Meeting with Alain Corre at Gamescom, it’s clear from the start that the watchword is going to be ‘community’.
The Ubisoft area is buzzing with activity on this first day of Gamescom, with the meeting rooms all booked for interviews and business appointments, which leaves us unsure about where to actually do our interview. We end up in a meeting room where a trophy is sitting on the table, as if left here by mistake: Anno 1800’s Best PC Game of Gamescom award.
“Gamescom is always the start of a busy season for us. It’s a great show because it’s the biggest consumer show worldwide and it’s an opportunity to put our games in the hands of the fans. What we want is our fans to be able to test, and for us to get their feedback, so that we can learn what they think, what they wish, so that we can improve our games in the future. That’s the beauty of Gamescom. The vibe is always very good. And we’re so happy because as you can see we have won an award for Anno 1800, so it’s a good start,” Corre, Ubisoft’s EMEA executive director, says with a smile.
Anno 1800 was announced at Gamescom 2017 and Ubisoft has been rather quiet about it since then. And that’s because Anno is one of the first Ubisoft titles to benefit from the firm’s new strategy of having the community involved from as early on as possible.
“The game is coming on nicely and we are releasing it early next year, in February. What we did, and that’s what we’re trying to do for most of our games now, is to get feedback from the fans while we are developing the games,” Corre explains. “On Anno we have the Anno Union Program where we’ve got more than 10,000 responses from the fans, which helped us a lot in improving the game, adapting it to what the fans wanted, nailing it, polishing it. So I think it’s a good way for us to exchange ideas with our fans moving forward.”
Other Ubisoft titles now benefit from that approach, he continues: “It’s not only on Anno we are doing this, we’re doing it on Beyond Good and Evil 2 (BG&E2) – we have the Space Monkey Program and it’s exactly the same principle: we are giving the possibility to our fans to give their feedback, we have testing sessions where they can play some elements, there are some exclusive pieces of information that we share with them so that we can improve the games on and on. We’re very happy to see that our Space Monkey Program continues to grow, gathering hundreds of thousands of passionate fans worldwide, who share feedback, inspirations and participate directly in the development process.
“And we do the same on The Division 2, we do the same on Trials. It’s really trying to be as close as possible to our fans.”
This strategy is not dissimilar to the way some studios utilise Early Access: putting the game out there as soon as possible to get feedback to improve the title before its full launch. But Corre begs to differ.
“When we ask our fans to give their feedback it comes very early in the process of creation because we need some time to implement their feedback. Sometimes they are asking for modifications or improvements that we think are worth doing, so it takes time. So we can do that with a certain number of fans that can be integrated in the process. So it’s a bit different from Early Access which is just a few months before the release of the game.”
Pointing out some developers actually put their game in Early Access for years before releasing, Corre nods but adds with a cryptic smile: “We start earlier than that.”
Corre mentioning BG&E2 even briefly is enough for us to start pestering him, hoping to get a clue of a hint about its release window.
“You know, some of the best dishes have to be cooked for a long time,” Corre answers cheerfully. “BG&E2 will be a space opera... and it will be a very big, important moment for the industry. That’s what we believe. Michel Ancel is working hard to develop it, to polish it. The game will come out when it’s perfect, but when it comes out, it will be huge.”
Relying on community feedback to improve Ubisoft’s games could also apply to a certain extent to other core franchises, such as Assassin’s Creed.
“We exchange ideas with the communities on all our games. Basically what we want is to adapt our games more to their taste or to what they wish,” Corre starts explaining. “And on Assassin’s Creed this year we have brought some extra gameplay elements to differentiate it and to enrich the experience compared to the previous entries. By listening to the community, we have implemented more RPG elements. We are also offering the choice between two main characters: you can have one heroine or one hero. The battles are bigger, the AI system has been changed as well. And that’s also thanks to the exchange we can have with the community.”
With Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, releasing in early October, Ubisoft is very much taking the game-as-a-service approach, promising regular content drops.
“We have long term plans with Assassin’s Creed Odyssey,” says Corre. “The plan is to regularly [update]with events, with content... so that the game is enriched in permanence and our fans are happy to have new things to discover, new challenges.
“We know that our fans are consuming our games very quickly, what we want is for them to stay in our universes. Because they have invested a lot of time, they want to stay, they want to have more fun, to discover more things, so our teams are committing to create more content for them going forward.”
Next comes the tricky question of monetisation, with the promise of regular content often coming with a price tag. Corre eludes the question with a smile, focusing on a core message: there will be no unfair advantage given to players who pay for the extra content.
“What’s very important is that the content we create is not changing the core gameplay and doesn’t disturb the balance of the game,” Corre says. “We want our fans to be treated fairly and to have fun. So the idea when we create content is to bring something fresh so that fans can play or buy whatever, if they wish to, but they’re not obliged to. So if they are keen to go for more, they can do it, if they’re not then it’s not an issue, they can still enjoy their experience.”
With Origins having released in 2017 after a one year franchise hiatus, and Odyssey releasing this year, we naturally ask Corre if Assassin’s Creed is becoming an annual franchise again.
“No, that’s not what we have said,” he instantly replies, without giving more information. Since then though, Ubisoft’s CEO Yves Guillemot has confirmed that there will be no “full-fledged Assassin’s next year.”
And it doesn’t seem like a spin-off will be coming either, with Guillemot adding the teams will be focusing on providing content for Odyssey “for a couple of years.”
That’s an approach that is confirmed by Corre, too: “What we did last year with Origins is to put Assassin’s Creed back on the map as a big action-adventure franchise and the success of Origins still exists today. The community is huge and growing, and people are playing Origins more and more. We think that Odyssey, that started development very early, is something completely fresh on the Assassin’s Creed experience so we are bringing something extra and we know by the analyses and studies we do with our fans that they will be super happy with Odyssey moving forward. And as I told you, we have long term plans with Odyssey to enrich the experience and the game moving forward.”
As a result, Corre expects Odyssey to be a big hit in terms of sales, he continues: “We have very big expectations and we have seen the results on Origins last year and, as I was telling you, it’s still a big success today. So we hope that [Odyssey] will feature very high in the Top Ten at Christmas.”
If Ubisoft seems to be keen to involve its communities more and more, strengthening its live games strategy, that doesn’t mean every single game in its portfolio will be treated the same way, Corre says.
“We have different types of games and that’s the beauty of Ubisoft’s portfolio. We are lucky to have a diversity of games. Games for young kids like Starlink, games for families like Just Dance, games for more hardcore players like Rainbow Six Siege, and each game has its specificities, its DNA and its public. And so we are adapting the creations we are doing to the public. Some games will be more treated like games-as-a-service, some will be managed differently. It really depends on the content we have. [We look at] the category of game that our studios are proposing and then we analyse what is the best option for the fans, how they will be happiest and then we architecture the game the way we feel that fans will enjoy it the most.”
He continues, taking upcoming pirate title Skull & Bones as an example: “It’s a multiplayer online game. You will have the possibility to discover all the seas, we showed it at E3 last June, and what we want with this game is to become the ultimate pirate game. We know that piracy is a fantasy that gamers love. We’ve always had piracy games coming and pleasing a lot of people and we think that, with Skull & Bones, we have this ultimate pirate game. So we are polishing it so that it’s ready for next year.”
If Ubisoft’s strategy differs from title to title, as it should, there’s one element that remains constant: making sure the community is satisfied: “I think the best definition of a game’s success is when our fans are happy,” Corre emphasises.
“[Our] games are all different. They’re all dedicated to different categories of fans and what we want is really to understand all our communities. So there’s not a general rule. I think it’s the way we can listen to what they wish, to the way they want to play, and to adapt to that, that helps us to grow our communities.
“And they are growing constantly whether it’s the Assassin’s Creed one, whether it’s the Rainbow Six one, whether it’s The Division one, or the For Honor one... We are super happy to see that we have more and more fans staying in our games long term and being happy to experience these worlds. And so what we want is to go on listening to them even more. That’s why for the next games we are integrating the feedback into the development process because we believe that it is by being as good as possible to the fans and that we will be able to grow the franchises in the future.”
And Ubisoft’s new direction is everything but a shot in the dark. Rainbow Six Siege’s success is here to prove that working hand-in-hand with a community on a long-term road map can be extremely rewarding.
“We are very happy about the progression of Rainbow Six. This is a franchise which has never stopped growing,” Corre says. “We constantly work hard on Rainbow Six, creating new content and new events all the time. We are super happy and proud to see that the number of fans grows. They stay longer and they exchange a lot with us in what we should do, what we should improve, which we thank them very much for. And really it gives us, and the development team in Montreal, some extra motivation to do even more.”
Rainbow Six Siege was not an instant success though; it took years for Ubisoft to reach that point, with the title having wobbly launch sales but selling extremely well in the long-term. And Corre is obviously extremely proud of what the teams have achieved, almost setting Rainbow Six as a example of excellence for the other titles to reach.
“Our creative director had a very very strong view in what he wanted [Rainbow Six Siege] to be, in a category that was really still open. He always kept that in his mind and they worked really hard since its introduction, close to three years ago now, to improve, always improve, create more content, listen to the community, take risks, dare to change what the game was – so that it could reach his vision. And it’s very pleasing to see that the hard work that we put into the game after three years is paying off and that we can map out what could be the game in the next five years, thanks to the support of the community.
“So that’s really showing that our franchises can work long term if we nail them properly, if we improve them properly, if we never stop bringing extra content and improving the game. That’s a good message for us and for all our studios going forward.”