Ubisoft’s Pannell show

Earlier this year MCV broke the news that long-time Microsoft man Murray Pannell had joined Ubisoft as marketing boss. In his first major interview since taking the role he talks to Michael French about the publisher’s titles for this year, a long-term promotion strategy and reaching new demographics…

You’ve been in the role for four months now – has it been much of a contrast working at a third party publisher instead of a format holder?

One of the big reasons to change from Xbox, where I was for six and a half years, was the desire to think about the broader market – and because whilst Microsoft is broadening out in its games offering, it’s not in the handheld space.

In many ways I grew up with Xbox as I was there just after the original console launched and stayed to see the Xbox 360 enjoy great success. But I wanted to get more into DS and learn to love PlayStation again. I was at the time being – quite rightly – partisan about my support for the Xbox. But I wanted to broaden my experience back into the wider industry and this job was a great opportunity.

Obviously Ubisoft is very well respected in its own right with a significant growth over the last four years and beyond. It was an ideal publisher to look at when the opportunity arrived to broaden my experience.

The other thing I realised once here was that there was a strong team here which Jon Rosenblatt had effectively managed over the last two years and it’s really good to go somewhere with a strong team who know what they are doing and have great passion for their products. That makes the transition so much easier.

Are there any immediate opportunities apparent to you since joining Ubisoft?

Ubisoft has been great at working quickly in a development sense to take advantage of trends and new niches that are being created by new platforms like Nintendo. So for me one of the interesting questions is whether some of those broader appeal titles that exist on Nintendo platforms could evolve onto Xbox and PlayStation in the future. After all they are franchises that are heavily in the minds of young people who might buy into those other formats sometime in the next 24 months.

Do you foresee any upcoming changes in the market for games that might impact how a publisher has to approach marketing?
If you look at pure numbers, then clearly there are more people playing games than ever before and I think all of us in the industry are very glad about that – and perhaps slightly surprised to some extent, given that such growth can occur even in tough economic times.

The question is, how many more people can we bring into the sector? Looking at new experiences like the Wii Motion Plus and other devices coming from the platform holders – and also the online sector – are important to that.

Xbox Live and PlayStation Network started in the hardcore but now I think are growing their user bases, while web-based gaming is also growing. I think it’s up to us in the industry to think about clever ways to connect those things together, particularly on the development side.

The biggest challenge is addressing how attitudes to the way consumer content is changing. Whether it’s a movie licence game, a big franchise game or a TV show, how you deliver that through a phone, games console or web portal is something every entertainment medium is currently trying to address.

It is an interesting kind of dynamic that will evolve. Certainly my experience at Ubisoft so far is that we are an entertainment company, not just a games developer. We want to look at how we can exploit franchises in the console space, but also other ways to franchise things out – potentially movies and other things. Growing those ties will be fascinating development over the next few years.

That was a clear message at E3, with the talk of ‘confluence’ between games and film – and the recent announcement of Assassin’s Creed short movies…

It’s about creating something that can stand toe-to-toe with those other entertainment mediums. It’s also about going one step further and asking how you create game franchises that could become the next big blockbuster movie – creating something that exists not just on gaming consoles but on other platforms, too.

Ubisoft spends a lot in terms of time on making games so that they have the same level of creative input as any movie franchise. I think that we can create something which
people want to play in the way they might want to watch a film made by a famous director.

Ubisoft announced a number of titles at E3 and you have a fairly packed schedule leading up to Christmas. What are the key games?
I think there are some very clear blockbusters, such as Assassin’s Creed 2 and Splinter Cell: Conviction on the schedule, along with other games for different audiences – such as the new Rabbids title and Red Steel. It’s a very diverse and wide line-up, which is another of the real contrasts I have found coming in to Ubisoft.

I think we have a number of world class games that have every chance of doing significant numbers. If we invest our time and effort into pushing those up ten per cent across the board, Ubisoft will go from having a good year to a superb year. My remit to my team is to focus on the winners, do 100 per cent of the basic on the rest – but just make sure we put our real time and effort on those top games. There are five or six that can sell over a million – certainly some of them like Assassin’s Creed 2.

James Cameron’s Avatar is also part of that mix, but the industry has a mixed history with licences. What’s your strategy going forward?
My view on the situation is that if you can tie into some of the big blockbuster momentum you’ve won half the battle.

And from what we know so far, Avatar looks set to be a world-changing kind of cinema given its pedigree and elements like the 3D. It reminds me of the experience I had at EA when I worked on the first Harry Potter game – which was an incredible entertainment phenomenon.

My expectation is that the quality of Avatar and the experience that you see when you go to the cinema will create an amazing buzz that we can hopefully ride the wave of. And of course the game is very special, too.

Do movie games present unique marketing challenges?
I think the challenge is that you’re slightly out of control of the franchise. So at the end of the day it will be the studio who has a lot of say of what can be said and when it’s said. But properties with one creative visionary in charge can be really successful.

Avatar has James Cameron, and with Potter there was one person ultimately in charge of that – J.K. Rowling – who everyone was terrified of disappointing. That can give real focus.

Ubisoft was one of the first to dedicate time to online communities – something Microsoft did plenty of too. Will you be continuing that?
My experience is that you ignore your core user at your peril, and many of them are active on communities. We all want Assassin’s Creed to be a true mass market title, for example, but that still needs to have a core excited fanbase at its centre.

That vocal minority can really change the way a game is perceived – that core of people includes the press and retail too. If the people in the know get excited it sends shockwaves throughout the industry and beyond. From working on things like Halo and Gears of War I’ve seen that if you spend some time working on just that ‘hardcore’ audience, in some ways the masses will follow.

In a year where we might be very conscious of costs and very tight on what we’re spending and how we spend it, going after the core is going to be absolutely critical.

What about Ubisoft’s hugely successful range of casual Imagine games – that must be quite a contrast for you?
True. Personally my biggest challenge is finding out more about that audience because that’s something I’ve never really done before.

Coming in it’s clear Ubisoft has a good team on the Imagine range, run by Mark Slaughter. When it comes to the contrast with core gamers, what Ubisoft has done is experiment quite a lot – that’s what I like about the company; it will give everything a go and see if it works. In terms of marketing to the core audience it is of course a slightly different thing – it’s very much about selling a lifestyle and selling a set of values that people buy into.

There’s also a balance you have to get right in that market of getting the fundamental user base of girls into it, but also giving the parents very much the authority to know about the products and trust in the content.

The marketing for Assassin’s Creed 2 has started early, with a TV ad and other activity – has this been an intentional early drive?
The Five TV ad alongside The Da Vinci Code was a tactical opportunity, and the game fitted tonally with the content of the movie.

One thing Ubisoft had identified strategically was that we wanted to build the awareness and hype from early on. It sort of goes back to my point about having the key opinion formers on board and talking to them early – you can’t build a real hype machine in three months.

It’s very difficult to tell if that specific example will have a very tangible effect on the sales, but it did drive pre-orders up overnight. It was something that was set up by the team before I arrived, but I am always keen to experiment with new things – I don’t mind us spending some money on TV and this kind of creative approach to marketing so long as we’re learning from that.

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