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Gamer resistance to digital decreasing - Ubisoft

Whether it's full-game downloads or microtransactions, Chris Early says consumers are increasingly interested in intangible goods

Last year, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag launched alongside a handful of "Time Saver" downloadable content packs. For $1 or $2, players could stock up on in-game resources, or reveal the locations of the game's many collectibles and activities without the need for actual exploration. That sort of perk would have been freely accessible through cheat codes in previous generations, and it's not hard to imagine the uproar charging for them would have caused in the early days of the last generation of systems. Speaking with GamesIndustry International at E3 last month, Ubisoft VP of digital publishing Chris Early recalled the reaction--or lack thereof-- to those time-saver packs.

"There was no resistance," Early said. "Maybe there were 12 guys somewhere who said something, but whatever. As a whole, there wasn't a problem."

It goes to show how much the industry has changed in recent years. Early acknowledged the change in player attitudes of late, and chalked it up (in part) to the increasing amount of communication on and discussion of monetization in the industry. The industry has seen approaches to digital monetization that don't work for players (some offenders in the social gaming bubble) and ones that do (World of Tanks, Skyrim DLC), and is getting smarter about producing less of the former and more of the latter. With each one that gets it right, gamers are growing increasingly comfortable with the variety of monetization in the marketplace.

"Where it hurts is when you feel like you're forced, or you're at a disadvantage or can't do it unless you [pay money]. That's kind of a remorseful feeling, and nobody likes that."

"I think there are some models that are accepted now. DLC is pretty much accepted," Early said. "Season pass is pretty much accepted. Now it's interesting when you start to think of Season Pass as a Service Pass. For our Season Pass holders, I know we hold events for them specifically, so it's little bit more than just DLC content. So there's an evolution going on there."

The key, Early said, is to make sure it's perceived positively by the players. They should feel like their purchases enhance the game rather than fill in the gaps for an incomplete experience.

"Where it hurts is when you feel like you're forced, or you're at a disadvantage or can't do it unless you [pay money]. That's kind of a remorseful feeling, and nobody likes that."

That's not to say games can't offer a competitive advantage in exchange for money. Early points to the golden ammo in World of Tanks and his regular matches with his college-aged son as an example. The more damaging ammo can be obtained either by grinding away at the game, or by purchasing it outright. Early doesn't have enough free time to earn the ammo, but he does have the discretionary income to buy it. His son is in the opposite situation. As he sees it, the game is just giving its players the option to pay for the ammo through whichever resources they can most afford. It complicates the design process, he said, but when done well, it can provide significant revenue without creating ill will among players.

"I know people who've spent five digits or more of money in Clash of Clans, spending in the tens of thousands of dollars," Early said. "Who would think of that? But nobody's really angry about that. That's how that guy chooses to play, and he's playing against other people of the same calibre, whether they got there through spending hundreds of hours playing the game or tens of thousands of dollars. Good design, that's what it comes down to."

"I'm either super lazy and I don't want to get up and change that disc, or that's a much better experience now that I can jump in and out and between games without having to change all that."

DLC and add-ons aren't the only booming aspects of the digital industry. With the launch of the new generation of consoles, Ubisoft has also seen a significant uptick in the number of people downloading full games instead of buying boxed retail copies.

"I don't know whether it wasn't as easy before or wasn't as clearly messaged on previous generations, but there is definitely a lot more digital [demand], to the order of two to five times as much digital activity on some titles than there was on the same title on old-gen machines," Early said. "It's not just that they might have made it easier. To me, that means that people want it. I probably wouldn't have guessed there was that much pent-up digital demand."

Early's even noticed his own habits shifting more toward the digital end of the spectrum. As much as he thought he was "a digital guy" before, Early joked that it's gotten to the point now where he specifically asks for download codes from industry contacts instead of complimentary boxed copies of games, because "free" just isn't quite convenient enough.

"I'm either super lazy and I don't want to get up and change that disc, or that's a much better experience now that I can jump in and out and between games without having to change all that," he said.

It's not just the people who own the new consoles are early adopters and thus more willing to try something new. Early agrees that audience is more inclined to go digital, but Ubisoft has been seeing its download numbers growing even on the old-gen systems.

The growth of the downloadable market has also given Ubisoft the leeway to introduce games at price points that wouldn't fly at retailers. Creating titles like Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, Child of Light, and Valiant Hearts offer a number of benefits for the publisher, Early added.

"I have relatives in parts of the US even where it will take them several days to download a game. That's not just going to stop us; that's going to stop the industry."

"I'm sure you've read or even written tons of stories about people who leave a studio to go do their own passion thing because they don't have freedom of expression within," Early said. "This lets us keep our people and make them happy being able to be creative. It lets us go and experiment with treating war a different way with Valiant Hearts than the way the majority of industry treats war. I don't know if that's the right experiment to make a $100 million game. But as a game we're going to sell for $10 to $20 and costs in the single digits of millions to make? Now we can afford to do more things.

"We can bring a bigger breadth of games to players, a creative breath of fresh air to our designers, and we approach all of it the same way. We look at all of these as opportunities to bring entertainment and at the same time provide a good return to our shareholders."

Despite the clear shift toward digital of late, Early doesn't think the industry will ever shift completely away from physical media. He stressed the continued value of brick-and-mortar retailers like GameStop, and said moving to a digital-only game industry just isn't possible at the moment.

"It's not just our challenge, but the biggest worldwide challenge is the even deployment of infrastructure where people can get their games and participate digitally in a free environment," Early said. "I have relatives in parts of the US even where it will take them several days to download a game. That's not just going to stop us; that's going to stop the industry."

And he's not talking about just the game industry. Early said it's a digital entertainment problem, one that affects downloading or streaming any kind of media, not just games.

"You see the difference of how it happens when you look at countries that have engaged in high-bandwidth infrastructure projects," Early said. "Korea's a great example. When you look at what people do with bandwidth there compared to what people do with bandwidth in some of the flyover states, it's a radical difference."

[UPDATE]: After reading some reactions to the original article, Early provided GamesIndustry with some clarification on some of his remarks above.

My comments are more about player opinion and player choice of ways to play than monetization. World of Tanks and Clash of Clans are used as examples because they each have more than one way to progress through the game, either by spending time or by spending money. The complaints usually come when the equilibrium between the two seems unbalanced (World of Tanks Gold Ammo before their adjustments). And this is not just for consumable items; any severely unbalanced game is a terrible experience.

Digital and physical, time and money, DLC or not - none of these are either/or questions for the industry or for consumers. The market will not be 100% digital nor 100% physical, nor should the resource I spend on a game be 100% time nor 100% money. Players should have the choice. As a publisher, our goal should be to give players that choice (in a balanced way within the game constraints), and let players choose how to experience and enhance their experiences of our games.

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Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry International in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at CBS-owned GameSpot in the US.

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