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Ubisoft's trouble with Uplay, love for companion apps and microtransactions Exclusive

Ubisoft's trouble with Uplay, love for companion apps and microtransactions
June 12, 2014 | By Christian Nutt

June 12, 2014 | By Christian Nutt
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing, Exclusive, E3

Ubisoft vice president of digital publishing Chris Early knows that its Uplay service has an image problem, one exacerbated thanks to the launch of Watch Dogs.

"I think the label of Uplay gets put on many things," Early says. "Our problem with Watch Dogs was with our authentication server, which is technically not part of Uplay."

PC players of the game didn't see it that way, though, as Uplay error messages greeted their attempts to get into the game. It also made some think Uplay is a DRM system, when Early says the company has abandoned always-on DRM, something it was notorious for in years past, Early says.

"We made a shift a number of years ago, where we had an always-on DRM system, and we jumped and stopped doing that, and nobody really noticed when we stopped doing that."

What failed was "the authentication service which allows people to have the always-on, seamless multiplayer" in Watch Dogs, much like a PlayStation Network or Xbox Live connection on consoles. This was a failure much like other big game launches of late: "we should have planned better for that search," says Early.

Uplay is, in fact, "a player loyalty and reward system" that operates much like a frequent flyer program by giving players "units" to spend on rewards, and which, says Early, many are already taking advantage of for both in-game and real-life perks.

"When we ask players to create a Uplay account, that's not DRM -- that's just so we can give you units. That's where the confusion comes in."

A brighter spot: Companion apps

That may have been a black mark on the Watch Dogs launch, but a much brighter spot, says Early, is the success of the companion app for tablets, which allows players to engage in multiplayer versus players of the main Watch Dogs game.

It's been downloaded a huge number of times, and Early says the internal stat tracking paints it a big success for the company. "Almost every single one of our triple-A games has a companion experience," says Early.

"Sometimes I want to continue to experience that franchise when I'm not in front of my console. That lets somebody do that from anywhere." With the Assassin's Creed 4 app, "As a player, I earned most of the money I used to upgrade my ship in the tablet version," Early says.

"We're experimenting with all kinds of command in games," says Early. "We're making sure that, one, you've got the ability to take your experience somewhere and continue it... but, two, it's a way to let somebody else who's maybe not that same player play in the world as well."

What he means by that is that the apps can offer a window into the company's triple-A lineup with different kinds of gameplay and control schemes that appeal to different kinds of players.

In the upcoming The Division, the tablet player can fly a drone, a synchronous gameplay experience with the main game but which doesn't require a player to be near a console or PC, and which allows him or her to interact with that game world via touch, not a controller: "It opens it up, it begins to broaden it," says Early.

Still, the company doesn't want to make tracking down a tablet player, or dumping time into the companion app a requirement. The games should be complete experiences by themselves, says Early: "I think we would make a mistake if we made it required.

Triple-A microtransactions: Here to stay

You might be surprised, but Early says the company is having a lot of success with microtransactions in triple-A games. He says that players like them, too.

That's because they're generally convenience purchases, and the games aren't balanced to force players to buy them.

"We have to make a good game, period," Early says. "When you buy, it's different. We're definitely delivering a 60-dollar experience. You should have an amazingly good entertaining time."

However, "For years, we've designed games where we expect time is the resource we expect everybody to have." Like other segements of the industry, Ubisoft has come to recognize that some players have more money than time.

"I'm a gamer at heart and I like playing games. I want to finish the games," says Early. The problem: He doesn't have the time. So he spends to uncover the map in Assassin's Creed, or he pays for an experience point boost.

The important thing: "don't make me run up against a wall" where "you have to spend more money" to get past an obstacle. That would wreck the triple-A experience, Early acknowledges. "Are you stopping me some way and forcing me to pay money? That's not a good thing."

Still, the way the company has done it so far, "we haven't had a lot of pushback on that," he says.

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