In the odd world of Facebook, gaming giant Ubisoft is small fry. With just 2.3 million monthly active users and no big hits, Ubisoft is substantially behind competitor Electronic Arts, which boosted its own figures by acquiring Playfish, but ahead of competitors like THQ that haven’t yet put significant effort into social gaming.
Ubisoft is working hard on furthering its strategy, though, with an eye toward becoming a major player. Its releases so far include both stand-alone games like Party Central and Castle & Co, and “companion” games for core titles like Assassin’s Creed (Project Legacy) and Petz World (whose companion will be the upcoming title Hamsterz).
Yet another initiative is gaming with real-world tie-ins. Ubisoft’s newest title, CSI: Crime City, allows players to reenact the plots of the popular CSI series of television shows, which has over 70 million viewers worldwide. In a unique twist, the game’s episodes are created by the show’s writers.
We sat down with digital publishing head Chris Early to hear more about where Ubisoft is headed in the social game market.
ISG: Where does Ubisoft stand with social gaming?
Chris Early: Historically, Ubisoft has been very innovative from a platform standpoint. They’ve consistently been risk takers, and willing to go forward with new platforms. With this space, we’ve tried a number of games so far, and most of them haven’t been that successful. It’s a bit further afield from core game development. We’re not taking the route of buying a big player, since we’ve got 26 internal studios.
ISG: Will you have specialized studios that focus on social games?
CE: In many cases you’ll see that we develop an IP across multiple studios based on their expertise, so I don’t think we’re going to see one-stop shops in development. Fortunately we’re at the scale where we can have some efficiencies of scale. Blue Byte in particular is particularly focused on the Settlers franchise, so they’ll keep developing expertise in the space.
ISG: With companion gaming you’ve indicated a different direction from most companies in the space. What’s important to Ubisoft? Is it revenue, large player audiences, or something else?
CE: I think it will be somewhat different [for us]. When we talk about companion gaming, each game has to be an experience on its own. When we look at Assassin’s Creed or Hamsterz, each will be experiences on their own. They’re stand alone, fun to play, and if you never play any other game in that franchise you’ll still gave a good time. That’s our primary mission, to make a game that’s fun. How do you go from there, how do we monetize each game? Each game is looked at as a profit or loss center.
ISG: Do you aspire to bring new players to the core Assassin’s Creed franchise through Facebook? Or the opposite, to bring Assassin’s Creed players to Facebook?
CE: Our objective is not to increase Facebook’s reach, it’s to increase your experience of the brand and have something meaningful in the experience. If you don’t know the Assassin’s Creed lore, that game doesn’t mean as much.
ISG: What about the titles that aren’t companion games, like Wine Country or Settlers? Most haven’t done well so far — do you feel like Ubisoft is behind?
CE: Not every studio has unlocked the secrets of how to most effectively make games based on the Facebook social mechanic. These are traditional dev teams that have been working on core games, and they’re learning something new. Think back to when studios tried to make mobile games, and you had all these folks who made real heavyweight mobile games that just didn’t work, because they were trying to make a core game on a mobile platform. But eventually they figured it out.
ISG: Do you see Ubisoft as an innovator?
CE: From my standpoint, the beauty is that with our size we can try a bunch of different initiatives.
ISG: What’s happening with CSI: Crime City? Are there tie-ins to the show?
CE: The fun thing from our standpoint is that we have a great partner in CBS. [CSI] is a significant brand with tens of millions of worldwide users. We’re a little worried about the traffic, so we’re taking significant preparations on the infrastructure side, because we don’t know how fast things will go.
The people writing the game’s cases are the writers from the show. To date they’re independent from the show. Where do we go from here? It would be great for players to learn something from the show that they can apply in the game.
ISG: Analytics and understanding player behavior are key for other social companies. How is Ubisoft handling that?
CE: The prerequisite first step is to find people that understand that. If you look back historically, analysts and economists aren’t part of a traditional game company. If you look on our job boards, we’re hiring for those. There’s definitely software development going on in the background [on an analytics platform].
ISG: I’ve noticed that your games so far haven’t been very pushy about sharing and viral channels. Do your developers shy away from that?
CE: If you look at our games, not one of them is excessively intrusive. That’s not a corporate policy, it’s about who designed them. If you want to look at them from a corporate standpoint, the question is, how do we create relevant communications? You want to send me information about what’s going on in my Assassin’s Creed games, that’s relevant. I don’t know that my mom wants to see that.
To be fair, I think you’ll see more viral elements in Project Legacy as time goes on, and monetization elements. Every game we look at has to have a viable business plan as part of it. But the game will continue to evolve as is the nature of social network games in itself.
ISG: Project Legacy seems interesting because it has different aims than most Facebook games. What sort of behavior are you seeing from players?
Our metrics show that people are using their energy completely in each play session. So to me that says, we’ve provided a good, engaging experience that’s kept by the energy element.
ISG: Core gamers tend to like to play for long periods. Would you ever get rid of gating mechanisms like energy?
CE: I think you could alter elements like that. The question is, are we trying to recreate the eight hour experience in the Facebook environment? I think not. In ths case, the concept behind Legacy is to build ongoing engagement. If I think of it from a publisher’s perspective, would I rather have you play through in eight hours or have you playing for weeks? I like ongoing engagement, but we don’t want to frustrate the player. We’re balancing the time and energy equation to have a decent experience each time you play. It’s different than I think about the management of a more traditional Facebook game.
ISG: What’s the difference between a companion game like Project Legacy and Hamsterz Worldwide?
CE: So far we’ve talked about companion gaming from an individual standpoint. I’ll play on my console, Facebook, phone, but it’s all back to me. With Petz World we’re extending it to related people as well. Grandma and grandpa, dad and mom, brother and sister become part of the experience. It is all focused around Petz World, the core MMO targeted at eight to 14 year old kids, and it branches out from there. Do I want to create a Facebook game about the same mechanics? I don’t, because those kids aren’t on Facebook.
ISG: So will parents use Hamsterz to have oversight of what their kids are doing in Petz World?
CE: I’d call it being informed, but not having oversight. [For example,] Alex, my son, took his pet out and rescued a cat from the pyramids. Here’s the thing your child learned: they learned who built the pyramids and what some of the facts were around Egypt, why the was cat so popular in Egypt? It’s meant to introduce a point of information that can create a conversation relevant to the game moment. It moves gaming from, Alex, you spent how long in front of the computer, to thanks for unlocking my pyramids, you did great on your quizzes. The child chooses when to transmit it to the adult. I don’t see that interaction anywhere else.
ISG: What does Ubisoft have in development now?
We’ve released I think ten or so titles at this point, and that’s certainly not all the titles we have in development. If you think about the fact that ten titles have been released, I’d say it’s a significant number of people. It’s more than a passing fad. We’re doing a strong push on both mobile and Facebook.