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Guillemot: "We knew Watch_Dogs would really polarise people"

The Ubisoft CEO on new-gen, reducing feature bleed and growing the industry

With the Ubisoft press conference now over, read up on the publisher's plans to build the industry, explore new IP and ensure that its games retain their identities with our interview with CEO Yves Guilemot, which took place at a Ubisoft dinner yesterday evening.

How do you feel after seven months of the new generation?

Yves: We're very happy with the number of machines sold, almost 12 million now, which is a lot faster than the old generation. We expected it to go fast, because customers had to wait 8 years until this generation, but we're happy. What we are surprised by, which we shouldn't be after all those sales, is how quickly the last-gen is going down.

We had a big percentage of Watch_Dogs sales on next gen, we thought we would have more current gen. Those customers are quickly moving to the new generation.

You'd previously said that budgets were going to increase to accommodate the cross-gen development, and that you thought there'd be a two year overlap between generations. Do you still feel that that's the case?

Yves: It's costing a bit more than I expected! I would say ten per cent more. We have to have companion apps, seamless online and offline. We have to make sure that servers are 24/7, that it all works perfect as soon as it launches.

So it's not next gen that's driving the costs up?

"I want our industry to have people playing on PC and console, but if you have 10 million playing there, you can have 100 million helping them out on mobile"

Yves: It's everything you have to do because of next-gen. You can do different types of games that are adapted to next gen, but you have to have the money to make that work. It's true that you can still have those elements working on current gen, but they weren't possible before next gen because you couldn't even envisage them. It all costs more.

You invest heavily in connected tablet and mobile games, what do you see as the potential for those?

Yves: The potential will be big if we can make it interesting for our customers. On Watch Dogs, we had a very good response from people who understand the game. When people have already played the game, they enjoy it. It's more complex for people who downloaded it for free then play against other players. It takes them time to understand it. The feedback from people who do understand is good, enough to make us do it again.

I want our industry to have people playing on PC and console, but if you have 10 million playing there, you can have 100 million helping them out on mobile. If we can manage to make our industry shine to a broader audience like that, it will bring us more money to spend on games, because we can make movies and other products. The problem we have, taking Watch Dogs as an example, is that we've sold $300 million of products at the retail level, which is more than a movie. But, we only have just over four million people playing. A movie which sells $300 million will reach maybe seven times as many customers. With games, people see what we do and we need to make sure that they can play it. The more they play it, the more we can sell rights to anyone who wants to take advantage of it. Then we can put that money towards more games.

You'd also invested quite a lot in animation - is that an ongoing part of the business?

Yves: The Rabbids series did well, we have a 2nd series confirmed, maybe a third. We want to do the same with more IP. We're not working on an AC series yet; we have to do the movie first!

The AC movie is coming along well - but Hollywood is complex! When you compare it to our industry, we have everyone in one company, even if it's in different studios, so you control the availability of all those people. In film, you might have the director available but the actor isn't, or the writer hasn't finished what they're supposed to finish. Then the director says he doesn't like the script - these are the sorts of things that happen. It's spread across so many people, it's hard to get them all to work together - not because they don't want to, but they all have different schedules.

You're probably the most diverse of the major publishers, with a broader portfolio reaching a wider audience - how important is that to you?

Yves: We want diversity, we want a line up that can reach different people, and also the same people with different things. We want to keep finding new types of entertainment experiences. That worked well last year so we're going to continue doing that. We're happy with those experiments, they had good results, we're going to continue with that.

If you want to increase your portfolio, how do you avoid reaching the scenario which saw EA and Activision having to reduce their catalogues to focus on their most profitable IP?

Yves: There's a difference between those two guys at the top, which are doing $4bn a year, and us as a challenger doing $1.5 bn. We have to grow; to grow you have to take risks. That's what we're doing with this diversity - creating more brands to reach more people, establish the company in more fields to reach that $4-5bn level.

So is the diversity a stepping stone to that level, after which you'll close down to the successful IP, or is it an inherent part of the business?

Yves: It depends. The goal is to have more diversity, more brands. We want the brands that we create, like Child of Light or Rayman, to continue. They're profitable, they're of big interest to the creators - things that don't take two or three years to create. You'll continue to see that. On the big brands, we won't be creating too many more. We'll still have teams with new things on the way, but we'll probably be doing less new things if the ones that we've created are successful. When a brand is successful you need more people taking care of it. Either you expand, or you focus. But, you never know. Those teams can be interested in new opportunities.

Over the last few years we've reduced the number of products we have on the way. We stopped five or six developments that had a chance to succeed, but were risky. That happens, but that's more than usual.

Watch-Dogs had a huge appeal, great reviews, but risks not really hitting anyone perfectly because of that broad appeal. Where do you find the balance between broad appeal and making sure it's not bland?

Yves: I think an open world can work for different types of customers. We knew that Watch_Dogs would be a game that would really polarise. Some people would love it, some hate it. We think in the future we'd love to do more for every gamer. We're learning from this, how to understand the profile of different gamers, to understand each one and make sure that each one has enough of what they want. Broader doesn't mean less soul. We feel that when you create a new engine and new IP you can't do everything perfectly. With time you can improve all the things that people didn't like and then you can make something that reaches each type of consumer.

"On the big brands, we won't be creating too many more. We'll still have teams with new things on the way, but we'll probably be doing less new things if the ones that we've created are successful."

What about the risk of IPs losing identity because features are being shared? We've seen a lot of feature bleed between Far Cry, Assassin's, Watch Dogs etc...

Yves: We see that criticism and we're going to make sure we diversify the activities in our tentpole games enough. But, if those activities are very attractive to gamers, maybe giving it to other games is a good thing. It works, but we have to make sure that there's enough diversity between games, we'll be careful with that.

How important was Watch_Dogs as a proof of concept for the new gen?

Yves: What we heard from Sony is that it really improved sales of PS4 a lot, it brought a lot of newcomers - perhaps not to the industry, but to the platform. I think we'll continue with the games that are coming this year - Watch_Dogs will continue, and we have two more Assassin's, Far Cry is also very different and interesting. The Crew, too. All these products should give more opportunities to move to the new gen and to [bring in] gamers. There are also lots of people playing on mobile. If we can appeal to them on mobile, we can bring them into the core business as well.

So do you see mobile apps as a way to bring people into the industry?

Yves: Yes. We think a lot about that. If people know the IP, the characters etc, then the step to buying into the next gen is easier. If we do a lot of work to make sure people enjoy tablet and mobile connected games then we can increase the size of our industry.

As an early adopter of new tech, what about VR? Is the risk-reward ratio too great to jump in early?

Yves: We will have something on those machines, we're working on it. We will be there.

This interview consists of questions asked by a number of journalists at a Ubisoft-sponsored dinner which took place in LA on Sunday night.

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