‘Soft Focus

What’s Ubisoft’s view on how the industry is dealing with the recession and issues like piracy? CEO Yves Guillemot explains all to Michael French…

Ubisoft announced a sales dip in its last financial results. Is the industry coming to terms with the fact it is affected by the recession?
The industry is a little bit affected by the economic crisis – much like other industries. Given that last year the industry was able to grow by 20 per cent it is understandable that it is flat this year – but it will continue to grow afterwards.

What we were expecting was the drop of cost in consoles to ensure we can continue to attract more customers, as we did in previous generations – as they have in previous generations.

So the recent console price cuts are great news and will help us reach more consumers, I think.

Overall I’m very positive about the industry – we are a major entertainment force and the brands we create can become books, movies, toys and comic books – that will help finance future games productions.

You mentioned using merchandise to fund games – is that an important part of the model for Ubisoft?
I think the budgets of games will continue to keep rising because the potential for these machines is huge – to use the capacity offered by PS3 or 360 is immense. So we have to invest more and more in each game to improve the experiences we offer.

Is that the thinking behind the recently-announced Assassin’s Creed mini-movies?
The goal is to not just create a better experience, but make sure we can reach consumers in different ways. They don’t have to experience the Assassin’s Creed IP interactively – there are other ways.

At E3 you said that Ubisoft was a believer in ‘confluence’ – the overlap between games and other mediums. Is it fair to say you want the company to be more than ‘just a games publisher’?

It’s not that we want to be in too many media – what I want to do is ensure the interactive media continues to grow. And to grow sometimes it’s good to go and take some of the know-how that other industries have. The movie industry is very good at creating characters. So why don’t we use that industry to help create characters that make their way into the game? Why don’t we use the books or comic books to create stories or background to give a better experience in the game? It’s all about improving the user experience.

Ubisoft’s games for the Avatar and the Tintin movie are the flipside of that. How do you approach handling the spin-off merchandise for another medium?
It’s the same idea. James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson are creating universes that are exceptional. If we can help out as those universes become more interactive, we can reach a shared audience. The goal is to make sure we are collaborating to create those properties early. With previous movie games sometimes we didn’t have enough time for development – and the game wasn’t as good as the movie.

The next Splinter Cell has been delayed again – why?
The thinking is always the same – we want to make sure we have enough time to complete those games and make sure they are high quality games. I was in Montral with the team only recently – and having the extra time is something that the team is grateful to have.

The game itself still would have been good – even a great game. But we want it to be an excellent game, because the other games coming out are getting better all the time. So we said: why not? If we can delay it and benefit then that’s a good thing.
Plus there are loads of great games coming out this side of Christmas.

So you weren’t trying to avoid a clash with Modern Warfare 2?

No, that wasn’t really the point – I would love to say that, and I’m sure Activision would love me to say that! But the truth is Splinter Cell wasn’t at the point we wanted.

A number of other publishers have delayed key titles too – are the publishers waiting for a better economic situation in 2010?
Well, now we have a situation where there are a lot of good games due for release in the first half of next year, but I think some publishers will move again. The first quarter of 2010 is looking pretty crazy. So I expect some movement from the other players – some of those delayed games will be moved again.

You recently said that Ubisoft is working on a solution to PC piracy. What can you tell us about that?

I can’t give you many details yet. The idea is to make sure that if our creators work hard on a product they get revenue for it – it’s their life.

It has always been the case in the last 22 years that as piracy increases the industry find solutions to combat it, then it rises up again, and we fight it again… Ubisoft wants to make sure that for normal customers it’s harder to pirate games and that it’s even more difficult than ever before for the hardcore user that pirates lots of content.

Ubisoft also singled out DS piracy as having an effect on your sales – how can the industry address that?
We are working on it with things like accessories bundled with the games, or other items that aid the experience and aren’t just on the cart. But you have to do that right. Again, it’s about making the experience better.

Would releasing more digital-only products help that anti-piracy drive?
Well, there is still piracy in digital. Not as a much, but it’s still there. You have to make sure you find the right way to reach a customer who is ready to pay, because downloads are a good way to distribute content, but aren’t yet the best way.

Retail is still a great way to deliver games because of the in-store knowledge and explanation you get from staff. You can touch games in a shop.

Digital is something we are always thinking about, but it’s not going to be a serious thing for us for some time.

But Activision has World of Warcraft and EA is becoming increasingly online-centric – don’t you have to compete?
Don’t get me wrong, we do invest heavily in online. We have looked at those areas, and always make sure that relevant games have a great multiplayer element. We invest in that a lot where it is right.

So while Assassin’s Creed 2 might be very linear, Avatar has an online component, for instance. Sometimes the games we produce have multi-player aspects that could even be games in their own right. Splinter Cell really innovated in that area. We have separate teams that develop the single-player and multi-player components of our games; that works really well for us.

But in the wider world, retail is still hugely important – in time it will even grow to include digital distribution itself. Online is hugely important, but you need to make sure that games include both online and offline elements to make sure you address the whole audience.

Ubisoft’s new fitness title Your Shape comes with a bundled camera. What’s the thinking there?

With the camera we found a peripheral that is cheap and easy to make, but also provides an innovation. It will help grow our audience a lot. The Wii Fit owners and owners of Wii machines are very interested in being healthy so they are buying lots of those games – they want to find the best exercises, so they try all the self-improvement games.

That whole genre has great potential, and with more female consumers coming into the industry there are opportunities to grow these categories and find other new ones. By comparison, the Balance Board has really improved the relationship consumers have with their console – players of games like Shaun White really do feel that their moving around helps the experience.

What other genres would you want to get into?
For Ubisoft the goal is to enter enough fields so we have enough coverage of the whole industry. With Shaun White and Academy of Champions we are now in the sports category and that is a great place to be – we are investing in those titles and we will continue to invest.
Racing is also key for us – we bought [Newcastle-based studio] Reflections some time ago. One day, you and I can finally talk about what they are working on, but suffice to say it is a very special game in the racing and driving genre. They are focused on PS3 and 360 – it should be really good.

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