Ubisoft buys Sunflowers: Commentary

As reported earlier, Ubisoft has bought Sunflowers, who own the rights to Anno, probably the most successful game franchise to come out of Germany ever. They also bought a 30% stake in Related Designs, the developers of the most recent game in the Anno series.

Some years back, Ubisoft bought Blue Byte (where I worked from 1994 to 1997) and that made them the owners of the Settlers franchise, perhaps the second most successful game franchise to come out of Germany ever.

Both Anno and Settlers are what are called Aufbaustrategiespiele, a genre that works very well in Germany and not always so well in other countries. Basically, it’s like a real-time strategy game, except the focus is much more on the creation of a functioning economy, rather than on warfare. This is part of the reason why these games never worked as well in the US: I remember that both for the Settlers and for the Nations, a Settlers clone done by Austrian game publisher JoWooD that I worked on once, box art had to be changed away from friendly workers to fierce warriors for the US market.

These games, or at least the successful ones, are typically set in historical times or the fantasy equivalent. One of the key factors setting this genre apart from American games such as Civilization or Caesar is the Wuselfaktor, the feeling of seeing a lot of tiny people walking around being busy. Add singing birds and wind blowing through the trees and you get a very relaxing experience that appeals to a surprisingly wide audience. At least, in the German-speaking market.

So now Ubisoft owns the two top franchises for this particular kind of game, plus the development studios with the proven capacity to make them (even if they don’t own Related Designs outright, the minority stake should be enough to fend off competitors). It’s a weird situation – kinda like Microsoft buying Valve, or Valve buying id Software. Blue Byte is looking for people, so I assume both studios will be kept. It took Ubisoft a while to ‘get’ the Aufbaustrategie genre (it’s not their core competency), but by now they’ve invested a lot of time and effort into the Settlers, so it’s likely they will keep both franchises too. I know that there are differences between Anno and Settlers that are obvious to the developers working on these games, but that seem subtle to someone like me who doesn’t play PC games (although I did play, and enjoy, Anno 1701 a few months ago), so perhaps it makes total sense to have both. With some decent timing one should be able to squeeze an immense amount of money out of German consumers.

The founders of Sunflowers have quit (news item in German), which makes sense. Although I am sure there are people at Sunflowers who helped turn Anno into a great game, Sunflowers’ main value must have been the Anno IP, and most of the people working there in marketing etc., are obsolete since Ubisoft has their own staff to take care of that. Meanwhile, the founders are walking away with a lot of money. Owning IP is the best way to get rich in games.

Update: So, I asked around a bit. (It’s weird, I can’t think of a games industry story where I would know more people involved.) Looks like Ubi decided to dominate this genre. Now let’s see if they can increase its appeal internationally. These are good games.