At Gamescom, Ubisoft revealed the next iteration of their uPlay client - rebuilt from an achievement, savegame and always online DRM client into a fully fledged digital retailer. But those changes come after a difficult year for the company - following a security debacle involving the client. I had the chance to sit down with Stephanie Perotti, Ubisoft’s Worldwide Director for Online Games, the person ultimately responsible for uPlay to understand what Ubisoft are planning - and what they have to say about their recent controversies.
Tim: You had a security issue back a couple of months ago. Could you give me some background on what the situation is now and what you’ve done to fix the client?
Stephanie: Sure. So the moment the issue was discovered we worked hard to fix it as soon as we could. It was actually fixed and patched in the same morning that we discovered it. If I remember correctly, we patched an hour and a half after we were made aware of the issue, meaning that the issue was solved pretty quickly.
T: Is there anything you can say to reassure gamers that it’s not something that’s going to happen again?
S: We are putting a lot of focus and effort into making sure that our systems are tested before release. We take security issues very seriously, so we’ll continue to put more and more focus on that front to ensure that these kind of issues don’t happen again.
T: UPlay is offering full games for download now. What is it that you want to do with UPlay that clients like Steam and Origin can’t do?
S: The first thing is to go back to why there is UPlay and why UPlay was initially created as a loyalty programme. The core of the offering was to reward loyal fans and gamers and provide them exclusive content and exclusive rewards for being loyal. Down the line it’s a service, so we are continuously improving and adding new features, both on console and PC, and the latest update on PC was indeed, as you said, adding a digital download option, as well as improving some of the social features we had and unifying all the PC game launchers that we were using.
But we also continue to improve and deliver more services as we move ahead. Our view there is that we want our players to feel that they are rewarded with their loyalty to UbiSoft and that we offer them services and tools for them to enjoy their games even better.
T: You say loyalty to UbiSoft. Does it frustrate you a bit that you had so many difficult periods with the PC, for the last year and a half, two years?
S: We’re listening to feedback. We’re seeking continuously to improve the situation. We also realise that we haven’t always been clear and consistent in our communication with PC gamers and the PC community, so we are keen also to clarify what is our policy, what is the situation and where we want to go.
T: If you’re creating a download service, you’re making a client that competes with Steam where a lot of PC gamers naturally go to buy their games. When EA went down that road, they took their games off Steam. The worry will be that with their own digital download platform Ubisoft will want to do something similar. Is there anything you can say to that, or expand on that?
S: Sure. You can still find our games on Steam and we do not have any intention to change that. We believe in choice and we believe that it’s normal to let the players and the consumers choose where they want to purchase their games.
T: The DRM you chose to use a year ago is confusing: it’s difficult to know if you’re a consumer whether it’s turned on or off. I don’t think anyone really likes the idea of an always-on DRM, but it’s difficult to know if it’s going to be on for a certain game or off for a certain game. Is there a specific UbiSoft policy about what games will have an always-on DRM or not?
S: Yes. Absolutely. I can describe what our policy is. Our policy, that’s been in place for a bit more than a year, is currently that we only require one-time online activation upon installation of a new PC game, to validate the purchase of the game. It’s a pretty standard, industry-standard way of protecting your IP, but all games released since that date, for a year, follow that new policy, and do not require an always-on connection to play the offline part of the game. Obviously if you want to access multiplayer, of if you want to access online services, you have to be connected. There’s always the option to play offline.
T: It sounds like you took a lot of feedback about the always-on requirement fairly seriously-
S: Absolutely, absolutely, we really listen to feedback, we’ll continue to listen to feedback in the future. This is our current policy and this is applied across all our games and we’ll continue to listen.
T: The UPlay platform, you mentioned at Gamescom, has the ability for players to earn more games the more they play other games. You were talking about reward, you were talking about getting achievements in one game and using those achievements points on other things. Could you give me an idea of what those rewards could entail?
S: Sure. It varies game to game. We try to make them game specific so that they’re appealing for that game, but what we offer is that for any game you always have at least four distinctive rewards that are pieces of content that are only exclusively accessible for UK members, and that game content varies again from game to game. That can be a specific weapon, or specific character, or a specific mission or map or game mode for that game. Again, that works across platforms, so the system allows you to play on one platform and then in another one.
On top of that the way we reward loyal consumers is also give them the opportunity to participate in exclusive events. So for instance they are invited exclusively for beta testing of games, or for instance for the last E3 we invited some of our most loyal fans to travel with us to E3, to meet with all the development teams, to meet with a lot of people there, and they were actually the ambassadors of the community, so they created a lot of content and video that is shared with the rest of the community. It was a kind of fan event also, that we organised around our loyal fans.
T: I guess your biggest game this year is going to be Assassin’s Creed 3, have you worked out what those offers will be?
S: I cannot answer right now because, honestly, I don’t have all the details in mind. We can definitely follow up on that. We’ll send you an email with a more detailed description.
T: Is there any suggestion that players will be able to earn full games from this? Have you considered that? Where would you stand on it?
S: Again, we are listening to feedback and requests, we are conducting a lot of surveys, we’re always improving the system and ask players what they would like to do with our games, so that’s a possibility, yes.
T: When you did the UPlay relaunch you put Tom Clancy’s HAWX on sale for a very, very low price. There was a hilarious quote from an EA exec who said that low-price sales devalue a publisher’s IP. I wondered where you stood on that?
S: It’s a business decision. I cannot comment on other company’s or competitors feelings, or remark about that, but for us definitely another way of rewarding our customers and making sure that we can also have them participate in very special events such as promotions. So you can see that we’ve done that promotion, and we’ll definitely continue to have regular promotion plans through UPlay and we’ll make sure it’s consistent with the business strategy that we want to promote.
T: You've put quite a lot of work into free-to-play titles. Have you got any update on how that’s going? Ghost Recon is, I think, just coming out of beta, or is in open beta now. You just announced Silent Hunter Online and various other titles. It seems like you’re pushing pretty hard on free-to-play. Is there any update on how that’s going?
S: As you saw, we just released - well, “release is a funny word for online games - we did the open beta for Ghost Recon Online and at Gamescom you saw that we were focusing on various games at various gameshows.
It’s an area that we believe in strongly, we believe it’s also a way for us to connect to consumers and hear their feedback on a regular basis and make sure we can improve the games that are experienced for a long time, so the games are never finished, so we are supporting a lot of initiatives throughout our studios to create these specific PC, online games, and for the moment I cannot comment on any numbers or results, but you can see from the commitment that it’s an area that we strongly believe in.
Tim: So there’s a different question I have about UPlay as well. You haven’t mentioned it being any form of matchmaking. Is there a plan to plug your matchmaking through UPlay as well? So you have a separate friends list?
S: UbiSoft is using its own core online technologies and actually UPlay is among that, a platform. When we talk about UPlay, we talk about a consumer-facing programme and service, but UbiSoft’s online platform that we are using throughout all our games, including Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry is a proprietary technology for matchmaking, leaderboards, you name it, all the traditional, I would say, online games services.
T: I can see an obvious criticism there in that it’s another friends list to maintain. Do you see that?
S: I do. We’re working as many partners as we can to make sure that it’s easier for the users. I think we’re all human beings and we hate when we have to make new friends that are already friends! So this is something that we’re working on to make sure that you can easily find your friends from other services, which is actually something we are already doing on console. So for instance on console we would continue all your already existing connections from the specific console to update your friends list, so you wouldn’t have to remember that that gamertag, for instance, on Xbox is actually your friend. On PC we will do the same, obviously with a strong connection with your Facebook account or Steam friends list, if you want to, so that we make it easier for you to find your friends.
The advantages of having a unified friends system for us means that if you play a game, played Revelations with a friend, you will find the same friends when you play Assassin’s Creed III.
T: Where do you want to be with UPlay in a year? What’s the broad goal? Is there a percentage of sales you’d like to see coming to UPlay? Is there a business goal with it?
S: I cannot comment on the numbers! What I can tell you is that we want to make sure that we listen to feedback and requests from our players and that we continuously improve the services and the support that we’re giving them.