The lights are on
A year after Ubisoft acquired Red Storm Entertainment, the publisher absorbed the entertainment division of The Learning Company, which held licenses for several formerly valuable brands like Myst, Chessmaster, and Prince of Persia.
Yves Guillemot: [The acquisition] gave us brands that we could put in Montreal so those guys wouldn’t have to create a new brand each time they made a game. These brands that already existed could be strong. For Prince of Persia, it was after Prince of Persia 3D – I don’t know if you remember Prince of Persia 3D, but it was not as good as the two first ones.
Alain Corre: The last one was done by The Learning Company. It was really bad, and we knew it because we were distributing their games. So we said, “This one, I think, is buried for a while.” The gold in The Learning Company at that time was Myst, so we moved forward with Myst III: Exile and it did extremely well. But at one point, the Montreal studio decided Prince of Persia was a good brand and it could be revived.
Yannis Mallat: I was pushing my boss at the time, Paul Meegan, to get the license. I said, “Paul, I want Prince of Persia,” every day. I played it back in the 1990s, I was interested in the challenge, and I knew a bunch of people who would be a perfect fit for the game. Eventually Paul came back to me and said, “Okay, you’ll be the one producing the game, so gather your team and stop b*tching.”
We needed to get back to what Prince of Persia is from a gamer’s perspective – the animation, the level design, and the story. We all knew the first Prince of Persia was a one-man project, so we invited Jordan Mechner to the studio early in the process. He was working on scripts for movies and documentaries at the time.
Serge Hascoet: We sat down with Jordan, and we promised to give him a great team to reboot Prince of Persia because the brand wasn’t doing well. We had a great team – Yannis Mallat, Patrice Désilets, and nearly 20 great people working with him in the beginning. So many great ideas coming from different people.
YM: Jordan was very responsive to our approach right away, but then it took him a long time for him to fully embark on the game. We were already done with pre-production, the character design, and the main story, but we were struggling with the story at the time. We wanted to go a level deeper into how the gameplay is tied to the story and vice versa. Around then I urged him to come on board full time.
SH: I had some fights with the team. I am very input driven – I like the game to react as soon as you press the button. But Prince of Persia: Sands of Time was animation driven. I spent a night with Yannis just speaking about that. It was nearly the only discussion we had during the course of its creation – and I lost [laughs].
YM: It took us time to put the animations into the real-time engine, but first we had to produce animations as mo-caps of what the gameplay would be like. But until you can play it, you can’t say if the decision is right or not. I think we convinced him when we were able to build some kind of rhythm into mastering the animation system. He was right – platformers are rhythm driven, and when you manage to get the game playing well then it’s quite enjoyable. The challenge was to prove to him that the animation system could be the maestro of that rhythm.
Maybe four or five weeks before E3, I got a phone call from Sony Computer Entertainment telling me that they absolutely wanted Prince of Persia in the Sony booth. I managed to contain my enthusiasm, saying, “That’s great. Thank you very much,” but as soon as I hung up the phone I literally ran into the production floor in the middle of the team and screamed like a madman. I told the team, “We’re going to be in the Sony booth and we’re going to have five pods!” At the time it was huge because the game was still under the radar. That was a very intense moment that I’ll always remember.
AC: We showed it at E3 in 2003, and we didn’t know what to expect. We knew it was very beautiful, but we didn’t know if it would please a lot of people. And so then we saw the booth was completely crowded. Even our competitors were playing there. I remember even the boss of EA was playing there and saying, “Gosh, it’s good.” And we said, “We have created something again.”
YM: We prepared our E3 demo very well. We put everything we had into the seven maps that we had for E3 candidates. We went to E3, which was great, but when we went back to the office, I gathered the whole team and we played all of the maps in the game except the E3 maps. Suddenly E3 and all of the celebrations were forgotten. We were just down because of course they were in a disastrous state. We ended up removing a good portion of the game that should have been the belly of the game. So I sat down with Patrice [Désilets, creative director], Jordan, and the team and said, “We just had a great E3 and people are expecting this game and we can’t do it, so let’s just focus on what’s really important. "It was a very intense summer, but the engine was stable, and the main character behavior was complete, so it was just a question of rolling out the maps.
But maybe a month before submitting the candidate, a tester found a very nasty pitfall in the game. If you remember, there was no loading in the game. It was the very first game to offer a seamless experience with no loading between maps. For that to happen we had dynamic loading, which is possible when you unload previous parts of the maps to load the upcoming parts. We did this in long corridors, and everything was running perfectly until Marianne LeCouffe decided to see what would happen when you would rewind. It was a nightmare – this was replicable everywhere in the game. There was no way to fix this in the code base so we had to redo all the geometry. This was extremely stressful because the marketing campaign had already launched and the [release] dates were already locked. We just busted our asses and shipped the game.
AC: We were a bit afraid. But when we saw what they did, we knew they really revived the spirit of Prince of Persia.
SH: The wow effect of the game was the animation. There was no competition at that level at that time. The character design was top notch, and the graphics were quite marvelous, too. It was a magical project with magical people.
YM: It took time for the sales to pick up. It was a very busy holiday season, but at the end of the day I think Ubisoft is right to invest in quality, because an average game would just have collapsed at that time. If you manage to make a good enough game, then even if the first weeks are hard, the sales will pick up. That happened, and that was probably the best experience of my life.
Prince of Persia: Sands of Time solidified Ubisoft Montreal’s status as an elite studio, winning eight Interactive Achievement Awards. Two highly successful sequels followed in the subsequent two years, and the series has sold over 17 million units to date. [PageBreak]
After finishing Rayman 2, creator Michel Ancel stepped away from the franchise to start a new labor of love, Beyond Good & Evil. The artistically ambitious game combined the cinematic storytelling of a Miyazaki film with gameplay that skillfully blended puzzle solving, exploration, and stealth.
Michel Ancel: I really wanted to make something new – more major – something really different than what we were used to doing. This was very interesting because for this project, Yves Guillemot, the CEO, came to Montpellier and was really behind the project. Unfortunately, it was not so successful, but Yves was really behind us for the whole development, which was incredible because he spent time regularly with us on the project.
It became very evident very early because we went to two E3s with this game, and one I remember there was no applause and nobody to talk to [after a demo]. We saw a lot of people, but nobody was talking about the game. We were like, “Maybe something is wrong.” There were so many big titles. People were obsessed with existing franchises and technological games, which is not bad, but for this kind of game with a woman protagonist with a camera where it wasn’t really clear what you were going to do in the game – it was bad. So we realized that the game would need time to be appreciated.
Yves Guillemot: Peter Jackson loved it and Michel really showed what he could do to create innovative games. It’s a shame that you can do such an innovative game and that people feel that because there is a pig and it’s not adapted totally to the audience, you don’t sell the volume you expected.
Alain Corre: Progressively, people have learned about it and it is considered one of the best games ever done. We released it recently on the Xbox Live in HD and it did extremely well, but it’s too late.
The press widely praised Beyond Good & Evil, but in a jam-packed holiday season featuring the likes of Final Fantasy X-2 , Call of Duty, and Ubisoft’s own Prince of Persia, the game failed to gain traction with consumers. In 2008, Ubisoft announced a sequel, but the large project has taken a backseat to Rayman Origins.
With development costs rising, in the early 2000s many publishers started looking into consolidating their businesses. Squaresoft merged with Enix in 2003, Sega merged with Sammy in 2004, and in 2007 Electronic Arts lost its spot at the top of the publishing food chain when Vivendi agreed to purchase Activision and formed the new entity Activision Blizzard. Ubisoft was forced into the merger discussions in late 2004 when Electronic Arts announced that it had purchased 20 percent of Ubisoft’s shares unbeknownst to the company’s executives. This was the largest block of shares outside of the Guillemot family, giving the company adequate leverage to wage a proxy battle and shape Ubisoft’s future direction.
Yves Guillemot: One guy from EA called me on a Sunday afternoon, saying “We just bought 20 percent of your company, so we just wanted to tell you that because it is going to be public tomorrow.” At that time EA was trying to buy Activision, and they were close to a deal. They had discussions on the last bits and they called Bobby to say, “We bought 20 percent of Ubisoft.” What I heard was that somebody from the Wall Street Journal heard about that soon after. So EA had to announce because the guys at Activision were upset, saying, “What do you want? Do you want to buy us or what?” They called me and said, “Okay, we bought 20 percent.” That was a big shock for us because at the same time they didn’t know what they would do with it. We asked what they wanted to do, and they said, “We don’t know yet.” So we had discussions with managers and my brothers and different people involved and so we decided to reject the potential offer.
Alain Corre: Sunday at 9:30 Yves calls. Really? Sunday at 9:30 is not when Yves normally calls, so I remember it very well. I was at home upstairs in my office, and I said, “Wow. That means that we’re succeeding.” It was a big shock for us, obviously, and it was very bizarre because we didn’t know what would happen.
YG: At that time EA had the reputation of being very business oriented, not caring too much about creative, and so we said, maybe those guys can come with an impressive amount of money, but it would never work with the way they do with their business. Its culture would not fit. They changed afterward. They are becoming better with creators and so on. But at that time they really had a mentality that was very different than ours.
Christine Burgess-Quémard: On one hand it was very flattering because, obviously, a company wanting to get into your capital means that you’re doing well. And on the other hand, we’ve always been extremely proud of our independence and we’ve always fought fiercely for our independence. And we were determined to keep on fighting.
AC: It was so shocking – a cold shower. Very, very quickly all the employees were vocal about that and said that they didn’t want to lose the Ubisoft culture. They didn’t want to lose their Ubisoft history and that dynamism that went along with it.
Serge Hascoet: It’s not like buying a factory; it’s people – creative people. When we broke the news the first five minutes before our meeting [people were saying] “We are not the same as EA. If they come, I will leave,” et cetera.
YG: We looked at everything we could to do to try to show the potential resistance. So we went to see anybody we could see to help, so I just had a meeting with one [government] minister in France and it helped a lot.
It really shook the company a lot, and so we became very focused on making no mistakes to make sure that they couldn’t find a way to, you know, to get in. It changed the way we were conducting the business to make sure that everything would be profitable for sure and we took fewer risks. It stopped us from buying companies; it didn’t help us to expand the way we wanted at that time.
CBQ: There was no real difference to the everyday life at all. It was the initial shock, and then the months went by, and then the years.
AC: It pushed us into the swimming pool. We had to swim by ourselves to a certain extent and perform. And we were not thinking about them. They were there, but we were doing our thing, because we had our road map. Do better and perform better and create better games and have more consumers. That has always been our motto, even during that time. What we put in place helped us grow into the top three [publishers], increasing our market share to be close to 10 percent now.
YG: At first it was the sword of Damocles hanging over our head. For a while we’d have discussions and then no discussions. They were nice people, so it was okay, but you didn’t know what could happen. When [current EA CEO] John Riccitiello took over he said, “You know, I’m not going to go after you without your approval. We can discuss things, but don’t feel you will be attacked. If we do something it will be done collaboratively.”
After six years of owning the stock, EA quietly sold its shares in 2010, freeing Ubisoft from the threat of hostile takeover.
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