Historically, Boulevard Saint-Laurent in Montreal was the dividing line and meeting point for all the cultures of Québec; English to the west, French to the east, and everyone else in between.
It’s little surprise then that the French company Ubisoft chose it as the location for their first North American studio in 1997, and the multiculturalism (and multilingualism) of contemporary Québec continues to suit the company well. “It’s very convenient for us to be able to talk the same language with creators in France, and at the same time the people in Québec are close to the North American market,” Yannis Mallat, CEO of Ubisoft Montreal, told Gamasutra shortly before a tour of the studio. “They watch the same programs, they have the same entertainment, so they know what works.”
Based in a suitably aged red-brick building for Saint-Laurent, if unusually retro for a studio that Mallat describes the ambitions “to be the number one studio in the world; which should be defined as putting on the market the best games, and the most commercially successful.”
Inside the Montreal studio is surprisingly open, airy and bright, with the internal design making the most of the building’s architecture, featuring exposed beams, brick, and, by necessity, realms of data cables webbing the ceiling in remarkable order.
Across the 250,000 square feet of floor space the studio is staffed by over 1,400 people, and that’s not the limit of Ubisoft’s staff in Québec, with roughly 100 more staff in a motion capture studio elsewhere in Montreal and a studio of 100 in Québec City. “It’s about 85% local,” Cedric Orvoine, Director of External Communications and Public Affairs said, before Mallat added “It varies a lot, month after month, but mainly locals. But we also welcome people from all over the world. UK, China, Asia, Europe, U.S., France. Really we’re working with people from everywhere.”
“Ubisoft very early on saw Montreal as a future place of growth for videogames,” said Mallat, “there were actually some players in the industry, such as Softimage, that were already here, and also Montreal has good universities. The Québec government was quick to foresee here was an industry that could grow in Québec, so they actually facilitate the establishment of studios. In Québec, though people are North American people, there is a certain amount of European culture, so it’s always about creativity. The people are talented creators, but they also know what a blockbuster is. This happy combination of creativity and innovation into something that’s always relevant to the market makes people here well suited for working at Ubisoft.”
It’s perhaps out of Ubisoft’s respect for the local job market that they committed to building skills in Québec with Campus Ubisoft, a programme run in conjunction with local colleges and universities. Mallat explained his passion for the course; “We have a program with the universities, Campus Ubisoft, and basically the universities and colleges are working with us on programs on in level design, animation and engineering, and all the classes are given by the university and college professors.”
Orvoine continued, “there are five different programs on the campus. There’s three college programs, that are level design, animation and modelling, and there’s two university degrees, which are what we call second-cycle degrees, so the equivalent of a masters degree. Each program has a very, very specific focus. So if you’re going on the animation programme, you’re going to get really focused on 2d and 3d animation. And it’s three to four month sessions. You have the first session where you learn the tools and you learn the basics, and the further and further you go, the closer you get to a real life simulation.”
Mallat then passionately described his favourite section of the course; “the really cool thing is that at the end of the program there is a simulation of what it is to make a videogame with all the constraints of reality. So they form a team; sound designer, game designer, animator, engineer, etc. etc. and then they make a game. You know, a small game, but the real conditions of production. And this has proved to be very effective, and in fact, all the people who have joined Ubisoft are performing quickly and well and they are well suited and equipped within the real production line. And as a matter of fact all of the producers are super happy with them.” He added, “The goal is to make sure those people know what’s real; what really is production. We need to teach some fundamentals, but we also need to teach how it is to work in reality and how it affects the theory. That’s as valuable as the fundamentals.”