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How Ubisoft builds giant games using giant teams Exclusive

How Ubisoft builds giant games using giant teams
February 25, 2016 | By Alex Wawro

February 25, 2016 | By Alex Wawro
More: Console/PC, Production, Exclusive

There’s a certain irony to the fact that adding more developers to a game project, past a certain point, makes it harder to get things done. Few game companies in the world know this better than Ubisoft.

“In terms of scale and in terms of challenge, I need to say that productivity is the main challenge, I think, within the company,” says Ubisoft Montreal’s Chadi Lebbos. “And it's something the whole industry deals with, I think. Games are becoming bigger and bigger, more complex to do.”

Lebbos has spent nearly 20 years with the company and now oversees a team of over 150 people who coordinate technology use at Ubisoft studios (“we work on the engines, but the engines are not our responsibility”) so he’s understandably enmeshed in big-budget game development culture.

It’s never been easier to make a game with a few friends (or even by yourself), but a small team using off-the-shelf game dev tools would have a tricky time building something with the scope of a contemporary Assassin’s Creed game.

"We make sure that we aren't using the other studios as plain outsourcers. We try to give them ownership of a part of a game, pure ownership."

Such games seem to owe their existence to Ubisoft’s global patchwork of studios, which share technologies, techniques and development tasks with each other via Ubisoft’s idiosyncratic internal collaboration channels. The company has, for example, hosted its own annual Ubisoft Developers Conference (a bit like a mini-GDC) in Montreal for years, this year inviting Gamasutra and other outlets to attend with the express purpose of showcasing how the company actually gets teams around the world to make games together without killing each other.

It’s a bit of self-promotion, to be sure, but it’s also an interesting opportunity for fellow developers to study how their peers work within one of the largest game companies in the world and perhaps glean some learnings about working with remote colleagues.

“It's hectic but fun,” says Lebbos. “When we organize co-dev, we make sure that we aren't using the other studios as plain outsourcers. We try to give them ownership of a part of a game, pure ownership. Yes, there's a studio lead that makes sure everything being developed on different sides of the planet fits together. But at the end, you have to empower and support each studio individually.”

As an example, Lebbos points to Ubisoft Singapore’s work on Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (pictured). Singapore is one among many Ubisoft studios listed in the 2013 game’s credits, but it had ownership over a very specific (and, as it turns out, popular) aspect of that game: the naval systems and ocean tech, or what Lebbos calls “the boat stuff.”

Boat stuff

There’s an interesting potential takeaway here for all developers, big and small: affording your remote collaborators (whether they’re temporary contractors or permanent team members) some latitude in how and what they create might ultimately drive them to produce better work, though it may seem counter-intuitive if you think you know exactly what you need from them.

Of course, there are also significant downsides to trying to coordinate game development across geopolitical borders.

“There's a lot of communication, there's a lot of trips that need to happen. And we do fail, still,” says Lebbos. “We have a ‘fail often’ mentality, and we have no choice, because past a certain point we can't do everything ourselves in Montreal; we need to have external help.”

Lebbos takes pains to paint that in a positive light (“sometimes, having external help and ideas brings us new insight on a game and helps make the game better”) and acknowledges that recent shifts in the big-budget games market have pushed Ubisoft to pour more time and resources (human or otherwise) into supporting games after they launch.

"Amazon is trying to keep its customers on its own services all the time. It's the same thing for the game industry."

“Releasing a game, a couple years back, you released the game and that's it!” says Lebbos, who started at Ubisoft roughly 18 years ago and has credits on everything from Hype: The Time Quest to Splinter Cell: Conviction. “But today, when you release a game, you need to maintain the game live. There's this new ‘game-as-a-service’ aspect, and you need to attract players and make sure the players are always with you. You need to give them content, you need to interact with them all the time. This is what the game industry is all about today. So it's like, Amazon is trying to keep its customers on its own services all the time. It's the same thing for the game industry.”

Open-world games are growing too big to be built by hand

Looking ahead, Lebbos doesn’t expect this will change anytime soon, and thus a not-insignificant portion of Ubisoft developers must now focus on maintaining and creating content for live games. He also points out that Ubisoft is focusing more on procedural generation tech as it strives to build bigger games, because it can’t afford to add more people at the rate it wants to add virtual acreage.

“We are living through a big change in the game industry. Not just in Ubisoft, but across the whole industry, our games are becoming bigger and bigger. Because of that, let’s say it takes 10 level artists to do a five square kilometers open-world game. If we want to do 25 square kilometers, well, do the math. We can’t just add more and more people as our games get bigger,” notes Lebbos. “That’s where procedural generation tools are helping us.”

Ubisoft is also exploring VR, though only on a small scale -- for now

Of course, Ubisoft is not alone in its enthusiasm for procedural generation tech; lots of developers, big and small, are using it in interesting ways. It’s certifiably in vogue among game devs, alongside tech like VR and AR, which Lebbos is a bit more cautious about than many developers.

“Virtual reality -- [both] VR and AR -- is going to be a major tipping point for the game industry. Not only games, but the entertainment industry as a whole,” says Lebbos. “The other part, what scares me, is how VR is going to affect the social aspect. We automatically think of guys sitting in their den, using VR goggles, with people walking around them. So I'm sure we'll leverage VR in an innovative way, but we need to be careful that we don't lose our humanity in VR. And of course, porting a game to VR won't cut it. We'll have to figure out new ways to make games and experiences.”

In the near future we'll be publishing further interviews with Ubisoft developers about how, exactly, they’re sorting out the best way to develop games for VR headsets. In the meantime,Gamasutra's VR section holds more information on everything from how to build better VR games to how a virtual burrito perfectly wraps up some important VR game design fundamentals.

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