Yesterday in San Francisco Ubisoft had its first-ever Digital Day event, in which its VP of digital publishing, Chris Early, outlined the company's strategy -- focusing both on new announcements such as an Assassin's Creed Facebook title, and core initiatives such as Companion Gaming and its UPlay customer loyalty system.
Gamasutra was on hand at the event to speak with Early about its digital initiatives, from mobile to console; its idea of "companion gaming," which hopes to unite several products under the same universe, and more.
The Digital Publishing group has its hands in all of Ubisoft's digital content initiatives -- iOS games, DLC for console titles, Facebook games, and free-to-play PC/browser games. It's a complicated mix that shows the complexity of today's market.
"As a company overall we need to continue to stay abreast of, if not ahead of, the trends in development there," says former Microsoft executive Early, who notes that "Free to play games is just one of those elements."
His group operates Ubisoft's F2P games but doesn't necessarily oversee their development -- and obviously, doesn't create DLC for games like Assassin's Creed but does share best practices.
"It's not up to us to turn around and tell the development teams what to make," says Early.
"As you might imagine, from a company our size, with the number of studios we have -- more than 20 studios worldwide -- you can get to a point of randomness pretty easily. Yet the industry is evolving relatively quickly. What we're able to do is to provide somewhat of a center for best practices and examples so that we can learn across all of our studios and have those learnings promulgate faster that way than if they go from one producer to another as they move from studio to studio," Early says.
So while his team doesn't oversee the design of DLC, he says, "There are best practices with DLC -- when should you launch? What should you include in DLC? If you have both single player and multiplayer DLC, what should you launch first? What's the right timing? How many Achievements should you have in that DLC?"
"There are some Facebook games that fall directly under me but there are a number of other studios in Ubisoft who make Facebook games as well," says Early, who also notes that they operate the free-to-play Heroes of Might & Magic Kingdoms but did not oversee its development.
The group does have direct control over the development, as well as operation, of Petz World, a newly-announced, free-to-play PC MMO developed by Frima Studios and slated to be available next year.
Petz World is the most ambitious showcase of "Companion Gaming", a way in which Ubisoft hopes to tie different products together -- bringing multiple contact points to a single franchise.
In its simplest form, Companion Gaming functions this way: in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood you train a guild of assassins.
In the newly-announced Facebook companion title, Assassin's Creed: Project Legacy, players of the Facebook game will be able to unlock content in the console title, and vice-versa -- a two-way street for one player.
"I want my play to matter wherever I am," says Early, and this strategy is how to achieve that. He also acknowledges that, in this implementation, Companion Gaming is "very simple, one way, direct, one time."
More complicated are its plans for the Petz universe. The center of its strategy is the kids/tweens-oriented F2P MMO Petz World, already mentioned. Animals, once raised, can be sent to it from the upcoming DS title, Petz Nursery 2 to the MMO -- including animal species which kids can't access in the MMO without playing the DS Game. Further, playing the MMO will unlock new breeds in the DS title.
The company also announced Hamsterz Worldwide, for the iOS device family and Facebook. These games, however, are not targeted at kids -- they're targeted at other family members, such as older siblings and parents, and rewards can flow back and forth from them to the MMO, encouraging the players to play to help their family members out.
"We're moving video gaming away from a solitary thing you do away from your family to something that could be a center point of discussion in the family."
This is a system, he says, "where a variety of games are exchanging a variety of types of value and involving a number of different people. I'd say that's probably the most ambitious side of Companion Gaming we have."
This style of play could even create what Early termed the "nag loop", in which family members try to get each other to play the games to earn rewards for them.
He acknowledges that this may allow gaming of the system. "We'll also be looking at the balance of the economy. Because you're looking at a variety of inputs of resources, which if you're not careful could unbalance one or the other elements of that game."
UPlay: A Loyalty System, Expanded
UPlay launched alongside Assassin's Creed II, and will expand on October 5 to include in-game help to players. The program currently incorporates a currency system called "units" which are redeemable for in-game items and other downloadable content -- and which carry over between different Ubisoft titles.
"The way I think about UPlay overall -- that's the relationship Ubisoft has with our players. The more they play games that happen to be made by us, they more benefit they're going to get from UPlay," says Early.
Though it seems like it could encourage players to retain Ubisoft titles for longer, Early doesn't see it as related to the used game issue. "Our focus is not on creating or denying used sales -- it's on rewarding people for playing Ubisoft games."
Notably, the downloadable item stream available in a title's UPlay offering is distinct from those available for download via the PlayStation Network or Microsoft Xbox Live stores -- there's no way to earn access to paid DLC via UPlay. However, says Early, hinting at better rewards in the future, "I think you're seeing the beginnings of what you can redeem for."
And while the help functions might cannibalize the sales of officially licensed guides, Early doesn't see that as a problem because "we are working with the folks we've licensed to create official guides," he says.
Facebook and Ubisoft
For Ubisoft, Facebook is still in its "the early stages of the platform. Social game development is not easy. Making a game in general is not easy. Making a game that's going to be both fun and viral is not easy. It's something we're working really hard at," says Early.
He even described Assassin's Creed: Project Legacy as an "X Wars" title, alluding to Mafia Wars. He freely admits that the branding and the connection to the console game is the allure and Ubisoft's advantage, not the originality of the title.
"Yeah, anybody can make an X Wars-style game. But not anybody can make an X Wars style game in the Assassin's Creed universe," he says. "The advantage we have is that we can tie those to brand universes that people care about."
"We are clearly learning as we're going, but I think we are bringing innovative concepts in terms of the gameplay in some cases, and in terms of the concepts around it, like the Companion Gaming."
Catching Up On XBLA And PSN
The company also showed an increased interest in Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network games, with DLC for its Scott Pilgrim title, new shooter Zeit^2, Eric Chahi's From Dust, the promising-looking Outland, and Capy's Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes, an expanded version of its DS title.
Early -- who worked on Xbox Live Arcade at Microsoft -- noted that the games at the event were about evenly split between internal and external developers, and would continue to be split among them for future projects.
When it comes to these sorts of titles, he acknowledges that big publishers have lagged behind a bit, but he doesn't see it as a permanent disadvantage. "The advantage of [Xbox Live] Arcade is that it allows you as a developer to focus on potentially new or potentially game-changing mechanics without the investment of a multimillion dollar core title, and you can take a little bit more risk. I think that early on a lot of indie developers were quick to take that risk, because they already do take that risk.
"I think that big publishers are maybe a little late to that game, but the development studios in there are no different. They want to experiment. They have things they want to try. As a publisher we just need to let them."
The good news? At Ubisoft, he says, "Our internal studios have a lot of freedom in what they make," so we can expect more innovative downloadable titles as opportunities arise internally.