At Ubisoft's recent Ubidays event in Paris, the French publisher displayed its line-up for 2008, charming the attendees with new titles, old favourites and few surprise announcements. But it wasn't just the games that highlighted the growth and confidence of the company, as all of Ubisoft's regional and divisional executives were on hand to talk with the media, retail and publishing partners.
UK managing director Rob Cooper hasn't spoken to the press for some time, but he agreed to sit down with GamesIndustry.biz to offer a more regional spin on the Ubisoft business. He was also keen to share his views on Sony's PSP and how the company needs to act in order to entice publisher's back to the flagging system, the difficulties of selling third-party games to Wii consumers, and the sticky business of retail pricing.
Q: There certainly seems confidence in the Ubisoft products for 2008. What would you say are the differentiators of Ubisoft's portfolio for this year?
Rob Cooper: Firstly, there's variation. It's really important to get a good variation of products. So the Games for Everyone brand is becoming much more successful now, which we can build on, and that shows a family aspect that we support. Then we've got wonderful specialist products like Far Cry 2, EndWar and Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway, and also the comical side of things, with Rayman Raving Rabbids. We have this wonderful variation of products and I think that's where the Ubi strength is. We'll always be in different areas, different age groups, different genres, and it works. A lot of other publishers don't have that variation and that's why we can strike so well.
Q: Are there any particular brands that perform better in Europe, or better in the UK than the rest of Europe?
Rob Cooper: I think it's fair to say that the Clancy titles have always done well in the UK, but we've followed the American trend. Rainbow Six did phenomenally well back in April and we were really pleased with the results, especially as that was one of the titles that Yves Guillemot (Ubisoft CEO) was keen to establish in the UK and Europe. We've taken a lot of time and effort on the Rainbow Six products in the past couple of year's, so to get that result was a great success. The Clancy stuff generally seems to perform better in the US and the UK rather than the rest of Europe.
Q: Speaking of Tom Clancy, there's no Splinter Cell Conviction this year at Ubidays. Last year it was unveiled at the event and shown off as a demo...
Rob Cooper: There are plans afoot which I can't discuss on that. There's no doubt about it, there are certain things going on and I think you can expect to see something in the foreseeable future. It's still one of our big brands.
Q: Is there a problem with the development of Splinter Cell Conviction?
Rob Cooper: I'm not going to comment on development. You won't be disappointed when it does finally arrive, let's put it that way.
Q: Are you seeing any big sales differences between the home consoles? Sony really seems to be establishing the PS3, and anecdotal evidence suggest that maybe Xbox 360 hardware and software sales are slowing.
Rob Cooper: If you ask Microsoft they'll say that when GTA IV came out, in certain regions they outsold PS3. I think it's fair to say that Sony's always been pretty strong in continental Europe. We find that when we're selling products on both formats the 360 is still stronger for us. How that will be in a year or two, I really don't know, it all depends on how strongly Sony establishes the PS3. I think they will have a good year this year, but I equally think Microsoft will as well. As a publisher, when you've got three strong formats it's really good because you don't have to put all your eggs in one basket. There's a lovely variation to work with which means we can expect a successful year again.
Q: Haze was a PS3 exclusive and I was trying to figure out why you went with an exclusive for Sony on that when so may of your other titles are multiformat?
Rob Cooper: It's fair to say that Sony had been having some discussions with us about it. We try to work with all the home consoles individually and try to show some balance between Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony. You can look at it that way, there was nothing really exclusive about it. It was general decision to share the love.
Q: Do you have many PSP titles planned for 2008?
Rob Cooper: We haven't, no.
Q: Why is that? Are you disappointed with sales of PSP software and PSP hardware?
Rob Cooper: I think that Sony is disappointed with sales and it's unsure as to which way to take it. There's still a good market there at the right price-point. Whether or not we're developing new products for it is a different thing. I think Sony needs to show us a bit more about what its plans are to convince the publisher to invest lots more money into it. Especially when you've got the DS selling at such a tremendous pace.
Q: The DS is trampling the handheld competition outside of Japan. Do you think the PSP needs a drop in price, cheaper games, should Sony ditch the UMD format?
Rob Cooper: I don't think it's a pricing issue. As a publisher I'll always say pricing is not the first point of call. I don't think dropping the price of games is going to sell more product or hardware. It's direction, a real strategic decision by Sony as to what it wants to do with that product. It's a great shame that sales are at the level they are, because you've got a hardware system that is absolutely beautiful. I suppose it's almost too technical for the casual person, those that are buying the DS at the moment, who want a few buttons and not a lot more. It's so simple what [Nintendo] has done. That's where I think Sony has gone a little bit too complicated, they've over-specced it, the price is too high and they need to go back to the drawing board and start again.
Q: Do you think they're gong to go back and start again with it?
Rob Cooper: No, I don't think they will.
Q: But as a publisher, if you're not supporting it this year, you're not going to come back to it next year are you?
Rob Cooper: There are ongoing discussions with Sony about what its decisions and strategies are, how they are going to go forward. Certainly, we still see it as a viable format. But we're not developing too many games on it until we get some direction. They've got to decide what they want to do with it, and come out clearly and say, “this is our strategy, this is our process and this is how publishers can get behind it.” At the moment they are in no man's land, they're not sure quite how to tackle the DS competition and who is the PSP consumer. They've got to sort that out first.
Q: With regards to the Wii, Ubisoft seems to be one of the few third-party publishers seeing successful software sales. Is it hard convincing the consumer there's more to the machine that mini-games?
Rob Cooper: The success of the Wii is phenomenal in the UK. David Yarnton (Nintendo's UK MD) and his team there have done amazing work. With the software itself, you've got to get the right sort of game. It's not a hardcore machine. As it's a family-orientated machine it attracts a slightly different consumer – someone who is price savvy, someone who doesn't buy a lot of software. The other issue is the amount of games on a disc. Wii Sports, Wii Play have got ten games, so the Wii gamer sees value for money. If you look at the software on the Wii, we've got to find ways of doing better and doing more sales, because it's hard to get the casual consumer who has bought those two games and is happy with them. We've got to get them to go out and buy more games, encourage them with new titles.
Q: You're not concerned with the amount of shovel-ware making its way to the Wii? You're not worried about loosing shelf space or market share because every publisher wants a piece of that pie?
Rob Cooper: We'll always fight our corner. Our thought process is not to bring games to the Wii that are on every other format, we tend to go more exclusive with the Wii because that's the only way to make sure you get the right business out of it. Just adding the Wii sku to another seven or eight formats doesn't really sell any decent amount.
Q: It might seem a long way off, but are you confident of Ubisoft's sales performance at the end of the year, when all the competitors pull out there big titles for retail?
Rob Cooper: I think it's going to be a vicious Christmas again, in terms of pricing. It's one of those areas that worries me. Some of these big games now are so expensive to make, and as a publisher we've got to make sure we get some return to get back in and reinvest and sometimes we don't necessarily help ourselves as much as we should do. Our market is so active in the UK and retailers will always fight for any part of it. And that actually doesn't always help us as a publisher to try and get money back in.
Q: It seems to me that no matter how anticipated a game, no matter how big the budget for marketing and development, if a consumer waits a couple of weeks, or shops around on the internet, they can get good discounts almost immediately after release. Games aren't worth what publishers think they're worth.
Rob Cooper: I thing the UK consumer is very savvy, there's no doubt about it. GAME has a really interesting system which is shares with its publishers where it can analyse every single store, who goes in and what products to put in those stores. So for example, consumers in Cambridge buy more PC and role-playing games, whereas Leeds will sell more beat-em-ups. Working with that sort of system they can identify closely what to do in each town. I think something like 25 per cent of people going into GAME now are mothers. They used to be stores that felt a little bit intimidating, but now they're attracting a family market.
Q: Do you think the family audience is a fad brought on buy the Wii and DS, or can it be maintained? Let's be honest, these consumers aren't buying an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. Can that audience be attracted to gaming in the long-term?
Rob Cooper: I think it can be maintained for a number of reasons. Nintendo is obviously doing so well with the Wii and DS, it's responsible for this massive growth in the market. What that's doing is introducing gaming to people as a form of entertainment, whereas before it was shunned. Sony and Microsoft will always stick to the central, specialist consumer, that 15 – 25 age bracket. But outside of that it's become a family thing. Without Nintendo our industry would have gone nowhere.
Rob Cooper is managing director of Ubisoft UK. Interview by Matt Martin.