have to take it on a title for title basis. For some titles, yes, digital is becoming a greater channel to bring some games that would have been more challenged at retail.

Another sizeable area of Digital Days was mobile. How important is this sector?

We see that as a very important market, one that has been growing a lot – particularly for us. What we see today with the way the hardware is evolving, with smartphones and tablets becoming more powerful. It allows us to bring us closer to what we know from more traditional platforms.

It’s a good combination for us: having the platforms that allows us to make new experiences that make sense for our brands – we wanted to have something special for Rayman and Assassin’s Creed – and the opportunity to introduce them to a new generation of gamers. This is a market we want to address.

Utopia tites in with the story of Assassin’s Creed III, while Rayman: Jungle Run is very reminiscent of Origins. Why is it important to forge this connection between mobile and console titles?

Because we want to be true to our brands. We wouldn’t want to create something that would displease the fans. It’s always a way to create something new for fans the way they want it, because sometimes they’ll prefer to go to the mobile version or console version of the same brands, so we want them to feel at home.

Ubisoft has had several digital success stories over the last few years, while some publishers are struggling to adapt. What’s your secret?

I would like to believe we take more risks in bringing out new IPs and more original games. If you look at I Am Alive, From Dust, Trials – they’re all bringing something different to the market, something you don’t usually see in other publishers’ portfolios. We try to be more creative, take more risks, and it’s working quite well.

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