It is easy to ignore that the gaming industry’s corporate skeleton is as cold and stiff as any other. Despite engaging in the business of fun, the ebb and flow of our beloved pastime is dictated not by fanatic devotion or creative passion, but by the unwavering severity of the bottom line. We can effortlessly shrug off this reality as we devour our latest digital escape and confront it when it negatively impacts our experience. It is as easy as flipping a switch. And after Ubisoft’s incredible E3 showing – punctuated by exciting new IP, dazzling reimaginations of known quantities and raw human emotion – it is clear that Vivendi’s continued march toward a controlling stake in the company will rob us of one of corporate gaming’s biggest outliers. This can not be ignored.
Ubisoft, despite its status as one of the largest third-party publishers and existing as a public corporation, functions independently. The five Guillemot brothers, the most famous of which is company CEO Yves Guillemot, founded the company in the 80’s and grew it into the gaming giant it is recognized as today. However, success is magnetic in the business world, attracting the attention of French mass media company Vivendi in 2015, which has been systematically buying up Ubisoft shares over the past two years. The Guillemot brothers remain in control of the company’s board, and news yesterday saw the family increase its hold on Ubisoft’s shares after numerous instances of outcry against the invading behemoth. However, Vivendi would need to own a 30% stake in the company in order to initiate a takeover, as French law dictates that this benchmark marks a requirement to pursue a controlling stake. With Reuters reporting they sat at 27.15% in April of this year, the takeover is inevitable, and it could potentially be a disastrous loss for the gaming industry.
Say what you will about Ubisoft’s penchant for collectibles and towers, but the publisher routinely infuses fresh, interesting ideas into an increasingly safe gaming landscape. Their yearly E3 briefing is almost always capped with a new IP, and regardless of your interest in Watch Dogs or Steep, Ubisoft has never been afraid to try something new. This creative expression seeps into established IP, with the likes of Rainbow Six Siege and Ghost Recon Wildlands bringing new flavor and interest into what could easily have been generic military shooters.
What’s more, the company does not shy away from the controversial, as evidenced by the neo-religious American violence at the center of Far Cry 5. Most publishers would not find themselves anywhere near such controversy, yet Ubisoft tackles the difficult subject matter head on. They also saved the South Park license out of the THQ firestorm, adding a game where you (spoilers) give a man an abortion (end spoilers) to their diverse portfolio and allowing its creators to dump every ounce of perverse imagination into its execution. These ideas define risk in our world of sequels, successors, and sameness.
What is at the heart of all these ideas? Passion. Games are an art, and it is obvious that Ubisoft allows its developers to express their artistic fervor in their work. This culture bred UbiArt, which led to the masterful Rayman platformers, the whimsical Child of Light and the melancholic Valiant Hearts. Ubisoft’s lineup is the result of a publisher that was willing to invest in the ideas of its staff, regardless of the cost-benefit analysis.
In Ubisoft’s mind, the benefit is not solely fiscal, but cultural, as these games undoubtedly pushed the industry in a better direction. Hell, EA’s Originals program is obviously inspired by UbiArt and the passion that it allowed developers to express in a large-publisher environment. This atmosphere also drew the attention of Nintendo, which lent its prized plumber to Ubisoft to create, of all things, a Rabbids tactical RPG crossover that went on to tie for the most nominations at the E3 2017 Game Critic Awards, winning Best Original Game (that is a real sentence). After watching project lead Davide Soliani get emotional over the unveiling of his game, it is easy to see why Nintendo trusted the team – they had heart, and Ubisoft allowed them to express it.
Corporate machines don’t have heart. They don’t allow Michel Ancel to even start Beyond Good and Evil 2, let alone get emotional on stage about it. They run Assassin’s Creed into the ground rather than taking time to reset and improve. They stay as far away from VR and the Nintendo Switch as humanly possible. They continue to release Just Dance for the Wii (well, Ubisoft isn’t perfect). We do not need another Activision. We don’t need another EA. Ubisoft, and in some cases Bethesda, provides a cultural counterpoint to these other juggernauts that the gaming industry desperately needs. It gives us a power player with the independent spirit to invest in new ideas and bold risks. All of that is at stake in the Vivendi takeover.
It isn’t a given that Vivendi will morph Ubisoft into a French Activision (which the company owned an 85% stake in until 2013), but the ferocity of the Guillemot’s efforts to stave off a takeover paints a dire picture for the state of the company moving forward. A dark cloud hangs over the company’s stellar E3 showing. Gaming is a business, but unfortunately this situation is too dire to ignore. While the company prepares to play the game of thrones that will consume the boardroom, we are potentially left to mourn the loss of one of gaming’s most cherished entities. Business isn’t personal, but for Ubisoft, that sentiment could not have been more antithetical. Passion and heart were their business, and I can only hope they remain intact.
Brett Williams is an Associate Editor for MONG who can’t wait to play Assassin’s Creed Origins, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus and Super Mario Odyssey on the same day, simultaneously. You can follow his nonexistent ramblings on Twitter.