Interview

Chris Early on mobile's place within Ubisoft's strategy for linking triple-A, free-to-play and companion gaming

Chris Early on mobile's place within Ubisoft's strategy for linking triple-A, free-to-play and companion gaming
As the gaming market rapidly evolves towards a fully digital business model, more of the players in the boxed market are throwing their weight behind social and companion gaming models.

Ubisoft hasn't been in the vanguard of the rush, but 2012 sees the French giant making a significant move towards the freemium and social model - but in a way that also accommodates its existing experience.

As Chris Early, Ubisoft's VP of digital explains, upcoming Facebook and iOS title Ghost Recon: Commander forms one element of a push towards socially-minded Companion Gaming, in which players divide their attention between several games that sit within the overall brand ecosystem.

Pocket Gamer: Tell us about how Ubisoft is pushing into the digital gaming market

Chris Early: I came to Ubisoft two years ago and the fun side was to take and develop its path to digital distribution, digital content and take a look at where we should be going as a company.

It's definitely a challenging prospect, but the good thing from my perspective is it fits very well with one of Ubisoft's core premises - focusing on the customer.

What do you mean by that?

When we focus on you as a player, our key goal is to create compelling experiences for you to experience - our brands and our franchises - regardless of the device you have.

Sometimes that's going to be a console, sometimes that's going to be a mobile phone, sometimes that's going to be a PC, sometimes it's going to be a tablet. Whatever it happens to be, we want you to have a great experience.

Ubisoft uses this phrase Companion Gaming. What's that?

Let me give you an example. In the case of Ghost Recon, which has been one of our brands for many years, we have Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, a full-on, triple-A console game on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, where you're going to sit at home on the big screen with your console, and play.

At the same time, we have Ghost Recon: Commander, which is a game on Facebook and mobile, where you'll be able to play a different game, but still a game in the Ghost Recon universe, so it's related lore.

What's more important, I think, from a gamer's perspective is you'll have advantages in one game that you'll unlock by playing the other game.

It's not just a one-time item unlock. The more you play each of those games, the more benefit you create in terms of the other gameplay experience. So, by playing Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, you'll be able to unlock characters you can use in the Facebook game, plus currency, experience points, items etc that you can use in the social and mobile game.

And - conversely - by playing the social and mobile game, if you're playing at work at lunch, or in a break, you're continuing the character progression. You'll unlock items and experience points bonus and currency in Ghost Recon: Future Soldier.

Why do you think players will enjoy this?

To be able to play a game across a variety of platforms and stay in the same brand universe, and having it be always meaningful makes this much more interesting to me as a gamer.

Then we take extend it even further with Ghost Recon Online. This is our free-to-play, triple-A game coming out on the PC. It's a third person, item transaction-based multiplayer shooter.

It's based on the same triple-A engine as Future Soldier, so it's not a halfway experience. It's a full-on triple-A game that we're releasing with a different business model, so you can go through everything through time-based play or you can pay. Our hope is there are going to be plenty of people who like it enough that they're going to pay and consume, because we're not a charity organisation.

Of course, there will be similar benefits between Ghost Recon Online and Ghost Recon Commander so that anytime or any place the Ghost Recon fan is playing, they'll have something to do with what device they have at hand, and it will all remain relevant.

How will you manage the gameplay variation between these games?

Each case is a different actual gaming experience. We've seen where companies try to cram the same game experience onto a different screen or device - it doesn't work at all.

Our belief is that you have to design a game both for the dynamics of the device, and on the player's expected usage. So if I'm designing for a phone, I know you might get a phone call. I can't put you in a competitive online multiplayer game where you might get shot because your mum calls.

What kind of game will Ghost Recon: Commander be?

We haven't talked a lot about the specifics of the game, but as you might imagine it's a game that you can pick up and put down at any particular point in time, and you don't suffer any penalties for doing that.

And following many of the learnings of the social and mobile games, it involves your friends on an asynchronous basis.

You'll want a lot of friends connected, and you'll want to play with your friends, because you'll actually need your friends to play the game. We've got some twists that will make it a new style of social involvement on Facebook.

This is a good tenet of strong Facebook game design: there's a lot of familiarity in some aspects of the game, but we would be doing ourselves a disservice if we just stopped there.

And we wouldn't be living up to Ubisoft's history either, in terms of being innovators on platforms, and having strong creatively if we didn't do something a bit different - but that would be the surprise that we're not announcing today...

What platforms are you intending to release Ghost Recon: Commander on?

We have a development bandwidth with the games. First Facebook, then iOS shortly after, and then there will be other platforms.

We're not announcing them at this time, but all will be free to download. People try more games when it's free.

Why is companion gaming so important?

It's because of our focus on the player.

I'm sure you've experienced where you've played a game for a while on your mobile device, and you started off to play for a couple of minutes, and then played for a little bit longer than anticipated, and then at the end you're like, 'Argh, I just can't believe I just spent that much time'.

It might have been amusing for the moment, but that concept of remorseful gaming ... I hate it. I don't want that to exist. I want anything you do related to a game in our IP to matter to other games in that franchise.

And that's the big example you're going to see with Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, Ghost Recon Online and Ghost Recon: Commander.

Why is Ubisoft devoting 25 per cent of its resources to digital?

Again, it's happening because of our focus on the consumer. When you read a good book, you want to go on and read more - the next volume, etc - and the same's true at a gaming level.

When we provide a great gaming experience, you want more of that experience. So at the core level, how do we extend that beyond what you buy in the store?

It's about how can we extend it across your friends as well. You can have a number of your Facebook and mobile friends be your support team.

Do you think there's still a future for paid games?

I don't know that we 100 percent want to move away from [the paid model] and it's the same across other consoles as well. I think there's a place for an initial purchase price model. That might be reflected in the volume of content you get at the beginning.

But I would also say we're at the beginnings as an industry in realising that you can make a commitment based on a free-to-play model if you're willing to create compelling content.

The business model is not an excuse, in my opinion, to create a dumbed down or a lesser quality game. If you do that, it's going to fail, regardless of the business model.

It'll fail at the pay-up-front model because the reviews will be terrible, and you'll only get the people who didn't pay attention, and they'll have a bad experience and your reputation will suffer. It's not going to work at the free-to-play level either, because people are going to play it, and they're not going to stay with it.

How do you keep players invested after that initial period?

You make good content. That's what it comes back to.

And that's why I think Ubisoft has an advantage, because we've been focused on creating compelling content for 25 years. And that's been a core piece of the structure of our growth of studios, the structure of the growth of the company, it's really focused on the game creator - to a fault sometimes.

We didn't even do some business models because we focused so much on the creative side of making the game.

And so now the compelling challenge for us is how do we, not only as game designers, tell you a great story or involve you in the game, but do it in a way that involves multiple business models?

If you have tons of time, you can play with tons of time. And if you don't have as much free time as you used to have - kinda like me - but maybe a bit more in your bank account, you can go down that path too. And you can still have the same great experience with the game regardless of what abundance you have.

A lot of customers fundamentally loathe pay walls. How do you deal with that?

Our game premise so far is, for the most part, and I say 'for the most part' because I don't dictate what every studio does - but our general guidance in what I see happening is you can do anything mechanically through time that you could do through money. And when I say 'mechanically' I mean through gameplay and game balance.

There are some games where you can only buy the Gold Robe with money, but the Gold Robe does no more for your than the Burlap Robe, it just looks different. It doesn't really change the game balance as it were. It's not a +4 Robe, or anything like that. It's a different vanity look.

So there are things that are different from a vanity perspective with currency, but we've tried to maintain as little difference as possible from if you're going to invest your time versus if you're going to invest your money in terms of the same game experience.

Do you foresee that's Ubisoft's investment in digital will keep increasing?

I would say it probably will because even our core games are starting to act more like games as a service than the traditional buy-it-once and you're done with it game.

There's more downloadable content available for our games. If you look at our Xbox Live Arcade game that launched last week Shoot Many Robots, there are consumable items that you can purchase with packs of currency.

Even with this sort of game, we now feel we need to treat that like an ongoing game, talk to the players about how we can extend it, maybe have sales from time to time. We're managing that ongoing experience for an XBLA game, never mind what we might be doing with core games.

The opportunity is there for people who like it to continue to experience that game and extend their play through time or through payment. We need to focus on you as a player, and what are you wanting to do.

Do you foresee Apple TV/smart TV gaming disrupting the traditional console market?

From a time availability standpoint yes. People have a limited amount of time, and people will play things that are fun.

Hardcore gamers play, I believe, any game with good mechanics, regardless of the platform. And therefore because there are many more platforms now, their time is being shared across many more platforms.

Are you taking away from their consumption as a whole? No. They're probably consuming more than they ever did before, but they're spreading it out across many more platforms.

And then, on top of that, what we've seen, because of the accessibility of the new platforms and devices, more people are gaming than ever before. You could walk down the street and ask 'Are you a gamer?', and people would say 'No'.

But if you had a spot inspection of their phone, more than half of the apps would be games - but they're not a 'gamer'. So it's a question of how do you label yourself, and what do you do for entertainment? And that's what comes back to people liking having fun.

Actually, more importantly, what you like is that particular chemical thing that happens in your brain when you do that entertainment thing which provides a slight challenge you win at. If you want to call that a 'game' (or whatever you want to call that), what you're liking is the feeling.

As we design games to get you to that place, you already know that it doesn't matter what's in your hand at that moment - whether that's a mobile phone or a controller.

Do you think iPad and tablets replace traditional consoles?

Right now [with iPad and Apple TV], you have a control problem - the fidelity you have is not the same as having analogue sticks or buttons.

If you're not completely co-ordinated like me, I'm often frustrated because of the technical constraints of this interface device. Will it ever exceed something that's a better control interface? I don't think so.

Could a defacto wireless iPad joypad could solve this?

It's a question of penetration. It has to be standard enough that developers will write to it, and be in wide enough distribution that people will buy it.

If you look at an existing standard, like the PSP and the PlayStation 3 - which are able to share content across the screens - there still aren't a lot of games that take advantage of the feature.

Now why is that? Because we can't count on it. And if we can't count on it, the question is, is it a bonus we can add-on that only affects a minority of people, and therefore what's the return on investment of that piece of development?

The bigger question comes in with something like Wii U, where we know there's going to be a tablet with every device. And now what can we do creatively as games designers, when we know that tablet is guaranteed to be there.

Isn't it also possible the iPad could slot into a control 'caddy' that essentially replicates what the Wii U is trying to achieve?

Maybe. But before we see Apple do it, we'll see a number of third parties attempt to do it, but then it comes back to market penetration.

There are constraints that the hardware providers will drop onto the industry, if you want to think of it like that way - both constraints and opportunities.

All motion gaming was certainly an opportunity, and in the case of Kinect and the Wii, that was an area where Ubisoft excelled. We continue to be innovators on new platforms, or at least we try our best to.

We do that because we want to bring better experiences to consumers and open it up to many more people.
Thanks to Chris for his time.

There's no such thing as 'not enough time' in Kristan's world. Despite the former Eurogamer editor claiming the world record for the most number of game reviews written before going insane, he manages to continue to squeeze in parallel obsessions with obscure bands, Norwich City FC, and moody episodic TV shows. He might even read a book if threatened by his girlfriend.

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Duncan Van Trigt
When is Ghost Recon Shadow Wars going to be released for iOS? All other Ubisot titles for iOs have been released except this one. There's even video footage out of this game on YouTube. Has it been cancelled? I really want this game on my iPad!
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