Is Investing Only in Franchises Smart for Ubisoft?

Today, franchises. Tomorrow, annual releases

Mega-publisher Ubisoft has made it known they’re not interested in a game unless they can turn it into a major franchise.

In a recent interview, Ubisoft Vice President of Sales and Marketing Tony Key discussed the publisher’s strategy to stop rolling out “fire and forget” games and move towards creating sustainable franchises that stand the test of time.

While this appears to be sound logic from a business/money making perspective, what does this mean for gaming as a whole? In all honesty, Key’s words trigger alarm bells in my opinion.

Specifically, it’s what Key said in the context of marketing and how publishers shouldn’t be afraid to be spend a little more in this arena, “it became very clear to us about two years ago that this is a blockbuster world we live in now.”

Watch Dogs

Perhaps it’s the word ‘blockbuster’, which by association makes any of us immediately think of huge, tentpole “summer” hollywood films (The Avengers, Transformers, Pacific Rim etc.), that could be singled out as the ‘dirty word’ here. The gaming industry is quickly becoming overrun by too many so-called blockbuster games, many of which are then spun to become franchises.

Ubisoft’s Key IPs
First developed in 1995 by Michel Ancel (who went on to create Beyond Good and Evil), Rayman has seen 11 games in the series with a 12th, Rayman Legends, due for release this year.
Far Cry
Far Cry was introduced in 2004 and was instantly renown for its focus on beautiful graphics and realistic physics. The latest title, Far Cry 3 sold over 4.5 million copies in its first three months on sale.
Splinter Cell
Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell is a series that touched down initially in 2002 and features hero San Fisher, a secret agent who works within the NSA’s black-ops team ‘Third Echelon’. The stealth and use of futuristic gadgets became an instant hit among fans. There are countless other titles in the ‘Tom Clancy’ series.
Assassin’s Creed
Also focusing on stealth is Assassin’s Creed which has a historic backdrop. The first title, released in 2007, spawned a global phenomenon that spans comic books, novels and even films.
Just Dance
Just Dance started as an answer to the PlayStation’s popular Sing Star series and exploded along with the popularity of Wii. The franchise enjoys many releases including movie tie-in spin offs and kids versions.

So we need to start asking ourselves; does gaming really need any more franchises instead of original, once-off, games? Ubisoft says yes, and it all boils down to money. Or, in Key’s own words, “there’s no more fire and forget – it’s too expensive”.

As I state above, this is sound business logic, since the increasing development cost of “AAA” titles is becoming more, and with the launch of next-generation consoles well and truly here, this cost will only escalate.

However, let’s scale back for a quick moment and look at the word ‘franchise’. Unlike the word ‘blockbuster, it’s not entirely a bad thing (depending on your own opinion, I suppose). Nintendo has made its fortune on the back of their franchises’, as has Sony and Microsoft.

And it’s not just limited these three companies. EA, Activision and Square-Enix all have franchises’ that are assured sellers. Additionally, many other companies in other entertainment fields have franchises they continually roll out, since they’re sure-fire money makers.

The gaming industry is quickly becoming overrun by too many so-called blockbuster games, many of which are then spun to become franchises.

So, really they’re not a bad thing, and if Ubisoft want to switch to annualising their existing franchises, or create a new one (Watch Dogs) to then roll out yearly, then so be it. What the publisher needs to be careful with is falling into annualising their franchises.

We’ve already seen this happen with Assassin’s Creed, and with the success of Far Cry 3 last year it’s only a matter of time I fear Ubisoft fires all cyclers there as well.

And of course, the expectation that comes with annualising any franchise is the death of creativity – a hole the sports genre has well and truly fallen into. But, with its multiple international studios, could Ubisoft pull it off?

The publisher appears to wield considerable resources in this arena, and can easily have teams anywhere in the world working on a number of future titles that won’t see the light of day for years. An example of this is indeed Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, which was clearly in development well before the release of last year’s Assassin’s Creed III – and looks quite impressive might I add.

Far Cry 3

My point is, with a plethora of studios at its command Ubisoft has the ability to shift projects around between multiple studios – a development practise it hasn’t been shy to advertise – which makes it far easier to, for a lack of a better term, pump out these high quality games.

But is blockbuster franchises, according to Ubisoft, the future of gaming? Probably not. There’s only so far the industry can really go before we’re inundated with so many ‘blockbuster’ games it all simply collapses (again) under the weight of stagnation.

By no means should you “boycott” Ubisoft for wanting to squeeze as much as they can out of their I.Ps. You should, if anything, buy any of Ubisoft’s franchises if they appeal to you, all the while continuing to support indie developed games – the true future of the industry, as far as creativity is concerned.

What do you think about Ubisoft wanting to turn all future games in franchises?

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  • Matt S

    Ubisoft’s interest in franchise extends well beyond the games themselves, and I feel this is an important point that’s missing from this argument.

    To take Nintendo for an example – in addition to selling lots of Mario games, Nintendo has associated revenue streams from that franchise – the sale of official T-shirts, or memorabilia. The movie and TV shows from a couple of decades ago were horrible, but they were another direction that you could take a franchise (Halo has a TV show coming, for instance). There’s the brand value of Mario himself – in the event that Nintendo falls into truly dire financial circumstances, it will remain an attractive investment thanks to its brand and franchise power.

    That’s what Ubisoft was referring to in broad terms with the talk of franchises. A single game can be a franchise – see Minecraft – and the additional revenue streams and business opportunities that a franchise opens up will become more and more important as game development becomes more expensive.

    Releasing a single game in isolation and letting it take its sales and then retire is a very old business model. Not just in games, but in all entertainment industries, and the smart businesses are moving away from those.