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Ubisoft's Laurent Detoc On The Fight Against Innovation
Ubisoft's Laurent Detoc On The Fight Against Innovation Exclusive
November 1, 2011 | By Chris Morris

November 1, 2011 | By Chris Morris
More: Console/PC, Exclusive, Business/Marketing

[Ubisoft's North American executive director Laurent Detoc talks with Gamasutra about Rocksmith's lukewarm reception, and says, "As much as [gamers] claim they want innovation, they don't."]

Gamers, as a species, clamor for innovation. While there's nothing wrong with the existing genres of gameplay, it's always nice (in theory, at least) to try something new. But all too often, when players get their hands on that something new, they rip it to shreds in forums and lambaste it publicly.

In fairness, that criticism is sometimes warranted. EA's Majestic, for example, was a fascinating idea that started strong but never entirely found its footing. Sometimes that criticism and the poor sales that accompany it sentences something that could have evolved into a welcomed gameplay style to a premature death.

Laurent Detoc, executive director of North America for Ubisoft, has seen this a few times in his 21 years with the company and it has never sat well with him.

It's something he says the company is currently facing with Rocksmith, Ubisoft's entry in the evolving music genre. A guitar game that is meant to actually teach people how to play the instrument, Rocksmith has met with lukewarm reviews currently only boasting a 77 score on Metacritic.

Detoc, though, says he has been quite satisfied with the game's sales, noting that the company doesn't have to record Guitar Hero numbers for it to be significant. But he takes issue with the tone of some reviews of the title.

"As much as they claim they want innovation, they don't," he says. "What I see when I read the reviews is a lack of enthusiasm for something that is new. We, as human beings, tend to like what we know. But more importantly, we call ourselves gamers. Are we gamers or players?"

"I think the 'gamer' label has actually been hurting the industry. As our industry evolves, we need to be more mature and find a way to look at content and judge it as if we were real consumers instead of as gamers."

Detoc, it's worth noting, wasn't on a rant against critics in his exclusive conversation with Gamasutra. He explicitly said that he understands and appreciates the need for them and believes they are a necessary part of the process to get developers to constantly raise the bar. However, he said, too often they're tasked with reviewing too many types of games and are expected to be fully knowledgeable about each genre.

And while many of those sites maintain an editorial independence, he believes they're ultimately part of the video game industry, rather than a separate entity that reports on it.

"[Review sites] are a part of this industry," he says. "We need to judge the products for what they are. You can't compare, say, a Just Dance to an Assassin's Creed. We can't expect critics to be experts at everything."

A similar struggle is taking place these days as the industry evolves in new directions, specifically to social network sites and mobile devices. Many core gamers (and gaming press) are pooh-poohing those products, saying they can't compare to AAA games on consoles.

Detoc notes that one is not necessarily better than the other.

"There are different types of entertainment experiences for different people and different appetites for quality," he says. "For example, today when you watch 'The Price is Right' on TV, it's free and supported by advertising. The actors in that show are mainly people like you and I, and the cost is somewhat low."

"Compare that to wanting to go see, say, 'Tintin' with your wife on date night. You're going to pay for the movie tickets and parking. Maybe there's a babysitter involved. You may want to go to dinner. By the time it's done, it's a $200 night -- but it's a different entertainment experience. That, to me, is like what's happening with consoles versus other types of play. It depends on what you want to do as an entertainment experience."

The situation's not much different with casual games, either. Detoc notes that when the first Just Dance came out, some reviews were brutal literally begging readers not to buy the game.

Word of mouth in the mass market led to that game becoming a massive hit, though one that actually helps fund AAA core games like Assassin's Creed.

"Casual has been falling in and out of fashion for a while," he says. "But [casual and core] are businesses that can exist side-by-side. We're going to continue to make games that appeal to a lot of people who don't need to be experts with a gamepad. Time will enable us [as an industry] to stop bashing casual games."

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Jeremie Sinic
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Although I agree with many of the ideas developed by Laurent Detoc here (basically, that gamers could be more open to new genres), I would like to back up the disdain of "gamers" for "social games" (which are much less social actually than any Xbox Live-enabled game).

Again, I have nothing to say about Rocksmith, it's not my point here, I am just commenting on the "Many core gamers (and gaming press) are pooh-poohing those products [social and mobile games], saying they can't compare to AAA games on consoles."

First, I think Facebook games and mobile games can be very different (there is no facebook game that compares to Real Racing 2 on iOS), and I am sure many console and PC gamers enjoy some high quality

games on their smartphone.

Facebook games (and many freemium smartphone games) are usually badly received by gamers because, IMHO, gamers care about game balance and fairness. That's simply because when you play competitively (and you have a little self-esteem) you don't want to play a pay-to-win game, that's all.

That's, again IMHO, what gamers really care about. And this is not even an issue of casual vs core gamers.

Even in a non-competition-oriented game, having pay-to-win mechanics can literally spoil the "gamer's" pleasure, because the gamer has the bad habit of caring about skill.

Of course, it's not all white or all black, and there are "core" gamers indulging in pay-to-win mechanics in core games, but overall, this is an aspect that is prevalent mainly in freemium social and mobile games.

I am sure that if facebook games started to get rid of those pay-to-win mechanics, or at least proposed options to fully unlock games with one single payment, gamers would probably start to give those games a thought.

Bart Stewart
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To say that "gamers claim they want innovation but don't really" is, I think, to miss something important by being too vague about "gamers" and "innovation." If this were true, Portal would have been met with howls of derision, and Minecraft would not be continuing to make gobs of money and win awards before it even hits v1.0.

The reality is probably something closer to "a majority of gamers do want iteration on known gameplay mechanics, but don't want to have to learn all-new mechanics once they've put in the time to master an existing set of mechanics."

This view highlights a few opportunities beyond the blanket "gamers don't really like innovation" statement. First, it's still possible to innovate on mechanics, but they must be simple to understand and use, and they must be introduced in a gentle and polished way (within a compelling game). To see whether gamers really like innovation generally, you have to be careful to assess the degree of care with which gamers are introduced to innovative features in specific actual games. Not all "innovation" is equal.

Second, there's probably room to innovate outside of pure mechanics. A developer might focus on making the gameworld more expressive/immersive, or on highlighting character/story elements, and present these innovations in measured ways to ease players into them.

Third, there is no monolithic "gamers" when it comes to what people enjoy. I agree that a majority of gamers do prefer to keep a simple, fixed set of known mechanics in mind, and don't want significant changes (such as having to buy new hardware and learn new physical movements, as in buying a non-Guitar Hero controller). But that doesn't imply there isn't a substantial number of gamers who, in fact, do enjoy being presented with novel gameplay experiences. Even if most people don't care to have to relearn how to play a game, some people are OK with it as long as it's not too overwhelming and it makes sense within the context of that particular game.

Ramon Carroll
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Brilliant post, Bart. I enjoyed reading your contribution, as always. :)

Ron Dippold
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Most people want innovation, but they don't want bad innovation - either in concept of execution. And 95% (too low?) of anything new is going to be bad. That doesn't apply only to games either.

You have your age-old tension between people who try new things without any concern about whether they actually work or are an improvement, and the people who push back on anything because they've learned the hard way that most changes suck. But occasionally you get that gem of a new idea like Halo's recharging shields, and everyone but the really hidebound embraces it.

The question is whether you want to be taking that 1 in 20 risk in the game you're making, and you can't just come up with a really new mechanic by sheer force. I think you can cut that risk down a lot by being willing to actually throw your brilliant new idea out if it isn't working, but clearly a lot of designers aren't. It's admittedly much harder when you've designed your entire game around this innovation that you can't back up with gameplay (Singularity). On the bright side, maybe someone will see the gem of your idea buried in there and refine it, but being the bleeding edge guy still hurts.

Duong Nguyen
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Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that some Publishers/Developers claim to innovate but they really don't. There is plenty of evidence that gamers do embrace innovative ideas but like most things it comes down to the execution of it. Most developers just don't have the "touch". They're claim of innovation is either un-polished, lacking or fundamentally broken.. Innovative features must serve a purpose, either to push the boundaries of gameplay, the cinematic experience or expose a novel experience. Just throwing any which feature out and seeing if it sticks isn't innovation, it's a desperate lack of vision.

Matt Cratty
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Entirely wrong.

We just don't want crappy innovation.

Jose Resines
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We really don't need more proof that the Ubi higher-ups have absolutely no idea about what they're doing, but OK, there you have it: 80% of what's wrong at Ubi in a single article.

The remaining 20%?. Their offensive, useless DRM. THAT, you can be sure we REALLY REALLY don't want, Mr. Detoc. And as long as you keep using it, we REALLY REALLY don't want to buy your games.

90% lost sales in PC, was it?. Keep thinking you have reason in your side, and tell me how it goes in a couple of years.