Maker’s mark

Ubisoft’s an­nual dev con­fer­ence sets new di­rec­tions for its fu­ture

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At the Ubisoft De­vel­oper Con­fer­ence, a vast global work­force comes to­gether to build a bet­ter (open) world

You’d be for­given for think­ing you know Ubisoft in­side out. This, af­ter all, is a com­pany with a rep­u­ta­tion for an­nounc­ing its games early and then do­ing its best to make it im­pos­si­ble for you to for­get about them. Those that it does in­tend to keep un­der wraps, mean­while, still find their way into the news through leaks. And there is such ob­vi­ous con­nec­tive tis­sue link­ing its games (par­tic­u­larly open-world ones) that af­ter a while ev­ery­thing about Ubisoft be­gins to feel a lit­tle too fa­mil­iar. But we don’t know it all, a fact made clear when we’re told shortly af­ter walk­ing through the doors of Ubisoft Mon­treal that 80 per cent of projects in de­vel­op­ment at its flag­ship stu­dio are yet to be an­nounced.

It’s made even clearer by the rea­son for our visit. The Ubisoft De­vel­oper Con­fer­ence is a four-day net­work­ing event that is now in its sev­enth year, and this year has been opened up to press for the first time. Over 150 staff from Ubisoft’s global ar­ray of stu­dios braved sub-zero Mon­treal tem­per­a­tures to at­tend this year, and the thou­sands that stayed at home can ei­ther watch live streams or catch up later, since video of ev­ery pre­sen­ta­tion and panel is archived on the com­pany in­tranet.

Com­monly ab­bre­vi­ated to UDC, the event’s com­par­i­son to GDC is ob­vi­ous, but there’s one cru­cial dif­fer­ence. GDC talks tend to be ei­ther ret­ro­spec­tive – a look back on lessons learned on a par­tic­u­lar pro­ject, re­veal­ing se­crets that need no longer be kept quiet – or the­o­ret­i­cal, dis­cussing pos­si­ble so­lu­tions to prob­lems that loom on the hori­zon. At UDC, pre­sen­ters are not just speak­ing to peers, but col­leagues: they are able to speak openly about how they are meet­ing the spe­cific chal­lenges fac­ing them at that very mo­ment. And given the way Ubisoft is struc­tured – with stu­dios around the world work­ing to­gether on the same pro­ject – many of those prob­lems are of course shared.

As such, ir­ri­tat­ingly, much of what we hear is un­der NDA, though the event still pro­vides in­sight into how, and why, Ubisoft is struc­tured in the way it is, the unique prob­lems such a struc­ture presents, and the sup­port sys­tems the pub­lisher has had to build to en­sure the whole thing ticks along as in­tended. There are cen­tral frame­works de­signed to bind that global work­flow to­gether, such as the Paris­based Edi­to­rial team, which sets con­tent guide­lines for teams around the world to fol­low. The tech­nol­ogy group is an in­ter­nal team of con­sul­tants that as­sesses the needs of each par­tic­u­lar pro­ject and sug­gests which tools – whether Ubisoft’s own or made by a third party – are most ap­pro­pri­ate. Then there’s David Light­bown, user ex­pe­ri­ence di­rec­tor for the tech­nol­ogy group. UX is vi­tally im­por­tant in game de­vel­op­ment, of course, but Light­bown is not in­volved in Ubisoft game’s UI, tu­to­rial flow or learn­ing curve. The user he serves is not the player, but the de­vel­oper; he helps teams un­der­stand how to make their tools more ac­ces­si­ble, speed­ing up it­er­a­tion in the hunt for greater qual­ity.

“It’s not a role you hear about a lot,” Light­bown tells us. “It’s some­thing that’s only re­ally pos­si­ble at a com­pany like Ubi, that tries a lot of dif­fer­ent things when it comes to im­prov­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity

Ubisoft’s global 24-hour pro­duc­tion sched­ule means enor­mous games can be made much more quickly

fur­ther, less ob­vi­ous ben­e­fits to tak­ing this ap­proach. While ev­ery pro­ject has a lead stu­dio, those sup­port­ing it are gain­ing valu­able ex­pe­ri­ence of how to make top-tier Ubisoft games, en­abling them to later take the lead role them­selves. Ubisoft Mas­sive, for in­stance, went from mak­ing the mul­ti­player com­po­nent for the Mon­treal-helmed Far Cry 3 to lead­ing de­vel­op­ment on Tom Clancy’s The Divi­sion. Ubisoft Que­bec col­lab­o­rated on five As­sas­sin’s Creed games be­fore tak­ing the lead role on last year’s Syn­di­cate. Giv­ing a re­mote stu­dio re­spon­si­bil­ity for a com­plete sys­tem or as­pect of a large pro­ject en­sures they are seen as, and feel like, col­lab­o­ra­tors, rather than sim­ply be­ing there to help

Olivier Dauba, VP of Ubisoft’s Paris Edi­to­rial team; David Light­bown, user ex­pe­ri­ence di­rec­tor for the Tech­nol­ogy Group

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