With sales numbers and advertising for AAA video game franchises now rivaling (or exceeding) those of blockbuster motion pictures, it's all too clear that the fan communities of either industry are eager and willing to show their support. But publisher Ubisoft hasn't shown an interest in copying the formula of their competition word-for-word; and in marketing and merchandise, the differences are becoming just as clear.
For starters, the company has begun its departure from video game publishing and into the world of feature films, with adaptations of Assassin's Creed and Splinter Cell in active development, with Watch Dogs not far behind. In trying to link those entertainment channels for its fans, the company has embraced a different approach. If you're not included in that group, there's a good chance you've never heard of Ubi Workshop. And for now, that's entirely the point.
All things considered, the realm of video game merchandise is a predictable one: t-shirts, hats, pins or accessories bearing the title, artwork, or logo of a given brand are sold from licensed retailers - with the occasional specialty item sold for a premium price, and to a limited audience. The good side: fans get a product with which to show their support. The bad: the products are limited by the creativity of the manufacturing partners, and their knowledge of the audience.
With game franchises (like Assassin's Creed) becoming more and more established with even those who don't play the games (no doubt part of the reason to adapt the series to film), it's fair to say the merchandise market is a largely untapped one.
It was with that suspicion in mind that the heads of the Workshop first spoke with Xavier Szwengler (now director) about leading up the company's answer to what they saw as a legitimate problem. Although Szwengler was far from an obvious choice to head up the new directive - coming from online travel sales - it was the need for 'an entrepreneurial spirit' that landed him at the head of the team. That, and the publisher's well-documented desire to keep development in-house as much as possible.
Just as the French publisher has established the formula for overlapping studios, resources, and manpower instead of seeking support externally, the goal with Ubi Workshop was to beat licensed manufacturers at their own game. The workshop's task: serve the demands of their customers beyond the expected video game releases, and in the process, engage and spread the fan community in new - and unconventional - ways.
At the time, most video game merchandise and tie-in products following a similar strategy: license out the product's key art, characters, and designs to manufacturers who will get branded products on sale as efficiently as possible. But with the launch of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, Szwengler explains, the company found that the old way of thinking wasn't as accurate as they may have thought:
"When we started to talk about the game universe, the storyline, and how we could serve the fans... they asked us to create some specific, sophisticated products. The first one was Desmond Miles' hoodie [from Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood], and that was really strange for us. It was the first product with no Assassin's Creed logo on it - and it was a huge success. Then we found something: a new approach to talk with the fans to serve them and actually live the game universe between episodes of the series."
One can imagine the dilemma facing the company; although fan communities of everything from music to movies, TV, and video games embrace clothing or collectibles that are lesser-known, inside references that only 'real fans' would recognize, those typically aren't the ones prioritized by the publishers themselves. That's because it requires risk, and no shortage of confidence in your brand and audience.
Those feelings may have made sense in the past, but with Ubisoft looking to become much, much more than a video game publisher, Szwengler feels that confidence is key:
"When we're talking with a licensee, no one will make that. No one. Because it's too risky for them - they want just the logo. They want to move fast, sell all of the products in one week, because usually it's when you launch the game - and then it's over, you're waiting for the next game. When you're talking about an entertainment business... you don't have to wait for the next movie, right? That's the thing."
As unexpected as they may have been, the facts were clear: by working with the game's development team and designing a premium piece of apparel (with a premium price tag to match) fans showed they were ready and willing to pay top dollar for a well-made, well-conceived piece of clothing tied to a brand they cared about.
While the total lack of marketing (only existing fans would even recognize the hoodie as Desmond Miles') would have caused some others to rethink the idea, Ubi Workshop ran with it. The goal was no longer (just) to advertise the product in as broad a way as possible, but give the community new ways to advertise the fact that they are fans of it, in ways that other fans would recognize.
The team has recently placed female fans in their crosshairs, unveiling a premium sweatshirt modeled after Assassin's Creed Unity's Templar cast member Elise. And while those in the Ubi Workshop's ranks may be bucking tradition in handling design, development, and the prototype process in a hands-on manner, Szwengler explains that manufacturers are coming around to their way of thinking:
"We don't want to do everything by ourselves... but we're also making them change, because they're trying more subtle things, and that's good for everyone. But I think usually when we meet people, it's kind of obvious. Everyone says 'Okay, you're right, guys. Why didn't we do that before?' My answer is always that [in Ubi Workshop] we're gamers, we're fans. We spend all our days playing games.
"When you see it done, it's obvious for everyone. You just have to find the right person and the right time to do things like that. Our origin is the video game industry, so everyone is thinking games. But we're really creating worlds, and universes."
A glance around the Workshop's Montreal showroom shows the direct result of fan investment in that universe, from a line of jewelry that began when a fan asked for something subtle, not 'an advertisement' for a loved one, to cosplayers requesting higher-quality props or accessories, and even subtly-branded polo shirts for fans forced to work in Abstergo-esque office spaces.
While the line of tie-in novels, comic books, and animated or live-action short films help expand a franchise's universe, the team uncovered new ways to make the most of the resources they already had in their office. And as it turns out, artists also love a chance to work directly for the fans, as was the case with the 'Red Lineage' line of art prints currently being unveiled through the Workshop's website:
"We went to the artists, and asked them to create these kind of things for us. And they did it in less than, like, two weeks.
"And they were so happy to create it, because we don't talk a lot about those guys. They just have maybe 5 to 10 minutes during the launch campaign, and that's it."
Creating high-quality pieces of original artwork (and trusting the demand is present for them) is nothing if not confident, but Szwengler's team is also looking for ways to more concretely blur the line between the game's world, and those products looking to extend it into the lives of those who play in it.
For starters, the Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag dress shirt with coordinates stitched into each cuff, leading players to hidden content in Assassin's Creed: Initiates. Or a small photograph of Watch Dogs protagonist Aiden Pearce and family tucked into the lining of reproductions of his signature hat. Easter eggs that are never advertised, but fuse guerrilla marketing with fan service in ways that other publishers will surely mimic in the years to come.
Although clothing and collectibles obscure or subtle enough to be overlooked entirely by the uninitiated may be a revelation, the current selection of products is just the beginning; and may not even hold the true promise of the Workshop's future. Ubisoft isn't in the practice of creating one-off properties, and Szwengler believes that extending the universe of Ubisoft's other entertainment franchises will be a tougher nut to crack than Assassin's Creed ever was:
"Within that community it makes sense, because we're always talking about the Brotherhood, the Assassin Brotherhood. This feeling that you're part of something else: you are a member, a unique member of a whole community. We try to... of course, with Assassin's Creed it's quite easy because you have the whole storyline behind that... but now we're facing a new challenge because we're working on Far Cry 4 products, and we try to put the same sophistication and the same approach for a game that is not so content-driven.
"'But we really want to stick with a fan service approach.'"
As is usually the case with all things Ubisoft, the expectations and plans for the Workshop in the years to come is a secret held closely by those overseeing it. Attempting to offer service and products to both the average player and the most devoted fans is no easy task; a task that will only become more difficult when and if feature films create rabid fans who may have never played a game in their life.
Whatever the future holds for the still small-scale Workshop, the approach to merchandise as a means of answering fan demands, as opposed to turning players into walking billboards is a good one to see. Especially once Ubisoft shifts from games to feature films, with an inflated promotion budget to match.
If players spend a few hundred dollars to adorn their living rooms with props and artwork, then both they - and Ubisoft - will be laughing.
Take a trip to Ubi Workshop's official site for more information on the products mentioned above, as well as other projects still in development.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.