L’équipe Ed­i­to­rial

We meet the hugely in­flu­en­tial, yet prac­ti­cally anony­mous, ed­i­to­rial team at Ubisoft Paris

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BY MICHAEL GAP­PER

Serge Has­coet joined Ubisoft in 1987 as a de­signer and tester of sorts, work­ing on Iron Lord and Skate­ball for the home com­put­ers of the day. Over his 27 years with the com­pany, he has been a game de­signer and stu­dio head, but to­day he shapes Ubisoft’s cre­ative di­rec­tion as its chief cre­ative of­fi­cer and head of the ed­i­to­rial team. It was Has­coet who in­sisted that cutscenes were a re­dun­dant method of sto­ry­telling in the early ’00s, Has­coet who man­dated that ev­ery Ubisoft game should aim for 60fps, and Has­coet who is driv­ing the com­pany to­wards open worlds and sys­temic games as it tran­si­tions to a new gen­er­a­tion of hard­ware. His con­tri­bu­tion to games is im­mea­sur­able – not sim­ply be­cause of its enor­mity, but be­cause he has sat for fewer than half-a-dozen in­ter­views and is quick to di­rect the spot­light onto any­one else. He re­fuses to be pho­tographed in­di­vid­u­ally, and is only pre­pared to go on record for the sake of his staff.

“It’s not for me, this in­ter­view,” he says. “It’s for the people here; they are work­ing hard on games, but they are not known for what they do. For me, this is a way to help them be proud. Does that make sense? Be­sides, I’m not good enough [to make games my­self].”

And yet Michel An­cel sug­gested in his bi­og­ra­phy that it was Has­coet who should be cred­ited as France’s Shigeru Miyamoto, not him. Be­fore Has­coet worked on 1995’s Ray­man, which he counts as his first game, he had been cred­ited on some 50 ti­tles. “I was not cod­ing. I was not a graphic artist. I was the guy giv­ing some feed­back about the de­sign,” he says. “I was at school when I first played Nin­tendo [games]. They are my masters; I love ev­ery­thing they do. [I be­lieve] we’re still at school and I think I have more to bring to the people [at Ubisoft] than to bring on one game. It’s a big re­ward when people are happy to work with me.”

For many years now, Has­coet has served as head of Ubisoft’s ed­i­to­rial team, a group that’s sur­pris­ingly in­vis­i­ble given its wide-rang­ing in­flu­ence. The Parisian ed­i­tors num­ber just over 70 and over­see ev­ery as­pect of the projects be­ing ex­e­cuted by the 9,000 people mak­ing games at Ubisoft’s global stu­dios. Be­fore the ed­i­to­rial team was es­tab­lished, games were given the green light by the pub­lisher’s ex­ec­u­tive man­age­ment group, with Has­coet serv­ing as a con­sul­tant. But since 2000, ev­ery facet of Ubisoft’s cre­ative di­rec­tion has been guided by a collection of de­sign­ers and pro­duc­ers who col­lab­o­rate with the stu­dios’ di­rec­tors from con­cep­tion to ship­ping.

“Ed­i­to­rial’s first func­tion is knowl­edge,” says IP de­vel­op­ment di­rec­tor Tommy Fran­cois. “Ed­i­to­rial has three big [de­part­ments]. The first one, of course, is game de­sign; we call them line de­sign­ers. They all spe­cialise in us­abil­ity,

THE PARISIAN ED­I­TORS OVER­SEE EV­ERY

AS­PECT OF THE PROJECTS BE­ING MADE

BY THE 9,000 PEOPLE ACROSS UBISOFT

ac­ces­si­bil­ity and game de­sign. Then we have line pro­duc­ers. In essence, they are more [the] plan­ning and budget side. They usu­ally come from pro­duc­tion or QA or sim­i­lar.”

Elis­a­beth Pellen, writer of 2003 FPS XIII and a lead level de­signer on King Kong, over­sees the line de­sign­ers, while long­time project co­or­di­na­tor

Ni­cholas Schoener is the man in charge of the team of line pro­duc­ers. Above them all are Has­coet and gen­eral di­rec­tor of world­wide pro­duc­tion Chris­tine Burgess-Qué­mard, who over­sees bud­gets and stu­dio man­age­ment.

“The third prong, ed­i­to­rial cre­ative ser­vices, is mine,” Fran­cois says. “The depart­ment is in charge of IP in gen­eral, and the types of profiles you’ll find there are di­rec­tors, writ­ers, scriptwrit­ers, ex-jour­nal­ists, video ed­i­tors; it’s more on the cre­ative side. We chal­lenge [the teams] on in­no­va­tion and qual­ity. Now, that doesn’t mean we are right, but we chal­lenge them.

We try to un­der­stand that, as much as we are head of­fice ex­ecs, we don’t make the games.”

Fran­cois, a for­mer jour­nal­ist and pro­ducer at Shiny En­ter­tain­ment, han­dles the very first stages of de­vel­op­ment. Ubisoft’s stu­dios mostly de­velop pitches in­ter­nally be­fore pre­sent­ing to the ed­i­to­rial team, and ideas are bat­ted be­tween Fran­cois’ cre­ative depart­ment and the stu­dio in a se­ries of kick­off meet­ings. It doesn’t end there: Fran­cois has flown to Malmö, Swe­den, to meet with The

Di­vi­sion cre­ator Mas­sive 40 times over the past four years, over­see­ing de­sign and IP work­shops that will shape Ubisoft’s next ma­jor se­ries.

“In terms of IP, we are a lot less ex­pe­ri­enced than Ubisoft and ed­i­to­rial as an en­tity,” The

Di­vi­sion’s ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Fredrik Rundqvist says. “That’s where I think they have been ex­tremely help­ful, pro­vid­ing us with the tools and pro­cesses to come up with The Di­vi­sion. It’s very rare that the ma­jor­ity of your in­ter­ac­tions with the pub­lisher are con­ver­sa­tions about be­ing in­no­va­tive and main­tain­ing qual­ity, rather than other topics. The cor­po­rate cul­tures of the two com­pa­nies [Ubisoft and Mas­sive’s pre­vi­ous pub­lisher, Vivendi Games] are vastly dif­fer­ent. Our main in­ter­ac­tion with Ubisoft is with the ed­i­to­rial team, and there’s a con­stant fo­cus on in­ven­tion and qual­ity. With­out talk­ing specif­i­cally about our past, that’s very dif­fer­ent from the con­ver­sa­tions that we used to have. Serge or Tommy or Elis­a­beth or Ni­co­las, they al­ways… make quite an ef­fort to em­power us. It’s our team, our project. It’s our game.

“Just be­ing con­stantly chal­lenged and pushed to be more am­bi­tious has ac­tu­ally been very help­ful. Be­ing able to tap into that vast pool of ex­pe­ri­ence and best prac­tices, and shar­ing knowl­edge with all the other stu­dios, has been a real eye opener for us. I think Ubisoft has re­ally taken us into the big leagues of de­vel­op­ment. It prob­a­bly sounds like I’ve been told to say that, but I am 100 per cent sure that the qual­ity of the game and the brand would be less with­out our in­ter­ac­tion with ed­i­to­rial.” “I’m not be­ing a busi­ness guy here,” Watch

Dogs’ cre­ative di­rec­tor Jonathan Morin says, also ac­knowl­edg­ing pos­si­ble scep­ti­cism, “but Ubisoft is not a com­pany that is driven at first by busi­ness logic. It’s why I’m still here af­ter all these years. They’re re­ally good at [mak­ing money], but there’s some­thing more to it. The people I pitched Watch Dogs to, the ed­i­tors, first and fore­most are de­sign­ers and they be­lieved in

Watch Dogs. [It wasn’t] just, ‘Oh my God, I can make a lot of money from it.’”

New game pitches, Has­coet says, can come from any­where. “Some­times it can come from teams, some­times it’s me, some­times it’s an MD… Ev­ery­thing is pos­si­ble and there are no rules. As­sas­sin’s Creed [comes from a book] I

love: [Vladimir Bar­tol’s] Ala­mut. I gave it to Pa­trice Désilets and it was an in­spi­ra­tion. They were do­ing the next Prince Of Per­sia; then, with the book, they cre­ated As­sas­sin’s Creed.”

In The Di­vi­sion’s case, ed­i­to­rial had wanted to make a Tom Clancy-based MMORPG for many years be­fore the right stu­dio came along. “We had a team that al­ways as­pired to do an RPG,” Rundqvist says, “and then we had a new pub­lisher with a real need for a stu­dio that could help them pur­sue their dream.”

Af­ter a suc­cess­ful pitch, Fran­cois’ team will pose ques­tions to the de­vel­op­ers and dream up pos­si­ble so­lu­tions. Take The Di­vi­sion, for in­stance: mak­ing a near-fu­ture MMORPG has in­her­ent the­matic con­straints. “When you hit level 99, you don’t get a rain of fire [spell],” Fran­cois says. “Who is your boss? It can’t be a monster on Mount Doom. What does your tank look like?”

Worse, at­tach­ing it to the Clancy uni­verse throws up con­ti­nu­ity ques­tions. “We’re in Tom Clancy’s New York, right? So where is Sam Fisher? Where is Rain­bow Six and Ghost Re­con? We were like, ‘Are we fuck­ing up Clancy? Are we cre­at­ing dis­crep­an­cies for Clancy fans?’” Those ques­tions will be an­swered, we’re told.

For The Di­vi­sion, the ed­i­to­rial team helped with re­search – Mas­sive is now on its sixth factfind­ing mis­sion to New York – and li­aised with FEMA and other ex­perts to help the de­vel­op­ers tap their ex­per­tise for its pan­demic sce­nario.

But the process is more than me­di­a­tion: the ed­i­tors will ar­gue de­sign and writ­ing de­ci­sions with the de­vel­op­ment team in meet­ings, with a pro­fes­sional mod­er­a­tor from out­side the com­pany en­sur­ing ev­ery­one is speak­ing on the same level. In a project’s ear­li­est days, the ed­i­tors and de­vel­op­ment team also spend three days at a rented chateau – “I know, that sounds aw­fully bour­geoisie,” Fran­cois says – with­out mo­bile phones, talk­ing with each other all day and

“WE ARE PUSH­ING HARD TO GO TO OPEN

WORLD, MAINLY. THIS IS THE BEST WAY

TO LET THE PLAYER EX­PRESS HIM­SELF”

play­ing board games at night. It’s all about build­ing a level of trust and co-oper­a­tion.

“If you’re in pro­duc­tion and you’re talk­ing to me, you’re like, ‘Do we have a good re­la­tion­ship with him? Do I trust him? Will he break my game?’” Fran­cois says. “I can help you, but I’m still [from] head of­fice, so it’s about build­ing a re­la­tion­ship with the people, about re­spect. The more trans­par­ent and open you are, the bet­ter it will be.”

Be­fore that meet­ing, ev­ery Ubisoft game is as­signed at least one line de­signer and line pro­ducer, who will over­see the project from Paris. But per­haps the most cu­ri­ous as­pect of Ubisoft’s ed­i­to­rial depart­ment is that join­ing it isn’t con­sid­ered a pro­mo­tion. A line de­signer in Paris is no more se­nior than a game de­signer in Mon­treal, and a line pro­ducer com­mands no more re­spect than their coun­ter­parts work­ing in-house on The Di­vi­sion. Some line de­sign­ers come fresh from univer­sity, oth­ers h are ten-year vet­er­ans, and oth­ers still are long­time hands-on de­sign­ers on sab­bat­i­cal from their usual stu­dio.

“I re­cruit [line de­sign­ers] from the best de­sign schools,” Pellen says. “I also ask them to have a great knowl­edge about games, so I try to hire [es­tab­lished] game de­sign­ers and pro­gram­mers. I try to find guys with a strong per­son­al­ity who are also good lis­ten­ers. The role of the line de­sign­ers is to com­mu­ni­cate the ed­i­to­rial guide­lines to the cre­ative di­rec­tors and lead game de­sign­ers, but be­fore you do that, it’s im­por­tant to lis­ten and re­spect the own­er­ship and un­der­stand the vi­sion.”

Those ed­i­to­rial guide­lines in­clude a push to­wards open-world sys­temic de­sign and a fo­cus on on­line el­e­ments, even in sin­gle­player games. “We are push­ing hard to go to open world, mainly,” Has­coet says. “This is the best way to let the player ex­press him­self. I have a hard time with lin­ear games – mis­sion af­ter mis­sion af­ter mis­sion. I un­der­stand [it can be good]. The Last

Of Us is great, but it’s not where we want to go. “I know it’s not al­ways ob­vi­ous in our games, but my main [goal] is to let the player ex­press [them­selves]. I’m more about the sys­temic stuff than the nar­ra­tive stuff. It’s not that ob­vi­ous when you play As­sas­sin’s Creed, but we are go­ing in that di­rec­tion. Far Cry 3 is a good [step

to­ward that], and we worked a lot with the team dur­ing the process. What I work on most with the team is to al­ways re­spect the player and have them cre­ate their own story, in­stead of be­ing forced to live the story writ­ten by a cre­ative.”

An­other di­rec­tive in­sists that a game’s con­text be grounded in re­al­ity, the odd Rav­ing Rab­bids or Child Of Light aside. It could be a past, present or near-fu­ture re­al­ity, Pellen ex­plains, but Ubisoft’s ed­i­to­rial depart­ment likes games to draw in­spi­ra­tion from the real world. That would seem­ingly pro­hibit Ubisoft from ever mak­ing its own Mass Ef­fect or Fi­nal Fan­tasy, but Pellen be­lieves other­wise. “Yes, we could do a Mass

Ef­fect or a fan­tasy game, but sup­ported with our pil­lars. Clover­field is a per­fect ex­am­ple. It’s so real when the crea­ture ap­pears on the screen.” District 9 is an­other ex­am­ple of fan­tasy grounded by re­al­ity, she says. The key dif­fer­ence is that the fan­tas­tic feels real.

Those pil­lars have changed over the years, though. “The guide­line on [ Peter Jack­son’s] King

Kong was: ‘You have nine months to work on the game and it should be re­leased at the same time as the movie,’” Pellen laughs. To­day, Ubisoft’s ma­chine runs far more smoothly. “The mod­ern [cre­ative di­rec­tion] is a mix be­tween what went well on our own games and what we ob­serve from our com­peti­tors. We play a lot of dif­fer­ent games. We work with con­sumer mar­ket­ing and knowl­edge, with the data an­a­lysts.... plus our own in­tu­itions, our feel­ings, some­thing not ra­tio­nal that I can’t de­scribe to you.”

The ed­i­tors don’t al­ways agree, ei­ther, and the guide­lines shift as the think­ing changes. An “an­gry dis­cus­sion” with Serge Has­coet about play­ing as the hero in As­sas­sin’s Creed – “I don’t want to be Ezio,” says Pellen, “I want to be an as­sas­sin my­self and be part of the guild” – has dic­tated a new fo­cus on player iden­tity in The

Di­vi­sion and The Crew, for in­stance. And the two-way de­sign process means new ed­i­to­rial di­rec­tives of­ten emerge from game de­vel­op­ers them­selves. “I think [the al­ways-on­line thing] was in­flu­enced by us,” Rundqvist says. “That’s the way we’ve al­ways worked, and I think we’ve been very in­flu­en­tial in that as­pect. I think maybe it’s one of the rea­sons why Ubisoft bought the stu­dio to start with: the ex­pe­ri­ence and the mul­ti­player knowl­edge that we could bring to the group.”

Mean­while, some ideas are sim­ply con­sid­ered good prac­tice and have prop­a­gated among Ubisoft’s games. Fran­cois points to the view­points in As­sas­sin’s Creed, which have, one way or an­other, found their way into Far Cry 3 and Watch Dogs. “Right now, it’s the way we’ve found at Ubisoft for play­ers to un­der­stand the con­tent that’s there,” he says.

While Pellen has half a dozen di­rec­tives for teams, pro­duc­tion chief Schoener has only one: “A good job for our depart­ment is to ship the game on the right date and at the re­quired qual­ity. That’s the man­date.”

A 16-year vet­eran pro­ducer at Ubisoft, Schoener heads up ed­i­to­rial’s line de­sign­ers and pro­duc­tion sup­port team, which over­sees lo­cal­i­sa­tion, cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and qual­ity con­trol. His team’s job is daunt­ing: co­or­di­nat­ing work and bud­gets on games made by up­wards of 1,000 people spread across up to four con­ti­nents. “The line pro­duc­ers act like a hub,” he ex­plains. “The im­por­tant part of their job is to gather and struc­ture all those thou­sands of in­for­ma­tion sources into some­thing man­age­able.

“We de­cide, [via] many dif­fer­ent cri­te­ria, which stu­dios will work on which prod­uct, depend­ing on their skills. Then we bring them to­gether and we set up a spe­cific struc­ture for the col­lab­o­ra­tion. We have ded­i­cated as­so­ciate pro­duc­ers [at stu­dios] who lead the col­lab­o­ra­tion. It’s a net­work of those people. It’s 24/7

“I WANT US TO BE BET­TER THAN

NIN­TENDO, ROCK­STAR, VALVE AND

BLIZZARD. THAT’S ALL I WANT”

syn­chro­ni­sa­tion. We have spe­cific pro­cesses for HD games and an­other one for free-to-play, but it’s more and more the same mile­stones.”

All Ubisoft’s games are sub­ject to reg­u­lar mile­stone meet­ings, at­tended by their de­vel­op­ers and line pro­duc­ers, de­sign­ers and IP de­vel­op­ers. “The line pro­duc­ers are in charge of ap­ply­ing our process to their games,” Schoener says. “We call it the Stage Gate process. It’s a se­ries of mile­stones when the de­vel­op­ment teams must deliver el­e­ments, but our stu­dios have the usual de­vel­op­ment method­olo­gies, [such as] scrum and ag­ile. They choose the one that works for them.”

Early in the process, a game’s de­vel­op­ers will pro­duce a ‘first pub­lish­able playable’ (FPP) build of the game, a ver­ti­cal slice that demon­strates key me­chan­ics and upon which key de­ci­sions will be based. “There are cer­tainly times when we don’t agree [in the mile­stone meet­ings],” Rundqvist says. “But we have a say­ing here at Mas­sive: we want the game to de­cide what’s right.” Mas­sive’s first pre­sen­ta­tion to ed­i­to­rial was a playable pro­to­type fo­cused on tech and it sold the ed­i­tors on the game. “Ideally,” Schoener notes, “the FPP will be run­ning on the tar­get plat­form too. Af­ter that, [we] come with the rec­om­men­da­tion [for the budget and time­line], and usu­ally Serge, Chris­tine and Yves [Guille­mot] are in­volved in the de­ci­sion.”

This is how new games are born at the pub­lisher, and while Ubisoft isn’t the only large com­pany to share its knowl­edge and di­vide pro­duc­tion be­tween stu­dios, its meth­ods are its own and its ex­ec­u­tive author­ity is small. “We’re re­ally lucky at Ubisoft,” Watch Dogs’ writer Kevin

Shortt says. “The com­pany’s done this be­fore. All those big games were built from the ground up, so we of­ten reached out for help, but in the end noth­ing’s ever forced on us.”

In a ma­chine with 9,000 mov­ing parts, stu­dios are given enough au­ton­omy that the work of Ubisoft Mon­treal is clearly dis­tin­guish­able from Mont­pel­lier’s or Toronto’s. It was pride in its staff’s work that saw Ubisoft an­nounce Watch Dogs be­fore the specs of PS4 and Xbox One were even fi­nalised. That same pride also saw it an­nounce Rain­bow Six: Pa­tri­ots too early. The sys­tem isn’t per­fect, but it is quite hu­man.

“I speak about people be­cause they are the most im­por­tant [fac­tor],” Has­coet says. “I think they could work with­out us, be­cause they are tal­ented; they are good, very good, some of the best. But we are here be­cause we can help. We can share what can help the teams to get bet­ter. Maybe ev­ery­body can say people are the most im­por­tant thing, but I feel it strongly. Truly. We are here to help the team and sup­port the team in­stead of hin­der or hurt them. We are re­ally at the start. We have ev­ery­thing to do. I want us to be bet­ter than Nin­tendo, Rock­star, Valve and Blizzard. That’s it. That’s all I want.”

Pho­tog­ra­phy Mor­gan Fache/Col­lec­tif Item

Ray­man’s de­but in 1995 rep­re­sented a turn­ing point for Ubisoft

RIGHT Watch­Dogs: a game Ubisoft’s ed­i­to­rial team “backed from the start”, right up to the point of de­lay­ing the game to en­sure it shipped as its cre­ators had in­tended.

BE­LOW RIGHT The Di­vi­sion, whose ar­rival is ex­pected be­fore the end of 2014

ABOVE Se­nior op­er­a­tions s stu­dios man­ager Mathieu eu Pey­ron­net talks with Ni­co­las Schoener. Ed­i­to­rial rial is pri­mar­ily run from one e floor and only the test­ing ng depart­ment oc­cu­pies its s own space, where lo­cals s are in­vited in un­der strict ct nondis­clo­sure agree­ments nts

Peter Jack­son’s King

Kong: res­cued by smart de­sign and crunch

A gath­er­ing of de­vel­op­ers from the ed­i­to­rial team and a rare pho­to­graph of Serge Has­coet (sev­enth from left). The team num­bers around 70 in to­tal, but it’s rare for all of them to be in the of­fice at once, with so many away vis­it­ing stu­dios or video con­fer­enc­ing

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