Ubisoft: Ubi, Uber, Uni

Ubisoft: Ubi, Uber, Uni
Everywhere and Nowhere

Spanner | 15 Aug 2006 12:00
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It's not often that an editor comes to you and asks for something so, when Russ (the new guy at The Escapist who pulls the strings to make the writers dance) approached me with a hole in his schedule, I felt quite flattered.

And the assignment was - I chose to assume - a simple one. Write a company profile on Ubisoft. Naturally, I waved a Spanner flag in one hand and blew my own trumpet with the other.

"No problem," said I, confident in my ability to hack out a few thousand words of romanticized eulogy. "Ubisoft is vast, and certain to be steeped in glorious history - 'twill be but the work of a couple of hours. The best thing about an assignment like this is that nothing - nothing at all - can go wrong." As you can guess, I was off to a good start.

Well, I poured my afternoon rum and ginger and set about making good on my bold promises of uncovering the humanity cowering behind the veils of one of Europe's biggest game developers. Eight hours later, with eyes so square I could dress them in dungarees and take them to a barn dance, I came to realize the internet is small, cancerous and filled with the same repeated, empty webpage surrounded by a billion different banner advertisements.

Who the hell is Ubisoft? It's like some kind of personality black hole; compressing a galaxy of individuality into a dimensionless, cross-platform singularity so dense that no personal information can escape its vast event horizon. (Everything I know, I learned from Star Trek.) Has it grown too big to support an individual identity, or has it become the worst kind of soulless byproduct of a passionless corporate mind? It started life purely as a publisher in France, so could it be possible Ubisoft was born as a peddler of another's imagination, feeding on the commercial creativity of bedroom programmers with no discernable spirit of its own?

Maybe.

It's equally possible that Ubisoft pours its gargantuan resources into making games rather than painting a high gloss public veneer; promising revolution upon revolution until its back catalogue is a vortex of downwardly spiraling anticlimaxes. All I had were theories and the kind of questions no public relations manager worth his salt would answer candidly.

I did uncover a few tenuous facts, I suppose.

  • Ubisoft was founded in 1986 in France by the five Guillemot brothers as a computer game distributor. Good business tactics soon led to U.K., German and U.S. divisions and working relationships with Sierra On-Line, EA, Microprose and a whole load more.
  • In 1994, it established an in-house game development arm where Michel Ancel quickly invented the prolific Rayman character. Keeping a steady pace allowed the company to go the distance without too many perturbing chest pains, and in 2000, it acquired Tom Clancy's Red Storm software label along with its catalogue of espionage and tactical thriller titles.
  • It now enjoys distribution in over 50 countries and has a physical presence in 21 of them, with its various development studios having turned out well over a thousand titles and an annual turnover of blah-di-blah-di-blah millions of euros.
  • Ubisoft gets its name, and therefore (presumably) its founding philosophy, from the word "ubiquity."
  • A guillemot is a sea bird found in the northern Atlantic and Pacific waters. (I don't know what flavor it is, though.)

An impressive, self-made legacy of hard graft and competent management. Trouble is, none of this stuff is especially unheard of in the industry or, for that matter, particularly interesting to read about. Other than a brief moment of uncertainty when EA suddenly devoured just under 20% of the company's shares and a degree of controversy surrounded its workers' strict employment contracts, no substantial scraps of hot gossip have ever really fallen from Ubisoft's expansive table.

I cannot accept, however, that a company with such a significant history and massive profile is so totally void of personality. I must be looking in the wrong places.

My research went from the jumbled mass of non-information that is cyberspace to the seldom updated, yet well-stocked video shop down the road which also rents out games. I came away with anything and everything proudly bearing the Ubisoft logo.

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