Yannis Mallat, president and chief executive of Ubisoft Montreal and Toronto, seems unwilling to strong-arm his creative team, pointing to the positive results of their decision to disobey their mandate and create Assassin’s Creed instead of Prince of Persia. The Montreal studio also currently has half a dozen early-stage projects on the go that headquarters doesn’t yet know anything about. When the executives visit from France, the latest projects will be sprung on them for the first time, Mallat explains.
“We let the teams express what they want to do,” he says. “It’s really not an organization where the teams do what HQ wants. It’s an organization where HQ wants to make sure the teams are empowered enough to impress and come up with content they’re proud of.”
The creativity-first approach may be paying off. After posting a full-year loss of €52 million in 2010, the company bounced back to a profit of €37 million this year, thanks to strong growth in digital and online sales. Creating and scheduling the release of various games isn’t a science, Mallat says, but he feels the company is getting better at it. “Quality and innovation definitely go hand in hand with profitability and good figures.”
Louis-Pierre Pharand is also looking for ways to help Ubisoft please the financial analysts. Two years ago, he made the jump from producing games–he worked on Far Cry 2, as well as two of game publisher Electronic Arts’ key franchises, Medal of Honor and James Bond–to directing a new “transmedia” division at Ubisoft. It’s a term that makes creative types cringe. “It’s a big bullshit word that people use for everything,” Pharand says. “It’s used for everything from licensed products to a cellphone with a logo on it.”
Ubisoft’s transmedia efforts had to be different, Pharand says, because he didn’t want to be some “executive schlub” looking to extract every last penny from the company’s intellectual properties. Rather than just a simple licensing and marketing branch–the parts of a creative company tasked with extending its brands into other, potentially lucrative media, from TV and movies to T-shirts and mugs–Pharand’s new UbiWorkshop division has narrative development and expansion as its core philosophy.
As Assassin’s Creed became a priority for Ubisoft, UbiWorkshop has evolved into the company’s own vertically integrated multimedia production house, charged with exploring potential new revenue streams. When Pharand wasn’t happy with the job of mainstream comics publisher DC (Batman, Superman) in distributing the Assassin’s Creed comic book, he pulled it in-house. The company was then able to control the size of its print run and its release dates. “On ubiworkshop.com and in Quebec bookstores alone, we surpassed what DC did with the sales of the soft-cover [comic books]. We also signed multiple deals in different territories,” Pharand explains. “With a partner, these deals would have been complicated, if not impossible, to manage.”
Then there’s Ubisoft Montreal’s new, proprietary Passenger technology, which takes 3-D animation and artwork created for games and repurposes them into footage that can be used in television, movies and online. Bringing in a 22-person team to test it out, Passenger enabled UbiWorkshop to create the 21-minute animated film Assassin’s Creed: Embers, which depicts the final days of Ezio Auditore, one of the franchise’s most beloved heroes. By using environments and crowd models created for Assassin’s Creed II, Pharand estimates Embers was three times cheaper to make than if it had been animated from scratch. The film was packaged along with various in-game extras into several versions of Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, which moved an additional million copies on top of the standard edition’s sales. More importantly, Pharand says, UbiWorkshop now has the infrastructure to create an animated TV show completely in-house.
At Ubisoft, each game franchise has a “puzzle maker,” or a person who ensures that transmedia opportunities (known as “gateways”) are added during the design process. The puzzle maker is essentially the guardian of the franchise’s canon, entrusted with making sure that a character created for a story in one medium, for example, fits in and doesn’t conflict with the continuity in another medium. Puzzle makers are also there to remind every game developer to think about more than just games, and to design those gateways into their product, which is the opposite of how things have traditionally played out.