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