Ubisoft's Michael de Plater
The creative director talks about launching new IPs, the progress of technology and releasing games at Christmas
One of the new IPs launched late last year was Ubisoft's EndWar - a Tom Clancy-badged game that brought voice recognition software into mainstream gaming to good effect. But while it sold well, it was arguably drowned out by other big franchise and sequel releases.
Here, the game's creative director, Michael de Plater, talks about the challenges of launching a new IP, a new trend emerging for release dates, the inexorable march of technology, and the opportunities that brings.
Q: You were heavily involved in the Total War franchise a few years ago - have you seen or played the latest game, Empire?
Michael de Plater: Actually I haven't played it yet - it's one of those ones on the list, just because I've been moving back from China to Europe. I know it's going to eat a huge chunk of my life when I do, so I'm just setting aside some time to play it.
Obviously I looked at the reviews pretty closely.
Q: It must be pretty exciting to have been involved in something that was groundbreaking in its genre - was it a tough decision to leave and join Ubisoft?
Michael de Plater: Actually the tough part of going to Ubisoft - because I left at the end of Rome, which I was really happy with, and that was a good time to leave - was that it wasn't the end of Spartan, which was the console action game. I really liked it, and I think there are a lot of things about it that make a great game.
So leaving before that was finished was the tough decision, but then if I'd waited until the end of that, there'd have been something else. Back then it was the beginning of the next generation of consoles and I really, strongly wanted to get onto the console. Ubi gave me the chance to do that, and also the chance to work in China was really exciting too.
So it was tough, but it was a new adventure as well.
Q: A lot has happened in the past 4-5 years - what's the biggest change you've seen, from sitting inside a big, publisher-owned studio?
Michael de Plater: To me, it's been a period of enormous change, and the last four years I would say has been the time when games have actually surpassed movies as the premium blockbuster entertainment.
Things like Assassin's Creed and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare - you can totally stack them up next to whatever the blockbuster movies are, whether it's Transformers or Terminator.
It's two things - on the one hand, as blockbuster entertainment games have finally reached a point where they're the leading medium, but at the same time there's been this meteoric rise of casual, online and mobile games.
I think sometimes those two things are perceived as being somehow in conflict with each other - there are blockbuster games and there are casual games - but I think the future moving forwards will be the convergence of those trends.
So, real blockbuster games that then connect to you everywhere - on Facebook, on your iPhone, and so on.
Q: Nobody sees a blockbuster movie and says it's only for the core audience...
Michael de Plater: The thing that really excited me about that direction the other day... and something I really like with Ubisoft, when you hear about Yves [Guillemot, Ubisoft CEO] or whoever talking about the convergence about the film and games... but I opened up Empire magazine when I got to the UK the other day and there was a feature about Avatar the movie being revealed - but they were using screenshots from the game.
It's actually becoming a reality, and I think that's really exciting.
Q: One thing you can't get away from is the rate of change of technology, which is a challenge, but also brings new opportunities - with EndWar using voice recognition, what other opportunities do you see arising, and how important is it for us as an industry to bring new experiences to gamers?
Michael de Plater: I think you hit the nail on the head by talking about experiences - basically, whatever experience you want to give people, and whatever the popular imagination or fantasy of that experience is, then you try and give people the most immediate access to that experience.
So if your fantasy is about being a general and yelling at people then you want to live that by voice. If you're fantasy is about rock-climbing or mountaineering, something where you can climb...
Q: I guess the success of Guitar Hero and Rock Band also bear out that point?
Michael de Plater: Exactly - Rock Band is the best possible example, because actually the kind of experiences that people fantasise about having, or want to have, really don't appear to have changed very much.
When I was a kid it was cowboys and Indians, or hide-and-seek, or playing with your Star Wars figures, or LEGO - and realising those sort of experiences really hasn't changed.
But as you say, the technology, and empowering people to have deeper experiences like that - not just in the graphics, but in the interface and interaction and communication as well.
Q: I was impressed at how well the voice control for EndWar worked, even with lots of background noise.
Michael de Plater: It's about two things - accessibility and immersion. You can pick it up and play, firstly, and then you can put yourself in the role of being a commander. That went really well.
Q: What sort of lessons did you learn from the production?
Michael de Plater: It's hard to talk about big, general lessons, but probably the number one lesson we learned is that console is not as different from PC as we would have anticipated it to be.
In terms of depth and content of the gameplay we probably went too far in assuming we had to simplify things. We actually put an enormous amount of effort and iteration on the accessibility to make sure that it was pick up and play, and in the end we probably went a bit too far on that. I think Halo Wars made the same mistake.
From my experience with Rome: Total War before, it's an incredibly easy thing to fall back on - adding features and complexity is really, really easy. Stripping stuff back and making it simple is very hard - so that was the biggest lesson.
But at the same time I think it was a really good lesson to learn, and we can come back from that.
Q: Looking back at last year, it was a tough time to launch a new IP - I've heard people compare the performance of games like Mirror's Edge and Dead Space and compare them, slightly unfairly, with things like Call of Duty -
Michael de Plater: Call of Duty took a long time to get there...
Q: Yes, and everything has to start somewhere - what was it that made it so hard last year, though, or was it as hard as it's always been?
Michael de Plater: Well, EndWar sold about three times as many units as Shogun: Total War, as a new IP. And in pretty much everywhere in the world we did better than Red Alert 3. So probably Command & Conquer would be our most direct competitor, and as far as I can see we beat them on our first go.
So it was actually a really good starting point - but it's the relativity of the perception. If I could go back and change one thing, I wouldn't launch on the same day as Gears of War 2. I think that's another lesson actually - from the experience on PC, where you can get out into the market and there's a much longer cycle, I think console is more day one, more hit-driven.
It's interesting though - in the last five years the two biggest RTS games are now Halo Wars and EndWar, and they're two console ones. But in relative success, obviously they're not as big as console shooters, and so on.
I think the short answer is that it's as hard as it's ever been, but probably - for Mirror's Edge, Dead Space and ourselves - it's a bit tough to launch a new IP exactly at Christmas when you're head-to-head with blockbuster sequels.
Q: It's interesting to see a number of big titles, like Heavy Rain, being targeted at 2010 to avoid the Christmas rush.
Michael de Plater: And Ubisoft's got RUSE coming out in 2010. Even God of War 3's in 2010, that's how brutal it is. I mean, you've got Assassin's Creed 2, Modern Warfare 2, Mass Effect 2...
Q: But BioShock 2 was pushed back...
Michael de Plater: Well there's an example - the sequel to a 95 per cent-scoring game that's pushed back... that's a big lesson from last Christmas.
Q: What's the future for voice control gaming?
Michael de Plater: To be honest the software and the headsets that we use were an original evolution on the headsets that NFL coaches use on their sidelines - basically anywhere in the real world where people use voice ad their interface, you can imagine applying that in a game.
The reason it works fairly for EndWar is that we could keep the vocabulary limited - it's about 80 words - and because it's military you can use that syntax. Where we were in terms of that working well is still a long way from having completely natural speech, but it'll get there.
In five years you could imagine Mass Effect 4, or whatever, having actual speech recognition in - it's a bit like Milo and Project Natal - I'm sure there are still some limitations there, but it's showing that potential.
Michael de Plater is creative director at Ubisoft. Interview by Phil Elliott.