Ubisoft is a big French video game company with 15,000 employees and hits like Assassin’s Creed and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege. But the company knows it thrives on innovation and creativity, and that’s why the company collaborates with the Paris-based startup campus, Station F.
Ubisoft isn’t just seeking ties with game startups. Rather, it is looking beyond that, to other kinds of tech startups as part of a way to raise awareness about new kinds of technologies that could affect its business.
Catherine Seys, start-up program director at Strategic Innovation Lab at Ubisoft is giving a talk about this collaboration for creativity today at the DICE Europe event, and I interviewed her about what she’s going to talk about over the phone.
Seys graduated from the French engineering school Ecole Nationale SupÃ©rieure des Mines de Paris. She worked 10 years as a strategy consultant at Kea & Partners, and she joined Ubisoftâs Strategic Innovation Lab in 2011. She worked on various projects such as user data, collaboration between production teams, social interactions design, and physical and digital combinations. She now leads Ubisoft’s participation with Station F in Paris.
Since 2012, she is also the co-founder of the French Tech startup UrbanHello, which received two CES Innovation Awards in Las Vegas in 2013 and 2017 as well as several design and products awards. Seys is looking closely at virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality, blockchain, and other technologies.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Whatâs your DICE Europe talk going to be about?
Catherine Seys: At DICE Iâm going to talk about what Iâm doing here at Station F and the Strategic Innovation Lab. Ubisoft is building creative and innovative relationships with startups in our partnership with Station F, and thatâs mainly what Iâm talking about, how we build those relationships and what we do with startups that we support at the Innovation Lab. Also, Iâll talk about what kind of future they can help us envision thanks to what weâre doing together.
GamesBeat: You have big franchises like Tom Clancy and Assassinâs Creed. Why do you need startups?
Seys: [laughs] Well, for many things, actually. Building community in the entertainment industry is a tough challenge. We need to be innovative and build new products every year for many years. To do that, we need to be able to see our environment with nuance. Thatâs why working with startups is interesting for us. Iâm part of a team at the Strategic Innovation Lab, and on my team weâre working on prospective topics for Ubisoft, beyond things like Tom Clancy and Assassinâs Creed. Weâre not necessarily working with video game startups, but rather with entrepreneurs whose technology or business models can complement ours.
GamesBeat: In the past itâs seemed like Ubisoftâs new ventures meant that you were creating games for new game platforms. But it sounds like this goes well beyond that.
Seys: Right. I can give some examples of topics weâre working on, like mixed reality. Weâre working with a startup developing technology that can allow the real time streaming of holograms. This has uses in many industries outside of entertainment, like the real estate industry, for instance. But itâs inspiring for us, because working with them is helping us embrace new ideas for what we can do inside the massive worlds that weâre creating. We can even imagine that our gamers could be holograms inside our games.
GamesBeat: Iâve noticed patterns in startup activity related to games over the years. A lot of studios and indies are always starting up. We saw a lot of investment a few years ago related to virtual reality. Thatâs shifted to augmented reality and then to esports over the years. Now a lot of them are moving toward blockchain and cryptocurrency. Is that a pattern you see, or do you see more nuance in it?
Seys: Obviously weâre very interested in blockchain. Weâre exploring that here with various products. What that helps us embrace is how to go one step further beyond rewards and incentives. Weâre not really talking about cryptocurrency. Thatâs not what weâre working on currently. Rather, weâre looking at the value of digital assets and how they can be used in the environments we create.
GamesBeat: How long ago would you say blockchain came on to Ubisoftâs radar?
Seys: When we started our program here, that was back in September of last year. Weâd already worked with blockchain startups. The topic wasnât new to us at Ubisoft. Weâd already started to work on that. So Iâd say a year and a half to two years.
GamesBeat: Do some categories within blockchain seem like they most obviously apply to games? The ones Iâve written about include allowing avatars to have ownership by the user, who can take those avatars across different games. A lot related to identity management and account verification seems quite relevant to game companies, to reduce spam accounts and harassment. I see some that are related to virtual currency. But I guess Iâm still waiting to see more variety in what people are doing with blockchain in games.
Seys: Youâre right. Our mission here is exploration, and what weâre exploring is how to empower our players, including using blockchain technology. We want to involve our players more with our games.
GamesBeat: How many startups are you working with currently?
Seys: We started one year ago, and in our first season we supported five startups. Season two also included five startups.
GamesBeat: Are you describing some of them in your talk? What else is your talk focusing on?
Seys: Yes, Iâm talking about some of the startups weâre supporting. The first one is Realcast. Itâs an AR startup. Theyâre creating AR games to create more engaging and fun experiences when visiting museums or other public spaces. Part of what we did with them is we organized bi-monthly art direction reviews with one of the art directors from our Paris studio. It was beneficial for Realcast because they were able to benefit from Ubisoftâs expertise in creating interactive experiences, but it was also very inspirational for us at Ubisoft, because it was a way to very closely follow a cutting-edge AR project. We could contribute to our own internal reflections on how to use AR with our content.
The other example is a startup called Panda Guide, which is creating the first AR device for the blind and partially sighted. Their technology is based on audio and haptics. Weâre working with them on UX design, and also on building prototypes to find new kinds of experiences to play on their device, which can potentially adapt to the strength of your vision. Again, weâre working with Panda Guide because we can help them with our UX team, but also, itâs a way for us to learn more about creating more accessibility for our gamers.
GamesBeat: Are you funding them as well as offering whatever support you can, or is funding not part of your relationship?
Seys: Weâre not always funding them. We did just make an announcement about a partnership in Canada where weâre providing funding, but in our program with Station F, thereâs no equity involved. The program is free. Thereâs no commercial commitment on either side. All of the startupsâ IP remains theirs and our IP remains ours. This is important for me, because as weâre exploring working with startups, I donât want the selection process to be too difficult. I want as many partnerships to be possible.
GamesBeat: Whatâs always been interesting to me is how gaming intersects with a lot of other technologies. It seems that we always benefit from being on the border between games and technology or science fiction or other kinds of entertainment. Is that something you see as valuable, looking beyond just games for opportunities to innovate?
Seys: Of course. Gaming can be a testbed for all kinds of new technologies. Another startup that weâre supporting here at Station F is called Mimesys. Theyâre working with holograms for VR and AR. Itâs interesting because even though the technology is not yet part of entertainment today, itâs very inspiring for us to work with them, and itâs opened up new research tracks for us.
Another example in a similar field is iExec, which is a blockchain-based decentralized marketplace for computing resources. Itâs allowing anyone to monetize their computing power. Theyâre not only targeting the entertainment industry, of course, but for us itâs very interesting to work with a startup like this, because they can give us an example of what decentralization could mean on a very large scale.
GamesBeat: Do you see a lot of value in the concept of decentralization itself?
Seys: Obviously decentralization is a word that we need to keep in mind for the next few years. Not only in technology, but also in organizations. Weâve already seen this trend beginning with whatâs sometimes called disintermediation — things like Airbnb or Kickstarter, and many other examples. Thatâs a starting point for decentralization. But with blockchain technology, weâll be going one step further into decentralization.
GamesBeat: What about artificial intelligence? I did write about one company recently called Promethean AI, in Los Angeles. Theyâre using machine learning to help artists build out objects in 3D worlds. If the art director says they need an apartment building in the world, the AI will take the first stab at creating something to fit what it knows about the artistâs style. But itâs relatively rare, still, for me to see gaming-related AI startups.
Seys: We worked with one of them in season one. It was called Hexachords. It was creating a software solution for music composers, to create orchestra music more quickly. Of course, again, thatâs not only relevant to the gaming industry, but it was very interesting for us to explore the opportunities for gaming in that kind of technology. Also, our next season, which weâll announce at the end of September, will be focused on blockchain in games, but we also have AI startups providing new and innovative experiences for gamers.
GamesBeat: Are you optimistic about how valuable AI can be for gaming?
Seys: Obviously all of these technologies are very interesting — AI, blockchain, and others. Our goal is to explore all of them.
GamesBeat: Do you have any predictions yet on where this startup technology could first be used in Ubisoftâs games?
Seys: At Station F, the program is set up around the fact that weâre exploring new topics. We donât have any operational constraints when weâre working with startups, to foster credibility on both sides. The objective of the program is not to make sure that we can industrialize these startup solutions inside Ubisoft afterward.
That said, of course, after the program, if our relationships continue because thereâs interest on both sides, weâre open to that. But thatâs not something that weâre absolutely looking into. Thatâs why our setup is so light. We donât want to get any equity at the beginning, because we want to make sure we explore a wide variety of technologies and business models. We want to make sure we have a win-win collaboration.
GamesBeat: When youâre looking for startups to work with, are you focused on France for now? Do you plan to expand this internationally and look all over the world? How do you go through the process of finding them, as opposed to having them apply?
Seys: Station F is an international campus, so weâre not only looking for French startups. One of the startups weâre currently working with is American, based in San Francisco. Weâre looking for the best startups in the fields weâre exploring, regardless of where they come from. Weâre absolutely not restricted to France.
When weâre looking for startups, we first publish our call for projects, but we also connect through a lot of different people. Weâre connected to other startup ecosystems around the world thanks to our studios. Thatâs how weâre also trying to figure out what startups could benefit from this program. For season three, weâre going to open applications at the end of September. Weâre focused on blockchain in gaming and on AI in gaming.
Weâre also partnering with the BlockchainÂ Game Summit. B2Expand, the organizer of the event, is one of the startups that we supported here at Station F in season one. Working with them at Station F, their approach on blockchain seemed very interesting for us. It wasnât hard for us to continue to create links and provide support for their work.
GamesBeat: As far as cases of where startups with technology from outside of games have been successful in the past, do you admire any in particular as examples of how startups can benefit gaming?
Seys: I admire all entrepreneurs. Theyâre all very brave. Entrepreneurship is something we value at Ubisoft, as well as creativity. I wouldnât say that thereâs a particular startup I admire, but many entrepreneurs.
GamesBeat: Can you give advice or recommendations for startups on how to work with the bigger game companies?
Seys: Not only for entertainment companies, but just generally speaking, the objective of any collaboration needs to be clear on both sides. Thatâs very important to me, and it was key in the process of designing this program. I respect the entrepreneurs and I donât want them to feel like the program isnât bringing anything to them.
You have to be very clear on what youâre looking for as an entrepreneur working with a corporate. Are you looking for financial support? Are you looking for institutional support? Do you need creativity or expertise? My advice is to be very clear on what you expect and make sure you know the right level of people to talk with, depending on your objective.
GamesBeat: Universal recently had an interesting competition where they had startup developers pitch game concepts for Universal IPs. They got 500 applications, and theyâre going to fund the winning startup. I thought that was an interesting way to encourage small companies to interact with a huge Hollywood studio.
Seys: There are many interesting ways to encourage the startup ecosystem. What weâve created here at Station F isnât the only interesting model. At Ubisoft we have other startup initiatives in other startup ecosystems.
Whatâs interesting in what you describe is the way you can engage other people, whether theyâre game developers or just fans of a franchise, in creating the kind of content they like. Thatâs some we also do at Ubisoft. We did that with Might and Magic 10 Legacy. We recently announced a new initiative with Beyond Good and Evil 2 at E3, allowing gamers to create content for the franchise. Itâs interesting to involve different creators of different sizes.