Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot wants to disrupt the games industry at every turn. Financial gain is an important goal, sure, but it’s the creative freedom and experimentation that interests him more. Jem Alexander finds out how a diverse, free environment makes Ubisoft one of the most creative developers on the planet
Coming off the back of a killer E3 showing, Ubisoft's position is looking pretty strong as we move into the Christmas period. Response to Assassin’s Creed: Origins, which enjoyed an extra year in development while the franchise took a year off, and Far Cry 5 has been positive. Meanwhile, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle transformed from a chuckleworthy rumour into one of this year’s most anticipated games and Skull and Bones looks like it could replicate Rainbow Six Siege’s games-as-a-service success, albeit in more piratey waters.
Some people want to follow, but we prefer to take the ones who really have a goal to change the industry
Yves Guillemot CEO, Ubisoft
Leftfield titles like toys-to-life reinvention Starlink: Battle for Atlas and VR experiment Transference are more immediate examples of Ubisoft’s unique creativity and quirkiness. Better examples of what CEO Yves Guillemot refers to when he talks about ‘disruption’. It’s a word that left his lips a lot during a recent press event in China, and one that is important to the company going forward, he explains:
“We use disruption as a way to try new things. Because when a market is mature, it’s very difficult to change things. When a market is changing, you have lots more opportunities, so if you want to enter a genre or if you want to do something new and different, you can use a big transition to create it.”
This idea of taking advantage of new tech or genre shifts isn’t new for the company. Ubisoft has a history of releasing titles - even exclusive ones - alongside new console launches, or experimenting with new tech like VR or motion controls.
“If you really bring quality then you could be original enough to install a brand that will give you a chance to create games in that genre for a long time," Guillemot says.
The games industry is going through a huge amount of change and transition, from VR to the likes of the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X, all the way to the triumphant return of Nintendo with the Switch. For a company like Ubisoft, they’re like kids in an opportunity shop.
“We have the chance to be in an industry that is growing a lot, and that brings lots of new opportunities regularly,” says Guillemot. “The market being in a state of growth gives new opportunities, and due to the fact that we now have connected machines, that’s helping us to create different types of games, to launch new IPs, and to give lots of freedom to our teams to express themselves.”
GAMES AS A SERVICE
This move online towards a games-as- a-service model, which more and more titles across the industry are taking advantage of, is just one area of that Ubisoft is looking to disrupt. Rainbow Six Siege and The Crew are early success stories for the publisher, though other experiments like For Honor haven’t necessarily hit the mark with players. Though failure isn’t necessary something Ubisoft fears.
“It’s important that no-one here is blamed for being too creative,” says Guillemot. “The goal for us is to make sure that we reward new ideas, so that people feel that they can try and that they can fail. If they are allowed to fail, then they can take more risk. If you can’t fail, you don’t take enough risks and then you never come up with anything new. Anybody can fail, but what’s important is to learn as much as possible from that, so that next time we come with something that is well adapted and that will be different and outstanding.”
Coming back to the notion of ‘disruption’, entering a new area of the business and changing the direction of the games industry is a great way to mitigate against any risk. This means that the developers at Ubisoft never have to compromise their vision by making anything less than triple-A. Ubisoft remains very much in the triple-A space, and has no intention of shrinking its ambitions to save a bit of money.
“Disruption diminishes the risk,” Guillemot argues. “If you are fast and efficient when there’s a disruption, you have a chance to have more freedom. But only if you are early enough, because if you wait too long it’s not disruption anymore. Gamers want to try something new and they are a lot more open when something is new.
They want something different from what they have been playing, so in a way it’s diminishing risk for us. Even if it’s a lot more risky in terms of creation, at the end of the day it’s less risky as a business. We chase those moments, because for the creators in the company it’s a lot more rewarding and you can try new things. You can make something you’ve been dreaming of for a long time. We love those moments.”
The ubiquity of the internet and always-connected consoles also have an impact on Ubisoft’s approach to world building. “The fact that these machines are always connected gives us the possibility to create worlds
that will be alive,” says Guillemot. “Worlds that can change with events, people and actions. We have a strategy to create a coherent world first, then to put mechanics and systems in the game to make that world more alive.
Then add characters and decide when and what is happening in that world. So at the beginning you define the playground, and after that you give players a chance to live a certain adventure or a certain experience. But as it’s a coherent world, as the creator of that world you won’t automatically know what players will do. You give them the tools for them to find opportunities to express themselves, to do things together with friends or alone. That is something that is really interesting with connected machines.”
When asked about Ubisoft’s apparent attempts at world domination, with new studios springing up on a regular basis, Guillemot was keen to highlight the company’s diversity as one of its main strengths.
“Being in many countries helps you to create products that are influenced by the global population that you have in your studios,” he says. “It makes those games more multinational, and that’s an important thing. The more global you are, the more you are influenced by the countries you are in and then your games have a little bit of everything. It means they are more appreciated by players worldwide.
“The more nationalities you have in your studios, the more different the people are and the more it’s natural to represent those different people in the games. So that’s what we have been doing, making sure we have more women in the core teams, for example. We have people from all over the world, different religions, different way of seeing things, different ways of living, and that automatically translates into the games.”
Representing as many players as possible is something that Ubisoft is eager to push for, as the studios still see this as an issue the industry needs to fight against. “We are careful about that,” says Guillemot. “As an industry we used to have 90 percent of players that were male. So we had bad experiences with certain characters that, because they didn’t fit with the people who were buying the games, gave the impression to the industry that only certain types of character would fit with the demand. But we have seen great evolution, in the mix of different players first, but also in the acceptance of the types of characters that you can have in games. We push it more than what the market can accept, which is more and more nowadays.”
But it’s not just players who are encouraged to express themselves; freedom for developers to do the same is something that’s central to Ubisoft’s company culture. “Our goal is to put in place the conditions that will give everyone a chance to express themselves and show their strengths, continue to learn and create things they’re proud of,” Guillemot explains.
“We want people to have a chance to do what they are good at and really have the feeling that they can grow in the company and get better and better. Produce games that they are proud of. We try to take people that want a certain level of freedom and want to continue to progress with time. That have a need to succeed and create something that they will be proud of.
“Some would say everyone is like this, but no. Some people want to follow, but we prefer to take the ones who really have a goal to change the industry, to disrupt things a little bit. So the type of people that we recruit makes a difference. It’s also very important to give each studio enough freedom in the way it creates so that it can lead a project at one point. It can really show what it can do. We try to make sure that you aren’t dependent on too many people so that you can have true freedom of creation and expression.”