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Ubisoft’s Short Films and Other Ramblings

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With the announcement of another Ubisoft short film to promote their upcoming game, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, I thought it’d be interesting to take a look at the state of videogame advertising, and Ubisoft's place within that world.

A recent report was issued by marketing firm Blitz that looked at the effectiveness of videogame marketing. By and large, the paper said that the current methods of videogame marketing miss the mark, particularly when it comes to what they call the "avid gamer;" this avid gamer is someone who plays videogames for at least seven hours a week. The avid gamer is not only a large consumer of videogames, they are also an influential figure in other gamers' lives, either wanting to receive or supply recommendations on what games to buy when talking with their friends. That is why it is clearly so important to successfully target the avid gamer demographic.

While the report goes on to name the methods which aren’t very effective, and in fact can be infuriating to gamers (we’re looking at you computer-generated reveal trailer that looks pretty but doesn't tell us anything), it also tells methods by which games can be better marketed. These include actually showing gameplay footage from the get-go (thumbs up to you mammoth Lost Planet 2 trailer).  The report also discusses what areas marketing should move into. Mobile advertising (text promotions, reminders, etc) is cited as one up-and-coming method. Ubisoft however, seem to be taking another path with their short films.

Back in 2009, at the last Game Developer’s Conference, Ubisoft heads like Yannis Mallat discussed the way the developer was converging their games with other media, specifically films. They said they wanted to use films as a way to expand their videogame brands to a wider audience. These films would be developed at the same time as the game so that they could benefit each other as much as possible. That is why Ubisoft purchased Hybride, the Montreal based effects studio, and then expanded their rights to create not only Tom Clancy games but other media, like the Future Soldier short. They stated that they believe this is where the industry is headed and that they are trying to stay one step ahead of the curve.

Right now Ubisoft’s efforts are mainly "small scale" promotional works, but Yannis Mallat hasn’t ruled out the possibility of Ubisoft creating its own full-scale feature films down the line. It's undoubtedly a unique route to take. Ken Martin, co-founder of Blitz, states "in an era when publishers are being squeezed, every marketing dollar spent on digital has to be used as effectively as possible.”

Ubisoft, in a way, aren’t following this rule at all, creating an $8-10 million short film to market their game Future Soldier. That’s $8-10 million on top of what they would normally spend on advertising. They are acting in completely unique way — while the Future Soldier short will be used to market the game, it also serves a greater purpose for the company. Just look at the progress that has been made from the Assassin’s Creed: Lineage short film to the Future Soldier short.

Lineage was directed by Yves Simoneau and written by Simoneau and William Reymond. It was Reymond’s first real writing effort, although Simoneau is slightly better known, directing three episodes of the 2009 series V and winning an Emmy for the TV movie Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Add to their stable the Oscar-winning directors behind the short Logorama and Children of Men co-writer Tim Sexton and it's a great start no matter which way you look at it. Ubisoft are using these shorts as a way of honing their production skills, it’s effectively an expensive learning program and there’s the hope that they’ll get bigger and more ambitious each time.

Clearly Ubisoft is hoping it’s a project that will garner them greater exposure by being covered by both film and videogame outlets (like with this article) and, in turn, give their sales a boost, as $8-10 million.  It is clearly a risk. With that sort of money on the line, you wouldn’t only want to impress the avid gamers Blitz mentions, but a wider variety of demographics as well. It’s also a lot of money being throwing at a 20 minute short film, especially when you compare it to the likes of one of the most successful videogame based short, Half Life 2: Escape from City 17.

That short was made for only $500 by the Purchase brothers (Ian and David) and combines live-action footage with content straight out of the video game. The first part has over 3.5 million views on YouTube and is a really well put together short, the transitions are almost seamless. Compare that to Ubisoft’s prior short, Lineage. The first part of Lineage had 2.6 million views on YouTube but there was some massive drop off after that with part 2 attracting just over half a million and part 3 just under that mark. The release of the complete movie only garnered half a million views as well. While it was certainly popular, it seemed to lose some of its luster after the first part aired. That portion of the film seemed to attract a wide audience, but the subsequent releases received fewer views than the game's official launch trailer which forces the question — did it actually manage to entice new players to the series or was it just something the already massive fan base used to pass the time? Or, in other words, was the short worth all the money?

As Ubisoft seems hell-bent on creating these shorts, it will be interesting to see them hone their strategies. By following in the vein of the Purchase brothers, Ubisoft could combine actual game footage with the effects work of Hybride. This would really show off the games potential and greatly reduce the cost of making the short. They could also combine this with a similar idea that Paramount is launching. That company has created a new studio to create micro-budget films, handing out $100,000 budgets to ten different movies. Ubisoft could find some up and coming directors, through a competition or another method, and split the budget between them so they could create multiple shorts based on the game. They would be engaging and interacting with their fan base and simultaneously building some considerable buzz for the game, while still honing their skills as filmmakers. No one said you have to throw a lot of money at something to make it successful.

In the end, only time will tell us how Ubisoft’s ambitious convergence strategy will evolve. Maybe they’ll become a Hollywood player or learn enough that they can be a valuable consulting agent on videogame-to-movie adaptations. Or perhaps it could end in an expensive disaster and the Assassin’s Creed and Tom Clancy shorts will be all we have to remember it by. Either way, it's always nice to see a developer try something new, it's definitely going to be quite a ride.

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