One of the fastest-growing companies in the videogames business in the past decade is French publisher Ubisoft, with multiple studios across multiple continents, and games selling well on many different formats to a number of different audiences.
At E3, GamesIndustry.biz spent some time with Alain Corre, executive director, to discuss the company's place in the global picture, mull over strategy, and look at the best ways to market more casual titles.
Q: How do you appraise Ubisoft's position in the global games industry?
Alain Corre: In terms of business and global position we are top three outside of Asia, and top two in Europe. We've been climbing the steps year after year and we're trying to keep it this year - but the competition is really tough.
But we've been pleased with what we've shown at the press conference, and by the response. You never know when you have a new crop of products, you show it and you hope that it will please.
When we showed Prince of Persia gameplay for the first time we didn't know exactly what people would say, but I think they reacted very well to the game. We think it can be a blockbuster for this Christmas.
Far Cry 2 - we didn't know either if they would like the open-space first-person shooter, because it's the first time we're bringing that to console. But frankly people like it very much, so that's also a good step.
And the two games that were also shown at the Nintendo briefing also impressed a lot of people - Shaun White and Rayman - and they should also do very well on Wii.
So our profile is very balanced and we're trying to raise the quality bar. When you look at the competition you see that you always have to do that, because everybody else is running forwards. But fortunately we have studios that are capable of matching the best products on the planet.
Now that we've shown we're a bit more relaxed about the capacity and potential of these games I think that we will have a good Christmas.
Q: Is this the most exciting time ever for the videogames industry?
Alain Corre: I think it's a fantastic time - there are a lot of opportunities - because when you look at the console manufacturers they are all planning big growth for the next year, which we love.
And when you look at the public there's a growing number of people interested in videogames. It started two years ago with more girls and women, thanks to Nintendo, and it's continuing. So we love that because we've started trying to capture this audience as well - for a few years we've had the Imagine range on DS, and Wii now, and it's working well.
So we have this segment which is growing, and we're a bit more advanced than our competition, and we have the hardcore segment which is also growing and we've been involved in for twenty years. Having these two big lungs going forward, we see the future of the market in a very nice way.
The quality is there - you have to reach the quality - but when you take care of that, when you succeed in bringing good quality product, the potential is immense for this industry, and hopefully for us also.
Q: How hard has it been adapting the business to serve those two ends of the gaming spectrum?
Alain Corre: Actually we have these different games developed in different studios. It's not the same focus, not the same gameplay, budget, and not the same marketing. Because we have to address these people who have never played games before, so the accessibility has to be even greater for them - because they don't have as much time as hardcore players who are spending ten or fifteen hours a week. These people are spending ten minutes here, then stop, then ten minutes more later...
So you have to adjust everything, all the strategy and communication, how to reach them and what the content has to be. Specialisation is the best word, to try to be as efficient as possible, both in creation and in vision. That's what we're trying to do.
Q: The Petz franchise - that's done pretty well?
Alain Corre: It was the third biggest franchise in the US last year, and it's sold millions of units globally now.
Q: Not bad for a title that doesn't have much by the way of limelight, particularly in the specialist press - so what lessons have you learned in the past couple of years about marketing videogames outside of the specialist press?
Alain Corre: It's not the same consumers at all. It's more mainstream, so we're using more mainstream media. Internet sites that they're looking at, publications that they're reading which are completely different. And we have specialists now in our marketing and PR teams taking care specifically of this new group of people.
But it's completely different, and the rhythm of sales is also different. With hardcore titles you sell most of your units in the first three months, sometimes in the first four or five weeks. So you have to create a huge buzz before, and when you launch it then it has to be very strong straight away. Afterwards you know the curve will go down, but you try and extend it for as long as possible.
The casual side is completely different. The life cycle of strong-selling casual games can be several years. So it's not the same way to approach the marketing.
Q: What about the word of mouth aspect - is that important? The playground effect, like with toys?
Alain Corre: I think that word of mouth exists also a lot on the Games for Everyone range. I think the kids at school, they talk a lot about the games that they play, and if they're happy with Imagine: Fashion Designer they tell others to buy it. So the kids between each other are talking a lot - if you create a quality game for them, they appreciate it, and they'll talk about it - the ball will start rolling.
But it's not rolling at the same speed as the hardcore games, because the hardcore gamers are aware of every product all the time - they're online every day. So it's not rolling at the same speed at the beginning of the Games for Everyone range, but when it gets rolling the ball can be bigger for a longer period.
Quality is one thing, but targeted marketing is also something we're focusing on. But buzz is key.
Q: Ubisoft was pretty proactive when the Wii first launched, getting some titles on there - how do you appraise that initial push, and what would you say the lessons were now you're coming on to the second and third iterations of titles?
Alain Corre: It's true we were early on the system, with Rayman and Red Steel. Both games were in the top ten of the Wii chart for the first 6-9 months of the machine. We came down a bit in year two, for a number of reasons, but it also takes time to create great products on the Wii - despite what some people say. When you make a great game, you need more than one year of development.
A lot of games are made in less than a year, but they're not great products and they're not selling at all. So it takes some time to develop good games. This year we're coming with Shaun White, which we've developed over 18 months, and the same for Rayman 3. I think these two games can be in the top ten of the Wii charts at Christmas again, and there will also be new Wii games announced soon - more games dedicated to capturing this new audience.
So I think our Wii share that we lost a bit last year, versus year one, we'll grab it back this Christmas. We have started the development of a lot more games on the Wii for Christmas 2009, so it's in place.
We should have developed even more games in year one, to be ready for year two, but now we've switched a lot of our people in development to the Wii, so our ambition is that our market share on Wii grows starting this Christmas - and I think we're on the right track.
Q: Much has been written about Red Steel - do you think its reception was hampered by unfair expectation on the accuracy and sensitivity of the Wii remote? Does the new Wii remote peripheral give you more confidence for Red Steel 2?
Alain Corre: It was a great announcement, what [Nintendo] showed [in its press conference], because it's true that on Red Steel it's the typical product that will appreciate the new device.
Red Steel 2 has been in development for many months now, and this new device will help us be even more precise in what we do with the product. The Red Steel brand is strong - I think we released it on year one, and that people understood that it was a first try on new technology, technology that wasn't completely finished.
And our game tried to grab the best out of it, and was a bit rushed to be sure to offer something in year one to Wii consumers. But Red Steel is still selling well - at a lower price of course, but still it's in the top 30 or 40 in every country on Wii.
So Red Steel is a brand, and as with every brand we have, we now have to reach the top quality possible. What was missing was the preciseness of the sabre - and with this new device I think it will change the experience.
Alain Corre is executive director for Ubisoft. Interview by Phil Elliott.