Q&A: Ubisoft's Jay Cohen

Returning to the site that spawned Splinter Cell and Prince of Persia, Ubisoft's North America publishing veep talks about how far a good E3 can take you.

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Meet a couple of US Army guys in Las Vegas, and where does it get you? For Jay Cohen and Ubisoft, the meeting netted a killer deal in the form of the upcoming America’s Army game for console platforms. Such is the benefit of having an active mind, something Cohen is unlikely to boast about, but surely an important part of the Ubisoft success story. Another feather in Cohen’s hat? Besides the three standout titles the company acknowledged when it reported full-year financials last month (Pandora Tomorrow at 1.7 million units sold, Prince of Persia at 2.4 million units, and Rainbow Six 3, at 2.2 million units), the more telling number--and one that reflects on Cohen and his North American team--is the one that saw Ubisoft’s share of sales in North America increase to 47 percent, rising from 40 percent during the previous year. So what does Jay Cohen know that we don’t?

GameSpot: How do you view the importance of E3 to Ubisoft?

Jay Cohen: This is where titles can be made. For Ubisoft, in the past two years Splinter Cell emerged from E3, Prince of Persia emerged from E3. This is an extraordinarily important showcase.

GS: Is the company's approach the same as it’s always been?

JC: How we approach it these days is a little bit different from the retailer’s point of view. We’ve all evolved in the sales and marketing tactics where nowadays, the press and retailers, they all see all the products like a week before, two weeks before. By the time they get to E3, they really don’t have to take a meeting because we all have realized that taking a meeting and showing them around the booth is really difficult and hard. So those are minor little tweaks to how it’s done, but it’s no less important. The same things are still getting done.

GS: What’s your big push this year?

JC: Brothers in Arms is definitely a big one for us to bust out with, and Far Cry on Xbox is going to blow a lot of people away.

GS: What’s the takeaway you hope to leave with retailers?

JC: That Ubisoft is a premium video game label. The highest quality games for every system will have the Ubisoft label attached. For the last few years, our development and publishing strategy has been: How are we going to distinguish ourselves? It’s when you put the Ubisoft logo on something, people are going to start associating that with something like, "Wow, it must be something really compelling or innovative, it must look great, maybe it must be online."

GS: But how do you actually differentiate your product from the next guy who will answer that question the very same way?

JC: Ultimately with the awards and the cover stories, specifically about the polish and the: “Oh my God, Far Cry was the best-looking thing I saw. Did you see the animation on Prince of Persia?” factor.

GS: That’s a curious and wonderful place to find yourself. How do you get a game to that point? Is there research involved? And how much input does marketing provide in the process?

JC: It’s a combination, so sales and marketing can provide some data, but then the game goes into production. You’re talking studio-level editorial feedback. We’ve broken down games for each category of physics, of artificial intelligence, of graphics, of controls, and we look at this both scientifically and creatively. And we say: What is the benchmark that’s established by our competition? Where do we need to go? And at every step, every iteration--it’s a very iterative process--we say OK, we’re not there yet, this cake is not baked yet, keep going.

GS: Does gut feeling count anymore?

JC: Yeah, it does. I mean usually when we speak about gut, that’s sort of the vision, the creative spark. Nobody has 100-percent great ideas, but you find you know how to nurture what seem to be the great ideas, and you then tackle them a bit methodically. You have to be able to try and benchmark. Has anybody done anything like this before? It’s not even trying to reach the core gamer.

GS: Are there any core gamers left out there?

JC: They’re still there. They’re an active community, an active market. They drive the first couple of weeks of sell-through, and you need to convince, convince, convince, convince, them because they take out their little bag of tricks and say OK, what’s inside here? And they’re skeptics all the way up to the point of purchase. As the developer and publisher, we can’t hide behind any misconceptions about what it is that we have, because they’ll say: No, that’s not a Cabernet. You’re calling it a Cabernet, but that’s a mix of a Pinot and a Merlot, that’s not Cabernet.

GS: How do you do accomplish that?

JC: Through the demos, through credible sources, all these totally different kinds of tactics. The more casual gamer is less interested in the comparison shopping, and they don’t really need to lift up the hood as much, and they’re looking to be made aware that what he or she likes is out there, it exists and is accessible. How you reach that person with your message is in an entirely different way.

GS: What was behind placing Prince of Persia trailers on to feature films?

JC: By that time, that’s a marketing tactic; that’s trying to go broader, that’s trying to extend and expand your message, so by that time of the marketing life cycle, you’ve already reached your 500,000 people, let’s say, who have been reading, who have been going online to read all your editorial content, and previews in all the magazines. You’re trying to say OK, now that I’ve got those guys interested and engaged, I’ve got to reach more people. Now my goal is to reach, let’s say, three to five million people in the demographic that I want to hit. So there are different tactics.

GS: You’re suggesting that this same game plays differently, but it plays to both the hardcore and the mass market?

JC: Yes, I believe so.

GS: Marketing can help you reach both markets with one game?

JC: It can. The best example that you always come back to in recent times is The Blair Witch Project, because they weren’t able to get broad distribution and marketing. They had no money, nobody believed in it. But the real film enthusiasts, when word got out at the Sundance event, thought this is really cool. And everybody says it was validated by all the, again I’ll reiterate, the connoisseurs and the enthusiasts, and this is really cool. And then by the time everybody said "yeah!", it was validated, everybody else was able to then get a hold of it and enjoy it.

So maybe I’m not such a big horror film fan, but I heard that Blair Witch was a great movie. Hmm, I’ve watched other movies before, I go to the movies every now and again, I’ll check that one out because I’ve heard it’s great. And it’s the same thing with games I believe. If you’re able to come out with the highest-quality gameplay experience that delivers, it can deliver to everybody.

GS: You’ll never be saddled with what the The Blair Witch Project people were saddled with because you guys have money in the bank.

JC: Well yes, however, look at Beyond Good and Evil. Critically acclaimed, graphics, animations, gameplay. Why didn’t it bust out?

GS: And what was the answer you guys came up with internally?

JC: Well, we didn’t push it. We didn’t go deep and try and go as far with the marketing campaign. We didn’t put $10 million behind that. And the idea was to see the strength of the game community, and all the editors said they loved it, and the people who went and bought the game went and grabbed it, but it didn’t sell like gangbusters.

GS: Does it mean that every game, including the really good ones, need major marketing behind them to succeed?

JC: I think it’s definitely a part of it.

GS: Are you guys reducing the number of SKUs in the coming quarters? Is it what the retailers want to hear?

JC: This is the time to focus on your major brands and reinforce your major brands. In a way, our broad message is a premium video game label and the highest quality games for every system. The retailers however, they like to be reassured, especially at this point in the life cycles, that we’re consistently delivering the major brands of the variety of systems, because they know that they can count on their business, what’s going to be in their stores. That is a little bit of a different message for them. They’re not as concerned if we’re innovating with a Beyond Good and Evil.

GS: Does Wall Street have the same demands?

JC: They love the major brands, too.

GS: So the pressure to cozy up to a high-profile license must be significant.

JC: Sure, you’d definitely get a lot of people saying, “Well what if I take the Beyond Good and Evil engine and same game design and slap a license on top of it?”

GS: What do you tell people who have that idea?

JC: That’s not the point for us. We have a very clear editorial policy; it’s to reinvent and reinforce our existing brands, Prince of Persia, Splinter Cell, Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon, Myst; and establish new ones: Far Cry, Brothers in Arms, Notorious. You need to have some things in your stable and your portfolio that can perform for you with a degree of certainty. We believe that with Prince of Persia we can continue to grow the fan base. We can lose part of our existing fan base. But the point is there’s a fan base, so there’s some reliability, and that’s why Wall Street and the retailers like that--they want some reliability, something they can count on, something they can say when they look at it as an itemized line item on your forecast for the fiscal year, and say, "Oh yeah, they’ve got Prince of Persia, that will be worth this much."

GS: I want to change the topic a little bit to the US Army game. How did a French company land a deal with the US Army?

JC: It had nothing to do with being a French company. We’re a video games developer and publisher; we’re the same as everybody else. I’m here in San Francisco, I met the guys down in Las Vegas; it was that simple.

GS: How did that meeting pan out?

JC: They said, “You guys are making Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six,” and we said “OK, you guys are doing something similar.” We liked what they were doing, and we just started discussing where there might be some complementary skill sets and economies of scale to be gained. We’re pretty focused on the military games category. We want to continue to be a leader with Ghost Recon and Brothers in Arms and America’s Army on the console. So it really fit in really well. We’re going to make sure that we continue to stay at least six months to over a year ahead of everybody else in what we’re delivering.

GS: And we’re not talking giveaway this time around?

JC: Not at all. We’re going ground up. We’re partnering with them. It will be the official US Army game; nobody will be able to compete with that. We happen to like the American’s Army brand. But as far as the game, we’re going to deliver a game on the console that is competitive with Ghost Recon or anything else.

GS: When you’re at E3, how do you read the competition?

JC: As far as the competition and presentation go, one thing we’ve learned is size does not impress us at all. The size of your booth is nothing. The biggest does not mean the best games. In fact, the best games are usually slightly hidden. I think most publishers just aren’t willing to take any chances and they decide instead to go with safe bets. “I’ve got 10,000 square feet. I’ve got to make sure that I draw the biggest crowd, and let’s put out the stuff that’s most easily understood.” Having a hot chick or a superstar signing autographs may attract a crowd, but that does not make it a good game, nor does it earn critical acclaim and recognition, nor does it sell.

GS: So what do you look for?

JC: You’ve got to drill down and I look for who’s innovating with their products. Really, it’s all about going to look at all of the games, who’s innovating through design, through technology, you need gameplay features, and doing things different. That to me is the fun of the show. The noise and the glitz and the glamour is not there. It’s really looking for the diamonds in the rough.

GS: And how do you read the people in the Ubi booth? What do you look for?

JC: Cavities. If I can see the back of peoples’ mouths and jaws that are dropped, and I can see their cavities with open, gapping mouths, then we’ve done something awe inspiring with our content. If I don’t see it, then it makes me nervous. Literally, if people are high-fiving all over the place, because I’ve seen it, then we know that we’ve done our job.

GS: Your approach to the booth is what?

JC: Attendees are coming to see content, and seeing their reaction, watching them just sit and stare, when people just don’t move and you’ve got a few typical positions of a consumer standing at your booth, their arms are folded and they’re looking up and their eyes are just opened really big and their mouths just are dropping when they see something really cool. We’re eliciting a reaction from the people that we know who are our audience, and that’s what I’m looking for. People won’t go, “Oh wow, I think their booth design is just fantastic.”

GS: Thanks Jay.

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