“We’ve all worked on games where someone has handed us a novel and said, ‘Here.’ And we’re like, ‘We didn’t have anything to do with this,’” says Pat Redding, game director on Splinter Cell: Blacklist.
“We’re having the opposite problem now, which is that we’re very involved,” adds Maxime Beland, Splinter Cell: Blacklist’s creative director. Game developers will now sit down with comic-book writers and novelists, and brainstorm together. Some of their ideas might end up in the game itself, while others will filter into other media; regardless, there will be links and references between the two worlds. The process is creatively engaging, Beland says, though it does take time.
The vertical integration extends to the company’s biggest projects, such as the recently announced Assassin’s Creed film. Ubisoft Motion Pictures is now developing the Assassin’s Creed project with Hollywood star Michael Fassbender (X-Men: First Class), who will act in and co-produce the film.
There’s a pervading sense in the games industry that Hollywood studios just don’t “get” games.
“Video game franchises usually don’t make the jump to movies well. That’s what we’re afraid of. We don’t want to be a statistic,” Pharand says. “You don’t give your baby away to anyone without being there as a watchdog.”
Many comic book franchises once suffered similar fates, but, recently, companies like Marvel have become adept at churning out successful adaptations. After years of licensing characters to third parties that produced flops such as Daredevil and Elektra, Marvel formed its own movie studio. The move allowed the company to maintain creative and quality control over its properties. Marvel’s subsequent box-office success culminated with this summer’s Avengers, one of 2012’s biggest hits, with gross worldwide revenues of over a billion dollars .
Ubisoft had initially been in talks with Sony to produce the Assassin’s Creed movie, but in 2010, when Disney’s movie Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (based on the Ubisoft game) turned out to be both a critical and a commercial disappointment, the video game studio decided to go it alone. With Fassbender connected to the project, and Jean-Julien Baronnet, former CEO of EuropaCorp (the studio behind the popular Transporter series), heading up Ubisoft Motion Pictures, the new arrangement involves participants with track records as filmmakers while keeping things firmly within Ubisoft’s grasp.
Pharand’s next move is to transition UbiWorkshop into a group responsible for thinking up online initiatives based on non-traditional business models. In early 2013, the division will release The Mighty Quest for Epic Loot, a humour-driven, downloadable title for PCs that will generate revenue through in-game purchases such as weapons and armour. Free-to-play services, which are already huge in Asia, are projected to become a $7-billion market by 2015; in Europe, free-to-play titles make up more than half of the market for games.
“We’re not a major player now [in free-to-play] but there’s definitely an intention to have a wider offer there,” Pharand says. “We want to build a different type of game development. We see ourselves as the renegades.”
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Back at Pelland’s desk, the clock counts down the seconds before the code behind Assassin’s Creed III is frozen. Media and format expansion are the furthest thing from his mind; the immediate future of the Assassin’s Creed franchise rests on the game itself. At this year’s E3, with neither Microsoft nor Sony revealing much about their next-generation consoles, the show was anyone’s to steal–and Ubisoft stepped up in a big way. Led by Assassin’s Creed III, the company wowed audiences with a full complement of impressive games. A number of gaming critics declared Ubisoft “best in show,” and Assassin’s Creed III scooped up numerous awards.
Pelland walks me through another sequence in the game. This time, I’m on terra firma, exploring an abandoned mansion that holds clues to a murder. I’m stuck inside one large room with no apparent exit. “Let’s see how long it takes you to get out,” Pelland says.
Unlike the naval battle, this is a familiar experience in Assassin’s Creed games. Having to climb one’s way out of places is old hat. After a few fruitless efforts, I discover a stuffed-bear trophy off to the side of the room. Grabbing onto his open maw, I climb up, then jump to a nearby chandelier. From there, the escape is easy. Pelland and I share a smile of satisfaction.