The innovation game

Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot is betting the box office will be the future of the video-game industry.

In 1986, five brothers started a video-game distribution company in France. Twenty-five years later, Ubisoft is the third-largest independent game publisher in Europe and the U.S., with 25 studios in 17 countries. In 1997, the company established a production studio in Montreal, out of which some of its biggest subsequent hits have emerged, including the franchises Assassin’s Creed and Prince of Persia, as well as Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six and Splinter Cell series. The company is now looking to blur the lines between games and film with a new motion picture division. On Nov. 15—the release date of its latest hit—Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, Ubisoft co-founder and CEO Yves Guillemot spoke to Canadian Business staff writer Jeff Beer about how the industry has changed in the past 25 years, where games and movies will meet and Canada’s potential as a video-game powerhouse.

CB: You have studios in Montreal, Quebec City, Toronto and Vancouver. How have you found working in Canada, in terms of talent and innovation, and how do you see operations here evolving?

YG: It’s growing very quickly because we’ve been having a lot of success with our studios here. We first came to Canada because it was closer to France than anywhere in the U.S. Canada has a different mentality than the U.S., so with that and the shared language, we were better able to understand how to treat the North American market. And there weren’t very many competitors in Canada at the time, so we had great opportunity to recruit talented people. That was something we found early—that we could get talented people who could help us grow and be very creative. Now there are many more companies here. Canada definitely has the potential to be one of the biggest video-game countries in the world.

CB: Over the past 25 years, what have been the most significant changes or developments in the video-game industry?

YG: The most important change has been, when we started people thought we were competing with board games and kids’ toys. But step by step things changed—you could be more and more immersed in different universes, and now [with Nintendo’s Wii and Microsoft Kinect] you can use just your body with motion control to play. Motion control is definitely something that has changed the industry completely. More people can play a wider variety of games. It’s why the market went from 300 million players to 1.8 billion. That accessibility changed everything. It’s been huge.

CB: And for Ubisoft?

YG: Because we created the company with a goal of innovation, to always be an early adopter, using new consoles and new technology, a lot of what we brought to the industry was providing an example of how these technologies could be used. We were early in with the Wii with games like Just Dance, and with Xbox Live, making fun multiplayer games, whereas before these types of games were only on PCs for geeks. With Kinect, we really pushed the possibilities with fitness games that allowed players to be connected with friends, have a coach and other features. So each time we saw a potential evolution in technology, we were there with game innovation.

CB: Ubisoft has its Workshop division with graphic novels and other adaptations, but recently launched a Motion Pictures unit. Considering how often video-game releases are now compared to box-office earnings, is this the logical next step?

YG: It is a logical step for many reasons. First, we create intellectual properties, universes and characters, that can exist in many formats, whether TV, movies, toys or video games. So the goal is to make them exist via games, but also make them known on a worldwide basis using all these other media. Particularly to people who may not come to video games first but could learn about these characters and stories and then get interested in playing the games.

The second thing, which is extremely important, is the evolution of technology. Each time there is a new console, there is more power, better graphics, animations even closer to real life, so what we see is a real tendency to create a product that will be seamless between game and movie. You develop the characters, background and setting for the game and movie the same way and at the same time. The goal is to create it once and be able to use it in these different ways, depending on the power of the machines.

The movie business will also change and shift to something more connected, where people will want to interact a little bit—differently than with games, but they will still want to somehow be part of what’s happening on the screen. Those worlds will come together, with choices for the viewer like different endings. You can create these options with the game engine at no cost. These two industries will find more and more areas where they can come together.

The movie industry is an older, more experienced industry that has a lot of tools and talents that are very welcome in the video-game industry. When you play a game, you very quickly understand that it’s not reality. But the more developed the characters and story are, in terms of emotion and things like that, the more you are attached to them. They know how to do that very well in movies, so those talents can help us in a big way to create even better games.

CB: There have been reports that you recently signed on with Sony Pictures for an upcoming Assassin’s Creed film.

YG: That’s a rumour. We can’t comment on that specifically.

CB: OK, but there have been some rumblings about how much creative control Ubisoft wants on potential film projects. How important is creative control for you?

YG: That’s exactly our approach. Taking professionals from the movie industry allows us to both understand that industry and make sure whatever we do will follow the rules, details and stories of our video-game worlds. For the integrity of the characters and future storylines, we need to make sure certain details are integrated in whatever we create. So we have people from the movie industry working with our video-game people to find the best way to make sure the film industry will be happy, but still keeping true to the value of the characters and stories.

The IP must be respected so the fans are happy with the end result. It’s not just about the graphics and look but also the spirit of the game that made people like it and want to be a part of it in the first place. That connection with fans, which we have in the video-game industry, finding out what they like and don’t like, and where they would like to see things go, is something we can bring to the movie side of things.

CB: What do you expect to be the biggest industry changes in the next decade?

YG: First, the big step is the machine fading into the background and players using more of their body to control things. The continuation of that is the most important development. It has started but it’s just the beginning.

Second is better use of data. We want players to have as much information as possible about themselves and their friends when they play, in order to better understand who they are and build things together. I think it will be a revolution in games, where games will increasingly help people to understand their own behaviour, like how they react in certain situations. This type of thing allows people to test different behaviours in a virtual environment, find out what works and what doesn’t, then apply those lessons to the real world. It’s not about being better than someone else at pushing buttons. It’s about knowing how well you react under pressure or in difficult situations, or how well you can work with friends to achieve a common goal.

CB: A quarter century is a long time, particularly in the relatively young business of video games. How much longer do you want to stick around?

YG: I don’t know how much longer I’ll be around. It depends on the success of the company and if we’re still effective in what we do. What I will say is that this industry is very interesting because it’s constantly changing and full of very dynamic people, so you need to always be pushing forward. That’s what I like the most. You can’t stop. You must keep inventing new things to be successful in this industry. I don’t know many other industries where there is that pressure to innovate and change because the environment is always shifting.