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9 Interviews

Interview: Ubisoft's refreshing rules of game design

By Andy Robinson on Thursday 29th May 2014 at 9:53 PM EST

Lionel Raynaud is a man with a hand in virtually all of Ubisoft's major game franchises.

As vice president of creative, the 14-year company veteran has for the past six years supervised the content of all of the publisher's games, working with creative directors around the globe to ensure that Ubisoft's philosophies are consistent across its games portfolio.

Meeting with various company executives at the Game Developers Conference, it's clear that this commitment to maintaining a cohesive company culture is more than just PR talk, but a refreshing corporate experiment that - on the surface at least - appears to be a success.

Few journalists will disagree that Ubisoft's key employees are able to approach the media with a transparency other larger publishers are unwilling - or unable - to replicate. Much of that is because they've each bought into Ubisoft's ideals of creativity, experimentation and, occasionally, risk - albeit under the umbrella of some of the medium's biggest franchises.

But teaching a gigantic network of development studios to operate as one ubiquitous whole presents numerous potential pitfalls, not least the mammoth task of managing multi-studio development (a total of nine studios worked on Assassin's Creed IV).

We met with Lionel Raynaud at GDC to discuss Ubisoft's company culture and approach to game development - big and small.


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Obviously you have significant involvement in all Ubisoft development teams, but where specifically is your base studio Montreal at right now?

At Montreal we've developed quite an expertise at creating open-world games with franchises like Far Cry, Assassin's Creed and Watch Dogs. We've spent a lot of energy trying to understand what works, what doesn't and what makes that genre interesting.

I guess the future of that is how we bring more choice to players in worlds where they have tonnes of activities and in which they can choose where they want to play and what they want to do. The expansion of these worlds and the fact that they're now connected will have a lot to do with that. We're trying to find ways to leverage connectivity and also go further with the way that content is delivered.

That's what I'm personally trying to push right now. But also because Ubisoft is really initiative-based, every employee can pitch their own ideas and if they are viable then we'll use them. If pitches make sense tech-wise, market-wise, knowledge-wise and most importantly player-wise, then we'll do it.

This company culture allows us to foster many, many ideas and makes my job easier. But still there is this big trend here where we want to give players more means and tools to express themselves. Give them the world and let them play.

Today Ubisoft is an absolutely huge company comprised of many, many employees around the world. How do you ensure there is coherency across time zones and continents?

You're talking about co-development, right? So our main franchises are created by many studios working together on the same game.

There are several things that help make that happen. One of them is that we take time to create a big picture of what we're doing, so with Assassin's Creed for example we ensure that we're always staying true to the franchise's core values, and that everybody who is working on the game has a very clear idea of why Assassin's Creed is successful, and what the core experience that players should feel is.

Zoom

Secondly we have developed a strong structure of coordination managers that create channels between teams to ensure that everything is consistent and developed for a reason.

Finally, the third thing that helps a lot is being super clear with your mandate. For example, if the leadership team is in Montreal and Annecy is going to do one segment of the game, the high level specs need to be super clear so that they don't create something that won't fit within the game. It also means that they feel they have enough ownership within this framework to develop whatever great ideas they have.

This balance is very important. I would say that in the past whenever we struggled it was because the mandate was not precise enough.

Do you think Ubisoft has become better at co-developing its big franchises?

Yes. And it's one of the most difficult things to get right. We had nine studios working on Black Flag - that's crazy.

"All of our franchises were pitched by small teams at the beginning and then developed... the process is always the same"

This year we've seen smaller titles emerge such as Child of Light from Montreal and Valiant Hearts: The Great War from Montpellier. Culturally, how do you fit these small team, almost indie-like games alongside 1000-man monsters like Assassin's Creed and Watch Dogs?

There's no special process or way to make those types of games appear. Usually it's creative guys who want to make those games, and they have a really clear vision of what they want to make. They'll pitch those games to management and if we think they make sense, we'll then pitch them to the head office in Paris and usually it's very smooth from there. Because if the idea is strong, it's because the creative director has the experience and expertise required to ship it.

It's exactly the same as a new IP actually; all of our franchises such as Watch Dogs or Assassin's Creed were pitched by very small teams at the beginning and then they developed. The process is always the same, whether it's Child of Light, Blood Dragon or Watch Dogs.

Within that conception process, what usually comes first; a gameplay concept, or an idea for a new franchise?

Very often it's the case that because of the high level experience involved, they wouldn't pitch ideas if they hadn't already figured out what the game mechanics would be like. We also have a very strong expectation for what we call a 'breakthrough' - there is actually a process called the 'breakthrough gate'.

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If you come up with a new idea it should have something very strong at its core that should offer a new way to play. If it looks like something that is already here and successful, you're not going to succeed your 'breakthrough gate' and we're not going to make the game. It's that simple.

We judge the potential of each pitch based on the consistency of its technology, game mechanics and the overall experience such as the narrative. Everything should be absolutely consistent - and that's the toughest thing to do. A lot of games even today don't have this consistency - you still get games where somebody is trying to tell a story and you actually experience something completely different when you play it.

We are also a gameplay-oriented company, so we focus on game mechanics before narrative and characters.

Do you think fostering smaller projects such as Child of Light - which is helmed by former Far Cry and Assassin's Creed designer Patrick Plourde - alongside traditional blockbuster titles can prevent the employee burnout often seen at larger game companies?

The longer the development, the more difficult it is for creators. When you have a one-year development period, it's easier to recover your energy. However, what we've observed is that employees working inside long development periods still do recover energy; a game that takes three years to create is going to be more taxing, but the success of that game and the reaction of players does give them the energy to go again.

It's funny because when I speak with creative directors, they often say that they only have so many games that they will be able to ship during their lives - because each one takes so much of their energy. As you get older you feel that maybe you still have one or two games in you... I think it's something you feel, but it's not what we observe.

The more our core teams stay on one franchise and evolve together, the better the game is going to be. Most of them are happy to work that way.

"We took a lot of risks [with Watch Dogs] and that's one of the reasons we needed more time"

Do you think the smaller titles benefit from the larger ones, in terms of learnings, technology etc?

Yes, they do. But it's also true for the opposite - what we learned with Child of Light will be useful for the other games. In Montreal at least, we have never before developed such a concrete RPG and evolution system. We always have RPG elements in our games, but with Child of Light we gained experience creating a more in-depth, stat-based system and that was really useful.

The research in art direction too was something that we were not used to doing - visuals based on illustration and fairy tales. It was refreshing for the artists for sure and I wouldn't be surprised if we see elements of that appear in our future games.

Watch Dogs is your first big new IP for the new consoles. Specifically in terms of the console hardware, what lessons do you think you've learned during the development of Watch Dogs?

It's always a huge challenge when you to develop the technology, the IP and the process on a new platform all at the same time. It's crazy. You need to split your risks and make sure you do it right. We took a lot of risks and that's one of the reasons that we needed more time - to reach the level of quality we wanted.

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What we have learned is how open-world games can be seemingly integrated with online multiplayer. I think it's only the beginning, but the IP and the whole fantasy of hacking became a way to discover a new process for unlocking content and offering activities, in a way that feels totally unique and integrated with the message of the game.

Even though we have similar activities inside the structure of Far Cry and Assassin's Creed, it's important to deliver an open-world in which the density of activities is just right, and where the feeling of progression and ownership of the city develops as you play. This is quite difficult to pull off and I know that many other publishers are struggling with that.

A good example of Watch Dogs' new approach is the ability to profile citizens and maybe discover people who for example enter illegal car races at the weekend. If the player then hacks them, they will access their contact and unlock new activities. This was the kind of approach that was made possible by the pitch.

Did the extra six months development time, afforded by the delay to 2014, get Watch Dogs to a place where you were fully satisfied with the final product?

There were several systems that were not going to be in the game if we released in October. There's always the discussion of, 'should we leave them for the sequel, or do we take the time to finish them?' And we decided to take our time and do it right.

It's made a big difference - we've polished everything. The things we've developed the most are the interactions with hacking, and how in many situations being smart with chain reactions can offer something unique from any other open-world game. If we weren't able to deliver this aspect, it wouldn't feel new enough to be worth a new IP. We wanted hacking to feel very new and unique.

Did any ideas end up on the cutting room floor?

There are always things that you have to keep for the next game. In this case, the extra time allowed us to put a lot of our ideas into the game, so we are happy with that.

Yes, we have ideas. Some ideas that we weren't able to get into the game would not have made a difference, while other, bigger ideas that naturally emerged during development were so different that we felt they would have changed the experience.

The consistency that we have achieved with the characters, structure and narrative would have been difficult to maintain if we put in the other ideas that we had. So where we are now is keeping these ideas safe for the next game.

Personally, I have very few regrets on Watch Dogs. I can't think of many things that I would've liked to have put in the game - I'm quite happy with what we were able to deliver thanks to the extra time that we had.