Few E3 2014 attendees will disagree that Ubisoft could've left half of its triple-A action games at home, and still have boasted one of the most impressive line-ups of the show.
Having invested in technology ahead of the new-gen console boom - as famously signalled by that 2012 Watch Dogs reveal - there was a sense in LA that the French publisher's hard work was finally bearing fruit.
Far Cry 4, Assassin's Creed Unity, Tom Clancy's The Division and Rainbow Six Siege are each hugely impressive technical feats, none of which would have looked out of place headlining either of the platform holder's flagship media showcases (and in fact, the former two did).
But there's also a sense that Ubisoft is a company in flux. With franchises like Assassin's Creed sucking up more and more resources, smaller titles like Child of Light and Valiant Hearts: The Great War suggest it's trying to shift the balance away from the annual monsters towards a healthier mix of game sizes.
The company's scales too are still to find an ideal medium between the stunning and diverse worlds it regularly delivers, and the often comparatively bland characters that inhabit them (AC Unity's all-male line-up, consequently, has quickly stirred controversy).
At E3 2014, CVG attended a sit-down discussion with Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot to discuss the company's 2014 line-up and the challenges it currently faces.
After a few years missing in action, Rainbow Six Patriots has resurfaced as a new game, Rainbow Six Siege. Can you explain the decision behind axing the original version?
We realised that we needed to go first with multiplayer. Before, when we made games, we were leading first with single-player and then taking the systems from that to do multi-player. With Rainbow Six we said, 'OK, we have to change our way of doing things' - lead with mutli-player first and then make single-player from that.
That's what made us change the game totally. We decided to restart with that in mind. The decision came from what we were seeing in the marketplace and because we wanted to do a 60 frames-per-second multi-player game.
Were there any elements of the previous design you felt in particular weren't working? Did you feel that some of the moral choices presented in early gameplay trailers were perhaps a bit much?
No - It really came from the gameplay side. We felt that the only chance we had to come with something that would be impressive in the online FPS arena was to have 60 frames-per-second and no limits imposed by having single-player. That's what made us change direction.
How difficult was it to make the decision to scrap the original design and start again? Among the big publishers, Ubisoft certainly seems the least afraid to go back to the drawing board...
In a way it was difficult because you have to say 'OK, let's do a write-off'. But the business has become a bit clearer; if you don't make the right decisions, it tells you at the end you've made a big mistake. The longer you wait, the bigger the mistake is.
So in a way the decision is easier to make now than it was before. Before we could say, 'OK, we'll still sell a couple of million units and monetize our investment'. Today if you are not at the right quality level, nobody will buy. Nobody will like it.
"With all of our teams, when their game doesn't sell, they're unhappy."
There are lots of factors to take into account. But we know that with all of our teams, when their game doesn't sell, they are unhappy. It's not only about succeeding with gamers, it's succeeding with the teams. When they spend three years of their lives making something, they want to see success at the end.
What are Ubisoft's current plans for Wii U? In the past you've been one of the console's strongest supporters.
We are coming with Watch Dogs and Just Dance this year. We also have another game on the shelves that we expect to come at some point when there will be more machines.
You have a Wii U game 'on the shelf'?
Yes, that game is waiting for more machines to be available. With Mario Kart, Wii U made one step and we expect with Smash Bros. it will also do more. If Nintendo put the right price on the machine then they will probably have a chance to do further.
So is Ubisoft actively supporting Nintendo right now?
We are with the few games we have coming this year, but we are also waiting for them to achieve more sales so that we can invest more. Because the problem we have with next-gen now here, is that we are seeing less games that are on next-gen and last-gen consoles.
Do you think Wii U is approaching the point where first-party games are the only titles releasing for it? ZombiU for example was a great game at launch, but so far we've not seen a sequel...
Not yet. But Nintendo has to perform this year, otherwise they will have less games. Justifying investing in the machine needs a larger installbase.
You've made clear statements that Ubisoft's future is in digital and specifically open-world games. Why commit your studios to that genre?
We think that gamers want more freedom. They also want games that they can play for quite a while, because there are less games now. The open-world genre gives us the possibility to offer different gamers different types of experiences. We think they are better adapted to the diversity of gamers that are in the market at the moment.
It's a trend for the industry; there will be more and more open-world games because gamers buy those games more than the others.
"We learned so many things from our free-to-play games."
And in the digital space, is the plan for Ubisoft to continue investing in post-release content?
On Assassin's, yes. For the others, we need to first make sure we have time... we'll give time for the second iteration of Watch Dogs, to make sure we perfectly use all the teams that we have plus create new ones. Then we'll see how many teams we can create that can come up with innovative stuff regularly.
But it's too early to say what we will do with the various properties. It depends very much on the team and the level of quality we can achieve.
You will see a DLC release soon that will be... interesting.
Ubisoft has invested a lot in R&D over the past few years. Is that now paying off?
What we have done in the last few years to prepare for next-gen is invest a lot in free-to-play games. That has been a big investment, but we are happy we did it because for us it's the only way to learn how to use systemic gameplay, user-generated content and understand the concept of retention.
We learned so many things from our free-to-play games that we think it was worth doing. It was a large investment, which is why we didn't have the profit we expected.
Games like League of Legends are really driving this area. Does Ubisoft have plans for its own MOBA?
There is nothing to say yet. We all know that MOBA is not difficult to do but... there is one at the moment that is extremely popular, so it's really difficult to take that space.
Valve is doing quite well [with DoTA 2] because they have their own platform, which is an advantage. We don't have people coming as regularly on our platform. It's possible, but it's not easy to establish.
PS4 and Xbox One have both enjoyed strong starts, but the games market remains more fragmented than ever before. What you think the new-gen consoles will remain solely for the 'core' gamer?
It depends very much on the price of the consoles. The good news is that Microsoft recently came with a cheaper machine, which is going to help the industry a lot because the competition between those two machines is now really good. The more competition we have, the better, because it will increase the number of customers.
Both machines started fast, because gamers had been waiting for eight years for them. People were really anxious about having something different. I hope this gen will go more quickly also. My feeling is that because PC is growing fast and lots of people are trying to pick up the business on TV, that will put pressure on [platform holders] to not wait eight years next time. I think they will wait a lot less than that.
First they need to make sure that they can sell the current machines at a lower price, so that there are enough games sold and enough extra content so that their platform is profitable. This will help the market.
Watch Dogs has been a great sales success, but it's also been criticised for its fairly generic characters. Are you taking on board that criticism?
For sure. We are also making sure the experience is better; at launch we had a number of small problems which have mostly been resolved now. We knew it would be polarising; some people loved the characters and some didn't. It was difficult to please everybody with that character. Now, having seen the reaction, we know what we will do next to improve that.
Can you see Aiden staying on as the lead for Watch Dogs 2?
I can't say because I don't know actually. We'll see.
Most of the characters in blockbuster games today seem to follow the same archetype: 'angry white man'...
We are working on that. We want to spend more time on the worlds and characters in our games... you will see more and more of this at Ubisoft. We'll try to be less like we have been in the past with some characters. We'll try to extend more diversity.
How involved are you personally in creative stuff like that?
I was sending an e-mail today to the head of creative about a book I read... I give my advice, but after that they come to us with proposals. Sometimes we say no, or I say I'm not happy with something, but very often the teams follow the head of production. I have influence, like other members of the group, but more in the big decisions like engines and characters rather than the details.
Ubisoft's triple-A releases are getting bigger and bigger, with increasingly larger teams dedicated to creating them. How are you mitigating the risk associated with titles like Assassin's Creed and Watch Dogs?
What we did in the last few years was decide to do both; invest in more triple-A and also invest in free-to-play. So instead of making one choice, we decided to learn from free-to-play but also create more brands in triple-A.
Creating more brands means that not all of them are successful, so you have to keep only some. Rainbow Six for example will extend the line of what we're doing. We're starting to see that we will have a good line-up of brands very soon.
We're now in the fifth year of the Assassin's Creed series' annualisation. How do you reflect on that period and what have you learned during it?
I think a franchise can always be reinvented and lots of surprises can come from your teams if you give them enough time to try new things. I don't see why after a certain number of years we would decide that we'd done whatever we could with it. I believe we can innovate in the long term with the franchise.
This year we are introducing co-op, which we think will be very interesting. You will see also that using technology to its full potential makes it really impressive. It shows what the machines can do and it's really cool.