GameSpot recently visited Ubisoft’s studios in Singapore and Shanghai, while we also toured ChinaJoy and brought you pictures from the massive Chinese gaming show. As part of our trip, we had the opportunity to speak with Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot for a conversation about Ubisoft’s efforts in Southeast Asia and other industry topics.
We’ll have a bigger feature coming up that covers what we learned on the trip, but for now, you can check out our wide-ranging talk with Guillemot below. In addition to specifics about Ubisoft’s steps in Singapore and Shanghai, we asked Guillemot about the latest on the Vivendi takeover situation and also quizzed him on the Xbox One X.
You can see our interview below, edited and condensed for clarity. We’ll also have an interview feature coming up with Justin Farren, the creative director of Ubisoft Singapore’s new pirate naval warfare game, Skull & Bones. Disclosure: Ubisoft paid for GameSpot’s travel and accomodation in in Singapore and Shanghai.
GameSpot: I saw you walking around the booth yesterday at China Joy, and we were talking about how this is maybe not something every executive might do. Why it is important for you to get out there on the floor and speak directly to your fans?
Yves Guillemot: I think it’s major because it’s the best way to get feedback on what you do. They never hesitate to actually say what they think, so it’s a clear conversation with them that gives me the reality of where we are.
GameSpot: Is there any specific piece of feedback you might have heard yesterday that you’re taking to heart?
Guillemot: Yes. One feedback was, “Why don’t you translate the older games from Ubisoft?” This one, it was not at all the intention of the company, and then what we will do now is check if there are many people that want that, and if it’s the case we are going to actually translate. I already asked how difficult it is to translate and why not do something easy to do. What is interesting in the questions also is you realize that sometimes they think exactly the same than as other fans in another country, but sometimes they are looking at your brands differently. And when your staff is telling you the same thing, you say, “OK, I understand.”
GameSpot: I guess there are 500 million gamers here in China, which is not a small number. I guess beyond the base of potential players, why does Ubisoft want to be in this part of the world?
“You can’t ignore 500 million players” — Yves Guillemot on why Ubisoft wants to be in China
Guillemot: First, you can’t ignore 500 million players, and second what I like very much in China is that because it is a new business all the partners we meet with are young. They want to do new things. They want to try to work with your IPs but also with new types of experiences and gameplay and so on. It’s the beginning of the industry. When we say it’s old, it’s 10 years old maximum. In the last five years it has been booming. Tencent was not doing mobile games four years ago. You realize that now they are bigger than all of us in the West, but it started only four years ago. This energy you see here is very attractive.
GameSpot: As you had alluded to, the industry is very young here, and I imagine Ubisoft being one of the first Western publishers to come in here and set up a big business, can you talk about what some of the growing pains have been and how you’ve been able to work your way through those?
Guillemot: First at the beginning of the company when we created worldwide studios, we said we have to be in Asia and in North America, so we went in Montreal for North America, and we came in Shanghai here because I came on a trip in ’86 or something, and I realized that I didn’t know … You arrive, and you discover that it’s a completely different huge world that is going to grow, so we said, “We have to be there.” Then when you recruit lots of talent in the country, you get to be more Chinese as a company. That’s what makes us consider that we can maybe understand enough so that we can invest more.
GameSpot: And maybe you can’t get into specifics too much, but is there anything you can say in regards to how much Southeast Asia including Singapore and Shanghai, and Chengdu, how much they contribute to Ubisoft’s bottom line overall?
Guillemot: Yeah, it’s 12%, 12% to 13%, between 12% and 15%, so it’s still very small. That’s why we are putting more emphasis on that part of the world because it can really help the company to grow.
GameSpot: You probably haven’t given guidance on how much you expect to grow, but it would suffice to say you’re definitely expecting to grow.
Guillemot: That growth is coming also with the types of products. Here they consume more RPG games and team versus team and so on, so as it is changing in the Western world, service games and RPG and multiplayer will help us also to grow in this territory, and Asian territory.
GameSpot: Clearly there is a huge amount of economic growth opportunities here. What are some of the things maybe in this part of the world that give you pause or keep you up at night? You’re working with partners instead of doing it 100% yourselves, so there’s probably some margin that could be better. I just wondered if you could talk about some of those challenges?
Guillemot: In business you always, and like in creation, you want to have constraints because when you work under those constraints you can actually create better. What we see is in having to deal with publishers locally, we are also better learning what the market is but with our brands, so our brands become more local. The PC and console market is close to being the same here than in the West, but the mobile market is more specific. When we have to go with those Chinese publishers, first as I said they are young. They want to create something different, and it’s obliging us to listen and work with people that will help us to create our brands to fit the demand here. There are difficulties, but there are also lots of opportunities linked to the fact that we can’t do whatever we want.
GameSpot: Okay. And I guess beyond whatever sales data metrics that you’re getting from this part of the world, what are the ways that you measure success? I know you had just briefly talked about being more culturally tapped into the region?
Guillemot: It’s to have more and more players because we know that at the end of the day that’s what will make a different that our brands are played by more players in China and in Asia. It’s very important that there are enough players that have a chance to play with our games.
GameSpot: One of the other interesting elements that have been taking away from the presentations this week was Ubisoft’s effort to have more service games, service-based games and definitely true here in China as well. I was wondering if you could just talk about why you think service-based games are kind of the way forward for the industry?
Guillemot: What I compare service based games with movies and TV series. I see it as the same difference. What we have with service games is that you can improve the game for three, five, 10 years. So you can give an experience that is improved with time. When you launch a game, and you have to come with another game two years later and so on you give an experience that is a different experience but that is probably not, in terms of game plan and multiplayer and so on as adapted to each person. Those games that are really polished with time are taking more players. That’s why we are doing more of those games because people want to have experiences that are smooth, that they can learn, that they can play with their friends.
GameSpot: So that’s something we can expect, probably from your brands going forward that they’re gonna lean more on that bent that you’re taking?
Guillemot: This is why we are including RPG elements Assassin’s and so on because if it helps you to play longer with the game and to appreciate it. As people play longer you have more people coming because the more people play the more new people come. That’s what makes those games last longer.
GameSpot: One of your biggest brands is Assassin’s Creed. In one of the presentations this week we heard that there was a figure that, Black Flag, I believe, it was said was pirated five million times here in China. I’m just wondering if you could talk about the role piracy plays and what steps you might be either taking to combat it or is it just part of the cost of doing business?
Guillemot: It’s like Windows with Microsoft. Windows when you are a student you can get it for free, so you get used to it. When you’re going in a company you want Windows because that’s what you know how to deal with. It’s a little bit the same for us. Having access to those brands in the last 10 to 15 years allowed those brands to be known, and today when we come via Steam on the market, we have lots of people that are interested to buy the actual brands from the actual iteration but also buy four, five, 10 dollars all the games that have been doing in the past because they played them 10 years ago, 15 years ago, and they want to have the last version. There’s pluses and minuses in everything. What is important is when somebody can pay that person will consider it worth putting the money than trying to go and deal with the problems you have when you download copies.
“There’s no reason why we can’t also adapt Assassin’s Creed for [China].
GameSpot: Obviously with the censorship rules in the country, Assassin’s Creed is a game that’s not been officially released here. There was some talk in the discussions about how the game could be modified to have it pass the ratings board, but wouldn’t be able to ship at the same time. Is this something that you’re thinking about changing in the future or would you not want to modify the game such that it might potentially compromise the developer’s vision for it?
Guillemot: Because it’s blood. It’s sometimes a few things that are almost too difficult to change. We are adapting those games in Germany with green blood. In many countries, in all the minor countries we also adapt. So there’s no reason why we can’t also adapt Assassin’s Creed for [China]. It’s just we need to be able to start that work early enough so that they can be ready for the launch.
GameSpot: And consoles; consoles came out in 2014, so they’re still relatively new. They’re new and then in relation to mobile devices and PC obviously they have a much, much smaller install base. I’m just wondering what are your thoughts on consoles in China? How much room do you think they have to grow? Can they get as big as the West?
Guillemot: If the government let’s them grow, they have a huge potential. Just because playing on a console is easier than playing on a PC. Having said that, the PC is improving, but the console in your room with a good screen and so on is actually more comfortable. So that can grow. I don’t know if it can be as big as in other countries in the West because people have been used to playing with PC, and if you remember Germany took a long time to go from PC to console. But the potential is just amazing, what we need is the Chinese manufacturers that could come with a console for China…
GameSpot: One of the other things that kind of leads into or that makes me think about is Nintendo has a lot of very family friendly brands that might not need to be adjusted too much or at all to be released here, so you’re probably hoping that Nintendo brings the Switch here.
Guillemot: We do.
GameSpot: China and Southeast Asia, Singapore, everywhere, is a massive region as we talked about. Are there others in the world that you are looking at as saying, “Hey, maybe we want to be the first here.” I know you’ve announced a theme park in Malaysia, and that’s obviously very close to Singapore. Are you constantly just strategically looking around the world for new places to grow and expand?
Guillemot: Yeah. The next destination will be Korea where we have to … There’s a huge potential in eSports, and the players in Korea are very dedicated players. We know it has a huge influence on your communities. That’s really where we want to put also more emphasis.
GameSpot: I’ve learned a lot on this trip myself, and I’m wondering every time you travel somewhere do you learn something new too, and if so what did you take away from this trip?
Guillemot: I do. I’m always amazed when I come in China, for example, because things are changing so rapidly that you’re part of that evolution. What you learn is that, first, they go faster here than we do in the other countries because the growth of the market is huge. Also because it’s full of new opportunities. Each time I come here I see some different approaches that we could have, and we try to quickly adapt the company and where we deliver our products.
GameSpot: One of the elements that could impact Ubisoft’s efforts globally is the elephant in the room, the impending Vivendi situation. I’m wonder if there is … I know you’ve said already a number of things about it, but I’m wondering if you could update us on the latest in that situation and why you think a takeover would be very problematic?
“We like very much what they are doing because instead of having a Kinect or something this time the industry went after more power for the machine” — Yves Guillemot on the Xbox One X
Guillemot: What we see is that if we perform well it would be more difficult for an outside company to come and take control because our shareholders are working with us with what we do. There’s no reason for them to let somebody come and pick up the management of the company. I think that that depends on their appetite. They can always put a bid on the company at a very high level. It’s just it’s becoming more expensive, and it could have a negative effect on our capacity to create and being agile and take risk. That’s why we fight against … We aren’t fighting against Vivendi. We are fighting against corporations that have many fields they invest in, and will not understand that our industry of video games is changing all the time, and if you just manage this business like you manage older businesses you’re not going to make it grow and take the opportunities that come regularly.
GameSpot: One of the hottest topics has been the new Xbox One X console coming out in November. It is a very powerful console, and Ubisoft makes really big, rich games that would theoretically take advantage of that in a big way. I’m just wondering if you could talk about your company’s plans for that console? Do you plan to release updates for new games or just what’s your general take on it?
Guillemot: We did a deal with Microsoft on Assassin’s Creed: Origins, which is taking really good advantage of the power of the machine. We like very much what they are doing because instead of having a Kinect or something this time the industry went after more power for the machine, so more immersion, better AI, and overall better games. We like that because it means the industry will grow because the better the experiences, the more people want to have it. We think it has a good potential. If Microsoft is really behind it, it can do well.