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Why Ubisoft won't leave retail behind in the digital gold rush

Thomas Paincon explains how the publisher is making the two work together

With all the publishers rushing to jump on the digital bandwagon, you could understand it if high street retailers were getting a little nervous. Free-to-play is all very exciting, but you can't put it on your shelves. Or can you?

Ubisoft's online brand marketing group manager, Thomas Paincon, explains to GamesIndustry International how Ubisoft are finding ways to bring retail and digital together, and why your high street shop could play a key role in introducing consumers to the new business models.

"I really think that the digital product can have an impact on the retail, I think they are both complimentary," he said.

He used a recent success story, centred around the free-to-play title Settlers Online to illustrate his point. Ubisoft released a "starter pack" for the title in France and Germany a month ago.

"There's a market even for digital games in retail because people and publishers can really benefit from the visibility"

"Settlers Online is a free-to-play game so at first you can really think it has nothing to do with retail, because it's free and it doesn't need any download," he admitted.

"But we wanted to release this game on retail really to benefit from the strength of the retail visibility but also the method of payment, because people who don't want to give their credit card number."

And it worked. In Germany the €15 pack made sure Settlers Online was the first ever free-to-play game to come top in the Amazon.de charts.

"It means that there's really a market even for digital games in retail because people and publishers can really benefit from the visibility, but it's also good for retailers because they can really benefit from product and have a part of the cake, of the the digital turnover."

He also pointed out that an important sector of the market, children, don't have credit cards. And even if they've nagged their parents to the point of purchasing a game for them, having a physical product on a shelf can help make it seem a more credible purchase for mum and dad.

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"Both the retailers, and us too, can really benefit from the digital. This was a starter pack but you also have time cards for World Of Warcraft, that's already a large part of the business for that, and with the multiplication of the free-to-play games, the Facebook games, time cards also will maybe be a larger part in the coming months and years for retail."

So it's a tactic that's already seen success in France and Germany, but when will we see Ubisoft's digital products appearing on the shelves of HMV and GAME? Paincon was non-committal on a date, but confirmed it will happen.

"We're currently working to bring this retail pack to the UK, so it will come in the coming months," he said.

"But as you know in physical retail PC games in the UK are not so important, so the goal is really to convince retailers. But the goal is also to let online retailers have access to this kind of pack and this kind of offer, because again it's a new way to access these games because people aren't used to these games, and maybe at the beginning they are reluctant to invest a lot."

He said the packs, which come with playing guides, exclusive items and some in-game currency can help players to accept the free-to-play business model.

"It's also a new way to accept these games that otherwise might be a little bit scary for some players. So it's really something that we really believe in and that we will employ for most of our online games."

"Physical starter packs for free-to-play are also a new way to accept these games that otherwise might be a little bit scary for some players"

Paincon is a man with a lot of answers, but even he isn't prepared to set a date for the next inevitable evolution in games revenues, the moment when digital sales outstrip those of traditional boxed products.

"That's the one million dollar question," he chuckled.

"It really depends on the platform, whether the next console will be online or not, also mobile, if you take four years ago when there was no iPhone or iPad, and now the market has completely changed. I really don't know."

"But if digital is growing maybe you will have access cards that could also be sold at retail, but it won't be so soon that the market will completely change. Right now we're really counting on both."

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