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Digital FTW: Ubisoft's 20-strong catalogue rocks Paris

VG247 visited Ubisoft in Paris to take in the sights and sounds of the publisher’s digital showcase and speak to Stephanie Perotti, the publisher's worldwide director of online games.

Ubisoft’s second annual digital day was a statement of intent, proof the publisher-cum-developer is taking digital-only titles very seriously indeed. Building on the long-overdue but positive news that the company has scrapped its much maligned always-on DRM measures, the French company showed a host of digital titles on its home turf in Paris this week.

The games ranged from DLC for the likes of Trials and Scott Pilgrim to a host of new arcade, mobile and free to play games for existing brands such as Might & Magic, Assassin’s Creed, Rayman and Call of Juarez. A small selection of new and promising IP, like the brilliantly titled The Mighty Quest for Epic Loot, was also unveiled and rounded out some 20 digital titles.

Around a third of the games on show were free-to-play, following a wider industry trend that appears to be gaining traction as traditional publishers grapple with how to convince western audiences that micro-transaction models don't necessarily equate to cynical attempts to grab cash. The concern amongst developers, certainly those under Ubisoft’s banner, is that they not be perceived as eschewing game balance by allowing players to purchase exclusive bonuses that lead to a veritable arms race in competitive titles. This led to the phrase “it’s free-to-play, not pay-to-win” echoing around the Paris venue, as developers talked in a topsy-turvy way about what you get for free, rather than what you get for parting with your money.

Many were keen to reinforce the notion that if and when a player spends money in their free-to-play offerings they do so out of choice: either for convenience, time-saving or because they’re having such a jolly good time that putting their hand in their pocket in exchange for additional content to enhance their entertainment is not an altogether abhorrent concept.

Stephanie Perotti, Ubisoft’s worldwide director of online games, believes the concept of free-to-play is a growing trend that not only allows for experimentation with new ideas, but can also offer publishers the opportunity to revisit brands that might have become a victim of time and economics.

"Free-to-play is giving us the ability to revive some brands that might otherwise be challenging to do today using another business model."

“[Free-to-play] is giving us the ability to revive some brands that might otherwise be challenging to do today using another business model,” Perotti said. “So, for example we know that we have a lot of Silent Hunter fans the world over and this allows us to make games for them as well as engaging a new demographic that we might not reach through more traditional models.

“But I think it's also a question of learning. We're learning as we go along; of course we always hope that every game will be successful but there are certain parallels with the traditional market which means that sometimes we bring new IP and sometimes it's existing IP, or new ways to interact with a brand.”

Nowhere is this more prevalent than with Ubisoft’s Might & Magic franchise. The company has been publishing the series for close to a decade and has no fewer than three digital titles incoming, from the smash-and-grab action of Might & Magic Raiders, to the more traditional RPG-ing of Might & Magic Heroes Online and comprehensive card battler Might & Magic Duel of Champions; all are free-to-play and will each likely find its own niche if marketed appropriately.

For those who like to watch
Enjoying ample floor space at the event, Nadeo’s Shootmania drew a good number of players and even more onlookers. This is positive news for Ubisoft, which is positioning the title at the forefront of its push into eSports - a movement that’s already kicked off with the inclusion of Shootmania at a pro-league event at PAX Prime 2012, despite the game still being in the first of its three planned beta stages.

Shootmania Storm's level editor looks sweet.

On the show floor, several linked demo stations provided tense, fast-paced three-versus-one action in Shootmania’s Elite mode. The accompanying “shoutcasting” and boisterous celebrations after tightly-fought rounds turned heads and coaxed yet more attendees to stop by Nadeo’s stand, to see what the fuss was about and try their hand at taking on attending tournament-level players.

“Shootmania is definitely Ubisoft's flagship eSports title,” Perotti said. “We have other competitive titles that could have a place in eSports and we'll look into doing that but Shootmania is the flagship title. That's a lot to do with the experience that the studio has with Trackmania. It's something that we're focusing on and that we think is important in gaming today and we want to be very close to that community going forward.”

It’s the community as a whole that will decide which of Ubisoft’s digital offerings flourish and which flounder. However, in the case of Ubisoft’s console content, mundane technology considerations such as capped broadband usage, prohibitively small hard drives and platform holders' uninspiring online stores offer unwieldy obstacles and stiff resistance to the notion of a digital happy ever after. I asked Perotti whether she feels the industry’s biggest players are doing enough to further the cause of digital content and how easy it is to reach potential customers.

“It's a challenge, definitely, and it's really up to first-party platform holders how they define their strategies but as content creators we definitely talk to them about the entire online experience,” she said.

“Things like how to promote a game online and get people interested in your titles without them having to navigate complex menus and be challenged by things like that. They've so far been good at listening to ideas and implementing new models and features.”

Might & Magic Heroes Online.

Ubisoft’s 2012 digital day highlighted the publisher’s desire to present a strong digital offering across multiple platforms through various business models. For the most part, the line-up leveraged existing brands but offered some new slants on those franchises and sprinkled a welcome handful of new IP over the top. Ubisoft’s next job is to get that virtual content into the hands of gamers and provide a strong enough case to elicit the flash of cash in return - as Perotti summed up: “All we can do is to continue to show that digital titles can deliver quality, entertaining experiences” - and barring one or two potential missteps the publisher appears to be on track to do exactly that.

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