When Ubisoft announced last week that its next Division game, called Heartland, will be free to play, we wondered if it was a sign that the publisher was pursuing the success that Activision has enjoyed with the free-to-play battle royale Call of Duty: Warzone. The short answer is yes, it is—but its ambition is not limited to Tom Clancy shooters.
Ubisoft chief financial officer Frederick Duguet said during today’s earnings call that the company’s previous commitment to release 3-4 premium, “triple-A” games per year “is no longer a proper indication of [Ubisoft’s] value creation dynamics.” Instead, while it will continue to maintain “a high cadence of content delivery including powerful premium and free-to-play new releases,” the goal is to grow audiences “by widening our brand at the top of the funnel”—in other words, convincing more people to try Ubisoft’s games by making them free at the entry level.
It’s a financial decision—Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot said the company’s revenues “are more and more recurring,” referring to player purchases within games that are often free to play, and their growing importance compared to single-purchase premium games—but Duguet said that the company is not looking to cash in on low-budget work: “We are building high-end free-to-play games to be trending toward triple-A ambitions over the long term.”
“We think we have a great opportunity to meaningfully expand the audience of our biggest franchises,” Duguet said. “We’ve taken the time to learn from what we did last year with Hyper Scape. We’re also learning with the launch we’ll be making on Roller Champions, we’ve been learning a lot with Brawlhalla that is rapidly growing, and we think it is now the time to come with high-quality free-to-play games across all our biggest franchises, across all platforms.”
The Hyper Scape acknowledgement is interesting. In case you’d forgotten, the free-to-play sci-fi battle royale launched last year (yes, it was released in 2020) and almost immediately fell off the map. But there’s no doubt that free-to-play games can be highly polished and incredibly lucrative, as games like Call of Duty: Warzone and Apex Legends have demonstrated. Hyper Scape missed the mark, but the familiarity of The Division should give Heartland a big leg up, and if Ubisoft continues that strategy across game series like Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs, Far Cry, and Tom Clancy’s Everything, even bigger changes on the free-to-play scene could be in the offing.