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The Euro Vision: The Rise Of Ubisoft, and DS
The Euro Vision: The Rise Of Ubisoft, and DS
November 22, 2006 | By Jon Jordan

November 22, 2006 | By Jon Jordan
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More: Console/PC

The latest edition of Gamasutra's regular 'The Euro Vision' column sees Jon Jordan talking to Ubisoft’s UK MD Rob Cooper about the publisher's rise to prominence, while trying to unpick exactly what Nintendo means by 7 million European DS sales.

"Considering the fun North Americans have been having during the past week when it comes to hardware launches (who would have thought it - Canadians with a sense of humour?), over in Europe, we’re reduced to basking in past glories, until Wii’s December arrival at least.

So, in the meantime, proving it can match Sony when it comes to shipping impressive amounts of last generation hardware, Nintendo took the opportunity to announce it had sold seven million DS and DS Lites in Europe since the format’s March 2005 launch.

Of course, as with Sony’s announcement of 40 million PAL PlayStation 2s shipped last week, we have to remain aware of the sleight of hand contained within those seemingly transparent numbers.

No hardware company quotes direct sales to consumers. They just don’t have access to that data. Sony doesn’t know how many PSPs the retailer GAME holds in its warehouses for example. So instead, they based their somewhat self-gratifying press releases around hardware shipments from their factories, which have been sold on to their respective continental divisions. Hence what Nintendo is actually telling us is it’s sold seven million DSs to Nintendo Europe, and in the assumption it’s not stockpiling them in a huge warehouse somewhere in Belgium, consumers will have bought most of them.

There can be a considerable lag between such intra-company sales and consumer sales though. According to one analyst, earlier in the year, when Microsoft claimed 5 million Xbox 360 sold, what this actually meant was 3.3 million Xbox 360s in dens and bedrooms around the world, and 1.7 million Xbox 360s sitting meekly in various warehouses.

Share The Love?

The other aspect of Nintendo’s DS announcement was that six DS games had sold over one million units in Europe. Actually one of these, Nintendogs, has gone way beyond, selling over four million units. It’s a number so large compared to the install base that it’s easy to see around half of the DS’ install base bought one just to play the game.

What isn’t particularly great news for third-party publishers, however, is that the five other top sellers are all Nintendo games too: Animal Crossing: Wild World, Mario Kart DS, New Super Mario Bros, Super Mario 64, and Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training.

Once again, Nintendo seems to be proving either that the rest of industry can’t make games as great as it can, or that it doesn’t really care whether the rest of the industry sells games on its platforms. The truth, as ever, lies somewhere between these two extremes. Hopefully the software sales figures that will follow Wii’s launch will provide more details.

Ubi Hearts Wii

And no publisher will be more interested in the outcome than Ubisoft, which is Wii’s strongest third-party supporter, thanks to launch titles such as Red Steel, Rayman Raving Rabbids and Monster 4x4 World Circuit.

As previously mentioned in this column, 2006 is proving to be a great year for the company, particularly in the US, where sales so far are up around 40 percent year-on-year. One reason is it made the most of Xbox 360’s launch with Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter and it’s built on this with the October release of Splinter Cell Double Agent. Small wonder, then, that it was the second biggest independent publisher across all platforms in the US that month, as well as being number 1 on Xbox 360, with over 30 percent of the market.

Catching up with UK managing director Rob Cooper [pictured], he explained that despite being headquartered in France, in many respects the company was, in terms of sales and staff, trans-continental.

“We have a large business office in San Francisco, our Red Storm studio is in North Carolina and 40 percent of our employees are in Canada, so much of our company is native to North America,” he says, adding that 46 percent of sales come from North America and 47 percent from Europe. In fact, it seems highly likely that 2006 will be first in which the company’s US sales overtake those from Europe. Maybe we’ll have to start thinking of the company as being North American before too long?

It’s a state of affairs that’s developed slowly over the years though, as its Montreal development studio has expanded, and also through the occasional canny acquisition such as that of Red Storm in 2000.

From Montreuil To Montreal

“Ubisoft has never moved development jobs from one country to another,” says Cooper, sternly refuting accusations concerning the tactic relocation of jobs from France to Canada. “Over the last 20 years, as we have built our development force, we have chosen varied locations for our studios, finding areas that offer a deep talent pool and good business conditions. As Montreal has matured into a favourable area for games development, we have grown with it.“

He admits things aren’t nearly so flexible in Western Europe; hence the Canadian build up. “The business conditions for development in France have been difficult, given the high costs of labour, and ever more complex consoles which require long development cycles. But we are committed to keeping development forces in Europe, and Ubisoft is working with government authorities to encourage a continued and strong development presence here.”

As for the tricky subject of EA’s 20 percent minority holding in the company, Cooper takes a prosaic view. “I think it has been neutral for us,” he says. “We’ve continued with our long-term strategy, which is to grow steadily, staying committed to building up our incredibly talented development teams and being an innovator in the industry.”

And with the strategic goal to double turnover and triple profits by 2010 on track, it seems highly likely Ubisoft will be proving plenty more grist for The Euro Vision in the months to come."

[Jon Jordan is a freelance games journalist and photographer, based in Manchester, UK. He went to Montreal once, but Ubisoft wouldn’t take his call.]

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