Not all game publishers have welcomed the Nintendo Wii U with open arms. But French game publisher Ubisoft has gone bananas over it, making more games for the new console than anyone else. That’s what Ubisoft usually does when someone introduces a promising new game platform. Ubisoft’s core strategy is to develop original intellectual property to launch at the debut of a new video game platform. It then follows up those hits with sequels that reap bigger and bigger revenues.
Tony Key, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Ubisoft, says his company is taking the same approach with the Wii U because it bring “second screen” gaming to life. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview with Key, who never met a new console he didn’t like.
GamesBeat: Here we are again. Another console launch.
Tony Key: I have this conversation every time a new platform ships, but our goal is to be the number one third-party publisher on Wii U. We have six titles launching on day one, another one two weeks after, and then another one in calendar Q1. So we have eight titles in what Nintendo’s calling their launch window.
Key: We have exclusive titles for the Wii U shipping on day one: ZombiU, Rabbids Land, Your Shape: Fitness Evolved 2013, and our newly-announced partnership with ESPN called ESPN Sports Connection. Then, in Q1, our other exclusive is Rayman Legends. We also have, on day one, Assassin’s Creed III and Just Dance 4. On December 4, we have Marvel’s Avengers: Battle for Earth. Those three games are also on other platforms. You can see by the amount of exclusive titles that we’re very excited about the machine. When we were part of the Wii launch back in 2006, we only had two exclusive titles, which were Red Steel and Rayman Raving Rabbids. Those turned out to be the number two and number three best-selling Wii games of that launch, behind Zelda. We’re expecting to be heavily represented at the top of the Wii U software sales chart.
GamesBeat: What’s attractive about it, given that there’s been a lot of discussion about the potential of the machine among gamers? Some say it’s a great machine, some say it’s a bad machine. What would you point about it that tells us it’s going to do well?
Key: When the Wii came, it ushered in an era of motion gaming. It really opened things up for the industry. It was a very innovative machine, and it was hard for people to understand what value it brought until they got their hands on it. The same thing is happening with the Wii U. This type of innovation and Nintendo’s vision are going to be difficult to explain through videos and trailers, as you saw with that TV ad from the U.K. today, talking about the Wii U and the benefits of the tablet controller.
We think that this machine is ushering in a year of second-screen gaming. How the market will react to that and what kind of innovation that will bring obviously remains to be seen. Our position is, we believe in it. We’ve got all these titles we’ve been working on. We’ve had a lot of experience working on and playing games with the second-screen experience. We think it’s an innovation that’s going to have a big impact on the industry.
GamesBeat: If you look at a title like ZombiU, how do you take advantage of that second screen?
Key: I was about to say it gives you another set of issues. You’re one of the last people on earth, so you have issues, right? I meant to say it gives you another interface to utilize, to make the gameplay experience different. In ZombiU, the controller is your backpack. You’re carrying things around with this controller, but you don’t pause the game to get something out of your backpack, a new gun or a new tool. When you’re rummaging around in that thing, up on the television there could be somebody sneaking up behind you. It adds a new level of intensity to the product that wasn’t possible before.
There’s other features with ZombiU, without getting too tactical, that utilize the second screen. Finding a zoom lens and things like that. There are lots of clever ways to use it, but the thing we want to focus on is that it changes game design. It adds all kinds of possibilities. ZombiU utilizes a few of those. A game like Rayman utilizes a few of those as well. There’s a multiplayer mode, an asymmetrical multiplayer game occurring with that second screen. These are things that are hard to represent in video. We’re looking forward to that moment where a critical mass of consumers gets their hands on the hardware. That’s when people see how cool it is. I don’t see how people can be too critical of something that they haven’t had a chance to use yet.
GamesBeat: Who will be the audience for the Wii U: casual gamers or hardcore gamers?
Key: We’ve got a pretty wide offering of experiences. ZombiU is something that a core gamer will appreciate, as is Assassin’s Creed III. Rayman is something core gamers have always gravitated to. The core press have been very kind to the brand in their reviews. Rayman Origins got a 90 percent Metacritic score. Then we have Just Dance, which is more of a family or party game, and likewise with Rabbids Land. We have a mix of casual and core. We have a fitness game. We have a sports game. We have Avengers: Battle for Earth, which is a fighting game for a more casual audience. So we’re doing both. The early adopters tend to be people who are very passionate about gaming, and so a lot of them are core gamers. We think that there’s enough stuff there for them to try it out and see if they like the Wii U or not.
GamesBeat: How are your game designers dealing with the notion that the Wii U is something new and different, something gamers haven’t seen before? It seems like at the same time, you want to create something that’s familiar to gamers. Some people want to have things stay the same from one generation to another, but there’s this tablet thing that’s totally new. How are they dealing with the adjustment people have to make to a new way to play?
Key: It’s what the industry needs right now: new ways to play games. This console generation is getting a bit long in the teeth. Gamers are clamoring for new experiences. With ZombiU, it’s not that difficult because it’s a new intellectual property for Ubisoft. We don’t have fans of ZombiU that are upset that we changed the core experience on them, because they’ve never had this experience before. The benefit of that is that we can establish a new IP at the beginning of a cycle by showing them a whole new kind of gameplay that they’re not used. That’s one of the keys to establishing a new brand, by making it unique in that sense. The new hardware allows us to do that.
GamesBeat: How much further into the future do you see your support continuing? Are you going to wait and see how everything is received at launch first?
Key: Well, we have a lot of titles, a lot of upside on the Wii U for Ubisoft. We’re going to be the number one third-party publisher. When Wii U becomes a hot machine, Ubisoft is going to be well-positioned. We have Rayman Legends in Q1, and we haven’t announced any other games beyond that, but… All we can say is that we’re all in on the machine. We believe in it.
GamesBeat: How do you see the competition that’s coming from other quarters, like whatever Apple introduces, or Windows 8 with a new tablet? How do you look at this whole season and how much competition there will be?
Key: The most successful games on Wii U are going to be the ones that create an experience you can’t have somewhere else. Those machines, the new hardware, they’re all opening up opportunities for new business models and new gameplay experiences. The Wii U is the same. I don’t see them as cannibalizing each other, if the products that are being made for the Wii U are unique to that system. People crave good entertainment experiences, innovative entertainment experiences. I don’t know how many people are saying, “I need a cheap entertainment experience.” They walk around saying, “I want something fun.” Then they decide how much they’re willing to pay for that. The Wii U is giving them experiences that they haven’t had before, experiences that have a high perceived value.
GamesBeat: What do you think of the online experience the Wii U delivers, and how are you guys taking advantage of that?
Key: Some of the interesting things that Nintendo’s just starting to talk about are the Miiverse and the Wii U TV, things like that. All those things are going to help get Wii U gamers more connected than they were before. When you talk about having more consumers connected, it opens up all kinds of different opportunities for communication, for game design, for the social aspects, all those things. As they introduce more of these online features to us, we’ll be able to create better experiences as we go along. But I think it’s safe to say that as we get more experience with the machine and all the online features that they’re bringing, the games and the experiences are going to get better. We haven’t seen everything yet, even though the machine is launching on November 18.
Key: We’re spending a lot of time talking to the press about making sure that they understand what’s different about our products, especially something like ZombiU. We’ve gotten a lot of support on the press side. We also have to talk to retailers, because retail is very excited about Wii U. They’ve been clamoring for a new console for quite some time. They see this as an opportunity to re-energize the industry. We’ve been working to make sure that we have good representation for our launch titles in all the marketing vehicles they have. That’s where we’ve focused our efforts.
GamesBeat: We’re just starting to see some new advertising out of Nintendo for Wii U as well. What do you think of those from your point of view?
Key: They’re trying to sell hardware. My job is to sell my software. They have the ability to put a lot of muscle behind selling hardware units to consumers, whereas with software publishers like Ubisoft, we have to measure our investment against the installed base of the machine. When there’s 500,000 or a million machines in the market, you’re not going to sell two million copies of a game. Big mass-market campaigns for software are not going to be the norm for quite some time, not until the installed base grows. That will have to come from Nintendo themselves. What we’re focusing on is making sure our message is told out in the press and at retail, the point of sale.
GamesBeat: What about some new things such as the online world, YouTube, and the like? I assume you’re making good use of those things.
Key: Oh, yes, of course. When I say “PR” I’m talking about getting all the press and the community talking about the products. You’re going to see a ton of stuff on YouTube that’s going to be organic. People will be using the machine and they’re going to show people how it works. Maybe one of them will have that secret sauce to figure out how to really get people to understand what’s special about the machine. In my opinion, though, you have to experience it personally, either buying one or getting to use one with a friend or some other hands-on demo experience. Consumers haven’t been able to do that so far.