A curious piece of Ubisoft’s business philosophy was brought to light earlier this week when Tony Key, the company’s senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in an interview with [a]list daily that they will not even start production on a game unless they see it as having franchise potential. This piece of news was rather widely reported, but scarcely analysed, perhaps because most simply accepted it as a natural consequence of attempting to participate in the modern Triple-A sector. For Ubisoft, a company that makes huge bets in what they produce: Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, Prince of Persia, the Tom Clancy sub-series, etc; this makes sense but there are other options to enable success that don’t require Ubisoft’s approach.
Before outlining these, it would serve us well to highlight just how Ubisoft, and most other company’s go about expanding their brands. The easiest example is their flagship brand, Assassin’s Creed. This year’s entry, Black Flag, is the fourth mainline game, the sixth available on home consoles and the fifth since the series adopted an annual release schedule. Like each iteration it is building on features introduced in its direct predecessor, making it an incremental jump that still manages to feel somewhat unique. This is what sets it apart from many games of a similar ilk, but it doesn’t reduce the feeling of being burnt out on the series to many, even if they, like myself, are not up-to-date with the blistering release schedule. The series has also seen complementary releases on the PSP, DS and Vita, yet Ubisoft is still not content. Assassin’s Creed is becoming a truly multimedia experience with novels, comic books, and an upcoming major motion picture starring and produced by Michael Fassbender.
Other titles in the publisher’s stable aren’t yet at the same level, but with a film based on Watch_Dogs already planned, it may be wise to expect the same from all of Ubisoft’s major brands going forward. The creation of a multitude of potential revenue streams has the dual effect of creating a safety net against failure and drawing attention to the brand through the mass market. To say that it isn’t a viable approach is to reject reality, but I can’t help thinking that this is flawed. Where is the sense in making a game into a film or a novel when all that serves to do is alter the experience? Would it not be better to expand within the realm of interactive media?
What I would propose is an approach that has been used only sparingly in gaming’s history and to limited success: a genre shift. Microsoft tried it a number of years ago with the real-time strategy spin-off, Halo Wars, to their flagship first person shooter series; while Sony and Insomniac have recently attempted the same with Ratchet & Clank, with the latest two entries adopting a co-operative platformer focus and tower defense sentiments respectively. Neither of these experiments fared well, though Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, the action spin-off to Metal Gear Solid co-developed by Kojima Productions and Platinum Games was received more warmly by critics and fans alike. It may not have achieved anything near the success of its parent franchise, but still managed to do just fine on its own. 2K also sees the merit of this approach and is utilising it with the XCOM brand. After an accomplished reboot that hearkened back to its roots with XCOM: Enemy Unknown last year, a tactical third person shooter prequel, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, is set to release in mid-September.
Offering a gameplay experience different to a franchise’s roots is a risky proposition. There is the chance of alienating the existing fanbase, making them feel uncared-for, but if they love the existing games enough, it may introduce them to a new form of gaming and thus increase their appreciation of the medium as a whole. So long as the core elements of what makes the brand are not abandoned, such experiments should be accepted, if not embraced. On the other hand, it has the potential of introducing a whole new audience to the game world that may not have been interested earlier.
The greatest benefit that this offers is that it appeals to the core gaming audience and expands the brand within the boundaries of interactive media, without having to rely on the mass market. It can be argued that this is insular, and cannot possibly attract more consumers as it is exclusionary to all those that play games, and this is a fine argument to bring to bear. Keep in mind, however, that I am not proposing for every game series to adopt this approach. Assassin’s Creed, for example, couldn’t feasibly be expanded in such a manner, except through the purification of its various gameplay mechanics. There are some brands that are simply better for mass market expansion, and Ubisoft is good at making these. All I argue is that the approach be tailored to what best suits the franchise.
The second and final part of this article will be published next week and will explore further alternatives to the general approach taken by publishers to achieve success in the Triple-A sector.