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Q&A: Ubisoft's Petz Executive Producer Tony Van

The resurrection of the '90s Petz virtual pet franchise by Ubisoft has been an intriguing, overlooked success - so Gamasutra talked in detail to Ubisoft's Tony Van about the rapidly expanding console/PC franchise, Nintendogs comparisons, and
The Petz series of pet simulation games began in 1995, with Dogz for the PC, and was quickly followed up by Catz the next year. The series’ original developer, PF Magic, was bought out by publisher Mindscape in 1998, who continued developing Petz titles until rights to the franchise were acquired by Ubisoft in 2002. Ubisoft released Petz 5 later that year for PC, then put the franchise on hold for three years. Dogz and Catz were released for the Game Boy Advance in November of 2005 – three months after the release of Nintendo’s record breaking Nintendogs franchise for the DS. The company have recently announced the revitalisation of the franchise, with series Executive Producer Tony Van commenting that November will see “a ton of new titles in the Petz brand: Dogz PC, Catz PC, Horsez PS2, Dogz DS, Catz DS, Horsez DS, and Hamsterz Life DS. We contacted Van to ask about the franchise, its diversification, and the competition it faces from the Nintendogs brand. What's the history of the franchise? The Dogz franchise was created in 1995, when a company called P.F. Magic found a use for their new Ballz technology by making "cartoony" 3D dogs on very low end PC 2D hardware. The product was a hit, and more Dogz and Catz PC games came out over the years, selling around 2 million units worldwide. Ubisoft acquired the brand, and produced Dogz and Catz 5 PC in 2002, using much of the same code that powered that original game with many enhancements. But now Ubisoft has decided to re-invent and expand the franchise to Petz of all kinds. What was behind the decision to bring the franchise back? We had been planning the new Petz brand for a while, but the huge popularity of Nintendogs on DS really kicked us into high gear. We kind of said, ‘Hey, that's our category - we own it!’ And we decided to go both wide - multiple pets - and deep - multiple platforms. Do you feel the diverse range of titles in the series is a strength? Sure! First, not everyone has every game system, so giving the Petz experience across multiple platforms allows anyone to play, as well as the ability to make the game fit the tech of that system. Catz DS for example allows you to call ‘Kitty’ or your cat's name, and the cat will show attention and meow back. The other "off the beaten path" pets are also really cool. Maybe you will never own your own horse or hamster, but you get a taste of what it would be like playing our game. How far can this diversification be pushed before it begins to weaken the franchise, and how aware are you of this issue? The only thing that weakens a franchise is when the game stops meeting the expectation of the consumer. In this case, there are a ton of things we can do in design, technology and art to keep the promise of "loving my pet" active. Also, the fun of these games is not always mired in reality - sometimes its fun to "bend the rules" of reality a bit. The Sims does this all the time, and that makes it fresh. How difficult is it putting the title up against something like Nintendogs? Nintendogs is a high quality product, and Nintendo has done a great job of raising awareness of their game and setting the bar for a quality pet sim. That said, you can't get Nintendogs on PC, PS2, or even GBA. Nor can you play Nintencats, Nintenhorses or Nintenhamsters at this time. And our DS games offer experiences that Nintendogs doesn't, so anyone who is tired of Nintendogs can check out Dogz or Catz DS and see what it has to offer. Do you feel there is a danger of the franchise being seen as an attempt to capitalize on Nintendogs' success, despite pre-dating it by a number of years? I believe other companies are more likely to be accused of that, because they have one game that apes Nintendogs. We are re-building our entire Petz brand, plus we have previous virtual life experience in our production team from the older Dogz and Catz games. We're serious about the genre. What other competitors are in the genre, and how aware are you of over saturation within the market? I'd rather not call attention our competition, but they know who they are. As with any genre, quality will stand out in a saturated market. We are also planning one to two games ahead for features and brand values, so we are more proactive in our strategy then other companies that are simply reactive to what just came out. How does this series differ from your competitors in terms of intended audience? With this release of games, our target audience is mainly children, since historically that's where the sales have gone. I assume that's what the competition is also targeting. However, we know there are many adults who love the pet games too. Striking the balance between what kids want in a game and what adults want is difficult, but something we are attempting. For example, one value I always suggest is the player learning how to best take care of their pet, which translates to its use in the real world. This is valuable to both kids and adults, and if it results in one less abused animal in this world, that makes my job even more rewarding. Do you feel the franchise name is one that is recognized by the intended audience? Like Chessmaster is for chess, Petz - with any pet name with a "z" at the end - it is the brand name for pet life simulation. With this huge game launch this holiday season, and the advertising we are doing, I'm confident that the brand will be in as many players minds as possible. How is the series being marketed, and what do you feel will give it the edge over its competitors? You name it: TV, online, store circulars, web sites, grass-roots community, we are all over it. Again, the fact that we are shipping experiences of all types for multiple platforms is very different then what anyone else is up to. What level of success is expected from the franchise over the holiday period? When we shipped Dogz and Catz games on GBA as the first Petz products in three years, and they were huge successes. We learned a lot from them, and have created even better and diverse experiences this year. It's a good time for anyone who wants to play with a virtual pet! Where do you expect to take the franchise in the future? That's a bit of a secret, though I think there are a lot of hints in the answers I have given above.

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