As everyone was showing off their finery at E3 this year, Ubisoft quietly marked a shift in the company's development practices. Behind closed doors on the showfloor, the publisher had four titles with a significant second-screen option: Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, The Division, Watch Dogs, and The Crew. All four titles had robust mobile apps that connected with the main console game in some manner. Was it just coincidence or a shift in development strategy within Ubisoft?
At an earlier interview with Ubisoft chief executive officer Yves Guillemot, GamesIndustry International had a chance to ask him about the company's second-screen experiment.
"I'm convinced it's the future," Guillemot told us. "What I like in second-screen play is its accessibility, which means different types of people can play. Those who don't know how to play with the [controller] or don't like to play with it can use touch. So that's the first good element."
"The second one is it gives you an opportunity to play from outside the home with your friends who are playing from their homes. So I'm in an airport, and I can play with my friends using my iPad if I have a good connection. We think this is going to open lots of new possibilities to the industry, and to the type of gameplay that can occur."
It would make sense if each studio was creating its own app for its own title, but under Ubisoft's distributed development system, each title is made with multiple studios working in concert. The publisher decided that for its next-generation second-screen effort to work, most of the work needed to be done at a single studio with the right expertise. That studio is Ubisoft Quebec, who's handling the second-screen apps for Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, Watch Dogs, and The Division. We spoke with Ubisoft managing director Nicolas Rioux about the studio's new drive.
"In the last three years, we had this vision in mind," said Rioux. "The vision of the studio is to be a leader in the creation of mobile, online, and connected universes. For The Division, we were involved from the beginning of the project. This is really our key for success, for our team to be involved with the design team on the console project. If you want to have success with this kind of experience, you must be there early."
Like Guillemot, Rioux believes that second-screen gaming gives players more choices in how they play. In fact, he said that some of the apps could be considered standalone experiences that just happen to connect into a larger whole.
"The way we see it, it really gives the players the choice and opportunity to have a great experience when you want, where you want, at the time you want, on the device you want. For us it's a great feature, it's a must-have for the new generation of consoles," added Rioux.
"Some features and gameplay in these apps can provide you with a standalone experience. We believe in the benefits of connecting mobile players with console players in the same universe. It's really where we innovate, with this new generation of mobile applications connected with the console experience. We always mention second-screen, but we need to have in mind that for a lot of people, the games on tablets will be their first screen."
Rioux said that Ubisoft is not worried about players feeling shortchanged or forced to use the tablet app. The focus is creating a "complete experience" for each player.
"You don't need either the tablet or console part to have a full experience," he added. "For the person playing on the tablet, maybe for him that game is more accessible. Honestly, we give the players new opportunities. It's not a big issue for console players to play the tablet version to have a more complete experience. I'm a console player and a gamer on tablets; for me to have these new possibilities is not a constraint."
Ubisoft Quebec was uniquely-suited for this initiative because it had already done the grunt work on a second-screen title. The studio developed the Wii U version of Assassin's Creed III, which sparked an idea that became something bigger.
"We always mention second-screen, but we need to have in mind that for a lot of people, the games on tablets will be their first screen"
Ubisoft Quebec managing director Nicolas Rioux
"With Assassin's Creed III, we were involved on the Wii U version. The Wii U was kind of the pioneer of the connected tablet interface. This gave us some ideas for the first iteration of tablets connected with console games," said Rioux.
Unfortunately, while the Wii U was the beginning, Ubisoft Quebec's current focus is creating a cohesive experience between the Xbox One/PlayStation 4 and mobile devices. The studio is not committed to bringing some of these new experiences to the Wii U platform.
"It's not confirmed yet, but if it's possible to do it and it makes sense, yes we will provide some kind of experience on the Wii U. Our focus is on the new generation of Microsoft and Sony consoles," explained Rioux.
Rioux said that the studio has around 50 developers spread across the three apps. This is not counting Ubisoft Quebec employees working on the console side; both sets of employees tend to work next to each other for efficiency. Rioux called the next-gen focus on second-screen a "mandate" for the studio, but he also told us that once Ubisoft Quebec perfects its work, those techniques will be shared with other Ubisoft subsidiaries.
"This was really the strategy from the beginning; because we had a good experience on mobile in the past and great experience on AAA console games, we were a good fit for Ubisoft to be involved in this first generation of mobile-connected games. We will still be involved in that for some brands, at least Assassin's Creed, but for the other brands we just find the recipe. We'll give the recipe to the others to do their own thing," he said.
The second-screen apps are targeting Android and iOS platforms, but Rioux admitted that the list of supported devices "is still evolving." An Ubisoft spokesperson told GamesIndustry International that the apps will work "on a wide range of devices and the specific tablets will be known closer to launch dates." Rioux commented that the annual iterations of mobile platforms means that tablets are catching up to consoles rather quickly, which is to the company's benefit.
"I expect maybe in three or four years from now to be able to have mostly the same engine running on tablet and the main console"
Ubisoft Quebec managing director Nicolas Rioux
"I expect maybe in three or four years from now to be able to have mostly the same engine running on tablet and the main console. On The Division, we are using the same assets on the console and the tablets. In the future, it will be easier for us to provide this kind of experience," he said.
Ubisoft Quebec currently has 330 employees, but the studio began a recruitment drive with the recent hiring of Francois Pelland as the new executive director of development. Rioux expects for the studio to have 350 employees by the year's end, as Ubisoft Quebec has recently begun work on an unannounced project. We asked him how he felt about a single studio being pulled in so many directions, but Rioux remains confident in Ubisoft Quebec's prospects.
"It's part of our ideal, to build an experience and to be involved in more than one project at this time," he said. "This new generation proves that we're moving in the right direction. For each game you'll see in the next two years, the tablet will connect with the social and new consoles to make one complete experience. You have a way for players to have experiences in the same universe in a different way. We built the studio here in the last two years to be ready for that. It's natural right now to be involved in so many projects."