Develop examines the inner workings of Ubisoft's most creatively daring studio in Montpellier
Rayman Origins was something of a new direction for Ubisoft’s energetically creative Montpellier studio.
That is to say, it is a sequel of a game that itself began life at the development outfit situated in the south of France.
Almost without exception, before Origins the Ubisoft Montpellier team has never worked on the same IP twice. Sequels, they insist, are not their thing.
While the numerous other Ubisoft studios scattered across the globe toil away on the triple-A fodder that has made the giant publisher and developer a rival to the likes of EA and Activision, in a discreet industrial building near the Mediterranean coast the Montpellier team focus on making games that are typically atypical.
It was at Ubisoft Montpellier that Rayman was born, and more recently where Another World creator Eric Chahi chose to step out from several years in the development wilderness to create From Dust.
It is where Beyond Good and Evil was created, and where resident luminary Michel Ancel proved the potential of licensed IP with the King Kong video game.
The studio is central to the Rabbids games’ early history, and today it remains the place to be for Ubisoft staff hoping to flex some of their creative muscle.
And yet all too often, such is the interest in Ancel, when a spotlight is cast on Ubisoft Montpellier it misses everything but the man who made Rayman. Yet Ancel is not the only creative visionary at the studio.
Certainly, the output of the Montpelier team is still mainstream entertainment for the masses, but its games remain quite different from most chart-focused products. They are always offbeat, regularly creatively risky, and never explicitly violent.
Other Ubisoft studios have made profitable sequels from Montpellier-generated IP, but rarely is it the task of those lucky enough to work with names like Ancel and Chahi to return to an intellectual property of their own creation.
Ubisoft Montpellier’s history is an intricate one of multiple locations and transformations that is integral to the wider company’s early efforts at expansion.
But despite much change, its creative spirit has remained largely untouched since it was known as Ubisoft Pictures and merged with locally acquired developer Tiwak in late 2003.
“There has always been a desire here to create new things,” says studio director Benoit Lambert.
“That has never changed, but it isn’t only a good thing. Of course it is exciting for people, but it is also quite tough, because you always have to recreate and re-prove yourself constantly.
"It is difficult here in that way, but that is how the people here like it. It is how they have always liked it.”
It’s unusual to hear a manager introducing the studio they oversee with talk of difficulty and challenge, but for the team at Ubisoft Montpellier, it seems to be a matter of pride.
There’s much talk of achieving the output of far more sizable studios. In 2011 alone, the team of 200 released four high-profile boxed games – Rayman Origins, Tin Tin, From Dust and one iteration of Michael Jackson Experience – all the while working on a new triple-A WiiU title and continuing the efforts of a fiercely productive R&D department.
And yet there is still time for some misty-eyed romanticism.
“There is this pacifistic aspect to what we do here,” insists Lambert when asked what defines the games that Ubisoft Montpellier creates.
“It comes from many things. It comes from the feeling, the atmosphere and the history of this studio. Many people have been here for a long time and have created families here, and their lives have become about balance.
"Part of that balance is about making positive game worlds. There is that family influence – both our real families and the family of the studio – that drives us to do positive things.
"The lives of the people that make up this studio are what influences the positive feelings of our games.”
The aforementioned Wii U game, Killer Freaks From Outer Space, might signal a very definite end to Ubisoft Montpelier’s claim to pacifism, but Lambert’s point still stands.
The team around him do things differently, thanks to a confident sense of creative culture, and a knack with technology that surpasses even that of some dedicated middleware companies.
“There is always a focus here on productivity – on being agile and being fast – and how you do that is not through ideas, but through technology and how you perceive technology,” offers Lambert.
“We are driven here by a strong desire to have flexible tools and technology that can help us be efficient and reactive. Making our own tools is really as simple as us giving a painter the best brush.”
The engineers at Montpellier have made those brushes in abundance over the years, and Ubisoft operations all over the globe have built hits on tech conceived and developed in the south of France.
Ghost Recon engine Yeti has roots in Montpellier, while the Jade engine was crafted entirely at the studio for Beyond Good and Evil.
The powerhouse that is Ubisoft Montreal even used Montpellier-created facial animation system Mocam in its blockbuster Assassin's Creed: Revelations.
The advantage of having proprietary tools in the same building as Ubisoft’s most creatively daring developers is simple. Proximity makes collaboration easier, allowing that agility Lambert holds so dear.
“That closeness of designers and engineers has meant that despite creating this powerful technology, we can be very agile,” confirms Philippe Vimont, senior programmer and technical engineer.
“Here at Montpellier the engineers can communicate very easily with the game designers. We may not have a huge number of people here, but we have the ability to change projects very fast and move quickly. That setting benefits us greatly, and is part of why we have achieved what we have.”
Walk through Ubisoft Montpellier’s colourful corridors and it does seem to be the case that those from disparate disciplines constantly gather around one another’s desks, pointing enthusiastically at screens before darting away.
As a visitor it’s hard to know absolutely, but it certainly feels game designers and engineers are closer here than at most other studios.
Which brings us to creative competency. For, despite the technological experimentation that is so treasured at Ubisoft Montpellier, something else has made the studio a success, and iconic developer Eric Chahi believes he knows what it is.
“There are very talented engineers here at Montpellier, and while the technology they made was very important for From Dust, with any game it is the people that matter,” says the man most famous for creating Another World and Heart of Darkness.
“People create the games and program and code. For From Dust, we had the chance to have the right people.
"The quality of a studio comes from the quality of its people, and Ubisoft Montpellier left me very pleased, especially with boh the programmers and the engineers.
It doesn’t seem surprising that a studio would sing the praises of its staff; it would be far more unusual – and worrying – to hear the opposite, but at Montpellier there is something to give some credence to the claims of staff talent, and that is heritage.
“I think we have to recognise the role of Michel Ancel, and also guys like Eric Chahi and Jacques Exertier, who was central to Rabbids,” says Christophe de Labrouhe, senior gameplay programmer.
“They are a very important presence in the studio as they give us direction towards the feeling of our games. They are very good directors who expect a lot and know how to guide.”
Lambert and his colleagues also accredit the status of the likes of Ancel and Chahi as giving them the clout to attract and recruit the best young developers.
They insist that within the wider Ubisoft family of studios Montpellier has something of a status as a hugely desirable place to work, and admit frankly that offsetting the genteel family atmosphere is a high standard set by those creative visionaries that have made the studio’s output famous.
“There is that state of mind here, and that is what allows the creativity, but there is also the standards set for us,” explains Lambert.
“Michel, for example, is demanding. I mean, he is very demanding, and it is this that means we can be successful.
"Yes, it is very nice here, but the state of mind is not like Woodstock in the 1960s. We work very hard and there is a lot of ambition.”
Looking to its future, ample success looks certain for Ubisoft Montpellier. Killer Freaks might be ending the era of pacificism, but it is also broadening the studio’s skill set and technological agility, and ushering in a new era of productivity for the team that prop up Ancel’s iconic status.
Of all of Ubisoft Montpellier’s achievements, its work with licensed games may not be the most talked about, but the studio’s ability to be creatively bold with closely protected external IP is worthy of commendation.
The game of Peter Jackson’s King Kong film was well-received by consumers and critics, and the recent Tin Tin title based on the animated movie took the relatively commercially risky step of being a platformer in the traditional mould.
The latter may have divided critics, but everyone agreed it was far from typical compared to modern lincesed games.
“We’ve spent months with teams like those behind the Tin Tin movie, carefully working out concepts, prototyping, storyboarding and scriptwriting,” says technical architect Dominique Duvivier of Ubisoft Montpellier’s knack with the movie tie-in.
“We’ve been able to gain their trust by respecting their IP and their creative vision. It takes a long time, and like everything here it comes down to a core creative competency and an ability to tell stories.
"The directors of films like Tin Tin and King Kong speak the same creative language as the team at Montpellier.”
When Eric Chahi approached Ubisoft about his return to games making, the Another World creator picked the Montpellier studio as the place to build From Dust.
“From the beginning the way about the team at Ubisoft was very important to From Dust, because it is a very different game that needed a diverse team,” he reveals.
“I visited the studio maybe two years before the game, and that let me start to think about what kind of game I could make at that studio.
"Unlike Ubisoft Paris, which is very big – too big – there was something just right about Montpellier for From Dust.”
Part of the appeal was what Chahi calls Montpellier’s ‘artists with code’. He’s talking about the engineers at the studio behind some of Ubisoft’s most ambitious internal tech, and along with the team’s numerous designers, coders and artists, they’ve left him feeling particularly optimistic about the games industry.
In previous years Chahi has criticised the sector’s lack of emphasis on creativity, but now he’s hopeful for the medium’s future.
“Things are moving forward now, especially in the indie space, which is growing and growing, and I think it is very energising for the whole industry,” he says.
“In the last decade, the industry was slowing down creatively. The large companies had retail distribution, and that made it hard for them to take lessons from any other developers other than similar large studios.
“But now that has changed. Minecraft is a perfect example of a lesson that the indie community can teach the major companies. Nobody at a large company would have believed in it.”
According to Chahi digital distribution has given creativity a renewed voice and informed and broadened the perception of gaming. This, he says, will encourage large companies to take more risks.
“I think, from two or three years ago we entered a mutation that has brought about a phase of innovation.
"Maybe it is not the biggest innovation, but these small innovations and small games like Ellis, Sword & Sworcery, Journey and Flower are offering a different world that is changing everything.
"In three or five years, with audiences now accepting very different experiences, things will be very exciting.
“The changing audience is very important, because creatively risky games need an audience. We all need an audience.”