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It’s no secret that 2012 will be a year full of acquisitions in the game industry. Last year, investments grew 96 percent to $2 billion, while the value of acquisitions grew 160 percent to $3.4 billion, according to game-centric investment bank Digi-Capital. The bank expects 2012 to be another big year for deals.
That’s why big companies have to learn how to handle acquisitions. Ubisoft may or may not be a model in this regard, having acquired many companies recently. But the French video game publisher willingly shared its experience in dealing with acquisitions in a panel at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.
When it comes to deals, there’s a right way to do them and a wrong way, said Billy Pidgeon, analyst at M2 Research and moderator of the panel.
The top executives of three recently-acquired companies sang the praises of their new parent Ubisoft in handling its acquisitions. Pictured above, the panelists included (from right to left) Anne Blondel-Jouin, director at Nadeo Live; David Polfeldt, managing director of Massive; Tommy Francois (in the kilt), new IP editorial director at Ubisoft; and Tero Virtala, CEO of RedLynx.
The acquired companies were all very different. Nadeo makes multiplayer online games such as TrackMania and is working on an online first-person shooter. RedLynx made Trials HD and is preparing to release Trials Evolution side-scrolling racing game. Francois said that big companies shouldn’t treat acquisitions like toys they can break. Ubisoft Massive makes real-time strategy games such as World in Conflict.
In looking for companies to buy, Ubisoft looks for studios that make games that it loves, said Francois, who scouts for potential acquisitions. It also looks for opportunities to learn. It’s unlikely for the company to buy a studio that makes games that are similar to what Ubisoft already makes because the chance to learn something new is minimal.
“Acquisitions are difficult,” Francois said. “It’s about respecting the creative culture and identity of a company. You don’t want to erase that. An acquisition is like a wedding. You are looking at what new identity you can create together. It’s not about buying a brand, but the people who are creating games and content.”
Ubisoft hasn’t always done everything right. The company bought the film company Hybride in order to take Ubisoft’s games and turn them into movies. But that deal didn’t work out so well, in part because Ubisoft had to learn that it didn’t buy a movie-making machine. Rather, Hybride was just a piece of what it needed, and now Ubisoft is going to work to try to make the acquisition work out better, Francois said.
“We didn’t understand who we were working with,” Francois said.
Blondel-Jouin said that her deal was a good one because Ubisoft allows Nadeo to do what it does best, which is focus on making games. But she said big companies have processes that can hurt startups. For instance, it may require a staff of 20 people to be fully compliant with the parent company’s way of doing things. Sometimes the startups have to push back to get their work done.
One of the lessons is that the best thing you can do when you acquire a new company is listen, Francois said. Nadeo’s team told Ubisoft that they didn’t want to grow their staff quickly after acquisition.
There are plenty of horror stories when it comes to acquisitions. That’s why it’s rare to find companies that are good at them. The smaller the deal, the more likely it has a chance for success, since big acquisitions seem like they’re setting themselves up for failure, Francois said.
Big companies have big distractions. Ubisoft has more than 500 developers working on releasing a new version of Assassin’s Creed every year. But Francois said that the management team at Ubisoft is set up so that it has dedicated people such as Francois to work with small teams. Ubisoft has a lot of centralized expertise in game design and other creative fields to assist its various studios.
“The Assassin’s team knows what they are doing and maybe they don’t need as much support from us,” Francois said. Virtala added, “We get the management bandwidth that we need.”
Francois said that the team that was working on Child of Eden got advice from Ubisoft’s CEO, Yves Guillemot, to use Kinect as the method of control in the game.
“That’s the level of attention that small teams can get at Ubisoft,” Francois said.
Francois said that some people in the company wanted to raise the forecast for brand new games such as Child of Eden. But he said that other seasoned people were in place to say that they shouldn’t do that or else they would wind up disappointing.
Asked if Ubisoft would consider buying an American development studio, Francois said, “There’s no reason it couldn’t. It could happen.” One of the company’s most successful acquisitions was of Red Storm Entertainment, a Cary, N.C.-based studio that makes the Tom Clancy military games.
As for prices for startups, it may be a seller’s market. But Francois said that discussions for acquisitions at Ubisoft rarely dwell on price.
Virtala said that you can actually get more independence by being acquired. For much of its history, RedLynx found it was always trying to raise money for its next game. That process was all-consuming, and that problem was solved when Ubisoft acquired the company and allowed it to focus on innovation, Virtala said.
“We’re more independent now than we have ever been,” he said.
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