Yves Guillemot is riding high. His company’s Watch Dogs video game about a rogue hacker sold more than 4 million units in its first week.
This shows that it’s still possible to create a core console game with spectacular demand. The new game works with an iPad app that has also gotten more than 1.5 million downloads.
While Assassin’s Creed may generate more revenue now, Watch Dogs is something that could create more new customers for Ubisoft in the long term, Guillemot said.
We attended a press briefing with the chief executive of French game publisher Ubisoft on Sunday evening. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: Does it look like Watch Dogs can potentially become a huge franchise for you guys? Is that the idea?
Yves Guillemot: It is. We were able to create tools and mechanics that we’re going to improve on, step by step. We think it can become a huge brand for the company. The subject of hacking has endless possibilities. There’s a lot of potential in the long run.
GamesBeat: I know there had been a lot of attempts to make good interactions between tablets and games. Do you think that’ll be a big element of future games?
Guillemot: I think so. I’m happy it worked well, because it’s going to help us go one step further. What we liked very much is the seamless online multiplayer and single-player, also. That’s something we think we can develop, giving you a chance to play alone and also have your friends come in and have fun with them. Those two things stand out.
GamesBeat: Do you have any estimate of how much people use the online capability?
Guillemot: We had almost 1.5 million downloads of the mobile app. On the multiplayer, I don’t have stats to hand. A lot of people played with it, but I don’t have an exact number.
GamesBeat: So that’s 1.5 million out of 4 million that bought the game?
Guillemot: Yeah. But what I like the most is that it’s not automatically 1.5 million of the 4 [million]. And the four was only the first week, so anyway you have more. But you don’t need to buy the game. You can download the app, and you can play with other people who have the game. That’s what I want to do a lot more in the future – make sure that even if just you buy the game, all your friends can compete with you. They can create armies or munitions and share them with you. They get something for their mobile game and you get a chance to shine more in your console game.
That’s what we need to do in the industry. We need to have more people playing these brands, whether they’re on console or PC.
GamesBeat: Do you feel, now that the game’s out and you’ve seen reviews, that waiting to release Watch Dogs was the right decision?
Guillemot: Yeah, we think so. First, it gave us a way to make everything work together. You spoke about mobile and the multiplayer and so on. Current-gen was a factor as well. We needed time to tweak all these things.
What’s interesting, also, is that we’re already doing some extra content. You’ll see more and more of the possibilities of Watch Dogs soon. I can’t say much today – we won’t be talking about it at the press conference — but there will be some surprises there.
GamesBeat: With a lot of your games – The Crew, Watch Dogs, Assassin’s Creed – you’re deliberately trying to include support for tablets or mobile, but you’re also looking at ways to extend the life of your games, either through making them more like an MMO, or giving them more of an open-world structure. Is that something you’ll be doing with future games as well?
Guillemot: Yes. That’s something we want to do more and more, to make sure you can play a longer time with a game, that you can come back because things change in the future. We want gamers to have an influence on the game, to be able to go into the game and tweak some elements. I want our games to be more alive, so they can evolve, and you’re interested in coming back to play because things have changed. You have the opportunity to be surprised again.
GamesBeat: There were some issues with Uplay when Watch Dogs came out. Do you know what happened there?
Guillemot: It’s not really Uplay that was the trouble. It’s the launcher itself. It’s called Uplay, so it was affected by that. The service was not expecting that many people playing at the same time. It took us a few hours to deal with that. It’s something we have to look at, because now we have lots of pre-orders, and lots of people downloading and buying at the earliest moment. It makes the number of people playing jump very quickly to a very high level.
GamesBeat: Do you think it’s harder to project that kind of thing today, now that people don’t have to preorder a physical copy? They can just buy a download as soon as it’s available.
Guillemot: We have more and more predownloads. Microsoft did one and so on. At the second we opened the game, we had this flow of people coming in. I’m not sure it’s exactly that, but the fact is, we went to 530,000 people playing at the same time.
GamesBeat: A lot of people still associate Uplay with DRM and piracy issues, but now it’s more of a feature used to give players more content, more stuff. But you guys are quite modest about that. Why don’t you communicate more about what Uplay is? A lot of my friends who play a lot of games, they don’t know that you get added content when you sign in for something like Child of Light.
Guillemot: It’s true. There are two issues. I think we don’t give enough yet. We need to make sure our studios are giving more content, more advantages when you’re a Uplay member. It’s just that up until now—We’ve given quite a lot, but not to now. We’ll include that and we’ll market it more.
What we’ve done with the Uplay lounge, before the show, we asked people to come up with creative ideas. There was a competition between the fans. A certain number of them were selected, and we paid everything for them to come to E3. They’re going to the conference. They’re also going to the booth to see all the games. They have a special place where they can ask questions of all our game creators. I’ll be meeting with them. We’re trying to talk with them as much as we can, so we can understand what they like, what we should do better, and so on. That’s a way for us to get closer to our customers.
GamesBeat: How many people are you bringing here through that program?
Guillemot: The winners of the contest, there are 12 of them, those 12 ambassadors that we’re flying out. But we also have an open invitation to Uplay members attending the show to come over and talk.
GamesBeat: What do you think the importance of Uplay is, not just in getting people to play your games, but building a community around them?
Guillemot: It’s major for us. We need gamers to help us improve our games from the beginning. On The Division, for example, we had the fastest community building—I think it’s the biggest community at the moment on a new IP. We’re already communicating a lot with those fans – asking them what they want, showing them things, seeing their reactions. We also give them tools to express themselves on blogs and things.
When we build a community, we want them to be close to the team that’s creating the game, so that we’re going in the same direction. The community fits with what the team wants to create in the long term.
GamesBeat: Are you worried about leaks?
Guillemot: Maybe a bit less. That generally happens after we’ve announced a certain number of elements. But we give them more than we used to in the past.
GamesBeat: What’s your business like as far as merchandise and licensing?
Guillemot: It’s growing. It’s still small, but it’s growing year after year. We’re getting ready for that, because we have the movies coming. On Rabbids, for example, we were able to have special booths at Wal-Mart, Toys R Us, Target. We’ve started to sell quite a lot of that kind of thing.
A TV show like Rabbids is the best vehicle for selling things like this, but we’ve also done well with Assassin’s Creed. We have the double blade and a certain number of other elements that we’ve started to be able to merchandise and sell. They do quite well. We’ve reached 100,000 units on some items like that. It’s getting more interesting.
GamesBeat: What do you think your biggest franchise is today?
Guillemot: That’s a good question. Assassin’s Creed is generating the most revenue. The two we feel might bring us more customers are Watch Dogs and The Division. It’s an RPG on one side and an open world on the other. A modern open world increases the number of people who might be potentially interested.
You’ll see Just Dance tomorrow. We’re opening the brand up to a bigger audience, because you’ll be able to play with a mobile device in your hand. It becomes your Wiimote, in fact. It’s quite interesting, what we can do. It can link to any set-top box or any smart TV, any PC, any machine you have at home.
GamesBeat: Every E3, it seems like you have one crazy idea, whether it’s laser tag or some other thing. Is there something like that you’ll be talking about this year?
Guillemot: This year, Just Dance Now – that’s the name of the game – is what we really expect will surprise people. We’re teaming up with Coca-Cola for that one. Coca-Cola is going to invest a lot in the project. They’re going to market Just Dance. They want to be in the video for it. You’ll see ads at many events they want to create. It’s a big deal between our two companies.
GamesBeat: I was wondering if next-gen development is turning out to be harder than you thought. We’ve seen delays on Watch Dogs and The Division. Is next-gen a factor?
Guillemot: It’s harder, because there are so many things to do, so many possibilities. We saw that when we launched Watch Dogs. To make sure the mobile works with the seamless multiplayer, with all the things we’re bringing, it’s more complex. It’s always on. There are lots of things to check and control. We didn’t do a beta on Watch Dogs, for example, and so it took us a certain amount of time to make everything work.
We’re also at the very beginning. Starting next year, things should go smoother. We’re not expecting every game to take longer to make. It’s not as complex, I would say, as the jump to PS3. PS3 was extremely difficult to develop on when it came. All our teams had been on Xbox, and they had to learn how to develop for PS3, which was quite difficult at the time.
GamesBeat: With all that complexity comes a great deal more potential as well. Do you think the answer is increasing staff headcounts, more bodies on the ground, or is it learning how to exploit the technology over time?
Guillemot: The first thing is making sure we re-use more effort. Today, we create a car at one studio, and we don’t ever re-use that car in any other game. We need to make sure we can re-use more items that people won’t care about. That’s one direction we can take, to make sure we optimize our investment.
Another thing, what I want to do more and more is work the way they do in the movie industry, having a more detailed budget before greenlighting a game. We need to make choices early on about where we’re putting our money. What’s the most interesting thing for our gamers? That, I think, will improve the efficiency of development.
GamesBeat: In the movie industry they often finish a film months before it’s released, whereas in games you typically work right up to the five weeks before a game comes out.
Guillemot: Not even five weeks sometimes.
GamesBeat: Is that where you want to get to with games?
Guillemot: It’s a good question. What we see more and more is that we need lead time to do even more polish than we have today. With open worlds, it’s very complex to adapt to all these criteria, so you have a real feeling of how people will like a game. With Watch Dogs, we did lots of traits at the last minute. We went between more weapons and less weapons. We changed the time until it introduces the system that allows you to change the traffic lights and so on. What we’ve decided is that we need to finish a game earlier, so we can test things more and more, and change a certain number of parameters.
We have games that can work for different people. What’s good about an open world is, people can do what they want. But we have to understand what each category wants and make sure that it’s good for all of them. Some people will love what we do, but others might play differently and not appreciate it as much. We have to make sure we identify those different types of gamers and give each category what they want. That takes time.
GamesBeat: Would you delay any new IP because of delays in other games as well?
Guillemot: Watch Dogs did put lots of pressure on other games. We had to push some games back.
GamesBeat: You were talking about re-using and recycling successful game content or game ideas. Isn’t it dangerous to use too many things in too many games?
Guillemot: What’s important is to create the engines that allow you to give freedom to consumers. We need to make sure to create A.I. that will react and so on. It’s a matter of layers. The more layers we can put into AI, the more freedom we can give to our customers, the more fun they’ll have. I’m not worried about that. We just have to make sure they feel good, that they feel they’re rewarded, that they have their own way to play that’s different from their friends. But they can also play with their friends when they want. There are plenty of possibilities. We just have to take the time to use all those tools and make a perfect game.
GamesBeat: Assassin’s Creed and Just Dance are annual releases. They’re doing very well. Do you plan to do that with other franchises, or do you think it’s better for some franchises to take a longer break between releases? Do you think Watch Dogs could be an annual release?
Guillemot: To start, we’ll take time, to make sure we can come back with something that takes full advantage of everything we’ve created in the first game. That’s what we did with Assassin’s Creed II. Afterward, it’ll depend on our teams. What we try to do is have different teams take care of a brand and give enough time to each other. We’ll see how it works out, depending on the availability of talented people to take care of the brand.
GamesBeat: What potential is there in interactive TV? You’re doing Rabbids Invasion. How do you view the potential of that? Because the market doesn’t exist yet.
Guillemot: Yes, the market doesn’t exist now, but there’s no reason why this generation won’t interact with movies or TV series. Starting around five years ago, I’ve had the impression that TV series and movies will become more interactive. They’ll give customers a chance to have more impact on what they see from one week to the next, in different types of linear content. It’s going to come soon now. We’ll see how kids react. All the playtests we’ve done have gone very well. They seem to love it, being able to interact.
GamesBeat: How many kids have PS4s and Xbox Ones, though?
Guillemot: Not too many, to be sure. That’s a trial. We’ll be doing things on mobile and tablet as well, though. That should do more volume.
GamesBeat: So, the Wii U. You were early strong supporters. Now, a lot of studios have backed away from it. Even though you keep saying you support it, there still seems to be a question about games like Watch Dogs. Is that still coming to Wii U?
Guillemot: It’s coming this November. As far as the Wii U in general, we’ll have Just Dance again, which is well-suited for the machine. We’ll have Watch Dogs. We have another couple of products that we’re waiting to launch. Specifically, we have one game where we’re waiting for the machine to be more mass-market.
GamesBeat: Is that time ever coming?
Guillemot: We hope so? We have a game that’s been done for six months now. It’s been on the shelf waiting for more families to have the machine.
GamesBeat: If you look at even Mario Kart, which is getting great reviews, it’s not going to sell as well as any other Mario Kart in history, because there aren’t enough Wii Us out there. It seems like a chicken-and-egg problem.
Guillemot: Nintendo is coming up with fantastic games, though. With the right price and good games, they can help the machine get started.
GamesBeat: Do you think a price drop is necessary?
Guillemot: I can’t speak for Nintendo in that regard. In general, it’s a difficult question to answer when you’re asking me what Nintendo should do. We don’t have specific numbers we’re waiting for. But the Wii U does continue to increase in sales. If that continues, it’ll quickly come to a mass market. Then we’ll have the volume that will justify more marketing, TV marketing and so on.
Guillemot: It was so adapted to the Wii U that it’s difficult to do for other machines. It might happen sometime, but not as a full game.
GamesBeat: This game that you have on the shelf for the Wii U, is there a cutoff point where you have to say, no, that’s not ever coming out?
Guillemot: It might never come out. It might come out in some other format that would offer the same experience. We’ll know this year whether the machine is going to pick up and take off.
GamesBeat: Is this the last year the Wii U has a chance to prove itself?
Guillemot: I think we have to wait for Smash Bros. to come. That’s always been a big, big property for Nintendo and for gamers. We all know that there are lots of Nintendo fans waiting for big games to come along. We know they’re coming. When I speak with the fans that come to E3, 90 percent of them are crazy for Nintendo. They love Nintendo and the games they do.