Ev­ery­thing is per­mit­ted

How Child Of Light and Far Cry 3 man Pa­trick Plourde is build­ing Fun­House to en­rich the cul­ture of Ubisoft Mon­treal

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Ubisoft’s Fun­House is look­ing for in­no­va­tion in un­ex­pected places

Ubisoft has an im­age prob­lem. While it regularly trum­pets the spe­cialisms of its global net­work of de­vel­op­ers, for years it has treated those stu­dios like a box of parts to be plugged to­gether as it has need. The re­sult is, in­fa­mously, a con­voy of open-world jug­ger­nauts with less to dis­tin­guish them than their var­ied art di­rec­tions might sug­gest.

The Paris-head­quar­tered pub­lisher is in­creas­ingly aware of this, and is now tak­ing steps to ex­tri­cate it­self from a rep­u­ta­tion for putting out the same core ideas in a dozen guises ev­ery year. E3 felt like some­thing of a turn­ing point, the world be­ing given a closer look at mas­sively de­struc­tible tac­ti­cal shooter Rain­bow Six Siege and in­tro­duced to For Honor, a brand-new ti­tle that fo­cuses on mul­ti­player sword­play, along­side As­sas­sin’s Creed Syn­di­cate and Ghost Re­con Wild­lands. Tellingly, both Siege and For Honor’s cre­ative di­rec­tors were al­lowed to talk up the me­chan­ics that give their games dis­tinc­tive iden­ti­ties, in­stead of fall­ing back on the usual pat­ter about worlds, char­ac­ters and choices.

Ubisoft Mon­treal is go­ing even fur­ther still, with a freshly minted di­vi­sion aimed at root­ing out tal­ent and ideas from un­ex­pected corners of the com­pany. Named the Fun­House, and spun out of Ubisoft Mon­treal cre­ative di­rec­tor Pa­trick Plourde’s ex­pe­ri­ence of work­ing on Child Of Light, the stu­dio is open­ing its doors and bud­get to any­one at Ubisoft who has a great idea for a game, ir­re­spec­tive of whether their day job is work­ing in ac­counts, HR or as an il­lus­tra­tor.

“Af­ter Child Of Light, I went to the up­per man­age­ment in Paris and said, ‘These are the things that are work­ing great and these are the things that aren’t if you want to do some­thing dif­fer­ent,’” says Plourde, who has taken on the role of Fun­House vice pres­i­dent along­side cre­ative di­rec­tor du­ties. “I felt like there was an op­por­tu­nity to build a cul­ture of in­no­va­tion within Ubisoft Mon­treal; it felt like a chance to not be a mono­cul­ture.”

Think hard about the pub­lisher’s out­put and in­no­va­tion is hardly lack­ing, even in the past five years – take, for ex­am­ple, Child Of Light, the charm­ingly es­o­teric Grow Home, and the shape-throw­ing Dance Cen­tral – but Plourde be­lieves that eco­nomic pres­sures have ne­ces­si­tated a fo­cus on big hit­ters such as Far Cry, As­sas­sin’s Creed and Watch Dogs. This and his grow­ing in­ter­est in lean Sil­i­con Val­ley star­tups inspired the idea be­hind Fun­House: take 100 peo­ple from the 2,400-strong em­ployee pool and ded­i­cate them to find­ing new ways to work. For the Far Cry 3 de­signer, it’s a way of lev­el­ling the play­ing field in a cul­ture where he feels that his op­por­tu­nity to down tools and fo­cus on Child Of Light was the prod­uct of un­just priv­i­lege.

“I know how to make a pitch, and I had a lot of po­lit­i­cal weight and history [in the com­pany],” Plourde says. “So a lot of peo­ple said that I was the only per­son who could have made that game at Ubisoft. And I didn’t think it was fair, be­cause a good idea can come from any­body. You shouldn’t need to know the right con­nec­tion or be part of the Il­lu­mi­nati to be able to present some­thing that’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary. I’d like to cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment in which, if we have the next Notch, we’re able to spot them and help their idea reach its po­ten­tial.”

The first of these projects to be re­vealed (Fun­House has at least four other games in the works) is Ea­gle Flight, a vir­tual re­al­ity spin on cap­ture the flag. The game pits two teams of two play­ers against each other and sets them loose as the tit­u­lar birds above the streets of Paris. It’s pre-al­pha, and so early on that the city isn’t even tex­tured yet, but that does lit­tle to di­min­ish the ex­hil­a­ra­tion of soar­ing above it. You steer by tilt­ing your head, lean­ing al­most to the point of touch­ing your ear to your shoul­der for re­ally tight turns, and must grab the ‘flag’ by fly­ing through a ver­ti­cal yel­low beam be­fore de­liv­er­ing it to a pur­ple beam else­where. Tap­ping X makes your ea­gle cry out, caus­ing dam­age to those di­rectly in front of you, and so it be­comes nec­es­sary to swoop down low into the twist­ing Parisian streets to shake pur­suers – a mo­ment that feels akin to a ter­res­trial Death Star trench run. It’s a sim­ple de­sign, but one that ini­tially caused di­vi­sion within the com­pany.

“It was su­per-con­tro­ver­sial,” Plourde says. “Ev­ery­one talks about how VR is about im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ences; I’m [into] game­play. I’m not look­ing to cre­ate the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing in a field of flow­ers – any­body can make that. So I’m like, ‘We should make a Nintendo-like VR game. We’re go­ing to have a game that is a game.’ So I ar­rived at E3 with the [ Ea­gle Flight] pro­to­type and ev­ery­body’s say­ing, ‘Oh, it’s the most fun VR game, be­cause it’s like a clas­sic cap­ture the flag, and we’re fly­ing and com­pet­ing.’ So I’m like, ‘OK, this feels like the val­i­da­tion of buy­ing into that game­play. Now we just have to make good graph­ics to go on top!’”

Plourde’s en­thu­si­asm for his Fun­House cru­sade is ev­i­dent, and he ex­pects the

“A good idea can come from any­body. You shouldn’t need to know the right con­nec­tion”

same from any­one who comes to the di­vi­sion. “What I’m look­ing for is pas­sion,” he says. “Some­body who can talk to me about what they love. If you want to make a game about hunt­ing and fish­ing, then I’m ex­pect­ing you to be able to talk to me about fish­ing for two or three hours. Be­cause then I know that you un­der­stand the plea­sure that comes from that ac­tiv­ity. It’s go­ing to be my job to help that per­son bring out that plea­sure and give it to other peo­ple.” Plourde’s sup­ported in this task by the Fun­House’s so-called core team, which in­cludes a conception coach to help tease out ideas. If, Plourde sug­gests, an ac­coun­tant is pas­sion­ate about the en­vi­ron­ment, the team can work to­gether to for­mu­late game­play around the idea of dy­namic ecosys­tems – Will Wright’s in­ter­est in ur­ban plan­ning re­sulted in SimCity, af­ter all. But Plourde is quick to stress that com­ing in with a de­sire to cre­ate a tac­ti­cal shooter is un­likely to gain trac­tion: “We al­ready have Rain­bow Six; we’re not there to com­pete with those games or make ‘mini triple-As’.”

Once a po­ten­tial pro­ject’s worth has been agreed upon, Fun­House will build a team around the in­di­vid­ual who came up with it and help them to present their ideas co­her­ently. Plourde thinks of the di­vi­sion as a “co­coon or­gan­i­sa­tion” de­signed to sup­port and serve bud­ding cre­ators. And while he’s not ready to dis­cuss the other four projects that are be­ing worked on, he is will­ing to re­veal that his generic ex­am­ple of an ac­coun­tant be­ing scooped up from rel­a­tive ob­scu­rity isn’t just a pipe dream – Fun­House has al­ready plucked a promis­ing tal­ent from Ubisoft’s mar­ket­ing team.

“I didn’t want him to be on this pro­ject alone, so I matched him with a se­nior de­sign di­rec­tor,” he ex­plains. “He had an idea, and now to­gether they are mak­ing that vi­sion come out. Once you have the right per­son with that idea or pas­sion, then you can match them to other peo­ple, and that’s when the magic starts hap­pen­ing.”

Once the pro­ject is fin­ished, there’s the thorny is­sue of what hap­pens next. The mar­ket­ing team is cur­rently down one ex­pe­ri­enced em­ployee whose skills will surely be missed. So, for all its po­ten­tial to drive change from a com­pany per­spec­tive, is Fun­House any­thing more than an in­ter­nal sab­bat­i­cal op­por­tu­nity for em­ploy­ees?

“Yeah, there’s a whole thing that if you’re an artist com­ing to the Fun­House to be the cre­ative di­rec­tor of your pro­ject, when you’re fin­ished you’re prob­a­bly go­ing to go back to be­ing an artist,” Plourde ad­mits. “But my dream sce­nario for a Fun­House pro­ject is that the game comes out, it’s a huge hit, and then it be­comes a brand. If that hap­pens, of course that per­son is go­ing to stay on that brand. That’s not go­ing to hap­pen for ev­ery game, but just be­cause some­thing hasn’t be­come a brand doesn’t mean that it’s not a suc­cess. For us, nur­tur­ing those ideas will be like watch­ing our chil­dren be­come adults, but we’ll re­turn to the Fun­House with other chil­dren and try to make them grow, too. If we take care of those chil­dren, those lit­tle flow­ers, then the reper­cus­sions you’re go­ing to have on the whole com­pany are go­ing to be ex­tremely ben­e­fi­cial.”

In or­der to find those po­ten­tial off-kil­ter hits, Fun­House has free rein to “throw a lot of stuff at the wall”. But while the team might be de­lib­er­ately steer­ing clear of any­thing that looks too much like a tra­di­tional game con­cept, Plourde is keen to avoid his out­fit be­ing as la­belled Ubisoft Mon­treal’s ca­sual-game di­vi­sion. At the Fun­House, al­most any­thing goes, but the fo­cus will al­ways be on game­play over de­mo­graph­ics, mon­eti­sa­tion strate­gies or even a spe­cific plat­form.

“We just try things, and of course there is go­ing to be stuff that’s never go­ing to see the light of day,” Plourde says. “It’s part of the ex­per­i­men­ta­tion process. But if we hit the bulls­eye with one, then it’s like, ‘OK, we can

“We just try things, and of course there’s go­ing to be stuff that’s never go­ing to see the light of day”

CLOCK­WISE FROM LEFT GrowHome takes a dif­fer­ent ap­proach to ex­plo­ration than the av­er­age Ubisoft game; Ghost Re­con:Wild­lands patches more free­dom into the open-world tem­plate; ForHonor mixes weighty sword­play with large-scale bat­tles

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