Ten teams in six countries spanning 13 international time zones worked on Assassin’s Creed: Unity–a massive, four-year undertaking that presented the game’s maker, Ubisoft Entertainment S.A. of Montreuil, France, with major practical and logistical challenges–and some serious creative and technical hurdles, as well. The video game maker’s modern, innovative approach to international collaboration overcame one of its greatest challenges in a fictional French assassin stalking his prey in Paris circa the French Revolution in 1789.
The latest installment of the popular video game series, out this week, is Ubisoft’s first foray into the new generation of gaming consoles (alongside Assassin’s Creed: Rogue for the previous console generation, with versions of both games available for PCs). The previous six Assassin’s Creed top-tier, AAA titles, as they are known in the industry, have sold upward of 78 million units since 2007, according to Ubisoft.
“Assassin’s Creed is a big brand, and we definitely needed multiple studios, multiple people working on it,” Lesley Phord-Toy, producer at Ubisoft’s Toronto studio, said in an interview after her Nov. 10 talk at a Fast Company Innovation Uncensored event at the video game maker’s San Francisco facility.
The Montreal studio took the lead on the game, mapping out the vision and providing coordination for nine other units stationed in Canada, France, Ukraine, Romania, China, and Singapore. The overarching goal was to translate that vision into a high-quality game built within budget and on time. That challenge was compounded by a natural conflict: Production, project management, technical direction, and other managerial tasks are all often at odds with the creative process.
“If your role is to create, it can be restrictive, because you also have to deliver. We want to establish a vision without being too focused on delivering,” Phord-Toy said.
To help resolve that conflict, Ubisoft divided creative direction from production management to free creators to focus on developing the vision, rather than having to unduly worry about schedules, logistics, and other operational aspects of the project, which were separated into a management function.
“Division of creative and production management became much more important in the previous generation” of game consoles, explained Phord-Toy, who has worked in video games for 12 years and is a founding member of Ubisoft Toronto. “With PlayStation 2, we had teams of 30 to 50 people, but with PlayStation 3, we had teams of hundreds of people. You need processes and structures to support them properly. Dividing the roles minimizes conflict of interest.”
Rather than merely decentralizing work across roles and studios, Ubisoft aimed to empower employees to contribute innovative ideas at all levels of the company, as the latest generation of video games continues to require large teams. One of the ways in which Ubisoft implemented this was to ensure that creative directors do not have staff directly reporting to them–i.e., people whom they must manage. Instead, that management function is handled separately by a manager, allowing the creative director to put full attention on the content. Managers generally have seven to 10 people reporting to them, with managers and support at every level, which enables staff to have access to resources they need in their roles, and to collaborate effectively across the organization.
“It gives each team more ownership and less dependency on other studios,” Phord-Toy said. At the same time, because they were no longer bogged down by dealing with minutiae, it freed creatives and other employees up to consult and collaborate with each other within studios and with their counterparts at other studios.
In addition, Ubisoft Montreal had a team dedicated to co-productions, coordinating all of the studios working on Assassin’s Creed: Unity, and facilitating inter-studio collaboration. “I have an assistant producer in Montreal who I can call,” Phord-Toy pointed out. “I encourage my assistant director to communicate with the assistant director at other studios, and my technology lead to collaborate with the technology lead at other studios. So, people in the same roles can help each other,” she said.
Ubisoft’s approach to encouraging collaboration between studios was put to the test over a third of the way into the flagship game’s four-year development process. The Toronto studio, where Phord-Toy works, had over 100 people working on Assassin’s Creed: Unity–all of whom they needed when they received a new assignment. Ubisoft Toronto, responsible for building half of 1789 Paris at full-scale from the Left Bank onward, was tasked with enabling four-player cooperative gameplay and developing that content for the game, a challenge that arose from fan demand.
The problem was that the existing narrative vision defined by the lead Montreal studio would be broken by Toronto’s multi-player, or “Brotherhood” mode—in which every player was engaged as the game’s protagonist Arno Dorian.
The challenge translated into two goals: spur players to work co-operatively, and resolve the “narrative dissonance” caused by four versions of the main character in the same place, at the same time.
Ubisoft Toronto, in consultation with the Montreal studio, addressed these challenges by introducing each Brotherhood mission with a cinematic segment, akin to a miniature movie trailer, narrated by a new female character named The Enabler. The cinematic segments transition the game from action to a scripted segment, introduces the content, frames the history, presents a compelling reason for players to pursue a task together, sets objectives, and transitions back into gameplay. (Historian Laurent Turcot of the University of Québec, Trois-Rivières, guided the development of historical content.)
However, gamers tend to hate cinematic sequences because they can’t participate in the events unfolding on their screens. To minimize that pain, Ubisoft Toronto set a one-minute time limit for Brotherhood cinematics.
It was difficult, but Phord-Toy believes that the solution worked, with an added benefit: “It’s a sneaky way of us getting a history lesson to our fans.”
The solution, which would not have been possible without interdisciplinary collaboration between the Toronto and Montreal teams (as well as some of the other studios), is a prime example of Ubisoft’s process at work, according to Phord-Toy. “There are multiple examples—maybe hundreds—where ideas have been shared between studios,” she added.
With its operational model proven at such a large scale, Phord-Toy thinks it may may be beneficial in other industries, particularly at the intersection of complex systems and creative content.
Citing movies as a counter-example, she said that from the storyboard phase one can usually envision the final product, with the benefit of smart planning. “Games are more complicated. What’s unique to games is the level of iterative development we need to do,” Phord-Toy said. “We iterate on technology and features, but also create content on top of that technology.
“You never really know what the gameplay experience will be until you have it in your hands, because you can’t really predict what a player will do in the game.”
Even as it celebrates its internal workflow successes, Ubisoft’s global collaboration model is a living thing that is constantly growing, Phord-Toy noted. “Every studio is incorporating this model, and improving on it with every game Ubisoft is making today,” she said.