Ubisoft launches digital game publishing business (exclusive)

Game makerUbisoft is announcing today that it has created a digital game publishing business to focus on online and phone-based games and has appointed former Microsoft game veteran Chris Early as the executive in charge of it.

To date, the French game publisher has focused on hardcore console and PC games and has only dipped its toes in water on digital online games.

“Our focus on digital publishing will be about operating games as an online service,” Early, vice president of digital publishing, said in an interview. “We have some catching up to do. What we lack is a consistent breadth of experience. We can draw upon what we have learned. What we bring to the table is experience in making great gaming content and great game brands.”

Early has had a long career in online games stretching back to his days at the Mplayer online gaming service, and he was a top executive at GameSpy. He most recently was general manager for Windows Gaming Technology at Microsoft; he also was studio manager for casual games at Microsoft, oversaw the development of Xbox Live Arcade, and ran MSN Games and Windows Live Messenger Games.

At Ubisoft, Early will have his own development resources and budget to make digital online games. But he will also coordinate ongoing efforts across Ubisoft to create games for Facebook, the iPhone, and other digital platforms.

With that management structure, Ubisoft can make sure that it funnels enough resources into digital publishing. But it also makes sure that the divisions that understand their intellectual property the best can make their own games.

“In the past, the company did this in an ad hoc manner, but now we can bring some focus to it,” Early said.

Eventually, the goal is to launch games on digital platforms on the same day that Ubisoft launches the same property on the major console and PC platforms. As noted in our interview with Warner Bros.’ game chief Martin Tremblay, the definition of digital gaming is expansive. It includes hardcore massively multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft; Ubisoft doesn’t have any of these.

But it also includes downloadable content for connected consoles via Xbox Live Arcade or PlayStation Network. It includes casual online games such as Ubisoft’s Imagine web games for girls. It includes iPhone and Android games, where Ubisoft has very little presence. (Gameloft, headed by Michel Guillemot, one of the brothers in the founding family of Ubisoft, creates mobile games.)

But Ubisoft is experimenting with Facebook games. Last July, the company launched TickTock, a clever game where you lob bombs at your friends. You could defuse or build bombs only if you remembered what your friends had written in their status updates. It was a nice idea, but it didn’t succeed.

Since then, Ubisoft’s various divisions have tried other games. The company’s Shanghai studio launched Vineyard Country, a variant of the farming genre games on Facebook. Ubisoft’s Chengdu, China-based studio launched Castle & Co., while Ubisoft’s Paris team launched Might & Magic Heroes Kingdoms, a free-to-play strategy game.

In general, the strategy is to launch games and see how they do. If they succeed, then Ubisoft brands them with its own name.

Ultimately, Early said, Ubisoft wants to have about 10 percent of the online game market in the West. Early won’t say if the company is making acquisitions in the social game space. The company bought Paris-based Nadeo, a studio best known for its online multiplayer car racing game TrackMania.

Above all, the company wants to succeed in a viable and growing part of the game market. Is it too late to do well on Facebook, where Zynga has 219 million monthly active users for its games? Early believes that Zynga’s size is a barrier. It’s still easy to enter the Facebook market, but it’s hard to grow a business that keeps up Zynga’s ability to cross promote its games and copy the successful games of rivals.

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  1. […] by former Microsoft manager Chris Early. ‘We have some catching up to do,’ Early told VentureBeat, admitting the company has largely ignored the growing online market. Its competitors, including […]