Ubisoft is determined to keep merchandising and licensing from diluting the Assassin's Creed universe. UbiWorkshop's Christophe Grandjean talks the transmedia revolution.
There was a time when Nintendo and Sega's loveable mascots were the most engaging properties the games industry had to offer. Back when toy stores were still a major player in the promotion and take up of games, quick and dirty licensing was to everybody's benefit, so games spawned Saturday morning cartoons, comics, picture books, action figures, plushies, playsets, movies and more - and nobody gave two hoots for the continuity of the universe in or outside of the products. Sonic can kiss human women and become a werewolf; Mario can appear in one of the most dire movies ever made.
Roll forward a decade or two and games are, if not an accepted art form, then certainly something consumers take very, very seriously. When you've invested hundreds of hours over half a dozen games in certain characters and worlds, you can't bear to see them cheapened. Uwe Boll will never be allowed to make a Halo movie, for example - and Blizzard is moving at a glacial pace on its Hollywood World of Warcraft treatment.
And yet there is is significant demand for transmedia and merchandising. Despite being burned again and again, we want to watch movies based on our favourite shooters; we want to devour graphic novel tie-ins. It's a line of potential profit no major publisher can afford to ignore, but there's a delicate line to be walked between synergistic business practices and exploitation, and it's not always easy to balance.
Ubisoft is one publisher that seems to be tippin' the tightrope with panache, largely thanks to the creation of UbiWorkshop, a dedicated licensing group independent of but collaborating with development teams. Founded within Ubisoft Montreal, UbiWorkshop was conceived of by Louis-Pierre Pharand and Julien Cuny and given a broad mandate - explore and broaden Ubisoft's properties without diluting their quality. Christophe Grandjean, product manager of UbiWorkshop, said Ubisoft saw the potential to treat its properties "not only as games, but as universes which potential we were barely exploiting".
The UbiWorkshop storefront, with its busy and engaged community, is just part of the story. UbiWorkshop doesn't just design and peddle T-shirts; it's responsible for managing the production of comics, books, short films and artworks - including rare development materials as well as collaborations with external creators. Everything bar media products are limited edition offerings, which helps make them feel even more special.
Although it has since expanded to include other properties (Red Steel, Might & Magic and Splinter Cell make up the current range; more franchises will be added but Ubisoft's not ready to talk), Assassin's Creed was the first title the workshop turned its attention to - thanks to its hooked-in fanbase.
"From the beginning Assassin’s Creed was the perfect experimenting ground, simply because of its popularity and amazing community," Grandjean explained.
Assassin's Creed fans don't just upload photos of themselves in their fancy new hoodies, they actively participate in the creation of new products; when the group decided to produce an encyclopaedia to be sold alongside Revelations, it turned to the community to find an expert.
"The UbiWorkshop website gave us a public face but above all a way of getting the community feedback on every project, and even involve them. They actually gave us the idea of creating AC apparel that was more narrative and had less of a 'merch' feeling," Grandjean added.
As a result, not only are Ubisoft's apparel designs a little more classy than your usual gaming shirt ("whack a logo on some cheap cotton and call it a day, Steve"), they buy into the games' fictions; there's a whole range of Abstergo Industries branded duds (I had one of these and it was so cool it was stolen).
When even your t-shirts are contributing to a property's fiction, you have to be very, very careful you don't establish canon which will later contradict what another product communicates, or box a team into particular narratives. Ubisoft has a team whose responsibility it is to maintain that everything related to the Assassin's Creed franchise - the core games, the social and mobile games, merchandise, media and even the upcoming Hollywood film - are accurate, representative, and future-proof.
"There is a single group, the Assassin’s Creed brand team, which is involved on different levels in all projects to ensure narrative consistency. They make the final call over what is and isn’t canon," Grandjean said.
"Everybody involved with the franchise has regular meetings with guys from the brand team, to ensure consistency but above all because the brand team, with its ability to look at the big picture, can come up with ideas about how narrative threads can intertwine to create even better stories."
This commitment to quality and consistency is more than just a laudable ideal; it's a necessary step to elevate Ubisoft's licensed products above the generally poor offerings gamers are used to.
"Making a comic book about a video game is not a new idea. But it used to be considered as merchandising," Grandjean said.
"The publisher would contract some comic publisher to handle the whole thing, from A to Z. The result was almost always mediocre, the comic book either retelling the exact story of the game (who wants this?) or getting some core values of the universe wrong, invariably giving the feeling of a non-canonical and cheap product.
"It was bad for the fans, but also for business: people don’t usually make the same mistake twice."
Grandjean said one of the greatest challenges the team faced in the production of comic series The Fall was convincing readers it wasn't going to be a run-of-the-mill video game disaster.
"Comic book fans had come to instinctively avoid these," he said; and that's obviously not going to be profitable for anyone.
Traditional boxed retail sales are in a bit of a slump - but big-name franchises continue to make and break sales records. In such a climate, it's easy to be cynical and imagine a publisher milking a successful property for all its worth. But Grandjean insists that Assassin's Creed wasn't built with the intention of shilling shirts.
"The Assassin’s Creed creative team knew that the universe they had developed made that possible - with all these different characters and historical moments available to explore. But to be able to expand your story across all these media, you need your universe to appeal to a large audience," he argued.
"And keep in mind that with Assassin’s Creed they were launching a new IP. Even if they hoped very strong for success, it was not guaranteed. It was the unknown factor.
"Transmedia is not a reaction to a sales phenomenon. Ubisoft is renowned for taking great care of narration in its games (not only in Assassin’s Creed). For us, transmedia is really a way of creating more ways of accessing our universes, and of deepening the experience for those who are already immersed in these universes."