Putting Reflections back into the spotlight

Putting Reflections back into the  spotlight
Matthew Jarvis

By Matthew Jarvis

October 4th 2016 at 10:17AM

Once renowned as the creator of Driver, Reflections subsequently faded from prominence, handing the limelight to its sibling Ubisoft studios. With the success of Grow Home and The Division, the developer has returned to reclaim its fame

Twenty-five years ago, Reflections was the Shadow of the Beast studio. Two decades ago, it was the creator of Destruction Derby. 15 years back, Driver defined its output, with the series continuing to be synonymous with the studio’s name for the following decade. 

Yet, for almost five years after its last Driver instalment, 2011’s San Francisco, the developer seemed to lose its identity. It contributed to a kaleidoscopic selection of parent publisher Ubisoft’s biggest releases – Just Dance, Far Cry and Watch Dogs – but only ever in a supporting role. It seemed that Reflections had gone from being a singular force of innovative development to another cog in the corporate machine.

Then, in 2015, Grow Home arrived. A quirky lo-fi platformer all but bereft of story but boasting oodles of charm and a unique climbing mechanic, it was beloved by critics and players alike. Birthed from Reflections’ internal incubation programme, it marked the first game on which the studio had led development since Driver: San Francisco. This was followed by the announcement that Reflections would be playing a major role in the development of Ubisoft’s ambitious MMO shooter The Division, contributing a large portion of the title’s expansive New York environment, as well as multiple main missions. 

“We are at a tipping point in the history of Reflections,” observes Pauline Jacquey (pictured), who took charge as MD in early 2013. “It is a tipping point where what we do has got a lot of value, not only for us internally but for gamers and for Ubisoft.”

With Reflections’ stature growing under the Ubisoft umbrella, has that opened the door for the studio to break out further from remaining a development bridesmaid?

“I don’t think it means we have more of a say,” Jacquey admits. “Maybe we’re seen a bit more as a model, when before we were not. The head of Ubisoft is globally very decentralised; we don’t have a very powerful head office and they don’t tell us what to do. This is true, regardless of studio size. It’s even truer when you don’t work on the biggest triple-As – there is actually more attention on what you do.

“What has changed is that I’m now getting calls that ask things like: ‘How do you do this? Because this is interesting and I’d like to duplicate this in my studio.’ Which was maybe not happening two or three years ago. This is going back to what Reflections was 15 years or a decade ago: a pioneering studio.” 

REFLECT ON YOURSELF

In line with Reflections’ journey to redefine its external perception, Jacquey highlights her efforts to revitalise the internal operations of the studio.

“It’s changed a lot, and I hope it’s for the better,” she laughs when asked about her influence. “Not that we do everything perfectly, but there’s more transparency today in Reflections than in most companies that I know about. That means that everything can be discussed in a very open, adult manner, including when the studio is at a loss or something is not successful. I don’t make a decision at a studio level without consulting a lot of guys, so it’s not top-down.”

Freedom is a philosophy that Jacquey is keen to highlight as running throughout Reflections. 

“This translates to our incentives, too,” she continues. “Instead of organising people’s fun, we have £25,000 for the year that we distribute. They do what they want.

“From a business standpoint it makes sense, because it doesn’t cost much more than if you were doing it yourself.”

THE SECRET STUDIO

While Jacquey is confident Reflections’ existing staff are there to stay, its position behind the scenes has made it difficult to attract fresh talent.

“People don’t know enough, which means we have challenges hiring,” she reveals. “There’s a deficit of image with Reflections that occurred when we stopped being a one-game studio attached to Driver. It felt a bit like a void, you know? Whereas our studio culture, values, methods and technology have got even more worth than what the image of a game brings you.

“It’s important that we are known for who we are rather than just having shipped a franchise. I want to emphasise who we are and our values, and what we’re trying to achieve here.”

Reflections’ drive to maintain the internal strength of its workforce has exacerbated its perception problem. 

“We’re very demanding when we select our profile, so that means some hirings take like a year or a year and a half,” Jacquey confesses.

I’m not looking for scale here. I’m really looking for talent.

The Newcastle-based team takes on graduates straight out of the local universities – but finding experienced devs remains a struggle.

“We work very closely with a network of universities,” Jacquey details. “It’s relatively easy for us to hire for junior positions. It starts to be a bit more complicated when we’re trying to hire people that have 10, 15 or 20 years of experience.

“I’m really keen to build up the expertise of the studio – I’m not looking for scale here, I’m really looking for talent. So that makes hiring a bit more complicated. We’re trying to attract international senior and experts who like the culture and what we do here and the way we do things.” 

DRIVING FORCE

With Grow Up expanding on the success of its predecessor and Reflections leading creation of The Division’s first major expansion, Underground, the studio continues to recover its lost prestige – albeit in new forms a world away from its driving game legacy.

“What’s interesting is that it’s a very different approach to games than our legacy of vehicular realisation but, actually, the foundations are the same,” Jacquey retorts. “It’s physics-based – we’re really good in physics – and some of our programmers who are working on the toys in our incubator are exactly the same that worked on the AI behaviour of the main vehicles in Driver: San Francisco.

“In terms of the development process, the biggest difference is that this incubator is working as if they were developing an onion. At any point in time, the onion is an onion – it’s a product which could be shipped – and we decide if we want to add a layer and make it bigger or not.”

With its developers’ passion taking Reflections to unexplored realms, is there any chance the studio will return to the franchise that made its name?

“We are not working on Driver,” Jacquey states definitively. “We love the franchise – it is in everybody’s hearts – but it’s not like an obsession, like: ‘Oh, when we will be allowed to work on Driver again?’ If we wanted to, we would and we could. Nobody’s telling us not to do it.

“The other thing is that something different but very interesting could come from our three strands – our legacy in driving, our work on titles like The Division and our Grow Home incubator team – kind of cross-pollenising and talking to each other. I don’t know when this will happen, but I’m pretty sure it will lead to something that’s very special.”