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Ubisoft fends off unwanted suitor

10 Years Ago This Month: The Prince of Persia publisher attempts to stay independent from EA, and for good reason

The games industry moves pretty fast, and there's a tendency for all involved to look constantly to what's next without so much worrying about what came before. That said, even an industry so entrenched in the now can learn from its past. So to refresh our collective memory and perhaps offer some perspective on our field's history, runs this monthly feature highlighting happenings in gaming from exactly a decade ago.

Vive l'indépendance! Vive Ubisoft!

There's plenty of anxiety at Ubisoft these days about a potential hostile takeover by French telecom giant Vivendi, but the company may take some comfort knowing it's been down this road before. In 2004, Electronic Arts bought a 20% stake in Ubisoft, prompting plenty of speculation that the Prince of Persia publisher would become the latest EA acquisition, following legends like Maxis, Bullfrog, Origin, and Westwood. (It even prompted reports of a Vivendi acquisition, oddly enough.)

That saga would drag on for years, ever-present in the background even as Ubisoft evolved into the company it is today with hits like Assassin's Creed and Just Dance. And just as it is doing now, Ubisoft made sure back then to plead its case for independence in public.

"I think it would be dangerous for a company like Ubisoft to get together too much with a company like EA, because it could kill creativity - and in our industry, I think that's key," Ubisoft EMEA executive director Alain Corre told us 10 years ago this month. Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot also addressed the issue for us that month, saying any such deal in a creative business would have to be the result of collaboration to find success.

It probably didn't help Corre and Guillemot that EA was regularly giving fresh reminders as to why one might not want to be acquired by the company. Just days before those interviews, EA completed its acquisition of DICE, makers of the Battlefield military shooter series, years after its first attempts to acquire the developer were rejected.

That was on a Monday. That Thursday, EA confirmed the shutdown of DICE's Canadian studio. Later that same month, EA would shut down EA Warrington, which had worked on the Battlefield: Modern Combat console game. Also that month, the company also proudly touted the opening of its new EA Chicago studio location, with 150 developers and plans to increase that number by 100 in the next year. In reality, EA would reduce that headcount number by about 150 the next year, shutting the Chicago studio down entirely as then-EA Games president Frank Gibeau threw the development team under the bus for not hitting profitability targets, making an example of them in a memo to the rest of the company.

The point here is that sort of tumultuous, precarious existence may have seemed the norm for life at Electronic Arts, and you can't really blame people for not wanting to be part of that. As it turned out, EA never stepped up ownership in Ubisoft significantly beyond that initial 20%, eventually selling its stake in 2010.

About that forecast...

October of 2006 was a fun time in the mobile games market. It was clear to industry watchers that non-traditional audiences were a massive and as-yet untapped market, digital distribution was going to reinvent the industry from the ground up, and mobile was going to be big. At the same time, device fragmentation and control interfaces were still big hurdles. In a report at the time, Juniper Research put the mobile games market at $3 billion annually, and projected it to jump to $10.5 billion by 2009, with women and casual gamers playing a big part in that growth.

Even though the intervening years saw the introduction of the iPhone and App Store and the launch of the Android platform, Juniper's projections were a bit optimistic. When asked for an update for this column, Juniper head of forecasting and consultancy Windsor Holden said actual global mobile gaming revenues in 2009 only totalled about $6 billion.

"While the combination of the iPhone and the App Stores in 2008 certainly did provide a boost to the games industry, it did so to an industry that at the time was seeing revenues flatline in many markets - only in Korea and Japan were companies making any money at that time. A large number of games publishers had received cash injection from VCs in the 2004-7 period, but many were losing money hand over fist. So there was no real development of the market in 2006/7, and only from mid-2008 did we see it accelerate.

"The reaction of games developers to the arrival of the App Store was one of almost pure joy - they couldn't believe how easy it was to reach large numbers of consumers without having to cut deals with network operators - and of course the payment terms were far more attractive. Furthermore, the iPhone itself was the first true consumer smartphone: it made gameplay much more intuitive than previous devices, where the best you could do was the odd Java game."

It's hard enough when predicting the next big thing just getting the "what" part right. Sometimes the "when" is just as tricky.

They said it...

"At PlayStation, we always want to create open formats, and we were happy to offer the UMD as an alternative format for the PSP."-- SCE Worldwide Europe VP Jamie MacDonald explains the PSP's UMD movie functionality while misunderstanding what "open" means and enraging Vita memory card purchasers.

"Even though it's affordable, at AUD $400 (EUR 237) plus whatever you need to buy accessories-wise, I'm guessing you need to spend about AUD $500 (EUR 296) to take home a Wii and enjoy it." - Sony Australia's Michael Ephraim knocks the price of the Wii, immediately before levelling a similar criticism at the Xbox 360, which launched at AUD $500. The low-end version of the PS3 launch hardware had already been priced at AUD $830 when he made those comments.

"Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and the rest of the creative team are dedicated to ensuring the Halo movie becomes a reality." - Microsoft reaffirms its commitment to making the Halo movie even after Universal and Fox withdraw from the project.

"By 2015 you're going to see more [MMOG] money generated off console than PC, because these countries are console countries." - Webzen America CEO Cindy Armstrong was a bit bullish on console MMOs taking off.

In brief

--Capcom closed Clover Studios, the developers of Okami, Viewtiful Joe, and God Hand.

--Microsoft sings a familiar tune for platform holders, admitting it botched the flow of post-launch software support for Xbox 360.

--Blitz Games' $4 Burger King games for Xbox 360 set the world on fire. Or at least flame-broiled it.

Remember, you can find plenty more historical perspective on how far we have come as in an industry in the last decade (or not come, as the case may be) on the @GIbiz10YearsAgo Twitter account.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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