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Best of 08: Yves Guillemot

Ubisoft's CEO talks about the development of Europe, cultural sensitivity, and the importance of quality

As we head into the Christmas period, here at we're looking back at some of the key interviews from the past year, and we're starting with Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot.

It's been an interesting year for the French company as it cemented itself as the third largest publisher in the world, targeting EUR 3 billion in revenues - and particularly interesting given the merger between former local rival Vivendi and Activision.

This interview took place at August's Games Convention in Leipzig, and takes in his thoughts about the development of Europe as - for some companies - the most important videogames territory.

He also touches on the subject of localisation, the console landscape, development costs and the importance of quality for videogames. Europe as a market has developed a lot in the past five years - how do you assess the territory's importance on the global stage now?
Yves Guillemot

First, our money - the pound or the euro - is very strong and because of that the turnover from those countries is heavier than they used to be. So for Ubisoft turnover Europe is actually more important than the US now, and by more than 5 per cent. It's become a very strong market for us.

I think there are lots of customers that want to play - because in Europe we love to play - the only problem we had was that the games were becoming more and more difficult to play. Now that there's more accessibility, some accessories that are helping people to have fun, I think this market has no limit in the growth it can have if we can make sure that the people that are coming in are staying.

A game like EndWar, for example, which you can control by voice - it's totally changing the industry because it gives you the opportunity to command what's happening, and to have a quick answer to the orders you give. And it's the same for a lot of other games, like the party games you can play - the games with guitars are also helping things to increase the fun, and bring more people. Because when you have fun with your family on the game, you take them into more games with you. It's an interesting circle for social gaming, from the arcades through a more solo route, and back now to social gaming once again?
Yves Guillemot

Not only a solo route, but specialised. Even Mario Kart was extremely successful, but you have to be good enough to play. Now with the Wii and the other machines you have games that can be adapted in terms of difficulty for the different people playing.

When I'm playing with my kids we put on handicaps for the sports games - when you run, there is one person who is going to win, but if you know who is going to win each time you make sure the competition is fair. That's what is happening more and more now in the industry, and in the games that are created.

So it's going to bring people together more and give each person enough fun. That's what I like. Do you think publishers are getting better at managing localisation, in Europe particularly?
Yves Guillemot

I'd agree with that. Because of the volumes it's becoming more and more important to localise - and not only to localise the language but also to make sure that the product will be closer to the mentality of that country. If you look at the European charts, you see different games that are popular in Spain to those in the UK. Is it easier to assess that for a European-based publisher?
Yves Guillemot

It is, because now we have access to the distribution, and we carry out the research in all the countries. We really see the differences. It was really funny that in the UK the girl on the package [for Imagine: Babies], because she was young people thought it was her baby... So we really understood that we had a big difference. That tells you a lot about UK society, that's pretty sad...
Yves Guillemot

No, it's not sad, it's just a different way of life. Each country has [its problems], but it shows that if you're not precise enough to understand the world, because those products are a lot closer to the mentality of the people. You can make mistakes, it's difficult, but now that we started a long time ago we are getting closer. Do you think the cultural sensitivity has helped established your studios - particularly in places like Asia, with Shanghai and Singapore. Does it give you insight?
Yves Guillemot

Yes, because it's not only that they're creating something that is more influenced by the country - they influence the company, because they move from one place to another afterwards, so all the people in the company are influenced by the newcomers. So when you have more Chinese, the company becomes a more Chinese company, or if you have more Canadians, we become a more Canadian company.

This has an impact in the specific games that they create, but also in the way that people in the company see things - because in a team you will have a few Chinese, even in Montreal or the US you have people from all over the world, because they want to travel. And they are part of the group.

And we have more and more British now, because we have Reflections. It's always changing. How long do you think it will be before we see world-beating IP from the newer territories?
Yves Guillemot

First you will see EndWar coming from China this year - that will be a very strong product. Secondly, really the IPs are coming from places where the know-how is strong and where videogames have been created for a long time. There are excellent products coming from the UK because there are very good, talented creative teams there.

I think China is more in the making on that front, they are getting better and better, so we will more from them in future.

There's also the capacity to invest - at the moment and in the last three years the Chinese have been able to almost control their markets, and they don't allow too many foreign products to come to their country.

So they are, in a way, in a country that is only there for Chinese - so the Chinese publishers are going to make more money, and get more power in terms of investment, so they will invest big amounts in creating products that will be sold in the rest of the world.

We need to make sure that there are more European and American products that can sell in China, because it's a very important thing that we have to push for - but I think we will see in the future two things: the improvement in the know-how coming from the number of years those guys have been working in the industry; and the investment. What's your assessment of the console landscape - it's a changing market, so how do you as a third party publisher look at is as a whole?
Yves Guillemot

What I love is the fact that you have three players, and they're all fighting to get a better share of the market. There's a new player, well not new, but a guy that was behind is now number one - that's really the thing we love in this industry, nothing is definite, and you don't have guy installed with a certain set of rules or way of doing things. That's the most interesting thing.

Second, the fact that they are using the accessibility on one side and the technology on the other to improve the market is a very positive point. One is sort of about accessibility, the other is doing well because of the technology - so in the future we'll see more accessibility and more technology.

That will help the business to stay as the business the consumers want to be in, which is the next neat thing you need to have. And you need to have it just because you have more fun, and a great experience with the new machines.

The fact that we change the machines so much so often is helping the videogames industry to continue to take market share from other media. Doesn't that make it more difficult from a cost perspective?
Yves Guillemot

Not at all, because actually when something is too easy, you have more people. So when it's complex, difficult, you have to run to make better things. There are some that fail to do it, so you have less people trying. Automatically, I prefer difficult things, so it's really the difficulty that makes you win. When it's only power and politics it's not really interesting. Okay, we can give you more technology power, more people to reach because of the accessibility - the success comes from the creators. They are the key, because they always have the ability to try new things, and win because they try them. They can take risks, and that makes the difference, and makes this industry very interesting to work in. Are there lessons that have been learned about things like schedules - the industry went through a phase of allowing financial quarters inform release dates, but it seems to have gone past that and rediscovered quality is key. Was it a hard lesson to learn?
Yves Guillemot

I think it's again, when you come to the quality of the industry, it was really the consumers that said they can have the choice between very high quality games but with more brand, and games which are okay but with a brand.

They chose the very high innovative parts instead of the brand, and that made people decide they had no choice but to change their products, just because the consumers were asking for and buying only the quality. And I think that's a big plus for the industry, because they get quality.

And I think the journalists, the press in our industry, are doing a great job because they are not influenced, and they are gamers. Because they're gamers they go for quality, and so they say what they think.

This helps all the creators to think that if they do well they'll be recognised, and I think that's an energy for the industry that doesn't exist any more in many other industries, where the power of marketing investment is more important than the quality of the intrinsic experience. You announced the Tom Clancy franchise deal earlier in the year - it was a lot of money, and clearly you feel it was an investment worth making - how significant is it to you?
Yves Guillemot

It's huge for us, because we feel that this industry will continue to evolve, and we will need the talents from the movie industry to come to the game industry. We need the technology and the techniques from those industries to come into videogames.

So in starting to build linear experiences we get that technology and know-how, we will integrate it, and we will automatically use it for the future games we create. And then we won't have to learn everything - we will know a lot more - and on top of that we will be able to amortise the images, the animations, on more media, so we will be able to invest more. Does that license play into your CG plans?
Yves Guillemot

It plays totally in that plan, and on top I think we will be able to give a better experience as well. Because you play a game, but you want to know more about the story, the character. So you will read the book, but you will also want to have a more linear experience where you can learn about the enemy, the cities where things are happening, and so on.

Yves Guillemot is the CEO of Ubisoft. Interview by Phil Elliott. Originally published in August 2008.

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