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Dr. House, Rabbids Help Ubisoft's Big Digital Push

Dr. House, Rabbids Help Ubisoft's Big Digital Push

October 27, 2011 | By Christian Nutt

Yesterday in San Francisco, Ubisoft VP of digital publishing Chris Early took the stage for the second year in a row to talk about the company's strategy and make new announcements -- and the company's push is bigger and more confident than last year's.

"Last quarter, we were up 45 percent in digital revenue," said Early to the crowd, before quickly listing off a litany of new titles.

To start, the company has announced games based on popular TV shows CSI: Miami, House, M.D., and NCIS for Facebook. It also announced a partnership with Brenda Brathwaite and John Romero's social studio Loot Drop for an unannounced game.

The House game will launch in 2011, and the others will follow in 2012.

The company also announced a number of games for iOS: Assassin's Creed Rearmed and Monster Burner, which are available today, and Assassin's Creed Recollection, which will appear later in 2011 alongside two Rabbids iOS titles: Rabbids Go HD and Rabbids Go Phone Again.

Ubisoft also revealed the motion-controlled Babel Rising for PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade, alongside an untitled ATV game developed by Dead Island studio Techland.

"Our split has changed, mainly because we're developing more and more new things," Early told Gamasutra in an interview after his presentation.

Last year, Early talked up kids' MMO Petz World, but this year it was nowhere to be found. "While painful, we realized we need to take that back -- kids aren't playing on that platform that much right now," Early said.

All these new games join Ubisoft's previously-announced Ghost Recon online games, including the free-to-play PC title Ghost Recon Online, the Facebook and mobile game Ghost Recon: Commander, and the multiplatform triple-A release Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, all of which will interlink.

Ubisoft's Increased Facebook Push

"We have a lot more coming from the social space coming than we did a year ago," Early said. He estimated that 40 percent of the company's Facebook games are externally developed, and talked up efforts to build up the company's skill at building social games internally.

"It's been our approach not to go out and spend several hundred million dollars to bring in an acquisition," he said. "We've had maybe a dozen studios make Facebook games. Most of them haven't worked, and they've done it as a way to be able to try and express their creativity. Four or five like it, and are making the investment to be better at it," he said.

These include Ubisoft Shanghai and Ubisoft San Francisco, developers of CSI: Miami and NCSI: Major Crimes, respectively.

Brands -- both TV shows and Ubisoft IP -- bring "a level of defensibility", said Early. "You know as well as i do it's relatively easy to look at the game mechanics and 'become inspired'." And, he said, when two games appear roughly identical -- a strong brand gives it an edge in this competitive space.

Expanding Mobile Reach: Android And More

Early also announced that in addition to iOS development -- which the company has largely brought in-house over the last 12 months, it will begin to support Android as well.

While "we're still going to work with Gameloft and other key partners," said Early, Ubisoft is pushing its internal studios to flex their muscle on mobile -- a change for the company.

He also said that the company will "probably have a little bit of everything" when it comes to business models, though he does like free-to-play. "I'm a strong believer in allowing the player to continue to pay to enjoy their game, and try to keep the cost to them as minimal as possible," he said.

Xbox Live Arcade and PSN

Ubisoft surprised gamers when it announced that its long-in-development title I Am Alive would be a digital download game for Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network.

"We just think that the gameplay and the format of it works best from the digital standpoint," Early said. "We look at all of our products and try to figure where the best deployment of that title will be."

It can go the other direction, too: "We've had titles coming out on retail that started as a digital title but as we developed them they became bigger games, there was more gameplay there," he said.

iOS title Babel Rising is making the leap to Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network, too. "It really highlights one of the core areas we are really proud of at Ubisoft, and that's our creative spirit," said Early, of the game. "We had a passionate team who wanted to make that project and it turned out really good. We said, 'We had winner here, so what do we do with it then?'" The answer: port it.

Still, while the company had major success with Eric Chahi's From Dust, Early sees potential challenges for downloadable console games.

"The challenge is that as the bar continues to raise... to do that in a cost-effective development manner so we can continue to deliver them at the 10, 15 dollar price point," becomes more difficult, he said. But "when they're good," he said, console download games are "absolutely" worth doing form a business standpoint.

UPlay And The Best Buy Analogy

Early also talked up UPlay, the company's service for hints and community features inside of its major console releases, which he discussed at length last year.

"UPlay continues to be great for us," he said. "It's on almost every single game."

He's not interested in competing with Steam or EA's Origin service -- he'd rather put his energy into building brand loyalty via UPlay and let customers buy their games where they wish.

"Just like people buy at GameStop, Target, or Best Buy," Early said, they choose any number of places to buy their PC games. "We've focused our efforts around UPlay as a service, and providing rewards to players."

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