Over the past decade, Ubisoft has had tremendous success with a traditional retail AAA formula: Big budget console games, expansive open worlds with meaty single-player campaigns, and frequent or annualized sequels. But even as the publisher has benefitted from that strategy, the industry as a whole has been shifting, with buzz building around free-to-play models, eSports game design, and games with such long tails that sequels seem unnecessary.
Ubisoft hasn't been oblivious to these trends, but it's attempted to embrace them in its own way. Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz recently, Ubisoft's VP of live operations Anne Blondel-Jouin said the company's current approach to games-as-a-service is unique in the industry.
"Our idea with games as a service is to deliver not only the AAA games we're used to delivering at Ubisoft, but also AAA services so that each time a gamer connects to our game, they're having quite a different experience and want to spend as much time as possible [playing]," she said.
"Instead of looking at developing one sequel, one opus per year, we're looking at delivering content on a much more regular basis, but smaller content which is more focused on what the gamers are looking for."
As for what "AAA services" entails, Blondel-Jouin pointed to Rainbow Six Siege as an example. Launched as a full-priced retail game last December, the game has already seen three "seasons" of content released, including new maps, characters, and the usual assortment of updates and bug fixes. But Blondel-Jouin said the publisher has also put a focus on improving the back-end services, the matchmaking, netcode, and anti-cheat processes that may be less conspicuous but can improve the fundamental experience dramatically more than new content piled atop rickety scaffolding.
"We want to make sure we're as gamer-centirc as possible, meaning everything related to the games--gameplay, game design, marketing, PR, community development, community management--all of that is very much linked to the global gamer experience. We're making sure everything we're pushing to gamers is in line with the experience we want to deliver to them with the game."
So far, the approach seems to be working. Blondel-Jouin said Rainbow Six Siege is posting daily active user numbers higher than it did at launch, and showing no signs of decline. And that means you shouldn't expect Rainbow Seven anytime soon (and not just because that's not how the series' naming scheme works).
"Instead of looking at developing one sequel, one opus per year, we're looking at delivering content on a much more regular basis, but smaller content which is more focused on what the gamers are looking for," she said.
That would seem to run counter to Ubisoft's traditional AAA strategy, but in many ways, Blondel-Jouin suggested it's simply a different application of the same philosophy, a new way to achieve the same result.
"We want gamers to be able to dive deep into our worlds, our brands, so it's a way for them to enjoy those brands in a different way," she said. "I'm not saying we'll not be doing more sequels or anything, but instead of having to renew the relationship each time, we're much more building upon brand pillars and game mechanics and a game's vision rather than starting everything from scratch."
Earlier this month, Kotaku proclaimed it "one of the best shooters around," which the publisher was no doubt happy to hear. However, the thrust of the article was about how much better the game had gotten since its December launch, when it launched with a bare bones assortment of content, bugs rendered it "nearly unplayable for an entire month," and "calling it average was actually being nice."
"We know that gamers are more and more educated. They're used to having early builds of games in their hands, they see the value of it and they can project for themselves the final quality of a build thanks to the alpha."
As much as the game might have shaped up since then, it must have been galling for some gamers to pay full retail price for something arguably more akin to a free-to-play game's first draft. Even so, Blondel-Jouin stood by the decision to charge for the game rather than go free-to-play, and not just because the game was developed with a AAA budget.
"We felt we had a strong enough offer that people would understand we'd go for the traditional retail approach of AAA," Blondel-Jouin said. "And I have to say it's also super important for us that we remain close to retailers, because even if we do more and more of our business digitally, obviously it's still a place that some of our gamers are looking for games."
As for the game's initial state, Blondel-Jouin said the rocky launch was "kind of normal."
"I'm not saying we should be releasing an unfinished product, but I think it's a relationship we're building with the gamers," she said. "The more they know the game, the more they understand it and the more we understand the way they're playing the game, the better the experience we can provide them with. We adapt. We're doing little tweaks, and we can only do that when the gamers are part of it."
She pointed to the Rainbow Six Siege alpha, which took place about 10 months before the game hit shelves.
"We know that gamers are more and more educated," Blondel-Jouin said. "They're used to having early builds of games in their hands, they see the value of it and they can project for themselves the final quality of a build thanks to the alpha. We're not embarrassed [about those builds]; we're just willing to open up the doors to the gamers earlier and earlier in the development process."
She added, "What you call an underwhelming start shouldn't be something to worry about because we have a relationship with the gamers and the community way in advance before launch, so we know that in the end, we'll be providing them with what they're expecting. But it requires adjustment."
Those adjustments aren't being made solely within the scope of Rainbow Six Siege. Ubisoft has been running games-as-a-service and free-to-play efforts for years, and Blondel-Jouin said the takeaways from those titles are spread throughout the Ubisoft organization to ensure mistakes are learned from. For example, the timing for Rainbow Six Siege's alpha and release were informed by the publisher's experience with Ghost Recon Online.
""I'm not saying we shouldn't listen to what the community is saying; I'm just saying we need to understand what's beneath what the community is saying."
"Something we learned was the fact that we should put the games in gamers' hands as early as possible, which is why we went for an alpha a year in advance of release, more or less," Blondel-Jouin said. "And we didn't want to go more than a year because obviously on Ghost Recon, it lasted a little bit too long and we lost some of the momentum. We also learned a lot about how to handle servers, community development, how to build these very active communities and so forth."
Of course, there are lessons to be learned from outside Ubisoft's walls. Looking at the rest of the field, Blondel-Jouin said one of the most common mistakes she sees developers make is doing everything the community asks them to do.
"I'm not saying we shouldn't listen to what the community is saying; I'm just saying we need to understand what's beneath what the community is saying. Sometimes they express more of a solution they're seeing from their side, but they're not mentioning much of the problem. So we need to understand what the problem really is rather than giving the community what it's asking for right away."
There's also the importance of staying true to the game's vision, something Blondel-Jouin believes is even more crucial when running a premium-priced game. Sometimes that means the developers can't go quite as far as the community might like them to go because it would compromise the core vision. But even then, it's important to show players that they were listened to and their complaints were understood. And then it's up to the developers to explain why the actions they are taking will address the players' requests, even if it's in an indirect fashion.
"'Pleasing' the community is not the right word," Blondel-Jouin said. "We should be having a balanced relationship with the community, if that makes sense."