Ubisoft is one of the key players in the AAA game space, and they will be very much in the forefront of media and gamer attention for the next month as the highly anticipated new franchise Watch Dogs finally launches on May 27. The title was originally scheduled to be a launch title for the new console generation last fall, but Ubisoft decided the game needed more development time and pushed back the release. The [a]list daily spoke with Ubisoft senior vice president of sales and marketing Tony Key about Watch Dogs marketing and how the marketing landscape is changing.

Tony Key

Moving Watch Dogs out from its original launch date was a difficult and painful decision for Ubisoft. “Whenever we remove a chunk of revenue that size, it’s going to be a material impact on not only our earnings for that year but even our stock price,” said Key. “This is not an easy decision to make for any company. On the day we announced that, I think our stock dropped 40 percent or some ridiculous number. We’ve recovered since because people are seeing the rest of our lineup and it turns out maybe it was a good idea. We had no choice, despite the fact that it put us in a tough financial position in the short term. We’re a long-term company, with a long-term vision, and Watch Dogs for us is a long-term play. We had no choice. We knew it was the right thing to do, but it doesn’t make it hurt any less.”

“Games are tricky because they’re a mix between technology and art, and it’s sometimes very difficult to predict — especially a new brand with new technology — an end date,” Key continued. “The Assassin’s Creed team has gotten so much experience now in working on a schedule that they’ve found that delicate balance of being able to put their heart and soul into the game and still making a schedule work. But a new brand, as you’ve seen time and time again from publishers everywhere, it’s very difficult to make that work.”

Moving the launch date had a serious impact on marketing. “The decision was made very late, and we were rolling along in a lot of areas on the marketing side,” said Key. “Any time a game slips, there are marketing inefficiencies. We are still executing, for the most part, the plan that we had had. It was a lot of late nights and crazy reactions to putting everything on hold at the last minute. It’s the least of our problems to put marketing on hold, compared to getting the game right, but it’s a lot of work for a marketing team when something like that moves. You have to reallocate all your resources on a new schedule, you’ve got your retailers to deal with, who are already running marketing for your game in some cases. Slips like that are incredibly inefficient.”

While delaying Watch Dogs was painful in many ways, a t least there has been more time for people to become aware of the game. “On a new brand, more time usually benefits a game,” agreed Key. “Although there was halo around the launches of those new systems that would have certainly benefited Watch Dogs, and vice versa. But to your point, we’ve had almost seven extra months to get more pre-orders, which has been a really good story for us. One of the main positives is that pre-orders were very much rushed from E3 on when retailers started taking pre-orders on next-generation, because most retailers weren’t even taking pre-orders on next-generation games until June. I think all the games that launched had less pre-orders than they would have expected to have for such a large launch.”

“For us, we’ve had a chance to get closer to where we think we should be in a normal course of action,” Key continued. “It’s given our retail partners more confidence in the launch of the game, because they’re seeing the momentum at their own level as opposed to just seeing it in the press. We’ve been able to recapture that momentum, I should say, and even add to it.”

Shipping Watch Dogs in May means there’s a clear field as far as new AAA titles go. “One of the benefits of the move, and we didn’t know this when we moved it, is we have a very share of voice in the marketplace right now,” noted Key. “There are very few other titles shipping in our launch window. We’ve got just enough time before E3 when lots of new games, including Ubisoft, are going to be on display. We have our moment, and that’s something you really don’t always get at the holiday with your brands. Sometimes you have other giant AAA games shipping the same day as you.” There’s really not much in the way of major new console IP launching until Destiny arrives in September., and people are looking for new IP for next-generation consoles. “That’s for sure true with Watch Dogs, I think there’s a lot of people out there that see Watch Dogs as the face of a new generation of games,” said Key. “There are no preconceptions based on what it was before. Watch Dogs represents the next generation of gaming in a lot of people’s eyes.”

Of course, there will be plenty of games vying for attention at E3 and all through the holidays, including Ubisoft’s own new titles, but Key is ready for the challenge. “You don’t get to own the market for very long,” said Key. “Your job as a marketer is to make sure that when your game launches it is an entertainment event, and if you do that successfully you will have a longer tail no matter what else is shipping, because people buy more than one game. I don’t expect Watch Dogs to be the #1 selling game from May 27 until December 31 every week — I don’t think any title’s ever done something like that. But our goal is to do good business with Watch Dogs, establish it as a major game brand in this new generation. If we do that we’ll have great catalog sales at holiday time. We’re confident that Watch Dogs will stand up to all those other games, including our own, through the holiday season.

The sharing capability that’s built into next-generation consoles is already having an impact on game marketing. “Sharing is such a fantastic addition to what console gaming is all about,” said Key. “For me it’s one of the true next-components that’s in its infancy at this time. Nobody knows where that’s going to take us. That whole livestreaming, user-generated content built right into the console interface — they made it accessible to everyone now. Everybody can be a celebrity, everyone can create content, everyone can send gameplay to their friends. The fact that they’re making that more mainstream is going to open up a world of possibilities, especially on the marketing side. It’s going to allow us to amplify great content that our best gamers are creating for us. Some of the best marketing is not going to come from us going forward. It puts more pressure on the games to be good, but if the games are good this user-generated marketing is really going to take things to another level.”

“If the games are good this user-generated marketing is really going to take things to another level”

Key is amazed at the rapid pace of change in game marketing. “We’re getting used to a changing landscape,” said Key. “In the last two or three years things changed way more than they did the ten before. I’ve been here for 12 years, and the last couple have been really turbulent in terms of marketers trying to understand the best way to reach consumers — all these news platforms and tools coming into play. A few years ago it was all about how to manage the social channels, and while that’s still evolving along comes something like Twitch that’s been out there but suddenly is accessible to anyone that has a console. I really believe that’s going to have a transformational impact on marketing.”

“There’s still no better way to enjoy a game than having your friend sitting next to,” Key said. “Less and less that’s important, because you’re still hanging out together even when he’s not in the room. That social aspect of gaming in general in the next generation, it’s really what next-gen gaming is all about, it’s not just about the graphics or the speed and power of the machines, it’s also about the social aspects, all the things we’ve learned over the last few years about sharing and gaming together that are really executed well on the new hardware.”

These new sharing technologies underscore how important it is for marketing and game development and community and PR to work together on games. “You’re a hundred percent right,” Key said. “We’re having a lot of conversations globally, around the company with our customer organization and our development organization and our marketing organization about how we all need to be working more closely together much earlier in the process so that we understand the right tools games should offer their players for sharing, telling their stories, evangelizing your product in any way possible. All of that is becoming a big part of marketing and production now.”

The holiday ahead looks like another marketing battleground. “I think there’s still going to be a lot of aggressive behavior from first-party around their hardware systems,” said Key. “You’re still going to be saturated with those messages about which system is right for you. From a content perspective this is the holiday where the hardware starts to come of age, titles being made exclusively for next-generation system, games that are one level above in terms of tool kits and development ideas and game design, taking more and more advantage of the next-generation systems. Every year the games will get better. There’s a lot of really great product coming this holiday. We see the trend as less games, but bigger. There’s also a lot of great games being made at a smaller level like Child of Light. From a blockbuster perspective, it’s going to be a really strong holiday, and people are going to want to join the next-generation.”

Key sees the next-gen console advantage beginning to become more clear this holiday. “The gap will start to show itself as we go forward,” said Key. “There’s still going to be great games being made for current-gen systems, but as time goes by you’ll start to see the difference more and more.” Will Microsoft and Sony make some moves this year on current-gen console prices to try and expand that audience Key doesn’t have any knowledge of what they may be planning, but “anything they can do to keep them viable and keep that market healthy is welcomed by us,” he said.