Ubisoft is unveiling a bunch of titles tied to its digital game publishing strategy today. The French game publisher is announcing something for every platform and business model. The games include enhancements to Ghost Recon Online, new Xbox Live downloadable titles, free-to-play browser games, mobile titles, and more Facebook fare. The games are based on both its “companion game” strategy of stretching a single game property across multiple platforms as well as its focus on publishing games on the appropriate digital platforms.
Chris Early, the vice president of digital publishing at Ubisoft, recently presided over the company’s third Ubisoft digital day event. We caught up with him there for a one-on-one interview. Here is a transcript of our interview with Early.
Chris Early: Well, it’s our third digital day here. Somebody earlier asked me what I was most proud of here, and I think what I’m actually most proud of is that for the last two years, we did what we said we were going to do the year before. Now, this year for example, Ghost Recon: Commander is out [on Facebook]. The whole companion gaming strategy is coming together. In Commander, when you play a mission, at the end of the mission you can choose a reward for Ghost Recon: Commander, which helps you play. You normally have to pay for those things. Or you can choose a reward for Ghost Recon: Future Soldier and use it there. Sixty-five percent of the people are choosing Future Soldier rewards.
GamesBeat: So they can cash them in and….
Early: Yeah, they can use them in Future Soldier. That’s a lot higher than we expected, the tie rate. And if you then look at the Uplay players, because everything connects through Uplay, 83 percent of the people who are Uplay players in the Facebook game pick Future Soldier as well. That’s far more than we expected. We did a great job of brand extension in that case. Letting people play more.
GamesBeat: This is not the kind of game where your goal is to get those 10 million users, right?
Early: Well, it would be great if we had 10 million. [Laughs] But no. I’m not gonna kick that in the mouth, but….
GamesBeat: There are different goals, though.
Early: Right. They monetize higher than any of our other Facebook games. That’s what we expect from a mid-core game like that. Soon the ties to Ghost Recon Online will be out also, and then that, I think, will be an interesting back and forth. We’ll see. You’ll be able to earn things in Commander and then use them that night in Ghost Recon Online. And that night, you’ll get things you can use the next day at lunchtime in Commander. In both of those cases, these are things that you’d be buying, normally. We extend the interface. I think we’re at the beginning of our, if you want to call it… The second-generation games. A lot of the lessons that we’ve learned over the last year and a half, those games, they’re now appearing in the new games. We learned some things. We saw some things. It took a cycle to design them in. Now they’re starting to appear. That’s rewarding.
GamesBeat: Is this a larger number of games than you guys have shown before?
Early: Yeah, this is the largest number of games, and across the largest number of platforms, too. We talk about three main tenets. We support multiple platforms. We even announced that we’ll have digital content for download at the launch of Wii U, on day one. We support demanding gaming and the brand engagement. Not only through games like Ghost Recon Commander, but also through games like Rayman. You’ve got another platform where you can play Rayman and experience the brand.
GamesBeat: Oh, so your companion games?
Early: Or full-on games. And then the third thing we wanted to talk about was the way players can get to the content. How are we creating that business model and going with a variety of business models? You look out on the floor there: We’ve got premium games; we’ve got free-to-play games; we’ve got paymium games. However you want to call it, all the different “iums.” We have it out there. That third leg of the strategy is “Be present.” Learn about, and expand into each of the business models. That opens up our brands to more players being able to play.
GamesBeat: Ghost Recon Online: How has that been received so far?
Early: It’s been received well. It’s out. We’re just beginning a marketing push now. We launched it quietly, over at Gamescom. That was where we had the announcement. We have a lot of people playing it. They seem to be having fun. I don’t know if you played it or not, but it’s got a surprising amount of content before you have to even think about paying for anything. Which was, I think, one of the gutsy moves that the design team made. They decided that every single thing that you could buy, weapons-wise and gameplay-wise…. If you could buy it for real money, you could also buy it for in-game currency. Every single thing. You can earn the entire game free. My son and I, when we look at it…. I play, I get to the right level where I can buy the new sniper rifle, and I pull out the cash to do it. I don’t have the time. But he has plenty of time. He’s just going to play for another few hours and earn the gun. So from my standpoint, that’s ideal. I don’t want to spend 10 more hours to get that gun. I already got to the right level where I can buy it. Let me just buy it.
GamesBeat: What kind of platform is Call of Juarez on?
Early: That’s XBLA and PSN.
GamesBeat: Some of these are pretty hefty games….
Early: What you’re seeing is…you saw that with I Am Alive. It’s an XBLA, PSN, small-format game with production quality that you’d equate with a retail title. Same thing with Call of Juarez. Same thing with Spartacus. When we showed Spartacus at Comic-Con, we didn’t talk about the business model then. People thought it was a console game, a $60 dollar console game. What we were able to say today is… You probably saw the Microsoft talk about their free-to-play pilot program. There’s three games in it, and we’re the only third-party publisher. We’re going to be, at the launch of Spartacus, the only publisher that has a free-to-play game on both consoles. On PlayStation and on Xbox. Again, pushing that business model into new territory. Figuring out how the console crowd is going to behave when you give them a console-quality game and a free-to-play business model.
GamesBeat: Your mobile titles are still in the offing here? You’re still awaiting those?
Early: Well, we have a number of them out there. Rayman is a mobile title. Nutty Fluffies, which is the next one from RedLynx, is a kind of roller coaster game. That’s a mobile title. Trials Evolution has done well. There’s a new Trials coming. I would say that we’re not there with all of our major brands yet. There’s a partnership we have with Gree on Assassin’s Creed: Utopia, to develop a game in the Assassin’s Creed world. We’re getting there. We’re getting there a lot quicker than I would have expected, for having just come out of the exclusive relationship with GameLoft.
GamesBeat: When I was talking to Kabam, they had an interesting observation about how iOS games were actually monetizing better for them. They’re making more money on those games than the Facebook games. I wonder if you guys expect that to happen at some point as well.
Early: That would be awesome.
GamesBeat: Because the iOS crowd has a longer history of paying for things. They’ve got their credit cards on file. They’re hardcore gamers. You have a larger percentage of gamers among them. And then Facebook has a shorter history of monetizing, and it has a wider array of folks, many of whom have never played games seriously. Lower numbers on the iOS could actually mean more money for you in the pot.
Early: That’s right. It happens you make a payment mechanism frictionless. It’s the same thing I saw back at Microsoft with Xbox Live Arcade. When it’s easy to press a button and convert from trial to pay, many more people convert. That’s the way it’s set up with Apple already. It’s a lot easier to convert. Both the initial purchase and the ongoing in-app purchases.
GamesBeat: But it doesn’t mean you’re going to join a stampede off of Facebook, though?
Early: No, I don’t. We don’t really go off a lot of platforms, right? Like, we’re still making DS games. The question is, how do we make our efforts, how do we make those games profitable, no matter what platform we’re making them on? That’s the business management question, from the overall perspective. Will our games continue to be on Facebook? Yeah. Will they evolve so that we’re making the money out of the niche that we can on Facebook? Yeah, absolutely. Ghost Recon, like I said, is monetizing better than any of our other games. That’s great.
GamesBeat: Are some of your titles in the future going to be more mobile-first?
Early: I think we’ll see mobile…I don’t know about first, but either simultaneous or not delayed by a significant period. Right now, we’re talking about a few months in between, which is kind of painful.
GamesBeat: Any final thoughts?
Early: Let’s see, anything else to talk about… We announced the partnership with [the IGN Pro League]. They’re going to be using ShootMania in their tournaments. It’s the first time they’ll be using a first-person shooter. We’ve got the new pack in Ghost Recon Online, the Arctic maps. If you look closely, you’ll also see some Razer logos in there.
GamesBeat: An in-game ads?
Early: Well, maybe think of it as a sponsorship. It’s not a massive kind of in-game thing. Although I think there is a TV screen somewhere that’s playing a commercial. That’s more like… I think it’s some programmer’s idea. Spartacus is there. That’s another new free-to-play game. It’s 80 percent fighting and then 20 percent a city-builder. It’s a good mix. It’s getting a great response. We can’t wait for that one to come out.
GamesBeat: Any other lessons that you’ve picked up by the third digital day here?
Early: For the first time, we had products that we wanted to show but we couldn’t. From a space standpoint, we had to make some decisions. That’s good. It means we have more digital content than our floor space allows.