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The digital publishing partnership behind Call of Juarez: Gunslinger

In this post I share my experience about the partnership with Techland on Call of Juarez Gunslinger and how moving to digital was an opportunity to rethink the publishing business model, with studios co-producing the game.

Two years ago I went to visit Techland, in Poland, to present our partner program. We were in early talks to bring the Call of Juarez IP to digital platforms.

It was a first formalized attempt to address some of our rigidities and better work with studios - our practices were already somewhat flexible and pragmatic but not really empowering for studios.

The context was favorable to pass some changes as we were shifting our portfolio from retail to digital - which implies smaller budgets and less pressure to hit hard deadlines. Digital gave us a level of control that we could happily share with long time partners.

During this visit we committed to a number of changes if we were to work together again. It was nothing amazing but still a good step forward from a publisher's perspective.

The program included giving the creative control to the studio to execute the game's high-concept (which Techland already had with previous titles), skipping the milestone review process, and offering the usual services and guidance (for a deeper look into the working relationship on Coj Gunslinger you can read Xavier Penin's post with Haris Orkin about the making of the game's story).

To sign-up for the program a studio should want to have a financial stake in the development even if symbolic. Techland from the beginning had a fifty percent stake in the production. So it would be a co-production and a studio could also decide to provide some of the services. Some specifics of the Gunslinger deal would later include Techland managing most of the QA.

The studio having complete creative ownership -- and with Ubisoft's creatives and producers in an advisory and support role only -- it would be responsible for delays and being over budget. Not everyone would agree but in a typical deal and in practice it would be the publisher's role to add more money to the pot.

The rationale behind all this was simple. In the digital space and considering players expectations and the high quality of developers and indies' productions how do you make a great third-party game? The answer was to trust a talented studio and give it the ownership and space to express its potential.

I've had the privilege with Techland to see a team who tried original ideas, took risks, failed fast and learned, and also taught us a lot. Sometimes the team spirit was a bit down and our role was to reassure them and address thier doubts. Sometimes we were the doubters and we would challenge them seriously and in response the team would do its best to prove us wrong.

It was an interesting experience for me, because the game industry has maybe the worst publisher/independent-developer combo efficiency when compared with music's producer/singer or book publishing's editor/writer, and even if Techland was not satisfied with everything, this time the dynamic was much more positive.

I am biased, but I think that in our industry as well, such combos can work effectively because those are based on the same premise: experience and proper guidance helps talent deliver a better work in a shorter amount of time. For this relationship to work well however publishers should trust and value game developers better, but it is a two way street and developers could value publishers' efforts and contribution as well.

Digital is far from being a new thing, but, and I only speak for myself, it is mature enough so now we can see a publisher like Ubisoft explore more possibilities in this area. It's an exciting time because digital seems to give teams at Ubisoft the room to experiment with new and original ideas, like our newly announced digital games (Valiant Hearts, Child of Light), or the recent Blood Dragon.

Even if some of them end-up not selling that well in the future, I told our EMEA chief executive, Alain Corre, just yesterday that they are good for our image and can be good for company morale. He agreed but he also loves big numbers [smile].

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