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Betting big on Wii U, Ubisoft hopes people understand the console Exclusive

Betting big on Wii U, Ubisoft hopes people understand the console
October 30, 2012 | By Chris Morris

With the exception of Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo, no one bets more heavily on new console launches than Ubisoft.

It's something of a video game industry tradition that the publisher rushes headlong into new system launches -- and with the Wii U on the way, it plans to have six titles available on day one (with three more coming by the end of Nintendo's extended "launch window").

But while the company has an obvious interest in talking up those consoles, Tony Key, Ubisoft's senior vice president of sales and marketing, is both upbeat and cautious. While he notes Ubisoft sees the potential in what Nintendo is trying to do with its next generation system, it's not yet certain that the rest of the world is.

"I think the challenge is to get people to understand what it is that the GamePad brings to gaming," he says. "They did this sort of infomercial-type ad [in the U.K.] that says 'it does this and it does this!' I really think that just shows you they're trying to find ways to show people before they actually get their hands on the thing. I think they had the same problem with the Wii.

"Innovation like that is very hard to grasp as a consumer, until you actually see it, because it's not something you're asking for necessarily. ... You're not going to 'get it' from a trailer."

That said, he expects the public to catch on to the device fairly quickly. And says the potential disruption to the industry is nearly as big as what the Wii brought with it.

"The Wii was a huge breakthrough for gaming because it more or less heralded in the era of motion control," he says. "Since then, Kinect has been successful and you've got the Sony [PlayStation] Move. It created a new genre of gaming and brought in a ton of new consumers. With the Wii U -- there are critics. No, it's not heralding a new era of motion control, but it is heralding in a new era of two-screen gaming."

Ubisoft's big bets on the system have caused some scoffing among gamers, especially as other publishers have taken a wait and see attitude towards the Wii U. Key, though, says he believes "most of the industry is underestimating the break-through that the Wii U represents."

The reason for this, he suspects, is few publishers have taken the time to get to know the system like Ubisoft. The Wii U is not something that developers instantly see the potential for, he says.

While Ubisoft had a comparable number of games with the launch of the Wii, he describes the Wii U lineup as stronger and more diverse, which could boost sales. And while he expects the company to hold two or three positions in the system's top five sellers this year, he notes that for a new console initial sales aren't as critical as they are for those in later stages of their life-cycle. Top games, in fact, can keep selling for seven or eight months -- or even a year, in some cases.

In fact, even with some titles for existing consoles, those first few days aren't as critical as many think they are.

"Retailers just can't predict consumer behavior now," he says. "Things just seem so up and down. ... We all overreact to everything now, whether good or bad. For example, on Just Dance, we ship in October and want to see lots of units then of course, but we had some enormous sales weeks last December on Just Dance 3. And when we look back, we realized we do just 3 percent of Just Dance sales in the first week. So to look and say we're up or down 20 percent is ludicrous."

And while brick and mortar retail has suffered noticeably in recent years, Key says he believes the Wii U could be the start of a long-awaited turnaround.

"Retail has the same problems as a lot of us right now," he says. "Consumers are less excited about console games right now. When you look at retail, there's a lot of things you could point to as to why it's declining - but nobody ever says 'consumers are bored.' When new hardware comes along, you can't predict what impact that's going to have on the console business. And if people really go crazy over the Wii U, then retail is going to be the first to see the benefit of that. It's just what the industry needs right now."

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