A record quarter at Ubisoft can't distract from its troubled studio culture

Ubisoft ended Q1 with record engagement and record net bookings, but issues with its studio culture that led to several recently unearthed abuse allegations aren't going to be swept under the rug.

Ubisoft ended Q1 with record engagement and record net bookings, but the company’s own press release and questions posed by investors inspire the smallest sliver of hope that the issues with its studio culture that led to several recently unearthed abuse allegations aren’t going to be simply swept under the rug.

This quarterly report comes during a difficult period for Ubisoft, turmoil that comes from allegations surrounding the company itself rather than the performance of any of its games. Starting nearly a month ago, numerous accusations of abuse and sexual misconduct were levied against people in positions of power at Ubisoft, and the company is still in the process of addressing the concerns those accusations brought into the light.

This was mentioned in both Ubisoft’s quarterly report and conference call, with varying effect. On the topic of addressing the issues with its workplace culture, Ubisoft outlined five separate steps it is taking to improve conditions that range from new roles focused on diversity and company culture to working with external consultants to handle existing concerns. More on that here.

Allegations against Ubisoft staff came up multiple times during the Q&A portion of the conference call. Some of those investor questions seemed most concerned with recent stories of harassment and misconduct impacting the focus of the developers working on Ubisoft's next releases, but one carefully worded question took aim at CEO Yves Guillemot and asked, to paraphrase, if and how he as CEO had no prior knowledge of the abusive reputations or misconduct allegations seemingly rife in the company for years. 

That question reads:

“I wanted to ask a question of Yves as a founder and CEO of the company, and more important people than me will ask. In a sense I could present the question regarding what’s happened recently as three options:

Either as CEO you didn’t know this was happening, which is not great, or you perhaps didn’t know enough and should’ve asked more, maybe that’s the answer, or you knew, which of course would not be good. Now those are my possibilities, you may answer the question differently, but I’d like to ask what would be your answer to the question about your responsibility as CEO.”

And Guillemot's response:

“In fact, each time we have been made aware of misconduct we made tough decisions and made sure that those decisions had a clear and positive impact. So that’s very important Because it became clear that certain individuals betrayed the trust I placed in them, and didn’t live up to Ubisoft’s shared values. I have never compromised on my core values and never will. I will continue to run and transform Ubisoft to face today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.”

Just this week, a Bloomberg report on that long list of abuse accusations also called attention to a number of claims that higher-ups (including recently ousted editorial head Serge Hascoët) within Ubisoft itself have squashed developer efforts to create women-led Assassin’s Creed games over the misguided idea that women-fronted games don’t sell, attitudes the report says is "illustrative of the sexism ingrained within the company."

In an argubly questionable move, and seemingly to counter claims that Ubisoft higher-ups actively fought against diverse leads in its video games, Ubisoft’s CFO Frédérick Duguet, read off a list of the any non-white, non-male characters featured in Ubisoft’s games, some of which are from older titles, are optional protagonists, or aren't playable characters.

“From Jade in Beyond Good and Evil 20 years ago to Princess Aurora in Child of Light, Altair in the first Assassin’s Creed, Adéwalé in Black Flag, Bayek in Origins, Kassandra in Odyssey, and Eivor in Valhalla, Marcus Holloway in Watch Dogs 2, or iconic Rainbow Six Siege operators like beloved Ash or the recently introduced operator Melusi from South Africa. 

"We have represented diversity in a meaningful way in our games, and those titles are among our top performers, among our most iconic games. Players can then make their own choices. While around one third of players played as Kassandra in Odyssey, Ash is the most selected attacking operator in Rainbow Six Siege."

"The diversity I mentioned ranges from gender to ethnic diversity, and also includes strong LGBTQ+ characters as well as neurodiveristy with the representation of autism. As you can expect from our team’s commitment and passion, Ubisoft will continue to lead the industry on diversity representation in our games in the future.”

On purely the financial side of things, Ubisoft saw its net bookings reach €410.0 million (~$474.1 million) for the first quarter, up 30.5 percent year-over-year and beating its target of €335.0 million (~$387.4 million).

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