On paper, 2014 looks like one of the most successful years in Ubisoft's history.
It smashed its targets by generating over 1bn in software revenue – thanks to its biggest new IP launch (Watch Dogs), and major sellers such as Far Cry 4, The Crew and Assassin's Creed.
Unfortunately, that isn't what Ubisoft's 2014 will be remembered for. Instead, it was a time when the publisher had to put out a series of PR fires, and contend with the botched launch of Assassin's Creed Unity – a blockbuster beset by bugs.
We are very sensitive to what fans are saying,” says Alain Corre, Ubisoft's EMEA executive director. When [Unity] happened, we had to react and we decided to be as transparent as possible. The change in mood has been rapid among our fans because we corrected the issues quickly. Today, fans are very happy with Unity, and the number of players is growing, which is good for our next game.”
That next game is the Victorian-set Assassin's Creed: Syndicate, which has the unenviable task of righting some of the perceived wrongs of its predecessor.
We always try to make the most polished game possible,” says Corre. We respect our fans. Our company motto is quality and innovation. But we're also creating very large, open-world games that are increasingly complex. It's a lot of work. It's worthwhile, but we are trying to push the limits and surprise people, and that comes with a set of risks.”
"It's in our DNA to bring out new IP.
We are taking more risks than our
colleagues because we believe our
market will grow."
Alain Corre, Ubisoft
For a multi-billion dollar firm with over 9,000 employees, Ubisoft is a surprisingly personable business.
It's not that its rivals don't care,it's just that Ubisoft really cares. The firm's CEO Yves Guillemot is someone you'll often see loitering outside game demos or mingling with journalists, trying to discover what they think of his latest titles. And Guillemot's enthusiasm is equally apparent in Ubisoft's other senior managers.
This personality is also evident in some of Ubisoft's output. The publisher doesn't force its creators to make blockbuster followed by blockbuster, and encourages them to make their own indie-like projects. Games such as Valiant Hearts, Child of Light and Grow Home are hardly billion-dollar behemoths, but they were still successful, acclaimed projects by the creators of The Crew, Assassin's Creed and Far Cry.
Our creative people sometimes want to try something different before they come back to what they know best,” explains Corre. With Child of Light, for example, a creator wanted to do something different than a shooter, so he came back with this story of a little girl in a poetic environment. We said great, let's go, let's try it, and it proved to be very successful.
More recently we had Grow Home, which came from our studio in Newcastle, and we saw it was a super fresh ecological idea for gameplay, and it's been super successful on PC. It's a way to let creators breathe, step back a bit and think differently, before they can come back with new ideas for our big IP.”
Not that Ubisoft's triple-A efforts are all ‘big franchises'. The publisher has made a habit of showing new IP at E3 (see Watch Dogs, The Division and The Crew), and it continued that this year with the medieval combat game: For Honor (below).
It's in Ubisoft's DNA to bring out new IP,” insists Corre. In two years we've released four major new IP. We are taking more risks than our colleagues, and that's because we believe that our market will grow, and that we'll be able to convince more people to join the category. For Honor, for example, has melee combat and co-op. It's a game that used to be popular, but there have been none in recent years, so we're bringing it back.”
For Honor was one of a handful of reveals from Ubisoft at E3. There was also a new Ghost Recon and a South
The latter came as a particular surprise. Last year's South Park: The Stick of Truth for PS3 and 360 suffered a difficult development. Ubisoft acquired the game after THQ's collapse in 2013, but wasn't happy with its quality, so delayed it until March 2014. It arrived after the launch of PS4 and Xbox One, hindering its commercial potential.
The process frustrated South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who vowed to never make another game.
We were very pleased with The Stick of Truth's success,” Corre answers. It was a challenge as we took the game from THQ and had to refurbish it, so it required a bit of work. But at the end of the day, fans were happy.
From then, we saw it was a hot IP, and there were a lot of things that we could do in the future. We needed to convince Matt and Trey to do another one, and it took a little while, but finally they were okay. We're happy to have that kind of game in our portfolio because we want to propose diversity.”
‘Diversity' is a word Ubisoft likes to use, and for good reason. Its line-up of games has historically looked after all types of players, from families (Just Dance) to kids (Rabbids) to the most hardcore of players (Assassin's Creed).
Yet attracting broader users has proven challenging recently – particularly on consoles, which have struggled to coax casual players from their phones and tablets.
We are looking at how the consoles are evolving in terms of the mass market,” admits Corre. We have a lot of IP that have been successful with the casual market in the past that we are ready to bring back as soon as there are enough people from this audience on the new consoles.”
"We are looking at how the consoles are evolving in terms of the mass market. We have a lot of IP that have been successful in the casual market in the past that we are ready to bring back as soon as there are enough people from this audience on the PS4 and Xbox One."
Alain Corre, Ubisoft
Ubisoft has found other avenues to reach a broader audience. It is expanding out via toys, TV and – as of next year – its own movies like the upcoming Assassin's Creed film.
Corre hopes that these can help introduce more people to the world of games, and Ubisoft is already seeing some success with Rabbids.
The Rabbids TV show has helped increase awareness and sustain the brand's popularity,” says Corre.
We have just launched a new comic in France, which is now No.1 in the charts. There are a lot of things happening with Rabbids, just not in games because we're waiting for the mass market.”
2015 may not have been the most noteworthy of E3s for Ubisoft, but it was a rea