It’s amazing how making big blockbuster video games has changed over the years. Not too long ago, it usually involved a handful of programmers banging it out in a single room. Today, it’s more like a complex dance performed by hundreds of developers, coders, artists and producers spread out across a number of studios around the world.
Or, at least that’s how it works at Ubisoft. The French company has achieved some success in creating a collaboration system between its 30 studios and nearly 10,000 employees, with big titles now routinely being crafted in several places at once.
“There’s someone working on the game 24-7,” says Alexandre Parizeau, Ubisoft Toronto managing director, referring to the company’s big franchises. “The technical way of working 24-7 is something we’ve perfected over the years.”
Ubisoft Toronto, which recently celebrated its fifth birthday, is a case in point. The studio, now up to 400 employees, was a key contributor to the recently released shooter Far Cry Primal, along with Ubisoft Shanghai and Ubisoft Kiev.
Ubisoft Montreal led the project and created about half of the open Stone Age world that the game is set in, as well as its core missions. Ubisoft Toronto filled in the blanks with the setting and designed much of its animal control system, which allows players to recruit sabretooth tigers, bears and other creatures as sidekicks.
Shanghai designed some side missions and Kiev put together the PC version of the game.
It was Toronto’s second foray into the Far Cry franchise, having worked on Far Cry 4 (2014), also led by Montreal. Ubisoft Toronto designed a side sequence that involved hunting alongside a tiger, which proved popular internally and set the ground work for Primal.
“It became one of the core pillars of the game,” Parizeau says.
Each of Ubisoft’s big games now has a collaboration team attached to it, with the purpose of making sure the project runs smoothly across the organization.
The team ensures that everyone working on the game is using the same software tools and that everyone understands them. Team members also manage schedules and deadlines so that developers in different time zones are always delivering what the next shift of employees need to do their jobs.
Developers are in constant communication via Skype and have set-ups that allow them to play the games each other, to troubleshoot and identify issues. Travel and secondments are also common, where team members are temporarily relocated for a few weeks or months at a time to work more closely with whichever studio needs them.
“Nothing replaces the good old face-to-face,” Parizeau says.
The collaboration system evolved out of necessity within Assassin’s Creed, the historical action-adventure series of games. With Ubisoft wanting annual releases in its flagship franchise, Montreal had to delegate portions of the development to other studios, including Toronto and Quebec City.
Deadline pressure was the main motivator, but the side effect of the collaboration was that the other studios – Quebec in particular – learned the ins and outs of making an Assassin’s Creed game. Quebec ultimately became the lead studio on Assassin’s Creed Syndicate (2015), and is now set up to produce future games in the series if that’s the way company management wants to go.
The Toronto studio is in a similar position with the Far Cry franchise, Parizeau says. The collaboration side effect is thus pointing Ubisoft toward a new potential system of making games, where a franchise might be created by one studio, then reassigned to another once it’s established.
“We’re continuing to be invested in the Far Cry brand in the future,” Parizeau says of the Toronto studio. “It is a model that we’re exploring.”
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