For French-headquartered publisher Ubisoft, the Petz series of animal sims is a surprisingly vibrant casual franchise - with recent financials revealing the series has sold more than 8 million units in the last fiscal year - and over 13 million to date.
In fact, its rise is so notable that Ubisoft Montreal has taken the Wii version of Dogz 2008, the latest in the 13-year history of the franchise, in-house to ensure internal development competency for the series.
At a recent Ubisoft event, Gamasutra had a chance to speak with Benoit Galarneau, producer of Petz title Dogz 2008 at Ubisoft Montreal, and a veteran of licensed and family-specific games at the publisher.
Galarneau touched on topics including moving the development of the series to North America, how "casual" is a misnomer, the satisfaction of working on non-violent games, and the integration of mainstream product placement into the game.
Did you work on other Petz games previously?
BG: No, not at all. It's the first one we've done internally. Usually we outsource third party developers to do our Petz games. We did this one internally because we feel that as the casual market is growing, we feel that our Petz line will explode, and we need to raise the quality of the game to make sure that no competitor will steal our position as pet people.
Yeah. Even Nintendo itself. If they had done Nintendogs first...
BG: Yeah, Nintendogs on Wii in 2008 would be a real challenger. So far, there's no indication that there will be one, so we're positive that there won't be.
These Petz titles are some of the only third party titles that really do well on Nintendo consoles. How do you feel Nintendo has been, in terms of enabling third parties to put stuff on their systems?
BG: Well, Nintendo, in 2005, really raised the bar in terms of quality. They widened the market. They made people aware that that kind of game could be really popular, so that's just on the plus side that maybe helped our brand. Now, it's up to us to achieve better than what they did, and to make sure that people keep having trust and faith in those kinds of games and in our brand.
Ubisoft's "Games For Everyone"
So this is probably the biggest budget of the Petz titles ever. Is that correct?
BG: We're working with high-end technology, but it's internal, so we're sharing the costs among other projects. We have a lot of talented people inside Ubisoft and a lot of newbies as well, and a managing team, so we're still in line with a casual budget.
I say "casual", but we're calling them "games for everyone". In the industry, the image of "casual" is applying to that kind of game. There's not a single mechanic... the production value is high in a [more general] casual business sense, but for a Ubisoft game, it's a game for everyone.
The word "casual" doesn't really describe all that well all the games it encompasses. I think the term itself needs to expand a little more.
BG: Completely. That's why we use the term "game for everyone" at Ubisoft. We're reaching beyond the gamer market, having people with different play customs to play our game.
It's not everyone who likes to involve 40 hours to complete GTA4 in a row. Some people like to play on and off and stuff like that, so we're producing games for them.
So you said that it's still targeted toward the youth market, right?
BG: Yeah, eight to 12 years old. Mainly female, as it's traditionally female, but it's amazing how much... it might be the majority. The audience is a lot wider than we expected.
You said that with this game, you're trying to target not just female. How are you going about that? Is there actually a shift, in terms of what you're trying to do, or are you just not trying to position it that way?
BG: We're trying to position it as a game that will appeal to anyone who likes the fantasy to start with, of owning and playing with a dog. But also, people like to take care of the dog, spend time and develop intimacy with the animal, and also people like to finish [the game], for a challenge. We have different gameplay that you can do with your own dog.
Was there anything different on the development side, in terms of focusing on who the market was?
BG: Playtest, playtest, playtest. We're doing weekly playtests. Since alpha, we're doing weekly playtests, both in Paris and in Montreal, and in San Francisco and elsewhere in the States. I don't remember where. It's ready to be inclusive to the market as much as possible.
Petz's Market Realities: Japan, U.S. and Europe
Where do these games traditionally do the best? In what region?
BG: In the U.S., because the PC version works well in the U.S. as well. Otherwise, the U.S. and Europe are mostly the same.
Why not Japan yet?
BG: I would love to. But we need to convince our business people there that this title can be localized for a fair cost and that it could perform for their market.
It seems like it would.
BG: I think so too. It's just a business decision. My role is to be like the champion of this project and to make sure it has visibility inside the company and that it goes everywhere.
It seems in a way like it's almost more difficult in a large company, because you have the resources, but either you wind up being a smaller fish in a big pond, in a way, if they're very gamer-focused...
BG: No, I wouldn't say it's more difficult, because there's so much resources, especially in terms of qualified people, talent, technology, and market. So selling my game to the Japan Ubisoft unit is easier than selling this game that I would have done on my own to any distributor in Japan, maybe.
It almost seems like it might be easier if it were your own company and you just gave it to Sega, or something like that. But maybe not.
BG: It could be as hard to sell it to Sega as to sell it to Ubisoft. As an internal, I have better access to those people. It's not more difficult.
Well, I think it could do well there. Not a lot of Western games have really broken into the Japanese market too much. I know that some of Nintendo's pets games have not done as well in America as Europe or even...
BG: You're talking about Nintendo? Well, the DS has a better penetration in Europe than in the States, and as a whole, they can develop [the market] more in Europe than in the States.
So Flash Focus, Brain Age, and all those games that are about developing yourself, I think they perform better in Europe. But that is not about that. It's about having fun. Really, it's a game.
Sponsorship and Product Placement
BG: Three [of the dog breeds] will be exclusive to retailers, to play with unlock codes and stuff like that.
BG: That's the business thing. They really like that, so we're doing it for them.
It's interesting to use a "games for everyone" title as a vehicle for that sort of thing, because traditionally that's the realm of hardcore games. And also advertising too, with the Toyota ad I saw in the competition note. Does that add extra visibility for the game within the company?
BG: To have the sponsorship?
Yeah, the sponsorship and the ability to partner with specific retailers, and that kind of stuff.
BG: Well, for the retailers, I don't know. For the sponsorship, this is something I'm not a big fan of, to have this product and just throw some brand in it but they pay for it for visibility. But in my case, I think being sponsored by a big company makes sense, because in real life, it happens like that. So I was very happy to have those sponsorships. There's Toyota, and there might be more, as well.
To be honest, it's kind of one of the more unexpected sponsorships that I've seen, but the fact is, I don't think most players mind or even... it takes a while to notice.
BG: That's what I wanted -- the sponsorship to be blended. It's just like watching the Nokia Ball -- you don't think about it anymore. It's just there.
It's strange. I wonder if that kind of advertising really does work, because it's like I'm not going to go out and buy a Toyota because I saw that.
BG: No, but neither would a six-year-old kid. It's about reinforcing the image, I guess. It's about being present in the life of the person.
And maybe they want dog owners to go out and buy Toyotas.
BG: That's right. It's a lot about Toyota right now, but it's more about Corolla. We have to do it. Since there's no Corolla logo, it's not as strong a brand as Toyota. We're not sure how we're going to handle that in the game, so we'll fix that. But the thing is, Corolla is trying to position itself as the young family kind of car. That's why it's there.
Interesting. Yeah, I wouldn't know how you would do a Corolla-specific thing, unless you did a skin for the dog where it looked like a car.
BG: (laughter) Oh, we hadn't thought of that! It could be.
There you go! (laughter)
BG: We have this jump rope gameplay, which is not in the demo. It happens in the driveway of the house you live in. Then the garage doors open and you can see the Corolla in there.
BG: For us, it's about making the fiction more real. So I'm fine with it. As long as it doesn't feel like a sticker that you put on top of the game, I'm fine with it.
Preferring "Games For Everyone" - A Developer's Choice
What games have you worked on prior to this?
BG: I started ten years ago at Ubisoft, working mostly on licensed games, doing a Playmobil game. That was ten years ago. Then I moved to Donald Duck, Batman, TMNT, and now working on Dogz.
What do you prefer to work on?
BG: Right now, this casual thing is very appealing to me. On a personal side, it's harder, which wasn't the case before with the action games I was making previously. But doing stuff in that field to appeal to a new audience that are carrying values for challenge and performance, but at the same time it's non-violent, I really enjoy that.
Do you think there are any kind of values that you could instill in people through these games?
BG: Not this one. This one is a bit rush-y, I would say. We were given the license very late last year, tried to understand it and develop the technology, blah blah blah. So we started coding five months ago, actually. We're at that level, and I'm very pleased, but we have a lot of ideas for the sequel, if we keep doing it.
There's so much to be done in this casual market. There's more than I can discuss. But interactivity is the key now, and what we've really understood with games is all the interactivity and UI could work so that people could really trust the system and the product we're making. It's not just entertainment.
It's entertainment for a purpose, like with My Weight Loss Coach and Easyway to Stop Smoking and stuff like that. This is a bit too specific for my taste, but in different games, you can learn a lot of stuff.
And you know, this game could teach you how to properly care for a dog, potentially.
BG: We have a dog coach game coming out soon, which is a completely other kind of game. It's about learning how to teach your dog. This is more about playing and building a relationship -- taking care of something in a fun gameplay way.
How long do you anticipate users to be playing this game daily? Is it designed for a real long playtime experience, or short bursts?
BG: We have a multiplayer aspect that will keep adding to the life of the product. The single-player experience with one dog will be done kind of briefly, I would say, but if you wish to unlock every dog and every costume... with all our gameplay, we have this "success and exceptional success" kind of value, and if the player really wishes to perform well, there is plenty of challenge there in the game.
Interesting. It's not success and failure, it's success and very good success.
BG: Well, you can have failure. Failure exists. Then you have success and exceptional success.
I think it would be interesting to make a game without failure.
BG: I think so too. I really think so too. But it takes a lot of design. It's hard to do that kind of stuff.
The Development Complexities Of Petz
It was a Japanese company that was making these previously, right?
BG: Yeah. It was Digital Kids, a company that was bought recently by Ubisoft. They were doing it on DS, and they're working now on Dogz and Catz, and I think we'll get Monkeyz this year.
They're in charge of the DS installment of the game, because it's not all the same game. We're sharing some assets, because we want Petz to feel like a family, but they're kind of doing it on their own, and we are as well.
It's surprising to me that a lot of those games were made there and haven't been released there.
BG: Yeah. Dogz for Wii in 2007 was also made by a Japanese company that was working on The Dog Island, and they also released The Dog Island in Japan. I think it worked well, because it's a very famous license there. It was or is about to be released in the U.S. as well by Ubisoft.
And What's With the Z?
The "z" in the title Petz always kind of makes me laugh.
BG: Me too.
Because there was a trend for a while to put a "z" on anything, like an "x" for "extreme". One day my friend and I were counting how many games were coming out with "z"s in their titles, and there were like six in a month.
BG: I agree. This title was [originally] developed in 1995 when PF Magic released the first of the series, and we kept it. And since it's always there and nobody else is doing it, maybe it's coming back into fashion.
It makes sense for branding, because the "z" at the end of an animal name is kind of like the [trademark] for the Petz series.
BG: Exactly. But one thing we have to make sure of is that people understand that the one with the "z" is the one we're pushing. It's not just "Pets" or "Dogs", as any dog or any pet. It's Petz. My team would say "Dog Z" most of the time.
Dog Z? Awesome. (laughter) It almost sounds like you're talking about a specific dog that way. If you say "Dog Z" it sounds like you're saying, "There he goes! It's Dog Z!"