In many ways, one of the most surprising success stories in games over the
previous few years has been French-headquartered Ubisoft, who rode a quirky
European-centric mascot character (Rayman) and a burly all-American license (Red
Storm's Tom Clancy-centric universe, now expanded into multiple individual IPs)
all the way to a position as one of the world's leading publishers.
So, at the recent Ubidays press event in San Francisco, Gamasutra had a chance to sit down with Ubisoft co-founder and CEO Yves Guillemot, and had a chance to discuss a multitude of high-level topics on the publisher's future, from next-gen plans through Electronic Arts' holding of Ubisoft stock, right through to the firm's plans to produce CG films alongside its movies.
Ubisoft seems to be making a big push for original IP right now, like Assassin's Creed. Why such a push toward an original direction right now?
Yves Guillemot: It has been the case for a few years, but this year is a special year. We are coming out with six new IPs this year. Some are coming this year that we expected last year. It's nothing really special, it's just the new consoles are more difficult to work on, so some have been delayed.
Do you feel that the new consoles are selling enough to recoup the costs that you are putting into developing these games?
YG: Oh, definitely. We're in the third Christmas for the 360, so it's going to be a big year for that machine, and it would be the second Christmas for the PS3. I think we can sell enough to make good money with those products, and most importantly, to reach enough customers.
Has anything further happened with the EA situation? EA is still talking about how they would like to buy Ubisoft, and I know that's not something you want to happen.
YG: We're still considering. The first option for us is to manage our own company and grow it. The second option is to work with the movie industry, and the third is to merge. We think the market is going to grow fast, and we can take a big share of that market, so we don't have to change the way things are done at the moment.
How is Ubisoft approaching Asia now? I know you have the Shanghai studio. Is that mostly for insourcing, or are you also developing games indigenous to the Chinese market?
YG: No, we are not developing games for the Chinese market, just for the world. It's probably too early to do specific Chinese games at the moment.
So are you mostly using them for assets for other games that you're developing, or are you developing anything fully there?
YG: EndWar is being developed there, and Splinter Cell 4 was also done in China. They're developing specific products.
Do you mostly have Chinese staff there?
YG: We also have lots of people coming from the U.S., Canada, and Europe. They represent fifteen percent of the staff, so it's still 85% Chinese.
The San Francisco office has been working with third-party developers to try to publish some non-Ubisoft developed titles. How has that been going so far?
YG: It's going very well. They now have good deals with lots of good developers. This year, we'll have a good lineup with third-parties, and will next year as well. There's a good portfolio, and the quality of work we see from third-party developers is really high.
Ubisoft has been doing a lot more localization of titles from Asia than other major Western publishers. Why is that? Is that going well for you?
YG: It's going well for us, and I think many people would do the same, because it was very profitable for us to do that. We will have more guys doing the same by the end of the year.
It's mostly been smaller publishers that make that sort of move. Ubisoft is the only real big third-party publisher that does that.
YG: It happened because the casual business is also growing fast in Japan. They have ten million machines for a population that is very small. It gives us good information on what can be done.
The DS and Wii are really getting huge over there, and I don't know if anything else is going to get that big over there at this point.
YG: It's very impressive. It's doing a lot better than even what was anticipated, so it's a good chance for the industry.
Do you find that you have any kind of advantage in Europe, since you're the biggest European-based third-party?
YG: Yes, I'd say that we know those countries better. An advantage in Europe can turn into a disadvantage in the U.S., though. I would say that because we are there, we have a better understanding of the European market. We are number two in Europe and number five in the U.S., but are growing fast here, so we should better understand the U.S. market soon.
Are you approaching that by building up Canada a lot?
YG: Yes. It's a good way to create products that fit automatically with the U.S. branch.
French accounting doesn't have to be as obvious as American accounting. For instance, you don't have to announce if you've made a profit every quarter and things like that. Is that advantageous to you?
YG: I think it's very important, because we can move products from a semester instead of moving them from a quarter. Because it's not very important what we do at the semester, we can move products all during the year, and it gives us an approach to do better games.
So you can make sure that you have a good thing to announce every time.
YG: That's right.
A lot of the announcements that I've seen from Ubisoft have been pretty impressive, and it seems like there's this upward trajectory happening.
YG: The goal is really to do high-quality games. That's where we're firm on. When we know that the game will be well-received by consumers, all of our creators who are gamers love that.
In your early days, when you were doing the PC Engine gray market release in France, was that sanctioned by NEC?
YG: It was forbidden by the company at that time, but at the same time, we were discussing with them the possibility of doing their distribution. In a way, they were happy to make a test. It's not that we were doing that totally against them. They knew we were doing it, and we were speaking with them regularly and checking if we could do it in a bigger way.
Was it relatively successful there?
YG: It was very successful. The machine did well and the software was doing well, but since they didn't react fast enough, all the other machines came out, and then they were dead.
Rayman with Michel Ancel was the first big thing that was internally developed by Ubisoft as a software house, right?
And he was seventeen when that happened?
YG: He was older than that. When he came in, he was seventeen, but when the game happened, he was 23, I think.
The parent company is active in other arenas as well, right?
YG: It's not the parent company, it's the holding company that has investment in many of our companies. Yes, they are in Gameloft, and in another corporation to do accessories. They can license different worlds in the same environment.
What percentage of the income of the holding company is Ubisoft?
YG: Ubisoft is the biggest company.
In Japan, you're UBI, but in the West you're Ubi. Why the change there?
YG: It's easy for people to remember, and UBI is easier in Japan.
Why did you choose Montreal for Ubisoft Digital Arts?
YG: That's where we have the largest studio, so it's easier for us to add that new studio beside the other one. It's easier to regroup people, and to cross-cut designs between the two.
Are you at all interested in moving into the feature film arena with this sort of thing?
YG: Yeah, we're very excited about that. But the goal is to make sure that at the end of the day we do better games. Yes, we want to do movies, but our primary goal is to make sure that we can enhance the games that we will do.
And I assume you want to stay strictly in the digital realm? Even if you did features, they would not be live-action?
YG: No, the goal is really to do more digital.