Industry Report: Animation
Ubisoft / Animation and Interactive Entertainment
by Cartoon, the European Association of Animation Film
21/05/2010 - Frédéric Thonet is Director of CGI Operations at Ubisoft Worldwide Studios.
Where does Ubisoft position itself in the video games market?
The company has grown. Currently, with a turnover of about one billion, we are roughly speaking the third largest independent publisher in the world (independent meaning to exclude console manufacturers) with our market divided into two parts: America and EMEA: Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
We invested greatly in our creative assets. We have our own studios, we recruit our own talent, and they manufacture creative games. We have 21 game production studios spread across 17 countries, and 22 distribution offices. Most of our games are designed for an international market, and the fact of being established in so many countries gives us an accurate understanding of the whole market area. We carry out extensive testing of everything we create, and all the feedback provides many pointers for each market, to enable us to refine our games.
For instance, we have a range of Nintendo DS games, Imagine, named Léa Passion in France..
How many games do you publish per year?
We bring out from 8 to 10 games each year. In 2009 we released several games offering activities dedicated to girls: Imagine Animal Doctor (Léa vétérinaire), Imagine Fashion Designer (Léa dans la mode), etc. It is interesting to note that these games do not perform equally in all countries. The main targeted players are age 7–12, in some countries we find players more in the 7-10 range, and in yet others the games attract the 10-12 year-olds. We have quite a precise view of the markets.
What are your selection criteria for games?
We undertake a lot of pre-selection research. We require an interesting context, elements matching the criteria of the target we are aiming for.
The AAA games (the equivalent of the cinema blockbuster) are very expensive to make and we aim to sell them everywhere. The AAA player target is principally the hardcore gamer. We also develop games in our Casual category, for example for the DS, which are more straightforward to create, in general less technological.
To produce the AAA games, we need to invest heavily in R&D because it provides a genuine competitive advantage. Each big game that comes out must contain innovation. This is something of an obligation, because there is a marking system, ratings by the Internet games critics and in the press, such that if we do not win a very high critics’ rating, we do no achieve the results we seek.
What is the cost of an AAA video game?
An AAA game costs around 25-30M$ to manufacture. Then, at least an equivalent sum must be spent on marketing.
Have you considered investing simultaneously in the making of a game and the production of a film?
A really important investment is required to create new brands, which influences our strategy with regard to other media. At present it is difficult to envisage taking on the risk involved in creating a feature length film and a game at the same time, because this risk would be financially enormous. Perhaps a few years from now..
Do you work under licences?
Yes, we also work with the known franchises to develop games. Recently we produced Naruto, and Ninja Turtles..
The problem with licences is that we do not have enough time to create games of the highest quality. We cannot make decisions sufficiently early in the process, given that the production of an AAA game requires a minimum of 2 years.
Events have proceeded differently in some cases, for instance to cite the game based on the Peter Jackson film King Kong. Ubisoft had previously created a game called Beyond Good and Evil that Peter Jackson adored. He therefore asked to work with the team that made that game, to create the King Kong game from his film. This was an Ubisoft team based in Montpellier.
Now we are working with James Cameron on Avatar in true collaboration. He developed a very particular universe for his film. He was frustrated to be unable to use all of this in the film, because cinema is linear and limited in time. He put this whole universe at the disposition of the games teams so they can continue to exploit it and create games from it.
What is the best period to bring out a game?
The best time to release a game is towards Christmas. The big games we are bringing out are Assassins Creed 2, Splinter Cell – which is a truly famous brand at Ubisoft - Ghost Recon, Anno, with new titles to be presented at the end of the year.
What links are there between game creation teams and cinema production teams?
Similarities are almost non-existent. We are thinking about ways to increase our capacities for the production of serial images. We would like to transform our games production teams by giving them a technical know-how coming more from cinema animation.
What is your policy on buying new studios?
When we set up ourselves in a country where we have made a new acquisition, we are of course very sensitive to the costs; which does not mean that we only move into countries with very low salary rates. We set up in Canada where a very efficient tax credit system is in place. The most recent studio we bought is in Sweden, which is not a country most reputed for its low cost salaries…
Why did Ubisoft wish to extend its brands to other media?
The quality of games is augmenting rapidly; we focus on the next upcoming generation of PC and consoles. In two or three years, on-screen image capacity will multiply by a factor of 10, which is to say we will be close to film quality. We believe it is of extreme importance to bring film-culture into our production teams. There is an absolute lack of such cinematographic knowledge and culture in current games. This lack is due to the method of games creation. The core idea is to invent the game, so that finally the context, the universe, is something agreeable but not essential.
In the competitive environment, the context and the universe of a game shall become elements essential to the game. So, it is necessary to train our creative teams in film-culture. Our strategy will be to bring professionals from cinema animation into the games teams to transmit their know-how.