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