The lights are on
When Assassin’s Creed: Rogue was announced earlier this month, the list of platforms confirmed what some Nintendo fans had been dreading. Ubisoft is stepping back its development on Wii U.
At Gamescom, we had the chance to catch up with company CEO Yves Guillemot to discuss Nintendo, the ticking clock hovering over last-gen, and the potential for an Ubisoft subscription program to match EA Access. We also discussed Early Access, and Ubisoft’s success using the platform on PC.
Guillemot has told us before that he is surprised by how fast consumers are upgrading to the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Now, he is even more confident about Ubisoft’s development priorities over the coming year. “What we see is that this year is still fine for the PS3 and 360, but next year because they are selling very quickly, we’ll move to the new hardware,” Guillemot tells us. “After 2015, it will be hard for us to create games for those systems.”
We’ve witnessed similar shifts in timing from other publishers, and similar comments about the fast pace of consumer upgrading. During that part of our conversation, Guillemot mentioned a three-way competition for consumer spending. We inquired about Ubisoft’s relationship with Nintendo.
“It’s very simple,” Guillemot says. “What we see is that Nintendo customers don’t buy Assassin’s Creed. Last year, we sold in very small numbers.” In fact, across Ubisoft’s portfolio, Nintendo Wii U sales only represent three percent of the total for the fiscal year ended March 31, 2014. That’s down a percentage point from the previous year. Wii sales were still strong in the last fiscal year, making up 11 percent of total software sold, with major strength from the Just Dance franchise. (Note: This passage originally asserted that both Nintendo home consoles represent a total of three percent. We have corrected and clarified. We regret the error.)
Source: Ubisoft Fiscal Year 2014 Annual Report (year ended March 31, 2014)
The company isn’t abandoning Nintendo entirely. Rather, it is simply shifting its focus on the platform. “What we see is that they are very interested in Just Dance, very interested by other kinds of games," Guillemot says. “So what we are trying to do is to focus more on the types of games they are interested in.”
Watch Dogs is the exception to this new rule. Ubisoft has promised the title for Wii U, and as of now, that version is still in the works. “[Watch Dogs] is coming to Wii U,” he assures. “It will be the only mature game we publish on it.”
We also spoke briefly about third-party exclusives, especially in the wake of Microsoft signing with Square-Enix to bring Rise of the Tomb Raider first to Xbox systems. “For Ubisoft, it’s more complex to do that kind of thing, especially on big franchises,” Guillemot says. “You have to make sure your fans can access the games they really want to play. Sometimes they can’t afford to buy different consoles, so [exclusivity] needs to be considered carefully.”
That’s not to say that Ubisoft isn’t willing to explore different business models. The company is keeping a watchful eye on EA’s new Access program on Xbox One, and Guillemot sees benefits beyond the revenue.
“I think it makes the publisher more important in the player’s mind,” he says. “Often, people are only interested in one brand from a publisher, so they don’t look for other brands. When you buy into something like Access, you can try other things for free and discover other things you like. It’s a way to make sure gamers can get more info on what we do and the diversity of our portfolio.”
Guillemot likens the idea of publisher “Access” subscriptions to television channels. “When you look on your console, you have many channels and you want that diversity,” he says. “Instead of saying everything’s in one place, we can say ‘Okay, try these channels: EA, Ubi, Activision.’
He sees programs like this as a way to increase diversity and attract new users to the consoles. Interestingly, Ubisoft hasn’t yet signed on with the only platform-level program yet. The company is not included in the PlayStation Now library. “We are still in the process of studying what it can do,” he explains. “We are open to any way that can give players access to our games. It has to work well and be a smooth experience.”
Ubisoft has so far found success in monetizing its back catalog via sales, and digital delivery has helped the company realize savings. However, Guillemot finds benefit in retail, too.
“The disadvantage [of digital delivery], I would say, is that when you go to a retailer, you have somebody telling you what he feels about the game,” he says. “You can’t always do that online, but when you’re in a store you will have someone you know that played and can tell you more. I feel there’s a very important role played by people in stores who have a better understanding of the games.”
Ubisoft has experimented a bit with Steam’s Early Access model. The company has participated a number of times so far, with Might & Magic X, Mighty Quest for Epic Loot, and Ghost Recon Phantoms (formerly Ghost Recon Online) sold to consumers before full release.
“Early Access is very interesting because you have your customers giving you lots of advice to improve the game,” he explains. There is a downside to the Early Access model, though. “It has a negative impact on marketing, because with so many people playing it, launch is less of an event,” Guillemot says.
He believes that in order for Early Access to be the right call, developers need to be willing to listen to players. “[Early Access] worked very well at first. But now, there is a mixture of good games and games that were never improved because they didn’t sell enough,” he says. “You have to use Early Access to actually have players and fans help you improve the product. If the game is really improved with the help of those playing, it can be very interesting.”