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Interview: 'The #1 Studio in the World' with Ubisoft's Yannis Mallat


April 12, 2006
 

This week, Ubisoft announced the promotion of Yannis Mallat to CEO of its Montreal studio. Gamasutra took the opportunity to speak with Mallat, a veteran producer on the Prince of Persia series, about his plans for future of the studio…

GS: Let me start by congratulating you. Are you excited with the appointment?

Yannis Mallat: Yes, thank you very much. It's a very interesting challenge, and I'm taking it with a little pride, but also a lot of ambition.

You were in production before. Was that a good primer for having to run an entire studio?

I really think so. As you may know, I've been working in production for the last six years and I think [that experience] will help me tremendously to make the Ubisoft Montreal Studio ‘the number one studio in the world.' This objective is simple, ambitious, and has to be measured, [to an extent] with commercial success, but more importantly, with the quality of our games. We have a good track record, regarding that and I have two keys to reach this challenge.


Yannis Mallat, CEO of Ubisoft Montreal

And what are those keys?

*chuckles* The keys really are to bolster innovation and creativity. I understand the industry isn't moving toward more risky projects because of the next-gen and all the cost and such. But I really think that – especially during those transition years – it's really going to be innovation and creativity that will differentiate our products compared to all the others… That's the winning factor. We need to build a production scheme that fosters creativity and innovation, while maintaining low risks. This is quite the challenge, but in my opinion, this is how we're going to win and reach our objective.

When you entered production, did you ever image an executive position, or did it all just sort of happen?

Both, in fact. Ubisoft is a fantastic company. I truly think it's a learning company. And it gives room for people to express themselves – that's one of our values. To be honest, I was primarily thinking about making good games. And because this is exactly what I believe in, Ubisoft allowed me to make the games I wanted with the great talent that I was able to gather and the great resources that I was able to find. And now, we need to move a step up to reach our objectives. So, yes and no. My goal was to make great games. But I was also offered the freedom to evolve, so that's fantastic.

And developing a studio is almost like a game in itself.

Exactly. That's a very nice quote. You know, we have to make sure the value added lies in the creators hands… in the talent's hands… in the hands of the people who make the game… and the studio has been here to serve production. That's really my vision. We ask a lot of those guys, so we have to give them a lot, in terms of creative freedom and risk taking. So that's exactly how we make a game here right.

There seems to be a lot a game development in Montreal . Do you know what size the community is?

I guess it's around two thousand, three thousand people. Something around those numbers.

What about the Ubisoft, EA Montreal hiring controversy, between Martin Tremblay [formerly of Ubisoft Montreal] and Alain Tascan [of EA Montreal]. Tascan sent a letter to Ubisoft saying, “In the spirit of creative freedom, economic emancipation and workers' rights, EA has in fact accepted the application of an employee who had been working at Ubisoft…” he continues. What did you think of that whole controversy?

That's a tricky question. I think that we, as a company, as at any other company, we have something to protect because it's our knowledge. It's our know-how. It's our big input in the global company scheme. It's pretty usual to have such a clause in our contract. So I think that's something normal that happens. The goal is not to be scared to see our people leave. The goal is to be comfortable that they will stay.

Under your administration, if they do leave, are you going to pursue it in any manner?

I really don't think I'll comment on this one, because I don't see any issue there. That's where I stand right now.

About education – I know you've been doing some work with the universities in Montreal – can you tell us a little about that?

This is definitely something we want to work on, and continue to lead in We need to train people. We need to help people who want to join the company, and to join the industry especially. Making games now, is pretty demanding on the talent side, and on the people. So we need to prepare the young people who will, in a few years, make the best games. While we are proud to be a leader in collaborating with universities, and programs, setting up game design programs, to help foster the pool of talent and people – that's definitely something we'll work on again and again.

Quebec has been very supportive of the game industry, providing government grants…

Yes, absolutely. That's a decision that they made to help people, and to help our industry along with other industries that also received such incentives. That's something that's really good for the people here. That's really something that puts Quebec and Canada on the map – that's great.


Ubisoft's Montreal studio

That's helped with your studio expanding as rapidly as it has?

Yes, definitely. It helps for setting up the studio, it helps growth, it helps with being able to provide jobs to people. It's helpful for the people first, which is key.

Does Ubisoft get more government funding than EA Montreal?

Honestly, I'm not involved yet in those matters. I don't know.

Let me ask about Ubisoft, the company: it seems to have a very international studio setup. You've got Morocco, and Romania… How does that work in general, and where does the Montreal studio fit in?

As you said, Ubisoft is present in several countries… China, Romania, Morocco, Montreal, France, and the US. It's extremely helpful to foster local economy and local initiatives, but also we are richer thanks to the people we can have in our studios. Ubisoft Montreal is the biggest of all the Ubisoft studios. We are developing the same models everywhere in our studios. The goal is to build on all the studios that have been created. The growth isn't concentrated in Montreal, it's everywhere. It is not unusual to have people going from Morocco to Montreal, for example, from Montreal going to China, from China going to Paris. It's really helpful because we're able to share ideas, best practices, technology… And it's stimulating for people. That's really an asset that Ubisoft has all these international studios around the world.

How large is the Montreal Studio?

We are 1400 people right now.

Are you going to be expanding the studio further?

We've been focusing on growth. The plan is not to change that. Because with such an objective as ‘To be the number one studio in the world,' we're going to need people. In terms of specific numbers, we plan to hire, as previously stated, one thousand people by 2010, so that's quite a lot of people. That's also why we're helping train young people. There's a whole strategy here.

How do you organize such a big studio, how do you split things up?

The goal here, is to first understand that ‘One gold master is one gold master.' Which means that there is one team behind every gold master. It's a project-oriented structure, definitely. And then it makes sense to gather the productions that are pretty much under the same brand, under the same umbrella, so that we can create and foster specific knowledge from the creative side, and also from the tech side, among the brands. But apart from that, it's really several projects that are empowered to create the best games. Yes it's large, but it's also because we have a lot of products. We're working on a lot of games, and it's large by the scope and not only by the numbers.

Well how many games have you got in production right now?

That's a good question. More than twelve, and less than twenty.

How many of those are next-gen?

Uh, a lot, I can tell you.

And what about any of the Nintendo Revolution titles. Are you working on any of those?

I can say definitely, as any other developer, we are looking at this magical platform, and we want to be part of the adventure. You know already that Red Steel is made public in Game Informer. That's an exclusive Ubisoft title, made in Ubisoft Paris. And I'm pretty sure we'll see other Revolution games from Ubisoft. And some of them, I'm sure, will be made from Montreal.

How much have your budgets increased for the next-gen games?

*chuckles* I won't tell any specifics, but we are managing this marginal increase thanks, in part, to sharing best practices, but also to putting the dollars into the right stuff. I really think the next-gen war is all about trying to do fewer things better, rather than trying to do everything better. It's still a video game. And what will eventually differentiate them all, is all in the idea. The idea doesn't cost anything. The realization may cost something. But if we are focused on what is good in the game, and what has to be good so that the experience is really enjoyed by the player, and if we think about it early enough - this is the whole conception and pre-production work - then we can – not save money – but we can avoid spending money wastefully. This is the philosophy.

Are you bringing any best practices to the table from your work on Prince of Persia, any tips, or changes that you're implementing?

Yes, and no, because hopefully we're building a learning company. So people don't need me specifically to share best practices and share technology. Really, the goal is to make this a learning company. It's all about the philosophy, to be close to production and to the game developers themselves. I want to be really involved, but in the meantime, to empower all the productions, because the value added is really in their hands.

Are you going to be showing anything interesting at this E3?

You don't want to miss E3! Definitely not! If you go there, be sure to pass by our booth, because it will be phenomenal this year. We will present new IPs from Montreal . We will have incredible games that no one knows about yet. And we'll have fantastic games among existing brands. As far as Ubisoft goes, this is the E3 you don't want to miss.

Is there anything you'd like to add in conclusion?

I'm ready to go, and get Ubisoft's Montreal studio the number one position in the world. I have a tremendous chance to work with the best developers in the world. It's now my job to let them create. And provide them everything they need to express their creativity. And Ubisoft Montreal is the right place to be if we want to be recognized and happy. That's the goal. Once again, it makes sense. I'm coming from production. We're asking a lot from those guys, so let's give them a lot – in terms of means, freedom of expression, and empowerment. Then we'll make the best games and we'll reach our objective.

 

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