Ubisoft held an event in San Francisco to show its commitment to being the lead third-party publisher on Microsoft's Xbox 360 motion control device the Kinect, and Gamasutra sat down with North America president Laurent Detoc about the device and his company's larger strategy.
"I think that today is a pretty good testament that Kinect is going to do pretty well, because today is an event only about Kinect. That's a statement about how we think it's going to do," said Detoc to the press, gathered to see games like Q? Entertainment's Child of Eden and Ubisoft's own Your Shape: Fitness Evolved.
"It's our intent to be the biggest third party publisher on that machine," Detoc reiterated to Gamasutra in a one-on-one interview after his presentation, referring specifically to Kinect.
"So time will tell, and the strength of the brands... But I think we are in a good position because we have solid tech; we have a lot of R&D that has generated a lot of prototypes. We're only making like half a dozen games; we could have made like 12. There's a right balance to have."
"We, at the heart of the company" come from a culture of extensive R&D, he says -- and that's a strength the company can rely on when moving to new areas like Kinect, particularly when strong brands like Assassin's Creed can be relied on for profit.
In fact, says Detoc, he's seen 100 prototypes internally of "things you can do" with Kinect. "My favorite, which has not been made into a game yet -- but I am sure will be soon -- you have to reproduce somebody's pose in 3D. Everybody makes an idiot of themselves, it's fantastic."
"I believe that Ubisoft is well-positioned to be the leading third party on that machine," said Detoc of the Kinect, during his presentation. "I believed from day one that you could play without a controller."
Detoc points to the phenomenal success of the company's Just Dance on the Wii as a harbinger for the incipient success of the Kinect -- and hands-free control will bring in new audiences, he's sure.
"At the end of the day, what I really like about this, is that it's just really obvious to me that it is a big innovation in a place where innovation was yet to find its limits, which is interactivity... Playing without a controller is just an improvement on the [gaming] experience."
But Can Microsoft Drive Kinect Sales?
Is he worried about throwing so much weight behind this platform? With games meant to attract a new audience, that means a lot of new people buying Xbox 360s and Kinects. Will Microsoft be able to drive the audience to its device?
"Yes, I think so -- because it's cool. It's a piece of technology. Why do people buy iPads? I have an iPad. My wife has an iPad. Why? You've gotta have it," says Detoc. "Kinect, you put that on top of your TV. You've got to have it. It's cool."
Beyond the "cool" factor, though, says Detoc, "They're [Microsoft] going to put a lot of money behind it. It's very important to them."
And though the price may be prohibitive for some, he says, "it's not such a big investment [for consumers] compared to how good it is, and how many units they want to sell at the beginning. Ask me a year for now how I feel about the pricing for Christmas '11, based on the install base they have."
In fact, Detoc sees Kinect as the start of a new trend of ubiquitous 3D cameras. "I think they [Microsoft] see that five years from now -- I don't want to put a number on that because it would be silly of me, because I don't have enough knowledge -- [but] I would be surprised if the TV I buy five years from now doesn't have a 3D camera in it." As prices drop, he expects 3D cameras to be widely integrated. "We're going to put 3D cameras in everything," he says, referring to consumer technology in general.
Your Shape: The Future of Fitness?
Detoc sees Kinect doing much the same as plastic guitars, the DS' stylus and touch screen, and the Wii Remote did for games -- reducing the barrier for entry and bringing in new audiences. Your Shape: Fitness Evolved is clearly at the forefront of the company's strategy to take advantage of this new audience.
Though there were four games on display, it was indisputably the center of the event. During a presentation by the title's international brand manager Felicia Williams, she unveiled the Your Shape Center website, which ties the game directly into social networks and enhances its functionality -- a direction the company has very recently trumpeted for other games, including Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood and its Petz franchise.
Your Shape Center will be "our online platform. It is going to be a community for the Your Shape players, to have an online profile to track themselves, their progress, and their goals as they play the game," Williams told the audience. The site will have Facebook and Twitter integration so players can share their stats, which the website automatically tracks as it interfaces with the game.
It will also feature the ability for friends to challenge each other with fitness goals, and for Ubisoft to run community events such as regional challenges or inform the Your Shape audience about DLC, which marketing senior VP Tony Key promised "lots of" when speaking to Gamasutra at the event.
While home fitness is popular, it's also "quite lonely", he says. "We think people will work out more if they can share their experience. So by building the Your Shape Center... You can start to bring your family and friends into it as well."
The addition of Your Shape Center is born of Ubisoft's drive to "create an experience that has as much engagement for as long as possible, because that gives you a competitive advantage," he says.
The Center will also be a center of evolution for the game, he says. "We're going to be able to continue to mold that product over time through DLC, and community that it's going to fill the needs you have."
"We want to own the relationship with the customer, so the way to do that is to make it a two way conversation as much as possible, social media is enabling that," says Key. "We're able to have a better dialogue with our customers and learn more from each other."
Detoc sees the game appealing because it has a "real life benefit" -- this "allows anybody to access it. It is a great mix, to get people engaged in the world of gaming. We can help make existing experiences [like exercise] better... You will not have wasted your time; you will have a real life benefit."
The Big Picture
The big picture of Ubisoft's overall strategy can be expressed in a simple formula, says Detoc: "less games, more depth." This strategy relies on the integration of the strategy of Companion Gaming and its UPlay community service. Both are discussed here, in an interview with the company's VP of digital publishing, Chris Early.
UPlay integrates completely with the company's games -- "it's taken years to get all of the studios aligned on this," Key tells Gamasutra -- and Companion Gaming pushes engagement across multiple platforms with the same brand, "so you tie everybody back to one place," says Detoc.
"We have to be more focused," Detoc says. Ubisoft "want[s] to contribute more touch points, because we're in the brand business. I like to make that statement because it's ear-catching, but we're in the entertainment experience business, not the gaming business. We're in the brands business, not the gaming business."
The natural consequence of this, he says, is "more focus on one product, less diversions on many brands."
When it comes to the big franchises, there's already a perceptible shift. "Instead of making six or eight Petz games on DS every year, maybe we should make two or three, and make the MMO [Petz World], and make sure it talks to the DS games. And we should have some toys that actually have a connectivity element to the MMO, and we should have T-shirts and a TV series, and these all help and affect one another... And we will be able to allow people to express creativity. You decrease the number of things you do, and there's more places to go."
However, when asked if Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network might allow for experiences outside of the bounds of these big franchises -- such as the publisher's promising From Dust, from longtime creator Eric Chahi -- Detoc concedes that this is so.
"This is a creators' industry. There's an appetite to create. If you don't let people create content they're going to find a place to go. You don't want to let them express themselves in indie movies and Facebook games, so we do need to continue to have stronger receptivity to allow creators to come up with games."
But What of Studios?
So, fewer games. But for a company with more than 20 studios globally, that's a tough call, isn't it?
"We have a lot of studios," agrees Detoc. "The way it works... Right now we're working on a game in San Francisco that has people in SF, Shanghai, Quebec and external, so there's four different places that the game is being made. And Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is the same." Five studios, including Annecy, Paris and Montreal are working on the game.
"It's not the number of studios that matter, it's sharing knowledge," says Detoc. "The longer you've had them the better off you are about knowledge sharing."
And knowledge building, too. Detoc says that while fewer games may make it sound like there's less chance to rise through the ranks at Ubisoft, the company actually has hired so many newcomers that it is more in the business of quickly building their skills. "There's still plenty" of chances to rise up in the organization, he says.
"We've hired something like 2,000 developers in 12 to 18 months ... We hire and then we need to make sure that the guys learn the trade," says Detoc.
"We go into a ramp-up phase hiring people, and then we realize we have too many younger people versus experienced people, so the efficiencies in terms of the number of man-months applied to a game are out of sync, so you need to arrange your production flows, so you have to wait till people have been there long enough to be more experienced and have a bigger output.. That's the third time we've seen that in our history. There's a moment where it's not as efficient and then it becomes super efficient."