In August, Ubisoft announced an agreement with Microsoft granting the publisher the perpetual cloud streaming rights for Call of Duty and all other current Activision Blizzard games and those released over the next 15 years once Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision Blizzard is complete. Chris Early, Ubisoft’s SVP, Strategic Partnerships & Business Development, was a crucial figure in the negotiations. He sat down with Ubisoft News to discuss what Ubisoft+ subscribers can expect now that the acquisition is finalized.
Why did Ubisoft decide to take on the streaming rights of Activision Blizzard’s games? What does the deal mean for Ubisoft and the Ubisoft+ subscription?
Chris Early: Taking on these rights allows Ubisoft to bring Activision Blizzard games like Call of Duty to Ubisoft+, as well as license the streaming access of these games to cloud gaming companies, service providers and console makers – meaning we’re helping expand access for more players across streaming services.
We've always been a technologically forward-looking company and we believe that we can create differentiation and competitive advantage for our products through technology in addition to the games themselves. We've been active in the streaming space for a long time and that's one of the reasons Microsoft came to us; we were the first studio that Google worked with for Stadia; the first company that Amazon worked with for Luna; and we've been partners with NVIDIA GeForce Now for years. To Microsoft, it made sense that if somebody was going to be familiar with the space and know what the value would be for streaming, it would be us. And we saw the value as well.
There was a bit of a discussion of what rights would be available, and once that was clear it was easy to see how that would allow us to add Activision Blizzard games to Ubisoft+ and bring even more value to our offering. It’s also content that might be new or different for our player base, so it allows a broader range of choice. We're already working with partners around the world to distribute Ubisoft+ and our slate of games, so adding Activision Blizzard games to that is easier than starting from scratch somewhere and building a completely new service.
Which games are included in the deal? Does it include other content like DLC
CE: The deal includes all the Activision Blizzard games that are being distributed today and includes all the games that Activision Blizzard will release over the next 15 years. That includes the Call of Duty franchise and a whole lot more. Yes, it does include all the DLC, including in-game content and downloadable DLC packs, expansions, and add-ons.
Can you explain why the deal is exclusive in some areas of the world but not in others?
CE: To get its acquisition approved, Microsoft had to seek the approval of regulatory bodies in a number of areas of the world. Each local regulatory body had a different set of conditions under which they would allow Microsoft to make the transaction. In the European Economic Area, the European Commission required Microsoft to allow cloud streaming services to let anybody who owns the games in that territory to play the Activision Blizzard games via streaming for free. For example, a company in France could come to Microsoft and say, ‘I want to stream the gameplay of Call of Duty to people who own Call of Duty already,’ and Microsoft is required to license those rights for free to that company so players can stream games they own. It's known as “bring your own game,” and that’s why the rights are non-exclusive in some regions.
Ubisoft has a long history of supporting cloud streaming partners – why is that? Where do you see the cloud streaming market in 10-15 years?
CE: Our underlying goal in the cloud gaming market is to really broaden access to our games to more players. I have a choice of platforms available in my home, and I still stream because I don't want to install something until I'm sure I'm going to play it. With streaming, I can try a game out without waiting for a download and then decide I want to play something else, which I don’t then have to wait to download, too. The HD games that are being made continue to evolve and become more complex, so the ability to stream that to a variety of devices just from a browser window or on an existing piece of hardware really opens up the market for more people to be able to access and play our games, whatever their situation.
We believe that streaming will continue to grow over time. If you look back to 15 years ago, when there were companies trying to create streaming platforms, it was a much more challenging time, and the infrastructure wasn’t quite there. But if you look at what's available to people in their homes today, the speed of internet access is significantly better than it was 10-15 years ago. Over the next 10-15 years, I think the same thing is going to happen and it's going to continue to get better. And as it continues to evolve, the more that underlying technology advances, the easier streaming is going to be. I buy music still, but I don't have to think about buying a CD or hardware to play it on, or remembering to bring it with me when I leave the house, because my music is available to me all the time. And if I'm in a place without a connection, I've been able to download the songs that I want and listen to them offline. I think the same thing will exist in gaming as we go forward. We're already seeing a significant increase in the digital share of purchases, and people trust that their game’s going to be available to them without absolutely requiring physical media to play it.
What do you think of the future of physical media in games?
CE: There's a collector edition market. There's the aspect of gifting physical items and allowing access for people to be able to easily purchase a game in a store and gift them to their friends or family. Some people will always want to own the physical disk. I just don't think it's going away. Do I think physical sales might get lower over time? Sure, but will it ever completely go away? I don't think so.
Streaming movies and TV shows is one of the key ways that people consume that content today. With games being a larger time investment, do you think gaming via the cloud can compete with other forms of streaming?
CE: I think there's two avenues to answering that question. One is the concept of streaming as an access method, and the other is the concept of subscription as an ownership method. Firstly, streaming is essentially the same as buying a disk, it's just a way to get those bits to the device you're going to play them on.
I absolutely think what it takes is that reliable infrastructure underneath, because none of us wants to be playing and have an internet hiccup and suddenly our game freezes up. We don't want that when we’re streaming shows on our TV either, everyone hates when you're getting to the climax of a scene and suddenly you get the little spinning loading icon, and you get mad. But that happens so rarely, right? It's a service you can count on and when you get to the place where those frame drops or the little bit of inconsistency in your connection doesn't affect your gaming, then it's going to be all that much better and all that much more relied on.
The challenge today for streaming games versus streaming video, is that video is linear entertainment which can be streamed in advance and buffered. The movie or song is consistent, it doesn’t change for one person versus another. As a result, that can be buffered locally so that you can overcome or hide any small drops in your connection. On the other hand, gameplay is essentially dynamic – you can't stream in advance if you don't know whether the player is going to turn one way or the other at the end of the corridor. When streaming games, there’s more immediate need for quality infrastructure, a quality internet connection, so it's more demanding as a streaming mechanism than streaming music or streaming video. But that said, there are plenty of places in the world today where the internet is pretty good and where streaming works just fine. There are also areas in different countries where it's not good at all, where you don't have good access because of the infrastructure, not because of a lack of desire and not because there are no cloud servers available.
And then the other part of the question is the subscription side, is it a mechanism that's going to last? We believe so, and that's why we went out and we made Ubisoft+. We are one of a few companies in the video game space that has enough breadth of content to support our own subscription service. We’re seeing a broader range of subscription services in games, and I think that will continue. Not everybody has adopted subscriptions on the consumer side at this point and I don’t think absolutely everybody will. People are going to choose what makes sense for them and I view our job as providing a variety of means of access to our games. Underneath it all, our primary function as a company is to make great games and then what we do from there is to get them into the hands of as many people as possible, and if some people want to subscribe and get their game access that way, great. If some people want to buy physical games or downloads, great. The more people who can get access to our games, the more choice they have, then it shows we’re doing our job well.
Where will Activision Blizzard games be available to stream in the future?
CE: From us, that's something that we'll see as time goes on and things evolve. Our expectation is that they will be on Ubisoft+, and then we have the rights to be able to license them individually to companies as well. Perhaps there’s a company somewhere in the world that wants to license those rights and add to the streaming service they have or start up a new streaming service, and I think that's going be part of the fun of the next 15 years or more of how streaming evolves. To clarify, all the games that are coming from Activision Blizzard in the next 15 years and those games that exist now, we have those streaming rights in perpetuity. So, even after the terms of this deal come to an end, we will still have those rights and we will still be able to provide those games to people and companies throughout the world, so there are a lot of possibilities.
When can players expect to be able to play all these games on Ubisoft+?
CE: We know players are excited for more games to come to Ubisoft+, and we will take the time we need to make sure that the back end fully supports the experience we want players to have. Now that the deal is closed, the operational element can begin to kick off.