The narrative edition of this QA feature, as published in Develop issue 108, can be found here.
What kind of development culture is Ubisoft Toronto hoping to foster?
Well there’s a lot of thinks we’re working on, and building the correct atmosphere and culture takes a lot of work from the get-go.
Basically you’re hiring a bunch of people, and so there’s a lot of work you have to go through to make sure the teams gel.
What I love about Ubisoft – the thing that I hope to carry over at Ubisoft – is the diversity of its workforce. If you look at Ubisoft studios you see people from all over the place, and Toronto is an extremely diverse city, similar to London in the sense that it’s hugely populated with a great mix of cultures.
Setting up a structure where all these people can have input on the game is the principal goal of mine, and that’s how I feel you get the big creative leaps.
Eventually the studio will have 800 developers working, so will management adopt a more regimented program to hold everything together, or are you looking to encourage a more flexible and free atmosphere?
Yeah that’s where we want to get in ten years. Right now we have 45 staff [Laughs], so it’s a proper start-up right now. We have a lot of space.
I think there’s certain things we are doing from the start, though, that are very important to me that see as the key to success.
One is set up really good mentor program, and have Ubisoft Toronto become known as the place to fast-track your career. I was lucky enough to have a great team of superstars come across from Ubisoft Montreal.
So there is this excellent core team here, which as we said are working on the next Splinter Cell. And also, because we are going to be working on triple-A products from the start, we’ve been able to attract a lot of senior talent as well, and that means we have a good base of people who can be mentors and coach the other people working at the studio.
The key to growing Ubisoft Toronto successfully is making sure that we’re hiring talent and giving them the framework to grow and reach their potential as quickly as possible.
Sounds like you’re looking especially for young aspiring talent, perhaps the next generation of developers?
I think it’s important to have a mix. Obviously we started with the core team, which we now have split up to do early work on two core projects. We’re still looking for one or two senior roles in that regard.
But then we’re going to start getting in a fresh mix of the young talent, because I think that is what’s great about the videogame industry – its ambition and its passion. We want new people coming in to offer their own insight and views, and that is key to getting the right kind of ambition and energy into your game projects.
In and around Ubisoft Toronto there’s a number of studios such as Silicon Knights, Digital Extremes, and – as you have said – a thriving independent dev community. Those kinds of studios have said to us in the past they fear big monolith developers being built nearby, because there is a anxiety that indie talent will be pulled into one studio and the indie community effectively dies. Should the heads of studios situated around Ubisoft Toronto be worried?
Obviously there are people who want to work on bigger triple-A projects, and now that we’re in the area they’re going to be sending in their CVs. I can’t say to you that’s not going to happen, and I can’t say that hasn’t happened a little bit already.
But there are still a lot of senior developers in the industry that want to make their own indie games, and I think you need a small start-up company feel to get that right.
There are people who are attracted to making indie games, and we’re not going to make them. So there’s not a direct competition between us and the surrounding studios as far as I’m concerned – we’re not setting up Toronto to make a bunch of indie XBLA titles.
So developers have the choice, but if they want to work on triple-A titles they’ll probably want to come to us.
In the long term though, once a city is known for its masses of game developers, it attracts more and more developers, because it makes moving there more interesting. It allows developers to say ‘oh well if it doesn’t work out with that studio I have options to join nearby studios’. So ultimately I think we’re helping the whole game development population there.
The biggest draw we have is all the great things about a startup; we want to grow to 800 staff in ten years, we’re on two major projects now, eventually we’ll be working on five. If developers have ambition to make triple-A projects, and want to have their place in what is a thriving start-up, the Ubisoft Toronto is the place for them.
We have all that great stuff but much less of the risk, because we’re fully backed by Ubisoft and already have veteran staff.
Ubisoft will of course be looking to Toronto for collaboration as well – five studios are already working on the Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood project.
And we’ve had a lot of success with that process. Three studios collaborated on Assassin’s Creed 2, and it worked really well.
The bottom line is the way we are developing games today is changing. Games are growing into huge-scale triple-A projects. If you look at any big brand like GTA, the games are being done across multiple studios and multiple teams.
Once your team reaches over 200 people – even if they’re in the same studio – you need complex management methods to make sure everything is held together; the feature development, the communication, and everything else.
The management methods you need to control a 100 person team just won’t work with 200 staff. Even with the first Assassin’s Creed, which we were making just within the Montreal Studio, when the team got as big as 200 people, I had to restructure the group and divide them into sub-teams.
So what we did was look at the game, divide it into slices, and have developers work on each part with more independence. So there was, for example, a fight team that was doing all the fight mechanics; the fight AI, the path-finding, etcetera. So that team itself was like a mini independent studio, with a designer in charge, and animators, and programmers and everything else.
We did the same thing with other aspects of the game, such as the free-running mechanics.
Now, when we started work on Assassin’s Creed 2, we took the same approach, only that other aspects of the game happened to be managed at different studios.
It’s understandable that such fragmentation is deemed necessary in today’s market, but does it work as well as a small studio?
I think if you do it intelligently, there’s actually not that much difference. You really do need a local team with an associate producer and people responsible for integrating all that content and supporting the external teams, but there are ways to set it up that work very well and we’ve had a lot of success with it.
You said earlier, by the way, that Toronto wants to be running on five projects at some point.
Well I can’t say specifics now [laughs], we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves in our first year. But yeah, that’s the plan.
What do you want Toronto’s legacy to be, and yours within it?
I’ve got to say I’m pretty excited about where I am now, we’re having a lot of fun and I’m with such a fantastic team that are pleased about having this new clean slate. My goal is for Toronto to become known as the best place to work – I mean, even out-do Google.
You know Google has this reputation for being a wonderful place to work? I want Toronto to say; look at what we’re doing creating videogames, look at how cool it is to work here. We want that to be the message for everyone outside of the game industry.
I know you recently said that your projects were going to be triple-A only. But eventually having 800 creative people means that a lot of game ideas will be bouncing between the walls each day. Is there no chance Toronto will be developing the odd boutique game, even if it’s a stunning idea?
Well, you never know what’s going to make sense down the road. To me, it’s very clear that to build the studio the way that we want to, we have to start with triple-A. It’s those kind of games that will attract talent in the industry. People follow projects, not salaries and places, right? If people want to work on the next triple-A title, and new IP, our aim is to be on the top of their lists.
Once we grow and have people well-trained, we’ll take it from there.