In 2009 Ubisoft managed one of the games of the year with Assassin's Creed II - and one of the eyebrow-raisers at this year's E3 showing was its follow-up, Brotherhood.
Here, UK marketing director Murray Pannel looks back at the company's marketing for the 2009 success, and appraises its E3 line-up, and looks ahead to plans for the rest of this year - and why there are plenty of reasons to be excited.
Q: First of all, what's the reaction been like to the E3 line-up from Ubisoft?
Murray Pannel: I guess in broad terms I think we had a very good E3. We presented a very strong and varied line-up - in certain areas I think we've surprised people with some of the products. We've got really strong traditional franchises that we know and hope will sell well - such as Assassin's Creed, Driver and Ghost Recon - but we've also got the successes of last year coming back, with things like Just Dance 2.
And importantly, with things like the Michael Jackson game, which is coming as a result of working closely with Sony and Michael Jackson.
So I think we've got a really interesting line-up that's got something for the core game, but also the more casual gamer as well - good variety from now until Christmas, and beyond.
Q: Michael Jackon's estate has made a huge amount of money since his death - I guess you'll be hoping that popularity continues with your game?
Murray Pannel: Absolutely, though the truth is that we were engaged with Jackson and the Jackson family long before his death. By all accounts he was very pro-actively looking for a partner that he felt could bring value - and Ubisoft seemed to fit the bill very well.
So this isn't something that's been jumped on since his death - we've been working on this, despite the fact that we announced it quite recently, for a long time. It's well advanced in terms of the formats it's working on - we know how big he is, how loved he is by his fans and how successful he's been as an artist. Hopefully we can bring that to millions more gamers as well.
Q: Is Michael Jackson unique in the opportunities he brings? Guitar Hero and Rock Band have both released artist- or band-specific add-ons, but this is a completely focused game. Are there others who might warrant entire game experiences on their own that you might be interested in?
Murray Pannel: Michael Jackson clearly breaks boundaries in terms of audiences. Since his death a lot of the awareness that was generated at that point - girls and boys in their pre-teens are now into Michael Jackson, as well as men and women of all ages.
He definitely breaks boundaries and gives us a great opportunity to appeal to a really mass-market for a game. Where does this lead us to in terms of product? I think time will tell, but certainly the technology will be built so that we can take either genre-specific or artist-specific content and create experiences are true to those brands.
Q:When we spoke last year we were looking ahead to the end of 2009, in particular Assassin's Creed II. That was a great success for Ubisoft, but how much of that success can you attribute to marketing, how much was to the game quality, and how much to the fact that it was the second game in a franchise?
Murray Pannel: We're extremely pleased - it sold well over 1 million units now in the 6 months or so it's been out, and very few games do that these days. I think there are a number of factors that contributed to that success - there's no doubt in my mind that the quality of the software was a very important part of it.
A Metacritic of 90-plus per cent gives gamers the reassurance that it's a very good quality game - and that was all the more critical because the first game, although it promised so much, didn't quite deliver on that in terms of review scores. So the fact that it came out and it was a really well-respected, critically-acclaimed game gave us the springboard for success.
I have to say that the PR and marketing really helped - I think it was a very single-minded campaign, very focused, with a decent amount of money behind it that broadened it out from a core gamer who saw the quality of the game, into the mainstream who picked up on the quality aspects and saw the marketing around it, the good PR and all the rest of it.
Broadening that communication out was absolutely critical - we made a point to start the marketing early, which I think helped. And I think there's a third factor, arising from the fear of a congested Christmas market. Actually, it was a little bit quieter because a lot of people moved their games out.
Of course, Call of Duty cleaned up to some extent, but I think even though we were only ten days behind them, there was a vacuum for a good quality triple-A blockbuster title - that wasn't a shooter, and had more of a story and plot-driven element to it - that people loved. Timing wasn't perfect, but in the end I think it helped us a little bit.
Q: In hindsight, was it crucial to have spent that amount of money on marketing? If you hadn't, would day one sales have suffered, do you think?
Murray Pannel: It's very difficult to tell - if we'd halved our budgets, what would have happened? As a marketing guy I've seen evidence in the past that if you reduce it too much and rely solely on the core gamer to buy your products, you limit your sales potential.
So it's a balance you have to strike, between investment and return on that investment, but I think in the case of Assassin's Creed and other games like it, it was money well spent.
Q: Gamers are used to annual iterations of sports titles - and Call of Duty now - but do you think there was an element of surprise that another Assassin's Creed title could follow on so quickly after the last?
Murray Pannel: I think if you look at the industry there were a few raised eyebrows in terms of what we'd be delivering in twelve months. But E3 has proven to me that any concerns that anyone had about quality or content are somewhat unfounded.
It's delivering a brand new gaming experience in terms of 16 hours-plus gameplay - and the icing on the cake is the innovative and interesting multi-player modes, which will be a great proposition for people that enjoy that.
From what I've seen I'm in no doubt that this will be a great standalone game, a triple-A blockbuster title like Assassin's Creed II was last year - and we'll be investing similar amounts to make sure it is so.
Q: Has there been any risk of confusion, given the naming of this game? By not calling it Assassin's Creed III, I wonder if there might be a possibility that some would think of it as an add-on instead of a full game?
Murray Pannel: I think the name 'Assassin's Creed III' won't be used until it's a brand new kind of adventure, timescale and the rest of it. So I think there will be an Assassin's III potentially at some point in time, but the reason for calling this one Brotherhood is because while it's a separate, new, standalone game, it's within the same universe of Assassin's II.
Q: The TV campaign for Brotherhood already started during the World Cup - so how are your marketing plans for the game coming along?
Murray Pannel: Now we've exposed it at E3, the PR has kicked in, and the decision to go on TV was very much driven by some of the success we saw back in 2009. It's difficult to attribute specific day one launch volumes to that, but in terms of pre-orders we saw huge interest, which is a good barometer of how interested people are in the title. That helps us gauge how successful going early on TV is.
I think also, given that we hit well over 12 million people in that World Cup spot, it positions the game as the triple-A blockbuster that we want it to be. In people's minds they see that and think if it's being advertised in serious spots on TV - that early - it must be something I need to think about and be conscious of.
It was a brand-led spot, showcasing the story of Ezio - now working for the Brotherhood against the evil Roman Empire. It wasn't just that the game is coming, go pre-order it - it was setting the scene for the story of Brotherhood, and then the call to action was that if you're interested, there's a pre-order waiting for you.
I think we're early, there's no doubt about it, but I think it sets the stall out for Brotherhood being one of the triple-A blockbusters you need to consider for Christmas this time.
Q: Another of the good scene-setters for Assassin's II last year was the three-part CG film. Are there any plans to do something similar this year?
Murray Pannel: I haven't seen any plans on the cards for this year, no. However, we are working closely with Sony, on marketing and content - there's a multi-player beta which will be exclusively on the Sony platform, which will be another key marketing and PR element that we can activate pre-launch, to get people engaged in advance.
Q: Both EA and THQ recently revealed they were planning to reduce TV ad spend in favour of online and social networks. What are your thoughts on that, and does Ubisoft have similar plans?
Murray Pannel: I imagine the reason they're doing that is because TV is so very, very expensive - and to some extent as a marketeer you have to watch your costs. Does a big TV advertising campaign work for every product? Probably not, but for the big ones I certainly believe that nothing else will give you the broad reach - and speed of reach - that TV will deliver.
We were very lucky this time last year I suppose when TV audiences were growing, but the actual cost of TV advertising was going down. Due to recessionary forces, TV became relatively cheap compared to other media to buy.
That's slightly reversing now into 2010 as costs go up, but I still think there's an opportunity on TV to get brand awareness out there as quickly and broadly as you possibly can. I'm not going to be reducing TV budgets necessarily on big titles, but I am certainly looking at costs and efficiencies.
Digital can help bring both of those, because to some extent you can measure exactly what's going on. That said, I'd certainly not move all of my money out of TV and into digital - because I think you have to look at a campaign objective. What do you need to do with this game? How many people do you need to reach, and how quickly do you need to reach them? How much awareness is there in advance through PR and other media - and how quickly can you activate through retail?
So to just say we're not doing TV any more, for Ubisoft, is probably the wrong thing to do. You balance your marketing campaign according to the objectives you've got there, and somettimes digital is the way to do it, sometimes TV is the way to do it.
Q: Finally - one title that came from nowhere was Just Dance, which has seen significant success, particularly in the UK. What were the elements that made it work?
Murray Pannel: I think this became almost a perfect storm of product, positioning, marketing and price point as well, to some extent. There was definitely a macro-trend in social circles about dance, it was somehow taking off in the UK. If you look at the TV shows, they were all about dancing - on Sky, on the BBC - and people were reacting well to that.
The product was coincidentally in development, and we thought it was going to be successful. Did I think it was going to be as successful as it was? Probably not, if I'm honest. But from a marketing point of view the key success factors were getting the product out in people's hands early - so, a trial tour around shopping centres very early on - and when you do that, they absolutely love it, they can't help getting engaged.
That was critical - and getting PR as a result of the general trend towards dance in the social medium - and then it came out at Christmas, when people are having parties, having fun and enjoying themselves.
Coupled with a very good price point, mid-twenty Pounds, that all made it an accessible game that people could pick-up-and-play, and enjoy, be they young, old, families, young couples playing together... So it was just a perfect alignment of the stars, really - once it had landed in the market and people were playing it, it snowballed. Word of mouth got bigger, we continued the marketing, and it's been our most successful Wii title to-date, with over 1 million units sold.
Q: And interestingly, it came at a time when people were looking at the Wii as a platform in decline (rightly, or wrongly) - that demand for social games wasn't as strong as it had been.
Murray Pannel: It was, I'd say, sneered at by the general games industry - asking if it was relevant for us. I think that's understandable to a certain extent - it isn't a core gamer's game. It's very simple to pick-up-and-play, and as a result very enjoyable for those people who don't play hardcore games.
The music tracks were fantastic, the accessibility second-to-none, and we've been very pleased with it, as you can imagine.
Murray Pannel is UK marketing director at Ubisoft. Interview by Phil Elliott.