Q&A: Ubi.com's Jason Rubinstein

GameSpot talks to Ubi.com general manager about his division's recent zigs and zags.

So far, 2004 has been a bumpy year for Ubi.com. On February 4, Ubisoft's online gaming division announced it was canceling the massively multiplayer online component of Uru: Ages Beyond Myst, even though the game had already sold tens of thousands of copies. Another shock came last week, when Ubi pulled out of its deal with Warner Bros. Interactive to publish the Matrix Online. Yesterday, Ubisoft dropped another bombshell when it acquired Wolfpack Studios, developer of the MMORPG Shadowbane.

While the past two weeks have delivered mixed messages about Ubisoft's online gaming strategy, there's at least one person who sees a method behind the madness--Ubi.com's general manager, Jason Rubinstein. GameSpot asked Rubinstein to explain his company's recent zigs and zags in the MMO space.

GameSpot: What is it about Shadowbane that makes it worthy of backing and The Matrix Online not? It suggests to me that Ubisoft thinks the mass market is not yet ready for an MMOG? Is that the consensus internally?

Jason Rubinstein: While Shadowbane and The Matrix Online are both MMOs, that’s about all they had in common. The mutual parting of ways we just announced with Warner Bros. on The Matrix Online was just that--two friends agreeing to not venture onward together, which is what friends sometimes do. Shadowbane is a game that has commercially launched, found a strong and passionate audience, and has innovated within the MMORPG genre. Now that the Wolfpack team is a part of Ubisoft, we can fully integrate our expert game development and operational resources to their Austin studio, and they can continue to do what they do best--make online games.

GS: Do you expect to put the Wolfpack team on new projects or are they a Shadowbane-only studio? What is the team working on today?

JR: Today, Wolfpack is largely focused on continuing to develop ongoing content and other fixes to Shadowbane. The Shadowbane community isn’t shy about telling us what they want to see in the game, so we are keeping Wolfpack focused on creating what they can to keep players playing. We are also starting to look at our own MMO game ideas, so some of the folks in Austin are burning extra cycles and proposing other game concepts based on our franchises.

GS: Can the tools Wolfpack developed for Shadowbane be easily repurposed for other MMORPGs?

JR: That’s a complicated question to answer because when making an MMO game, one typically needs twice the number of tools compared to a “normal” game. Tools related to the creation of code and content are somewhat standardized in the games industry (think MS Visual Basic, Photoshop, etc.). But when you get to the game server, network management, or support layers, the tools are generally homegrown, or highly customized third-party applications. Due to the way we architected our network and customized the tools from Shadowbane, we do in fact see some major economies of scale for the future.

GS: When news hit last E3 that Ubi, not Atari, would be publishing the Matrix Online, it resounded like a bomb blast. Last week's news was almost as shocking, but for obviously different reasons. What was behind the Warner/Ubi breakup?

JR: Ubisoft and Warner Bros. simply decided to part ways on this project. That’s all we can say at this time. Or to quote a line from one of my favorite Robert Frost poems: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both...”

GS: Last week's Matrix Online news comes on the heels of the recent cancellation of the Uru Live portion of that game. It's easy to see a trend wherein Ubi is removing itself from MMORPG development. Is that a shortsighted observation on my part, or is there a new strategy in the area on online game development and publishing at Ubisoft?

JR: We would never accuse you of being shortsighted, Curt! But seriously, the timing of the Uru Live and the Matrix Online announcements were a total coincidence. We believe our acquisition of Wolfpack Studios highlights one of Ubisoft's core strengths as a top publisher--to invest in first-party development and to make top-quality games. Wolfpack isn’t just any developer, as they created a new subgenre in MMOs--which should send a clear signal that we are in fact quite serious about MMO games.

GS: It's hard to figure ubi.com's MMO strategy out. How would you characterize it and present it to the gaming public and industry?

JR: Our strategy for MMO games is simply to publish and operate them anyplace in the world where there is a market to do so. We first learned about this market when we were the original European publisher for EverQuest. Then we expanded our relationship with Sony for EQ to copublish, relaunch (localize), and provide community and customer support. We also brought EQ to China, and we publish other Sony Online titles in Europe such as PlanetSide. Shadowbane, Uru: Ages Beyond Myst, and The Matrix Online have all taught us valuable lessons, too. Looking at the future, our plan is to build on the knowledge we’ve acquired and to invest in our own intellectual property and our own development capabilities. The acquisition of Wolfpack Studios is the tip of the iceberg.

GS: Arguably, Ubi continues to grow its stature as a global player. Where does the company see growth coming from over the next 12 to 24 months? Obviously, not in the area of MMORPGs, or...?

JR: Good question. We have a great year ahead, both online and offline. In the online space, we continue to grow our gaming portal, which today is one of the top five of its kind in the world. We are number one on Xbox Live, and we hope to take that crown on the PS2 network, too. Over half of our games in development are multiplayer, regardless of platform. We’re particularly excited about the upcoming release of Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow and Far Cry, which should be hot online games.

GS: And in the offline camp?

JR: Well as for Ubisoft offline, our core brands continue to drop new fruit, and we are typically quite successful in how we manage through the hardware transition between consoles and PCs. The future looks quite bright indeed…

GS: Thanks, Jason.

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