Is French Gaming Publisher Ubisoft in a World of Trouble?

Ubisoft was one of the last generation's big winners, but problems abound with the company's upcoming lineup. Can Ubisoft compete against the likes of Take-Two Interactive?

Feb 18, 2014 at 3:39PM

With so much of gaming-industry talk centering around hardware battles between Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo (NASDAQOTH:NTDOY), the industry's other great competition is frequently overshadowed. Third-party publishers are battling year-in, year-out to deliver the titles that best capture the minds of gamers and, in the process, establish market supremacy.

The console software industry has changed rapidly, with mid-tier publishers being dissolved or absorbed as a result of skyrocketing budgets and heightened competition. Companies like THQ buckled under the pressures created by new market realities. This has led to a smaller pool of increasingly large publishing companies that are determined to outdo each other and reap the rewards of the triple-A software model.

One of the big winners of the last console cycle was Ubisoft (NASDAQOTH:UBSFF). With properties like "Assassin's Creed" and "Just Dance," the company found success in appealing to multiple demographics and showed that it could deliver quality annualized releases. Now, in the early stages of the most recent hardware cycle, Ubisoft seems to be in a weakened position. Does the company run the risk of becoming the next THQ?

Grand theft release window
Ubisoft's future outlook is largely dependent on whether or not its upcoming Watch Dogs is a hit with consumers. Early press for the game touted its then-incredible visuals, and the most recent GameSpot Trax data from CBSi suggests that the game is the most visible and most anticipated one of 2014. That said, the game faces a number of substantial hurdles.

While delaying the game from its original holiday 2013 release to an unspecified date in the second quarter of 2014 may have been a matter of necessity, the move has highlighted the fact that the game is not as strong as Ubi had suggested. In an interview with IGN, Ubisoft's North American president Laurent Detoc implied that there were quality issues with the game that were substantial enough to delay its release.

These deficiencies were likely foregrounded by the incredible critical and commercial success of genre-competitor Grand Theft Auto 5 from Take-Two Interactive. GTA 5 has shipped a staggering 32.5 million copies since its September 2013 release and the game has been widely hailed for providing advancements in the open-world action game genre. Detoc has even credited the game for the company's decision to delay Watch Dogs.

Glitches in the system
As significant as Grand Theft Auto 5 is, the game isn't the only source of image problems for Ubisoft and Watch Dogs. A fraudulent desertion of trademark request was apparently filed with the US Patent Office, suggesting that the game had been cancelled altogether or that it would be rebranded as an "Assassin's Creed" title. Further complicating the game's messaging, rumors have swirled that the Wii U version of the game has been cancelled.

Ubisoft's most recent statements suggest that the game will come to the system at a later date, but this may very well be marketing subterfuge. Cancelling a version of your game is a great way to create bad press and run the risk of damaging the product at large. Still, unless binding contractual work is already in place or Nintendo floats the cost of development, Ubisoft has little reason to release the M-rated title on Nintendo's dying, family centric hardware.

Delays, delays, delays
Ubisoft is quickly becoming a company of delays. Online racing game The Crew has already slipped dates and The Division, one of the company's other big forays into new IP, now looks like it will miss its initially projected 2014 release date. The company's recently-posted release list for fiscal-year 2015 suggests that its console release slate will consist of only a "Just Dance" game, Watch Dogs, The Crew, and two as-of-yet unannounced titles.

One of these titles will likely be the heavily rumored Far Cry 4. The other will almost certainly be an installment in Ubi's annual cash cow, "Assassin's Creed." Unfortunately for Ubisoft, the commercial decline in the "Assassin's" series indicates franchise fatigue.

If Ubisoft's strategy is to position its releases to maximize exposure and limit competition, it runs the risk of being outmaneuvered by companies that appear much more competent. This is especially true if Ubi cannot deliver a product that matches market standards.

Will Grand Theft Auto 5 steal the spotlight again?
Delaying Watch Dogs to avoid Grand Theft Auto 5 runs the risk of becoming a comically bad move. Comments from Take-Two's Rockstar Games and lines of code extracted from the Xbox 360 version of GTA 5 suggest that a version of the game is coming to PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. The secretive Take-Two could conceivably release an updated version of its massive blockbuster to precede or coincide with the release of Ubisoft's Watch Dogs.

Such a move would be glorious for the "Grand Theft Auto" publisher and potentially disastrous for Ubisoft. With sales of "Assassin's Creed" on the decline and the casual-gaming audience increasingly served by mobile offerings, Ubisoft must prove that it can deliver the properties necessary to survive in the triple-A software business.

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Keith Noonan has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Take-Two Interactive. The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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