In the first part of the interview with Ubisoft EMEA MD Alain Corre, we discussed some of the lessons the publisher learned from a challenging climate in 2009, and examined its refocus towards key franchises.
In part two we look at why Assassin's Creed II sold 40 per cent more units than its predecessor, examine the reasons behind movie tie-in Avatar's underperformance, look at what the online U Play community will bring and find out how the company is moving towards more annualisation of its key properties.
Q: You mentioned that sales for Assassin's Creed II were up by 40 per cent compared to the original - what is that down to? Is it that the brand is stronger, or the installed base is bigger?
Alain Corre: After the first game, which started out well but turned into a phenomenon, we reviewed all of the comments we had from gamers. They were saying that it looked gorgeous, that the setting was completely new, that the hero was charismatic - there were lots of positive elements.
But there were also some drawbacks about the fact that sometimes there wasn't much happening, and that sort of thing. So what we did was to take all the possible improvements to the game and we tried to add them all.
In terms of depth, gameplay, richness of things to do, we changed completely those drawbacks from the first game, and the result was a much smoother, more complete experience. It was far more rewarding for the gamer, and I think the word-of-mouth has been very good in that respect - that's why it sold more than the first one, and is still selling very well now.
It shows us that people like, they speak highly about it to their friends, and their friends are then playing it as well - it's that, as well as the dramatic improvement of quality.
Q: It was one of only a small number of key core titles released in that pre-Christmas window in the end - was that because other publishers wanted to avoid going up against Assassin's Creed II and Modern Warfare 2, or because they genuinely wanted to make sure titles were finished before releasing them?
Alain Corre: I think it's both. It's true that when you see big blockbusters coming along at the same time, you think twice. We also do that sometimes throughout the year for other releases, looking at the best time to release games - when you see monsters coming along at the same time, you can be a bit afraid of the shadow.
But also what happens is that the level of quality of games like Modern Warfare 2, Uncharted 2 or Assassin's Creed II has been such that the other candidates realised their own games didn't quite have that level of quality to challenge them - so they had to add some development time to make sure they could polish, and increase the quality of their own products.
So I think the delays are a bit of that - when you're attempting a pole vault and you see the bar is at 6 metres, but you're only able to jump 5.7 metres, the best thing to do is to go back into training for a bit longer... [smiles]
Q: Another title released in the last few months was Avatar - the film's gone on to break box office records for its takings, beating Titanic...
Alain Corre: Mr Cameron is a bit of a genius, isn't he?
Q: He's done okay for himself, that's true. But how do you feel about sales of the game? They've not been quite as high as you'd have liked, I'm sure?
Alain Corre: It's true - we were clearly hoping for more. What didn't help was the timing of the release of the movie. It came out in the third week of December, and you may remember that the hype even a couple of weeks beforehand wasn't that great - because it was a new IP and not much had been shown on the movie.
So nothing was really happening, but the issue we had was that in our industry you can't ship a game after the first week of December - so we had to put a lot of units in stores, with window displays and so on, but the buzz wasn't there, even though we were doing some TV to support it.
In the first couple of weeks the game sold a little bit - because when you don't have the marketing you don't sell, especially at Christmas - and the buzz only really came around Christmas Day or so when people went to the movies and decided to watch Avatar.
But that was a bit late to create a strong sales trend - so we missed a lot of the hype and buzz which are necessary in anticipation of a Christmas hit. That was one point.
It was true that we were also hoping to create a better experience, I'd say, in terms of gaming - but it's not always easy when you have to follow the rules of a studio. When you have guidelines and so on, it's more rigid in terms of creation than what you can do with your own property - like Assassin's Creed II for example.
Q: I guess the timeframe for release doesn't allow much leeway, when tied to a big Hollywood release?
Alain Corre: No, it doesn't - and very often in our industry, when you test a product, you know that in the last few weeks of polishing you can add so much in terms of gameplay and feeling, sometimes even 6-8 weeks can completely change the perception of the game.
But when you have to release on time with a movie, then you have to stop at some point the creation, and off you go.
Q: Something that's helped Activision and EA is the annualisation of franchises - Call of Duty, FIFA, etc. What's Ubisoft's comparison, and do you need to work a bit harder in this area, do you think?
Alain Corre: Well, actually we're organising ourselves towards that strategy - providing you can create something innovative every year that can surprise the end user and please your gamers. Then you can consider releasing a SKU every 12-18 months - but it needs to be different enough from the previous SKU to make sure you're not tiring the franchise or the consumers.
The Call of Duty example is the best around - they've been able over the past five years to iterate every year with growing success each time. They never compromise on quality, which is exactly what we're trying to do with our brands now.
For next year we have announced a few weeks ago that we've got a new Assassin's Creed game - the next iteration that will surprise everybody - and we believe that will be a big success as well. We need to put enough energy and talent into each new game, so it can become better than the previous one.
Q: How do you envisage U Play developing? Xbox and PlayStation have introduced Achievements and Trophies to motivate users to play more, and it's a good tactic to provide that - but will U Play also allow you speak more directly to your user base?
Alain Corre: It's more and more important to be able to connect directly with your consumers. It's important to know what they like and what they don't like in your games - those conversations can help you to improve future games, but also it's an excellent means for us to deliver to them some extra services, whether that's tips, extra content, rewards, or any kind of element that can extend the pleasure in the games they're playing.
Being able to exchange with them regularly will make them part of the family, part of the creation of the iterations and next games - which I think is essential for us and for them.
Q: There are already some strong social networking and achievement systems out there - are you confident users will embrace U Play?
Alain Corre: I think we're different to something like Facebook, which is more of a hub for communicating to lots of people about everything. What we're trying to do really is something like a VIP club on each of our games, to bring together all of the people who enjoyed a certain experience, and to be able to share with them what they like - and give them more of it.
So it's dedicated to our gamers, and I think at the end of the day we'll be much richer for them. To that extent it's very different from Facebook.
Alain Corre is Ubsioft's MD for the EMEA territories. Interview by Phil Elliott.