Ubisoft, the big French video game publisher that makes games such as Splinter Cell: Blacklist, has been through the ups and downs of several generations of digital games now. It has had to cancel its Ghost Recon Facebook game, but it has had increasing success with digital features of its blockbuster games such as Assassin’s Creed.

Chris Early, the head of digital publishing at Ubisoft, said at a press event that Ubisoft’s digital revenues grew 86 percent in 2012 and now constitute 11.7 percent of total revenue. About a quarter of Ubisoft’s worldwide staff now works on digital titles, and every new console game now comes with a lot more downloadable content or companion apps. On top of that, Early is encouraged that digital versions of games, such as the wacky sci-fi Blood Dragon add-on for Far Cry 3, have become much more creative. Spartacus, a free-to-play downloadable game on the consoles, got more than 4 million users in two months. On the downloadable platforms for Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network, Ubisoft was the No. 3 publisher.

He said that retail game sales are not going away. But Early declared that at Ubisoft, digital is “no longer an afterthought” and the day is coming when 50 percent of Ubisoft’s revenues will come from digital games. We caught up with Early at Ubisoft’s recent Digital Day event in San Francisco. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Chris Early talks Watch Dogs

Above: Ubisoft head of digital publishing Chris Early talks about Watch Dogs.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: You started out with some baby steps into digital games, and then you did the companion gaming initiative in 2010. Is there a new stage that Ubisoft has entered in digital?

Chris Early: I don’t know if there’s a name for it, but the way I characterize it internally is that digital used to be an afterthought. Now it’s more central to everything we’re doing. It’s thought of in the design process, in the marketing execution, in the ongoing customer relationship. To me, that’s a huge success when I think about where we were a few years ago compared to where we are today. It’s much more mainstream within the company.

GamesBeat: You seem to have learned some things. You tried out Facebook games and moved on to mobile. You’re trying to figure out what works and move forward.

Early: I can’t say this is new within Ubisoft, because they’ve done this for years, but the good news is that having the number of studios that we do allows a fair amount of trial and experimentation. Not all of it works. There is a strong initiative, though, to take those learnings and codify them and make them available for all the studios. You mentioned Facebook. That’s a lot of what we’ve done with the Facebook side of things – seeing what’s worked there and what’s not worked there.

That gave us a leg up on Spartacus. It’s giving us a leg up on the design of some of the free-to-play titles we’re doing on mobile. Trials Frontier is based on a lot of the learnings we have from those games. But it’s not just on the monetization mechanism, either. Even looking at games that have gone and not done so well, they provided a springboard for a platform. The Ubiart Framework is a great example. It started off relatively small. We realized it was something we could use it as a design tool. Now it’s a game engine that makes it much easier to makes games express our creativity.

GamesBeat: Is it fair to say you guys are still waiting for your breakout hit in digital? EA had that last quarter with 79 percent digital revenue because of The Simpsons: Tapped Out. Then there are things like Minecraft. Other folks have had some spectacular hits.

Ubisoft's Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon

Above: Ubisoft’s Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon.

Image Credit: Ubisoft

Early: I’m proud of some of our efforts. They’ve not been home runs on the Minecraft level. It’s great for me to hear, on Spartacus, that both Sony and Microsoft say it’s the best-performing free-to-play title that they have. Trials Evolution has been one of the top XBLA titles for a while. We have big plans for how to expand that franchise as well.

I know, inside, that I want more. I want us to deliver more to our players. It’s a mixed bag in there. It’s great to have that acknowledgement, but it’s not where I want us to be. I don’t know whether I want to say it keeps us humble, but we’re solidly producing games. We’re going to keep doing that.

The closest thing, I would say, to a home run is the change in unit distribution we did for Assassin’s last year. That’s not just digital, but from an overall standpoint. It became a major franchise at that point. The fun side of that on the digital side is that when we look at Black Flag, there’s a lot more digital content planned around Black Flag, whether it be consumables or add-on content or the way multiplayer is being managed. Digital is riding along, sometimes, on the success of other franchises.

GamesBeat: You disclosed those figures, with digital at 86 percent growth last year and 11.7 percent of total revenue now. Do you have particular targets you want to hit for the percentage of revenue that’s going to be digital?

Early: No, we don’t approach it that way. We have projections for what we think we’re going to do from a financial standpoint, to help us run our business, but it’s less about trying to move market share one way or the other. It’s more about being in a place that makes it convenient for our players.

We’ve done day and date digital already on the PS3 and Vita and with some of the Nintendo and PC things. It really varies, the percentage of people that will go for it. We’ve guessed wrong a lot. Vita ends up being significantly more for digital delivery than we expected. The first time we did it on PS3, we thought it was going to be 10 or 20 percent, and it wasn’t.

I have some ideas as to why that is, and that’s also why I think that retail experience is not going away. The platforms have to solve a couple of problems first, especially when you’re talking about games that are measured in gigabytes. I would say that gamers are not the most patient people, overall. While it may take almost as long to drive down to the store and bring it back, you’re doing something there instead of just waiting for a download to happen.

When the platforms get to pre-caching games and making sure they’re there for delivery, that will tip more toward digital distribution. When there’s broad bandwidth availability throughout the world, wherever the consoles are installed, that will tip it a little more. There are places in the United States that still have terrible connectivity. You could order from Amazon quicker than you can download in some parts of the U.S. [laughs]

GamesBeat: If you look at all the digital strategies in the market today from all the game companies, what are you learning from them? What do you see out there that people are doing?

Early: What we’re trying to do, that I see some other people doing, is making it an integrated approach. It’s not either-or. That’s why I’m so pleased with the companion experiences we have. It’s an extension of how you’re playing and that engagement you have already. In the past we had mobile games that were based on the Assassin’s franchise, so if you’re an Assassin’s fan, it’s great to be able to play in the milieu. But it’s unrelated.

The ability to carry it on—That’s how people act. When it’s baseball season, people talk about the Giants, or the A’s this year. That’s a topic of conversation. They’re involved. It’s not like, “I want to talk about baseball, but not my team,” or “Let’s talk about last year’s team.” It needs to be correlated. That’s what we’re getting to. It’s a big focus inside the company, allowing people to extend their experience. And not just extending on a time basis, but extending on a world basis. There’s a lot more of our games that are open world, where you have the ability to explore and play and not just get involved in scripted action.