As EMEA Executive Director for one of the world’s largest video game publishers, Alain Corre is uniquely placed to assess the state of an industry on the brink of a revolution. For generations gamers have indulged their passions by purchasing a physical disc or cartridge and inserting it into a physical box, usually connected to a television in their homes. However, with new streaming and subscription services on the horizon - not to mention the next super-powerful iterations of the Xbox and PlayStation - Ubisoft’s stated aim of reaching five billion gamers no longer seems like the stuff of fantasy.
Greeting The Telegraph in a private room on top of Ubisoft’s enormous booth in the Los Angeles Convention Centre’s West Hall, Corre is almost in a unique place physically as well. Rivals Electronic Arts and Activision are notable absentees from what feels like one of the least glamorous E3 show floors in some time.
As evidenced by their bombastic press conference at the start of the conference, however, E3 is still very much an important date on Ubisoft’s calendar - as Corre enthusiastically explains.
“E3 is a a fantastic moment for the fans and for the creators of video games, everybody’s here. Even those who are not showing up on the show floor are here this week. For Ubisoft in particular it’s a possibility for us to have a conference where we were able to show three new IPs, to show Watch Dogs to the world - which I think pleased a lot of people! - and to be able to show Gods and Monsters, Rainbow Six Quarantine and even our free-to-play Roller Champions.
“I think it’s a rendezvous that is really prolific and positive, and when all actors of this industry are showing off at E3 the result is bigger than the sum of all their efforts. So it’s really a moment we should keep. The model can change, can differ, can evolve - that’s a possibility, and everything has to evolve anyway - but I think it’s super important to keep a moment like this which is unique and helping our industry to grow.”
Would you consider moving away from the show floor and doing something more direct to consumers, as Electronic Arts have done for the last four years with their EA Play event?
“We like to give opportunities to our fans to play our games, We have 35 pods playing Ghost Recon Breakpoint on the show floor. For us it’s the best way to show them what we can do, to listen to what they think and to adjust and adapt after that. It’s really an exciting moment for us and all our creators. Because our creators of Ghost Recon or Watch Dogs or Gods and Monsters are here and can see exactly the reactions. Without E3, without a show like this one, it would be more complicated to understand that. And beyond the show floor others are using other ways of showing their games to the fans, but during this week everybody is here, one way or the other.”
As you mentioned, the Watch Dogs Legion reveal has been one of E3’s most talked about moments. Were you anticipating that?
"Actually we knew we had something very, very good on our hands. We knew that the brand was very vibrant - there are plenty of players still playing Watch Dogs 1 and Watch Dogs 2. And we knew that owe had a breakthrough that was unique - being able to form your team by playing with any of the characters in the game. I think that’s something nobody has ever done and it’s bringing really new gameplay possibilities.”
The other most remarkable aspect of Watch Dogs Legion is its political stance. Do you think that’s a risk which could alienate potential players?
“I think that in every country of the world there are some people who are not happy about the mass surveillance, about some technologies that are damaging their freedom, it’s happening everywhere. So what we wanted to do in Watch Dogs is give players the possibility to be someone different, maybe to experience some new things they’ve never done, to think differently…
“We’re not there to tell them what they have to think at all. What we want is to offer possibilities to explore new ways of behaving, new ways of exploring, and at the end of the day they make their own minds up. What is important to us when we create games is to bring fun and happiness to them. And also if we can bring them some possibilities for them to enrich their life, then we have achieved our mission.”
The Brexit angle has proved controversial in Britain - as has the notion of a French publisher speculating on its effects.
“I think we are creating a game which gives the player the possibility to react to some things which are happening in this world - and it is happening in every country,” he explained. “We chose London is because it’s a fantastic city with a lot of creative possibilities. It’s one of the nicest cities in the world, as we all know. And that’s why the creative team of Watch Dogs decided to go to London.”
Previously Ubisoft has actively distanced itself from the political interpretations of games like Far Cry 5 and The Division. Yet this week Watch Dogs Legion’s Creative Director, Clint Hocking, told the Telegraph his game did have a specific message about collective responsibility. Does this mark a change of policy?
“Well, again, we want to give our fans the possibility to explore different things they are not doing in their everyday life. And that’s the beauty of interactive entertainment - to be someone else, to explore something different, to be able to act differently and afterwards see the consequences. And that’s really something that us creators can offer in these experiences. The player will do what he wants in our fictional world, but giving them different angles to explore is what we are really here for.”
Ubisoft have been heavily involved with the launch of Google’s Stadia streaming service, providing the platform’s original test title (Assassin’s Creed Odyssey) and also a raft of launch games. Why is that relationship important to you?
“What we like about the new technologies emerging all the time in this industry are they give new possibilities for the players to play. The more options they have to play our games and be in our worlds, the happier we are."
Now, streaming and cloud gaming are an addition to other technologies. There will be a lot of players who want to carry on playing with their consoles - or the next consoles, that will be super powerful and let us bring higher quality games. And some will want to go on downloading the games, and some will want to go for subscription.
“It’s the variety of possibilities that we like because then we will be able to touch more fans. There are fans who will want to take out a subscription who have never played our games before. Some don’t want to have a box under their television and will prefer streaming - and that’s fine as well. But what we want is to put our worlds in the hands of more fans and the technologies will allow us to do that.”
So you anticipate streaming services as being ways to lower the barriers to entry and bring new audiences to your games?
“It’s a part of it. For example if we consider some countries which are mainly playing on mobile games, like India or some countries in Africa and the Middle East, I think these streaming technologies - and also 5G, which will spread progressively throughout the planet - will permit them to explore our worlds on their telephone also. Which is a new possibility to have new fans which we like very much.”
In September Ubisoft will launch a PC-only subscription service, Uplay+, which for EUR14.99/month will allow customers access to around 100 games from the publisher’s back catalogue as well as new titles like Ghost Recon Breakpoint. Is the reasoning the same - to get more games into more new hands?
“Yes - because there are fans who will prefer subscribing. For fans who might have never bought a full game, or who are only into subscription for whatever they do, not only video games, it’s an opportunity for them to enter our our worlds.”
Uplay+’s EUR14.99 price point is relatively high. How did you settle on it?
“I think it’s a fantastic offer to be honest, because we are bringing all our new games, we are bringing all the DLC, and we are bringing a lot of services we haven’t announced yet. So to have more than 100 PC games with all our franchises including the deluxe editions is a really compelling offer, I think.”
Perhaps but on PC you’re in direct comparison with Xbox Game Pass which is cheaper and also allows access to lots of great games. Realistically, how many subscription services can the market bear? Do you anticipate people signing up for more than one? It all adds up to quite the outlay - especially when you factor in other subscription services for film, TV and music.
“I think it depends on the content you have on it. If Ubisoft can go on creating fantastic franchises like the ones we have today - The Division, Ghost Recon, Far Cry, Rainbow Six - then I think it’s a good way, and a good reason, for fans to subscribe. It’s a question of the quality of games you provide.”
And you think the quality of your games over, say, Microsoft’s catalogue will be the deciding factor in audience choice?
“Yes, yes, yes - we are really confident in our franchises.”
Do you have plans to extend the service to consoles?
“Well actually we are concentrating now on the PC. It’s the first foray for us into this business so we are going to launch that in September and see how it works. We want it to be as perfect as possible and are working towards that goal.”
That’s not a ‘no’ then?
“We are not closing any doors on any thing. We just want our fans to be happy when they play our games and for the time being on the subscription side, all that matters is the service is fully available and ready to go in September.”
Talking of consoles, next year will see the advent of a new generation of hardware. Do you think this will be the last?
“[Long pause] I don’t know! I really don’t know. We don’t know what the fans will want, we don’t know how streaming will increase… what we do know is that the next generation of consoles which have been announced are a really major leap from the current generation, and for us creators it is fantastic because we have always been very excited in trying to capture the cutting edge of what technology can offer.
“Developers want to surprise all the time, to innovate - and technology allows us to go into unknown territories and to bring something fresh. Like in watch Dogs for example. Thanks to the AI that they are mastering now we are able to bring a new gameplay. And if the manufactures of this world can go on innovating and pushing the boundaries of technologies, then we will be able to create better games and convince more fans and the industry will go on growing.”
It’s becoming harder to achieve that generational hardware leap. Previously improved graphics techniques were the yardstick but they can only really get incrementally better form hereon in. What do you think the next paradigm shift in game design will be?
“I think the social aspect in the game is something that is more and more important. The new technologies will provide new ways for fans to exchange data. And there are plenty of other new elements to improve the quality of gaming. Microsoft spoke about SSD [super-fast hard drives] and the fact they want to reduce the loading times - which we like very much because we’re players too! It’s a very important topic and it’s a revolution, this thing. On the graphics side, it’s still improving because you will see a difference form 4k to 8k. There are things they are proposing that will make these machines super sexy for the fans to look forward to.
More hardware capabilities inevitably means its costs more to develop for them. Will big budget blockbusters still be viable?
“Yes, we think so. We think that we can reach more fans moving forward. Today there are 2 billion people playing games on this planet. A lot of people are saying - including my boss [Ubisoft CEO, Yves Guillemot] - that there should be 5 billion, and that at one point we will sell 1 billion copies of a game.”
Have you put a timeframe on this ambition?
“When you look back 30 years comparatively few people were playing video games. Now we are at 2 billion. Interactive entertainment is in every hand, everybody is playing video games. There is no limit.”
It was interesting you gave such a prominent slot in your press conference for Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet, the Apple + TV show you’ve produced with the team behind It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Is diversifying into TV part of the strategy?
“We are very open to opportunities. And when we were proposed this idea we thought, we are one of the biggest video game studio capacity in the world so we know how it works. In parallel to that there are more and more people playing and we thought it would be a good idea to show how we create a video game behind the scenes, how it works - it’s fictional, obviously but there will be a lot of people in the world who will find this topic interesting because they are players. So we thought it was a good opportunity and we said, let’s go for it.”
Ubisoft also dabble in movies. An adaptation of their Assassin’s Creed franchise was released to mixed response in 2016, and there’s a film based on The Division games and starring Jessica Chastain and Jake Gyllenhaal, being made with Netflix. Do these support the 5 billion players strategy too?
“They bring awareness. The more people in contact with our words and our heroes and our universes the better it is for the ecosystem of the franchise. Assassin’s Creed got a lot of benefits from the movie and all of the ancillary products we do, whether it’s comics, or mangas, help the franchise to grow. For Just Dance we are doing a competition; we are doing esports on Rainbow 6. Everything we do around our franchises has quality at the centre of it but also really improves the image that the public has of them.”
Talking of Just Dance 2020, you announced a version would be released on Nintendo’s long discontinued Wii console. Are you the last people still coding for it?
“I think we are the last soldier standing! We are the last game on the Wii and we are happy about that as there still a lot of fans wanting to play on it. Now we see they are going to the Switch and at the end of the year that Just Dance 2020 will be one of the best games on the Switch because there are more and more families playing on it, as it was in the Wii times.”
And if If you want to hit 5 billion you need those Wii players too, right?
“[Laughing] We need everybody! We need every player!”