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Soft Sell

Ubisoft's VP of publishing talks marketing, production and the importance of new IP.

Jay Cohen first joined Ubisoft in June 1996, but left to work for developer Accolade. When the company was acquired by Infogrames, Ubisoft asked him if he'd be willing to return - and by 2000, Cohen was back in the fold.

Now vice president of publishing at the company, Cohen recently gave a speech at the DICE Summit in Las Vegas where he discussed the growth of in-game advertising. Afterwards, sat down with Cohen to find out more about Ubisoft's business strategy and plans for the future. How would you describe the balance between publishing and production at Ubisoft?

Jay Cohen: Ubisoft is 3200 people worldwide, and 70 per cent of those people are production. At the end of the day, this is a production company with a publishing and distribution arm. You can look at the company as two distinct P&Ls.

Two distinct P&Ls. Can you predict whether a game is likely to sell better in Europe than in North America, and vice versa?

It seems like the big games, the really terrific games, they do well in both territories.

How can you tell if a game will do well?

Nobody knows. The best you can do is say, âI believe we can perform here,' and you set a bar. And that's about the best you can do. After that, the market takes on a life of its own.

I think the trouble is certain people in certain business think that they control the market. That's not true. The markets control themselves.

The best you can do is use historical experience and historical data to try to predict, but there are some things, like Rayman Raving Rabbids for the Wii... In a 3200 person company, we all believed. We were like, 'Rayman, that's our guy, he built the foundation of our company.'

But he'd been laying dormant for a number of years, and he's really cutesy, and everybody criticised saying he's weird because he's got no arms and no legs. So nobody was predicting that he was going to rock and roll the Wii and perform to where he is. Which, I believe, is the number three game on the system.

You can't predict that. We believed, and we hoped, we felt he was a real good shot, but probably our forecast was a lot more conservative.

How much of publishing is marketing budget? Do you know that if you spend a certain amount of money, a product will be a success?

I don't think you really know that. There's still the ever-illusive ROI. âOh, if you throw this much TV on it, do this many print ads, you're going to sell this much.' It's just not true. It increases your chance to get lift. To increase sales from 100 units to 200 units, that's great. To go from a million to two million, that's a whole different equation.

I don't think it's more marketing. By then I think it's word of mouth. Your satisfied consumer is the best marketing tool you're ever going to find.

How much marketing do you see on the Sims? You see a bunch at launch - they need to make people aware of it. But after that, the think takes a life of its own. That's all the people talking.

In the publishing portfolio, what's the golden ratio between first-party titles and third-party developers?

For Ubisoft, we're probably 80-20, 75 per cent internal, 25 percent external.

Is new IP is very important for Ubisoft?

Yes, it's the cornerstone of our strategy. In fact, I think we're at three new IPs every three years... That's sort of our target. Rayman, Red Steel, Clancy - we didn't create Tom Clancy's name, but we created Splinter Cell, and we created Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six. Assassin's Creed, that's coming out later this year. So every year, you're going to be seeing something that's going to be brought out by Ubisoft.

If we can keep doing that, they're sustainable, and they're ours. We can take them with us no matter where we go.

I mean, for example, look at SEGA 2K Sports. They had the NFL license, and now they don't. Boy, they're kind of screwed. I mean, they're bringing All-Pro Football, and I can't wait. I'm a big fan of their product, I prefer their product over the other, competing football games, for example.

And then they're gone... One day they're here, one day they're gone. That's a big hole in somebody's business plan. All because the license ran out or the licensor took it back.

You can't take Rayman away from me, or Red Steel, Assassin's away from us. And we think that's what it's going to take to continue to succeed.

Jay Cohen is vice president of publishing at Ubisoft. Interview by N. Evan Van Zelfden.

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