Digital Watch

Ubisoft's Thomas Paincon on how digital is changing the very structure of the company, and the industry, forever

At this week's Ubisoft Digital Day it was clear that the Assassin's Creed publisher has fully committed to the digital future, as head of digital marketing for the UK, Alan Dykes, revealed that 20 to 25 per cent of the companies resources were focused purely on the digital space. As well as launching new IPs like I Am Alive through PSN and XBLA, the company is expanding their console brands across all the major gaming platforms, and creating new digital spaces for brands like Imagine, with Imagine Town.

We spoke exclusively to Ubisoft's online brand marketing group manager, Thomas Paincon, about the company's move into the digital space, its plans for the new, user created online portal Mania Planet, and how ultimately, digital is changing the very structure of studios forever.

Q: So this is the first time you've held a Digital Day in the UK, does that show that it's becoming a more important part of the business?

Thomas Paincon: That's the thing, the goal of the event was to show that our ambition for it is now real. You can play all the games, and you can see that we're working on different platforms, digital, XBLA, PSN, but also all the PC, free-to-play, Facebook and the iOS, Android in the coming months. It's really to show no more wishes or ambition, now the products are real, you can play them, you can test them.

That was the goal of this event, not to be a formal presentation but to say to people "come and play our games."

Q: So it's now 20 to 25 per cent of your resources at Ubisoft. Do you see that growing, and in what sort of time frame?

Thomas Paincon: Yes. I think it will get bigger in the coming months and years, because now, if you take for example the business model of free-to-play, it's obvious on PC, but if you see the iOS titles right now, the top ten, the first five products are free-to-play. So it's not a business only linked to PC, but it's a real business that can be important on every platform.

So for example there are people that are working in the studio as monetisation designers, which is a new role that didn't exist five years ago. These people will work across platforms and so it will be more and more integrated in the production team. So right now all our blueprint strategies for Assassin's and Ghost Recon, even at the first stage of development, have to propose an experience that includes iOS, XBLA, Facebook, to have a whole environment for a big launch.

The goal is really to get all the production team involved in the digital space and the different platforms, so they think about it ahead of the development and not after the development

And again not a port, this is really what we don't want. It's a really different experience. That's why on Assassin's Creed: Recollections, it's a board game, so it's really something different, but still in the Assassin's Creed environment.

So the goal is to integrate digital and all the different platforms in the first step of development. So that percentage will go up, because it will be difficult to separate the people working on digital, because if you talk about DLC, it's digital. I think in the coming months and years it will be more difficult to split and say this team is working only on digital... The goal is really to get all the production team involved in the digital space and the different platforms, so they think about it ahead of the development and not after the development.

It enables you to have a bridge between the different platforms, because if you release digital two years after a boxed release it's really difficult to have cross promotion or things like that. But if you think as a global environment, you can say "OK, I will enable people to play iOS games and then unlock things that they can use at home on their console, and then they can share it on the Facebook games," but this has to be thought of in the beginning. Afterwards it's more artificial and superficial, so this is what we have in mind for any new release.

Q: So any new IPs you're looking at now have to have those multiple platform options from day one?

Thomas Paincon: Exactly. But it doesn't prevent us from inventing a new franchise, and this is the other good thing about digital, it can enable us to take risks. From Dust, and I Am Alive, it had a bumpy development, but it enabled us to develop and be successful products that may never find success on retail.

Because retail now is very high end product, you don't have the middle. On XBLA we think that we can take risks, and if some production team has an original concept or something like that but its difficult to communicate on the box, we can use XBLA and PSN. With From Dust you can see that because it reached half a million sales, which we never reached with any other digital game, so it's something we're really pushing.

We know this platform, we know how to market the title on this platform, and it's seen as more of a secondary quality way of distributing, because this was maybe the case some years ago, but now when you see the quality of games on XBLA it's really increased a lot. It's no more a second hand product.

Q: Do you find that they are two different types of gamers, those who buy digital and those who buy boxed products?

Thomas Paincon: I think it's just a different way of buying. On XBLA it's more impulse buying, because it's 10 or 15 Euros, and now in November you have so many big titles that if you take the first semester or the summer there are not so many great titles. So it's a way to propose some experiences to even the core gamers, and the one big advantage is that they can test the demo, which is not the case in retail. So they can try it and then convert, so that's why the demo is really key on these products, because it's an entry point, and if the demo is crap you don't get conversions at all.

And also I think there's potential. Babel Rising, which is Kinect compatible, because right now there aren't so many products out there that are compatible on Kinect, and not at 10 or 15 Euro price points. And if you see the success of Fruit Ninja, there's room for maybe more casual titles, and not a 20 hours game, but something a family can play without having to know all the buttons. Just have fun for five or 10 minutes. It's a different approach but I think there's a real market. And core gamers, they see both.

XBLA is always mentioned in every communication from Microsoft, which is maybe not the case with Sony

They select retail, there are like 10 big guns, but then they are ready to take a risk on this platform because its only 10 or 15 Euros. It's really different but more people are used to buying XBLA and PSN, even if the Sony outage didn't help us on that [Laughs].

Q: How do you find XBLA and PSN to work with?

Thomas Paincon: Microsoft has more concrete strategy and programme, like Summer Of Arcade. It has a different approach on that. So Microsoft is more active right now, on this market. But we work with both of them, and of course, XBLA is always mentioned in every communication from Microsoft, which is maybe not the case with Sony.

People are used to the XBLA, not only to play, but video on demand, music, so it enables us to have cross promotion. And the life cycle of a digital game is not the same, because you can do promotions and things like that, and you don't have any stock risk. And that's something else to take into account, there's not this day one obligation, a game can grow, it can be surprisingly successful, even if there's not a TV campaign for two million Euros to back it up. So there's still room. Take Minecraft - that just came out of nowhere, no marketing campaign, just a good idea.

Q: You're showing I Am Alive today, is that an example of a game that would have just died?

Thomas Paincon: Yes. I mean right now the goal is to offer a new experience with I Am Alive, and again it could have been a lot of investment to really grow it to the AAA level, because again, if you're not at the 80 or 90 score you're dead. You can try to deliver just an average game, because it won't work.

So digital enabled us to make a clear choice. It's really survival, it's really core and maybe old fashioned, but it can really fit for a certain number of gamers. And at 15 Euros the quality is worth it. If it had been sold at 60 Euro it would have required ten times the length. So it's a choice, but again, we can have radical choices of digital, to have more niche product, but on retail its too difficult have this sort of product. It's a different approach.

Q: When you spoke about expanding IPs across platforms, does that mean fewer new and original IPs for Ubisoft?

Thomas Paincon: If you take iOS for example, we launched Monster Burner last week, by Ubisoft Montreal - they don't always work on Assassin's Creed. Even from that, we can say now that's a license that we built digitally, which was the first time in Ubisoft's history. So you can imagine From Dust on iOS, maybe From Dust 2, so it's enabled us to take risks and test some concepts also.

Monster Burner, the first message to the team was do a game that will really fit the iPad, and that's what they did. So this is a testing laboratory in real time, where you can work, test some things, with less risk.

Q: Do you think the next generation of consoles and services will be focused more on digital?

Thomas Paincon: I think this is the sense of the history. We are talking about cloud gaming, about connections, so yes, I think it will be the heart of the next consoles. It's also now that people are now so used to being connected, all the time. Sometimes I think there's a business to stop the addiction of connection, but people want to access everything all the time. I also think the gaming spirit will be in our everyday life. I think if you look at augmented reality, I think it will be something like that.

There's a constraint in the power and the size of the network, because of course you cannot do everything you want to do on digital, but we know that [socialising] is so important. And it brings new players, even on Facebook, that have never touched a game before. And the multiplication of devices is just bringing new players from different generations, so I think it will be interconnected.

We cannot go from one to the other quickly. I don't have any time frame, but I think the box will stay for the big games, I don't think that will completely reversed in one or two years.

Q: Christmas is crucial to retail, but is it a big time for digital?

Thomas Paincon: No [Laughs]. We prefer to release a game in the first semester or summer, because people like the short session and don't want to invest a lot. But at the end of the year it's very difficult, on the XBLA and PSN for example.

On iOS you don't have these kind of things, because it's good to communicate in December and January because you have all the gifts, and the tablets, and iPad is number one on the gift list. And when you receive an iPad the first thing you do is to buy everything the first month. So January is quite good for the iOS platform, but XBLA and PSN, we prefer to be in the quiet period. Because players cannot play 20 games at a time, and if you buy Assassin's Creed or Call Of Duty they don't have time to invest in other experiences.

We don't see this peak in Christmas period, and also this is when there's no programme, it's not by chance that Microsoft is organising House Party in March and the Arcade in July, because there is a demand and the publishers don't release a lot of titles during this period, so there's a space. And even for media, it would be too expensive to communicate on the digital titles compared to the big guns.

Q: Mania Planet, how is that progressing?

Thomas Paincon: We released TrackMania 2 Canyon at the beginning of September, so now it's doing quite well, and Mania Planet is really an environment, but until ShootMania is released people will not understand what Mania Planet is. Because right now Mania Planet is just Trackmania 2 Canyon, we can't see the different bridges between both titles. Now it is a concept, but when ShootMania releases next year it will be more understandable to players, how they can benefit from one to the other, and really the idea behind it is the collection, collecting different titles.

And that's why it's not free-to-play, you pay and then you benefit from all the content created by the community. It will take time, more time than other games that we have, but then we will have a complete offer, and we think then we will be able to monetise people, and to keep people in this environment and to really progress them, and having them going from one game to another.

Because this is the key to online: Zynga is so powerful because they succeed in Farmville, and then to get all those people to play Empires & Allies, and then Cityville, so this is really key.

When you have community, and right now Track Mania has more than 10 million players in the world, so we have a community. So now our goal is first TrackMania 2 Canyon, and then to say "Okay, but don't play only on racing games, go to the shooter game," and everything you do in each game will have an impact on the others. So if you create a track on TrackMania and people buy it you'll get money to buy new blocks in ShootMania. So it has to be seen as an environment. Yes, it takes more time than other titles, Like Ghost Recon Online or Settlers, but its really a mid-term or long-term vision.

We prefer to release a game in the first semester or summer, because people like the short session and don't want to invest a lot. But at the end of the year it's very difficult on XBLA and PSN.

And again it's really based on the community, because it's not only people that buy the game, it's those people that create the content. Because Nadeo is only 25 people, mostly engineers, and their goal is not to create maps or funny cars, just to create tools to give the community. The community do everything else. And in ShootMania it will also be the case, because it will give the freedom to the FPS community to build their own games, to build their own modes. We know that Counter Strike came from a mod, and DOTA came from a mod, so we know that the community are inventive, maybe more inventive than publishers.

They can maybe invent the next FPS titles based on the Shoot Mania tools, so it's more of a mid-term strategy. So we're asking FPS player and pro-gamers and saying "what will you need? What would be the dream FPS you could play?" It's more to say which tool will you need, rather than which map or mode, it's not us that will create the future of ShootMania. It has to be easy, and it has to be playable, and ultimately it has to be balanced, meaning that a gamer can play with a noob, and be able to compete.

And because its not free-to-play there will not be any "I buy this weapon so I'm more powerful." It's a concept, it's a gamble, because its new, but this is the strength of Ubisoft - we have a different mindset. We have Ghost Recon Online at the other end, which is more realistic, team-play, strategy, free-to-play. It's our strength to be able to test the different business models.

Q: You seem to have all areas covered?

Thomas Paincon: We try! Again because it's changing...

Q: You can't predict consumer behaviour in two years...

Thomas Paincon: Free-to-play for example! I worked for Blizzard, and five years ago who would have said that free-to-play would crash all the subscriptions? That free-to-play would be everywhere? It changed so quickly, and I remember at that time everyone said it was a Korean thing, an Asian thing, that Western countries don't understand this type of business model, it's too complex.

So this something else that's interesting about online, you can test a lot of things even on free-to-play, you can have the rental model, the permanent model, and you can change on a daily basis, which is not the case for the boxed product.

And that's why also the community has a lot of strength in the online community and free-to-play, is that they can say where they want the game to go, and it's not only the studio that has the vision. So it requires a lot of human resources also, and this is something that has to be taken into account. Because it's a service. Even in production, you have to keep people on the project for the next update, which maybe is not the mindset of the majority of the current studios around the world, where it's like "we've finished the product, that's it, now we're jumping on another one." Here the follow up is really important.

You have to propose fresh things, because on free-to-play you can play for free, but you can leave for free.

Q: So will studios grow and grow as they do more digital work?

Thomas Paincon: I think so. Because if you cut the team there's no update, people will be bored, and they will quit your game. So you have to propose fresh things. Because on free-to-play you can play for free, but you can leave for free. You have not this feeling when you buy a boxed game or have a subscription, that you have to play because I paid for it. I have to say I didn't waste my money! And there's plenty of competition.

This is also the tricky thing about free-to-play, because you say come and try, and if it's good you stay but if it's not you can leave. It's a different mindset.

Q: You spoke about things changing very fast, so what's your strategy for 2012? Are you predicting any big changes in the industry?

Thomas Paincon: We are ramping up our strategy, so the goal is to have this companion gaming concept for our lead brands on the different platforms. Different experiences and interaction between each other. You'll see that on Ghost Recon, we'll have Online, Shadow on iPhone and iPad, and you will have a Facebook game. It will be the first reality of this strategy at the beginning of the year, and we will roll that out for the other franchises.

For the other titles it's really to grow more on PSN and XBLA, with new concepts, and also to take risks on these platforms. And to expand on the mobile platform, now we have eight iOS titles. And the success we have now, with things like Settlers Online, we will be able to apply it to iOS titles. Right now [with] free-to-play, what is successful on one platform can be applied to another. And as you saw we bought RedLynx.

So our goal is really to focus on digital because if you look at our last three major acquisitions it was Owlient, Nadeo and now RedLynx, and even Massive before was known for all the multiplayer and online, so you can see that the strategy is clearly on these platforms.

And the goal is also to have engines that can be platform agnostic, and RedLynx is really successfully on XBLA but also on iOS, so this is also a goal - to have a studio that can jump from platform to another, and not specialise any studio in one platform. It's really that everybody is able to do anything. So this is a big change in production, and maybe it will need some years to be concrete, but right now the digital ambition and everything we talked about in the last two years is now concrete with our titles, and it will go on.

We have to be realistic also, we have to assess things, not everything will work, and on Facebook also we have some things to learn. We had success with the Smurfs, and what we learned there we will apply to our next game.

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