Ubisoft on Vivendi Takeover Threat, Reinventing Assassin's Creed, Bringing Back Beyond Good & Evil

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Co-founder and CEO Yves Guillemot opens up about the importance of staying independent.
September 22 2016 by Tamoor Hussain

You may have noticed that Ubisoft has been doing a lot of navel gazing recently. In part, this is because the French developer and publisher is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. But it's also because it is battling an unwanted takeover attempt from media conglomerate Vivendi.

In 2015, Vivendi purchased stakes in Gameloft and Ubisoft--both companies that were founded by Michel and Yves Guillemot, among others. Then, in June 2016, it wholly acquired mobile game publisher Gameloft and has since increased its stake in Ubisoft, sparking fears internally that it could attempt to assume full control.

At a recent event held in Paris, Ubisoft invited press to offer feedback on the company and learn about its creative process. The through line, however, was its need to maintain independence, a rhetoric that is a key part of its defence strategy.

During the event, we spoke to Yves Guillemot about the Vivendi takeover attempt, and why remaining independent is critical to the success of the company, as well as its ability to innovate in the video game space.

GameSpot: For many people on the outside, the Vivendi takeover attempt is essentially two giant companies fighting over control. There may not be that understanding that the results could profoundly impact the developers that make the games they play. For those people, what does the potential takeover mean and why should they be concerned about it?

Yves Guillemot: Creativity, agility, and risk-taking is intrinsic to our industry. If you are independent, you know the level you can go to, but if you're part of a conglomerate that doesn't understand what your industry is, how fast it's moving, or the decisions you have to make at speed, they can limit your possibilities. Then, automatically, you don't create new experiences that are coming out of nowhere. Sometimes when you take risks, it doesn't work and you have to cancel a project because you thought the business was going in one direction, but it didn't. When the management allows that, you aren't blamed for not succeeding, your management says, "Ok, we learned this and that, and we can use that on this new opportunity." When you're in an organisation that's less risk-taking, you don't do that. And then when you don't take risks, you don't get rewards.

Yes, companies merging is normally not a problem, but in our industry, which is changing a lot of time, it's actually risky.

One of those agile moves you made was with Rainbow Six Patriots, which was essentially shown and then scrapped. But it gave birth to Rainbow Six Siege. You're saying in a situation where you're under a company like Vivendi, that kind of course correction move may not be possible?

Exactly. It's also things like going for VR when everyone says you shouldn't. It's supporting the Wii when the whole industry says not to. There's times where you have to make your mind up on something and that process is fragile. If someone says you shouldn't, that can change your own mind. There's situations where you have to go with, "I have a feeling we could succeed if we go there," instead of, "I'm sure we'll succeed." You're never 100 percent sure so it's very important to be able to take those risks so you can explore those possibilities and new worlds.

People may look at companies like Bethesda and say they're doing what they want, exploring opportunities, and creating worlds under ZeniMax. What is it about Ubisoft that prevents it from having similar freedom and output under Vivendi?

Yes but ZeniMax is very much about video games. When I met with those guys, and I don't know them very well, but I felt that most of what they do is video games. It's not a big conglomerate like a Disney or others, it's almost an independent company.

It's interesting you mentioned Disney. It's also a company that had a big presence in games, but has divested itself of all video game development businesses internally. So I guess that's indicative of a worst case scenario of Ubisoft under Vivendi.

Exactly. Disney spent $2.4 billion to get into video games. For $1.2 billion they purchased studios and they lost in operation $1.2 billion. Then they said, "Ok, no more." That's just because of business changes. It's very difficult to actually make the right decisions at the right time. Only a few specialists can do that, when you're not managed by specialist, even if they're brilliant, they're not going to help you. They're going to look at what you do and how successful you are, but when you don't have that success, it's difficult.

Three or four years ago we were investing huge amounts to create games for the future, but our [financial] performance was not that good. We were investing in The Division, Watch Dogs 2, and all the games that launched in the last two years. We knew the industry would come back with new machines and that it was very important to invest at that time. But all the market was saying, "You are dead. It's all free-to-play on PC now so your business is over." We believed in our industry, we knew what our customers wanted, and we changed to surprise them. We knew that if we did a good job, they'd come back. That wasn't the trend though, the industry was saying that was the old way to do things. We had to be free enough to take those risks and bring those games.

During your presentation earlier, you said you won't be CEO of Ubisoft if Vivendi takes over as if it was a matter of fact. As someone that built this company from the ground up, that must be difficult to comes to terms with and think about.

[The takeover] threatens the construction and pillars of Ubisoft. The way we manage it is totally different from the way those guys manage companies. They are more used to deciding and having people execute. Whereas in our industry, you get info from people and then help them to decide. The biggest concern would be to see what took 30 years to create can't continue. We know what makes Ubisoft successful is the capacity that people in the company have to take decisions and risks. Seeing that somebody could come and not understand the industry--even without bad intentions--could destroy that capacity [to make decisions and take risks], that creation that is happening year after year. There are things we do well and things we do bad, but at the end of the day we try to entertain and give the best experiences we can. That, we think, is possible because of the systems we created.

VIDEO: ZombiU - Launch Trailer [01:45]

Your risk-taking is exemplified by ZombiU, which was a core game on a brand new Nintendo console. You said earlier that NX is exciting, you clearly connect with Nintendo on a more personal level. What is it about them that engenders this kind of faith?

What we see is, players are more open when new hardware is coming. So we have the chance to come with something we have never done before, because we know that if we are the first there, people will try our game and maybe we'll be able to get into that new genre. As our people wanted to do a game like ZombiU, they were happy they could just use the Wii U to do it. For us, a machine is a tool of expression, but when everything become stable it's less open to innovation. We always want innovation.

However, if you try something a little new and it's not perfect, you come back quickly to what you know and works. As a gamer, if you change to new hardware, you have no references, so you're looking at what people are saying are [the best games] and then trying them.

But if you have an [established] machine and there's all the experiences you know on there already, you know you're going to miss some of those to try something new, so you're less inclined. For us, we know opportunities to try something new are a lot more rewarding when it's a new machine.

So far you've announced Just Dance for NX. Can we expect Ubisoft to explore new ideas in the same way you did with ZombiU on the NX too?

We are working on some projects; you will see something at some point soon.

You're making a number of standalone VR games, instead of purely spin-offs of existing franchises. Is that indicative of a confidence in VR, exploratory, or an attempt to drive adoption?

It's a combination. We feel that it's very interesting to explore those possibilities. We see that you can see new emotions and deeper immersion. If we are able to create the right experiences, as an industry, it can take off and be a fantastic new journey for all of us. That's why we try. It's so much fun when you make it work, so there's a good chance people will pick it up. After that you have limitations such as price and space that may delay adoption. But what we see is that there is a big energy with these devices. Sony is coming in, Facebook is putting lots of money behind it, so we feel the business can be created. If it's not this one that makes it, the experience will still exist, so we'll know how to [do it] in the future. For the first version of VR, we can go to level one, then move up to level two, three, then four on using the capacity of the technology. We see a huge future in being immersed in those worlds. So it's a combination of the two: a big belief and new ways to create experiences.

This is the first year in a long time where we don't have an Assassin's Creed. Why was now the right time to take it out of rotation?

What we saw in the development of the next [Assassin's Creed] was that we had an opportunity to take it to another level. So we said we'll take all the time it takes to make the experience fantastic. It was feasible because we have other games. There's a huge potential in this game to revolutionise the IP, so we said, "Let's make sure we change our model so we have more time and that we can bring back a greater experience."

When you say, "Let's give it the time it needs," does that mean you haven't set a time for it to make its return? Most people are expecting it'll be back next year, is that the case or will it be back when it's ready?

It will be back when it's ready. That's when we feel we have something there.

Creativity, agility, and risk-taking is intrinsic to our industry ... When you're in an organisation that's less risk-taking, you don't do that. And then when you don't take risks, you don't get rewards.

And that isn't necessarily 2017.

Yeah. It will be when it's ready.

Assassin's Creed 2 pretty much established the template that most open-world Ubisoft games use. So when you say "revolutionising" the IP, does that mean a real reinvention of that formula or the same one with a few new ideas?

It's difficult to say right now. You'll actually make up your mind on that when you see it.

Michel Ancel is here today. My first thought was, "What is he doing here?" because he's still an Ubi employee but only seems to be working on Wild, a game developed by his independent studio.

He's doing two things. He has one game that he is doing as an independent and he's also working on a game with Ubisoft.

An unannounced game?

Yes. An unannounced game.

You're trying to create positive sentiment for Ubisoft right now and surely the best way to get gamers on side is to talk about games fans have been eager to hear about, like Beyond Good & Evil 2 or perhaps a new Prince of Persia…

It's not only the desires that are important, it's can our team come up with something that will be a revolution. You don't just want Beyond Good & Evil 2, you want a fantastic Beyond Good & Evil 2. You don't want us to bring it back as something that isn't perfect. That's a challenge we're facing; we have to come back with something crazy and something that will be great.

When will we see the next Splinter Cell?

It's difficult to say. I don't know yet. [laughs]