Courting the core: how Ubisoft nailed E3 2012

Friday, 15 June 2012 08:49 GMT By Brenna Hillier

While other publishers ask you to ignore the gaping, next-generational holes in their line-ups, Ubisoft went to E3 with the express intent of capturing the core gamer’s love – and it got it.

Ubisoft was clever this year. The publisher has loads of digital, casual and social initiatives on the go, many of which are likely to prove important and successful, but it didn’t waste its E3 time talking about them. Instead, it dropped its triple-A cards on the table, looked its core fans in the eyes, and promised them the world. We’re swooning.

Every year we ask “who won E3?” with plunging levels of hope that anyone will emerge a clear victor. From a core perspective Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo have been fronting increasingly lacklustre shows as the generation has approached retirement; Activision barely bothers to turn up; and EA, while reliably equipped with a stack of games, tends to make its reveals externally.

When we get together and place bets in the lead up to the show, those are the names we bandy about. But next year, we’ll probably extend the book to cover Ubisoft. And you won’t get very good odds betting against them.

Ubisoft has a strong catalogue of core intellectual property, something that’s easy to forget when the French publisher is spamming out reboots for a hardware launch. For all its family and casual friendly activities – remember that it opened its show with a Just Dance 4 showcase – Ubisoft seems to be the only major E3 attendee willing to speak directly to the core.

While Sony devoted 20 minutes to an AR Harry Potter book, Microsoft hooked Apple devices to its consoles, and Nintendo gave an exhaustively detailed look at a collection of casual mini-games in a social network setting, Ubisoft got right down to business. Its energising but brief Just Dance 4 shenanigans out of the way, the publisher moved right onto Far Cry 3, one of the most curious and exciting products of the late 2012 slate.

Far Cry 2 is one of those divisive titles which fans will go to the grave defending. It’s sufficiently different to be both attractive and tremendously off-putting, depending on how you like your toast buttered, and Ubisoft seems to have captured the spirit of that in Far Cry 3, if not the substance. It certainly channeled controversy by showing a stage demo which begins with a sexual encounter; social media exploded with both praise and reprobation, and everything that followed was tinged by these reactions. The over-the-top gameplay which followed, not to mention host Aisha Tyler’s relatable but badly-received comment about shooting tigers, fuelled furious discussion. If Ubisoft’s intention was to make waves, it succeeded admirably – and what is E3 for, if not to generate buzz around products?

One core shooter down, Ubisoft transitioned neatly into another. The Splinter Cell: Blacklist presentation was short but sweet, because we’d already seen it at Microsoft’s press conference. It would have been silly to skip over the game completely, but again, Ubisoft showed it knows who it’s talking to by refusing to labour the point, skipping directly into the next main showcase – the Wii U.

Assassin’s Creed III. Raging moisty amirite.

The new hardware was one of the hot topics of the show and Ubisoft could have been forgiven for devoting more time to it, but instead popped out a rapid-fire look at Avengers: Battle for Earth – likely the most fringe of its launch titles – before tantalising with a good brief on Rayman: Legends. An effective bit of marketing introduced ZombiU with one of the coolest trailers of the show, and a quick montage skipped through the casual slate. Again, Ubi was speaking to the core, and the core doesn’t want to spend longer than a minute looking at Rabbids.

The time was better spent elsewhere. Ubisoft pulled out a lengthy Assassin’s Creed III demo showing off some key changes to the franchise, and then in what was perhaps its chanciest gamble, hosted a live 3v3 match of Shootmania Storm. This was the only point at which the presentation fell a little flat; although the core console and eSports demographics are increasingly overlapped, this is the kind of demo which would have been amazing as part of a tournament event, but proved a little baffling to the console crowd in attendance.

If you tuned out at that point, you were unlucky, because Ubisoft then did something nobody expected: it produced an entirely new IP out of nowhere, right at a time when “new” is as rare as hen’s teeth. Although what we’ve seen so far of Watch Dogs could probably be described as Assassin’s Creed with guns and gadgets – well, just say that out loud. It doesn’t sound bad at all, and later previews demonstrated the game’s clever use of interconnected mobile apps and social features as a serious differentiator from the rest of the triple-A scene.

A new IP? Wait, what? It’s 2012, right?

Having knocked half a dozen excellent core demos out of the park, Ubisoft had already won a huge number of points. For it to turn up later on in Sony’s press conference was the icing on the cake. On a business level, Sony may benefit the most from the Assassin’s Creed III and Far Cry 3 exclusives it announced – a jab in the eye at Microsoft’s frequent content coups – but it was we at home who got the immediate pay out. Seeing Far Cry 3’s co-operative multiplayer in action for the first time, as well as Assassin’s Creed III’s naval battles, has driven the hype up around both titles – and the announcement of Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation was arguably the best thing to happen to Vita owners all show.

Ubisoft was clever this year. The publisher has loads of digital, casual and social initiatives on the go, many of which are likely to prove important and successful, but it didn’t waste its E3 time talking about them. Instead, it dropped its triple-A cards on the table, looked its core fans in the eyes, and promised them the world. We’re swooning.

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