Ubisoft announced last Thursday – just as most of the British press had landed in the pub to "celebrate" Easter – that it had acquired the rights to the Tom Clancy brand from the man himself, in itself a major announcement.
In an investor call after the press release was issued, though, Ubi CEO Yves Guillemot confirmed that the publisher was now to start work on a Clancy-branded MMO. It only takes a small leap of logic to realise that the ramifications of such a project could be seismic.
Firstly, here's what happened. Ubisoft brought the Tom Clancy brand from the author lock, stock and barrel. It now owns the rights to publish books, games, movies and merchandising related to the IP.
Only an estimated cost was released. Ubisoft said it'll be writing off €20 million in fiscal 2008, and payments will continue until 2010. Around €5 million will be added to Ubi's bottom line per year thanks to the removal of royalty payments, the company said, based on past game performance. Analysts reckon the total cost will be around €60 million. Simple enough.
The major news came after the announcement, though. In an investor call, Guillemot said that Ubisoft would now begin work on a Clancy MMO, and that the game hadn't been possible before because of the issue of ongoing royalties. It's as close to an MMO megaton announcement as you're ever likely to see, and one could that genuinely challenge WoW's supremacy in the online space.
Why is it so important? There are dozens of MMOs out there and nothing touches WoW, right? Correct. But if there's one concept that can surpass Blizzard's online monster this is it, and if it's executed properly the tussle between Activision Blizzard and EA for lead position in the publisher race may about to be joined by a third contender.
Firstly, there's the content itself. World of Warcraft is a fantasy MMO, and is essentially limited by its content. You're not going to play WoW if you don't like orcs. There are enough sword and sorcery fans in the world to make the game successful on an international level, but 10 million is still only 10 million. It would be fair to say that WoW isn't mass market: it's just market leader.
The Clancy brand, while again being "genre-specific", could easily challenge WoW's popularity in the MMO space in terms of reach. Since 1999 and the launch of the first Rainbow Six game, and including upcoming titles, 35 Clancy games have been made. Some have fared better than others, but to say Clancy is a "successful gaming franchise" would be something of an understatement.
Secondly, there's the fact that, because of the nature of the content, Clancy's output works easily and successfully as a major cross platform entertainment brand. Clancy's novels – of which there are 14 – have broad appeal and consistently hit the New York Times' bestseller list. His books have been made into movies starring Ben Affleck, Harrison Ford and Sean Connery. The Tom Clancy brand is a pretty big deal.
"The Americans are here!"
No sales figures are available on the Clancy IP in general, but to get some perspective on what Ubisoft just bought, consider how much book publishers are prepared to pay for his novels.
In 1997 Clancy signed a book deal with Pearson Custom Publishing and Penguin Putnam that paid him $50 million for the world-English rights to two new books. He then signed a second agreement for another $25 million for a four-year book deal. Clancy followed this up with an agreement with Berkley Books for 24 paperbacks to tie in with the ABC television mini-series Tom Clancy's Net Force in an agreement worth $22 million.
That's just the surface. The Clancy brand is big enough to challenge WoW in terms of popularity. No question at all.
Thirdly, there's the fact that the "realistic action" MMO space is essentially untapped. EVE Online boss Hilmar Petursson is a big fan of exhibiting dismay that so many companies are willing to throw themselves into the fantasy MMO genre against WoW.
"I just don't understand why people do yet another fantasy game. Why make a clone of World of Warcraft?" he said here. "World of Warcraft is the perfect implementation of this [genre]. It's been done. Do something else."
An action-thriller MMO is definitely something else.
Further, there's the real possibility that a Clancy MMO could be built from the ground up for consoles. Ubisoft is currently developing EndWar, an RTS game for release in 2009 for PS3 and 360, with no PC SKU. RTS without PC is like chips without beans, or so "they" thought.
The Clancy MMO may be the game to break the reliance of the genre on computers. Rockstar boss Sam Houser recently called a mainstream, subs-based console MMO the "Holy Grail": Clancy could very well carry the chalice, because it certainly won't be WoW.
So, we're looking at a mass market-branded MMO in a non-fantasy genre building built from scratch by one of the world's biggest publishers. Blizzard's unlikely to be worried by the prospect because it "owns" fantasy online, but there's a very real possibility that, handled correctly, a Clancy MMO could be bigger than WoW.
What could possibly go wrong?
Popularity is no guarantee of success. To be blunt, the game could be shit.
For a start, Ubisoft has no experience of MMO development and it's an area that couldn't be less picnic-like if it was in a picnic-free galaxy far, far away. The mighty EA is currently ploughing through Warhammer Online's creation and seeing delay after delay: creating a top-line MMO, even for the biggest player, is no joke. Create a bad title and it will fail, no matter what the brand. Remember Star Wars Galaxies?
On top of that, recent form shows that Ubi's understanding of online play and Tom Clancy may leave a little to be desired. Rainbow Six Vegas 2 has suffered serious problems on Live and PSN since it launched last week, and if this is a taster of what to expect when launching a dedicated online universe, Ubi may be in for a very rude awakening. People don't like games that don't work, and never is that truer than in the MMO sector.
But this doesn't mean the game won't succeed. Ubisoft has made a giant success of the Clancy IP and there's no reason to assume it can't make the transition to the MMO space successfully. If it does, it could potentially create a game that could draw in WoW-esque revenues – there are "billions" involved – and mean Ubisoft could have a unique offering in an unchallenged MMO genre, just as Blizzard has.
Whatever the outcome of all this, you can bet EA and Activision Blizzard are now watching Ubisoft very closely indeed. No matter your personal opinion on Clancy in general, there's no denying the IP's popularity. A Clancy-based MMO, handled correctly, could make WoW's supremacy in the area a thing of the past. Even if it doesn't, something without goblins in the MMO segment has to be a good thing: we're getting a bit tired of all that green skin.