Interview: Ubisoft’s Chris Early on Moving Into Social Games

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.