Interview: Chris Early on Ubisoft’s Social Game Strategy for 2012

By AJ Glasser Comment

Yesterday, Ubisoft unveiled three new social games based on TV shows in addition to announcing a fourth project with social game developer Loot Drop. Here, we interview Ubisoft VP of Digital Publishing Chris Early on the French video game publisher’s broader social strategy in the next year.

Inside Social Games: You’ve announced three new games based on TV show brands — CSI: Miami, NCIS: Major Crimes, and House, M.D.: Critical Cases. Have you bet big on TV social games because of the past success of CSI: Crime City or because other companies are also entering this genre of game on Facebook?

Chris Early, Ubisoft VP of Digital Publishing: We saw the power of how CSI performed for us. We saw that again with Smurfs, but even long before that we were engaged in signing a bunch of brands because brands are good for us. People know and recognize brands, so it helps with acquisition — you see on Facebook The Smurfs & Co. and “Little Blue Person Village” and which one are you going to play?

ISG: Help us understand how the licensing process works for Facebook games based on TV shows. We know that CSI: Miami is licensed by CBS — but CBS also licenses The Vampire Diaries to Warner Bros. Interactive, which recently launched a game based on the show for Facebook.

Early: I’m sure NBC Universal or CBS has a variety of things that they’re going to license out to different people. The good news for us that we’ve been developing games for licenses for years. We have a reputation for making that kind of IP, and we’ve been a licensee for CSI for almost 10 years now. So for [CBS], it makes sense to talk to us [about CSI], but if we said we weren’t interested, they could easily go and find someone else because their job is to get the most out of their brands.

ISG: How much of the development on your TV games is being done in house?

Early: We do about 40% of all our social development externally. We just announced Loot Drop as a partner on an undisclosed title. We did Area Code with CSI: Crime City — and then they got acquired. Smurfs was internal for us. CSI: Miami is also being developed internally [by Ubisoft Shanghai and Ubisoft San Francisco].

Editor’s Note: The press release announcing Ubisoft’s new TV games also names Method as a developer, but does not indicate to which games the independent studio is assigned.

ISG: What about your newest companion Facebook game, Ghost Recon Commander? Is that also being done exclusively in-house?

Early: The console game is being done internally both in Paris and at Red Storm in North Carolina studios. Ghost Recon Online is being worked on in our Singapore studio and Ghost Recon Commander is being worked on out of [the San Francisco] office.

ISG: So all of these games are being made internally with 40% influence from an outside developer…?

Early: It’s really a mix. Especially on Commander and House and on our other Facebook titles we haven’t announced yet, we’re not talking about who worked on those [outside of Ubisoft] until the release gets closer.

Editor’s Note: The implication here is that these unnamed developers might be acquired by a competitor if Ubisoft draws attention to them — much like Area Code was bought by Zynga four months after launching CSI: Crime City with Ubisoft.

ISG: A couple of months ago, you talked with us about the deeper level of content unlocks and integration between this game and its console and PC siblings. You had hinted at a mechanic where Ghost Recon Commander players on Facebook could somehow contribute content unlocks or bonuses to their friends that play Ghost Recon: Future Soldier on consoles — without themselves having to play the console game. Is that feature a reality or just an idea?

Early: That’s actually the main feature of Ghost Recon Commander — building a support team. For example, you’re a Ghost Recon Online player. You can have a [network] of friends that earn consumables for you to use from their play in Ghost Recon Commander.

ISG: You seem pretty confident on Facebook these days between CSI and Smurfs. Does this mean you’re ready to try other social network platforms again? We know CSI: Crime City launched on Orkut and heard it didn’t go very well…

Early: We’re going to see. It was an experiment with Orkut and we learned some things. It’s not doing the best that it could do. But, like, if we were to launch CSI for Facebook again now — it would be better than we did when we launched it a year ago. It’s going to be an evolution; we’re not a one-platform publisher.

ISG: What about Google+’s games platform? Have you looked into that?

Early: The biggest challenge for them is going to build a recurring traffic pattern. A bunch of people flooded in, tried it, and then haven’t gone back. To be a good gaming platform, regardless of whether it’s Google+ or anything else, you have to [draw] audiences on a regular basis. That’s what we’d need.

ISG: Speaking of audiences — we saw your female-oriented massively multiplayer online game, Imagine Town, today. That title is a fashion game built entirely in Flash; so why isn’t that on Facebook with all the other fashion games that draw a large female audience.

Early: Because it targets girls younger than 13.

ISG: Wow, that was easy for you. Let’s try something harder: With more Ubisoft brands aiming for annual releases on console, can we expect to see a larger number of branded companion games on Facebook?

Early: By the time we came out with Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and Project Legacy [for Facebook] and we saw the results of that last November, we ran out of time in our development cycle to do more games for this season. We did it with Ghost Recon because we started early. So keep an eye out next year.

ISG: Still too easy. Let’s talk about revenues. Will Ubisoft differentiate between the different types of social games it published? Like will Ghost Recon Commander be broken out with console and PC titles with its siblings while the TV games are lumped into a digital revenues category?

Early: First of all, I can’t talk about financial numbers because we’re in a quiet period. Second, I can’t talk about them because I actually don’t know. I know how we look at it internally — we see each game as something that needs to be profitable [on its own]. But I’m not sure how we report that… I probably should.

ISG: You should. The timing of releases can have a significant impact on revenue cycles, especially with social games where the first few months show the best traffic and the next six have the users with the highest lifetime value. How do you plan your release schedule for social games?

Early: We don’t want to release any bad games — so first it needs to be done. And then it needs to be done in a sensible manner. So when we launched Project Legacy six weeks out from Brotherhood, it was awesome because people were able to build up a starting advantage in Brotherhood [from playing Legacy]. If that game had been late for some reason, would we have not launched it? No, I don’t think so — we just wouldn’t have had the optimal [time frame] for the player.

ISG: For the TV games, aren’t you more vulnerable to time because the shows adhere to a season and interest wanes when the show stops airing?

Early: You know, I thought so — but I don’t think so anymore. We launched CSI last year to coincide with the start of the new season. But what we found was it didn’t really matter. We actually experienced more growth after the season ended. I don’t know if people were [missing] the TV show or what. But I thought the [show] would generate more buzz for the game, but it didn’t. Then you look at Smurfs where we timed it to the release of the movie — and it did really great. But I think we drove more traffic to the movie site than the movie site drove to us. Maybe that helped the buzz overall, but we continue to have a fairly strong growth and the movie is gone at this point.

ISG: And you still haven’t spent anything on user acquisition for Smurfs & Co.?

Early: We’ve been doing a little bit of experimenting with tens of thousands — just to see where we’re getting responsiveness and testing out some of our ads. I expect we will [spend on user acquisition] at some time to keep the growth going, but not really significant yet.

ISG: And the DVD is coming out soon, so you’re expecting that to drive some growth?

Early: Yes. I hope we’ll get more from the DVD sales. But I think what’s most interesting is when we’ve been able to actually link them together in some meaningful fashion. For example, when you look at Smurfs, we gave people a movie theater to put in their village if they watched the trailer and liked the movie. Awesome results. We also did something in CSI for sweeps week where the writers — we have the writers for the show write for the game — wrote cases for us that related to [the plot] of CSI the show that week. Our case was kind of the backstory of something going on in the show — so you wanted [people] to play the game at kind of the same time. We had unlocks in the Facebook game based on questions we asked where you had to watch the show to get the answer. It did work out well. People were watching the show with their laptops out.

ISG: Will you do that for House?

Early: I can’t see why we wouldn’t do it for everything. It’s kind of up to the license holder to agree to do it with us. They have to trust us to let us know things about the show ahead of [the air date] — but I think we’re long past that point with our license holders.