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War Stories: What Its Really Like Working on AAA Games at Ubisoft

Back in 2005, my boss asked me where I saw myself in 10 years. I answered without hesitation: I want to be a software architect on a big-ass AAA project. The dream came to life a few years later when I began working on Assassins Creed Syndicate aswait for itsoftware architect. I was fulfilling my dream of becoming a well-respected game developer, working on a prestigious AAA franchise.

Then, I suddenly quit and started a small indie games business with my girlfriend. Some of my friends and family found that movelets just say bold. They wondered why I left a safe, well-paying job with tons of advantages, including the excitement and fame of working on the next game everyone will talk about.

On my last day at Ubisoft, as I said goodbye to my colleagues, nobody asked why I was leaving to work on my own games. Even people who barely knew me had a pretty good idea. Many were actually envious, although they worked on Syndicate, too, realizing one of their own dreams. Im sure many professional game developers might have a clue about why I made this move.

So I decided to write about the reality of AAA games development, or: How I learned to stop worrying and go indie.

Modest Beginnings

In 2005, Ubisoft announced it would open a new studio in Quebec City, about 250 kilometers from the famous Ubisoft Montreal studio that created all kinds of obscure games like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Splinter Cell, and Assassins Creed. I was recruited on day one, together with about 30 other employees. You can imagine that I was really excited. I celebrated by spending my future paycheck on a brand-new $2,000 guitar. (Five years later, I totally stopped playing guitar. Yeah, not my best move.)

Most people who start a career in game development, whether in design, art or programming, are very passionate. They love playing video games, and they love creating them. During my first weeks at Ubisoft, I couldnt believe I was actually getting paid to do this. It was better than holidays.

For the first two years, I worked on small PSP titles: Open Season and Surfs Up on the Playstation Portable. Those are average games, not especially good or bad, but I had a lot of fun working on them. I learned a lot and made good friends. The teams were pretty smallbetween 15 and 25 people, if I remember correctlyso everyone knew everyone else. It felt like a little family, and the team spirit was good. In retrospect, we were a bunch of noobs who had a lot homework to do.

The thing is, we all wished we could work on bigger projects, AAA projects. Its not super-glamorous to tell your friends youre working on some kids movie game. Nobody begins a career in video games to work on that kind of title.

The PoPYears

After Surfs Up, our studio director met us in a conference room. (Yeah, the entire team fit in a single room. Ahhh, the good old days). He announced that our next project would be the Wii version of the upcoming Prince of Persia (PoP) game. I distinctly remember an awkward silence afterward. Nobody knew if it was good or bad news.

Then someone shouted, YES!

Of course, YES. This was way better than our previous projects. It wasnt Assassins Creed, but who cares? I remember being a bit disappointed by the console (at the time, I was super-excited by the PS3 and not so much about the Wii), but overall, it was very good news.

The project lasted about three years and became known as Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands. It wasnt a port from the 360/PS3 version. We made a specific version just for the Wii. Its a really good game. If you didnt play it back then, go dust off your Wii and give it a try.

During my time at Ubisoft, thats the project Im proudest of. I had a lot of fun, and I had ownership, meaning I strongly believed that my work had a major impact on the game. My contribution was significant, and I could see it everywhere when I was playing the game. So, obviously, I was super-motivated. I wanted that game to be the most awesome game ever. Most developers know that feeling well.

At the teams peak, we had about 75 developers. A big family, but still a family. Over the course of the project, I interacted with most of them. Im pretty sure I talked at least once to everyone on the project. You might wonder why I focus so much on team sizes, but more on that later.

AC3 WiiU

After PoP, I contributed to several games here and there and eventually landed on a technically challenging project: porting Assassins Creed 3 (AC3) on the WiiU. This was much different from my previous work. The team was small: two programmers at the beginning, and about 15 or so at the peak.

I was excited by the challenge. Most people at Ubisoft didnt think wed be able to pull it off. All Assassins Creed titles are intense games in terms of CPU and GPU performance. Believe me, your console is pretty much at its maximum capacity when running around in a big city like Boston or London. The WiiU was less powerful than the PS3 and XBox 360, at least on paper, so the odds werent on our side. Even worse: We had to make a straight portthat is, no data changes, just code optimizations. Its much cheaper to do a straight port than to downgrade all game assets.

After about a year, we reached a point where it became obvious that we had successfully ported the game with similar performance as the 360/PS3. It was a huge success. Even Nintendo engineers were surprised we made it. Life was great.

The downside was that the second half of the project was relatively boring. The challenge was gone. Port code, fix bugs, and optimize. Rinse and repeat until the game is shipped. I have good memories of this project, but by the end I was ready to do something completely different.

Tasting the Forbidden Fruit

After AC3, I worked on two internal pitches. For legal reasons, I cant say much about those projects, but they were so important to me that I need to take some time to talk about them.

On the first project, we were a team of about six developers, all very senior. It was a multiplayer game, and our goal was to create a functional prototype in about a month. Our days went somewhat like this:

  1. Play the game together.
  2. List the features and changes we wanted to see in the next version.
  3. Implement them.
  4. Repeat until we have a cool prototype.

The team spirit was so good! Our motto was on est crinqus!, which more or less translates to were so hyped! During our play sessions, we were so excited that we were screaming and shouting all over the place. I think it bothered colleagues working next to us, but hell, we had so much fun. I didnt feel too guilty.

Since we were such a small team that we had to break down the traditional job barriers. Everyone had their say in the game design. A UI artist made the level design because we didnt have a level designer with us. I did gameplay programming, which isnt my speciality at all. (Im more of a low-level, engine and graphics guy.) But we all really enjoyed it.

Unfortunately, for various reasons, the project was canceled.

Then I started on another internal pitch with an even smaller team: two developers and one producer. This project definitely had that indie feeling. It was another multiplayer game, and again we made a pretty awesome prototype in a few weeks. Every day during lunch, we invited everyone in the studio to play. We even organized an internal tournament that attracted around 60 participants.

But again, the project was canceled.

I was never as happy at Ubisoft as during those two projects. I worked with very talented and motivated individuals. Because of the smaller team sizes, I had my say on the creative side of things. This was a nice changebeing more of a technical guy, I could never do that before. And I absolutely loved it. When you work on a small project, your contribution is huge. So is your ownership. And your motivation.

One of my former colleagues nailed it when he said that I tasted the forbidden fruit. Once youve have that feeling, you can never go back.

AC Syndicate

The studio received the mandate to lead the next Assassins Creed title: Syndicate. We knew the AC franchise well because we collaborated on every title since Brotherhood. However, this was not a collaboration like before. For the first time ever, the Quebec studio, not Montreal, would lead an Assassins Creed game. This was a big achievement, but I wasnt happy at all. The memory of my two beloved projects was still fresh. I knew Id have to work on AC. There wasnt any way around it.

As predicted, I started working on Syndicate early in the development cycle. I wanted to give it a try even though I feared I wouldnt like it. At first, since there wasnt much to do on the technical side, I collaborated a lot on Assassins Creed Unity (ACU) with the Montreal studio. I worked on cool new tech developed for ACU, and it was fun and challenging. I got along well with most of my Montreal co-workers (even though its harder to develop a good relationship when you communicate mostly by email). I continued collaborating on ACU every now and then until it shipped.

After a few months, Syndicate started for real. The team was getting bigger and bigger as we entered production. For me, this is the root of all issues on AAA games: big teams. Too many people. Syndicate was created through collaboration with about 10 studios around the world. This is 24-hour nonstop development. When people go to sleep in one studio, its morning in another.

With so many people involved, specialization naturally occurs. Theres a lot of work to do, and no one can master all the games systems. So people specialize, theres no way around it. Its like an assembly line in a car factory: When people realize theyre just one replaceable person on a massive production chain, you can imagine it affects their motivation.

With specialization often comes tunnel vision. When your expertise is limited to, say, art, level design, performances, or whatever, youll eventually convince yourself that its the most important thing in the game. People become biased toward their own expertise. It makes decision making a lot more complicated. More often than not, the loudest voice wins, even if it doesnt make much sense.

On large-scale projects, good communication is, simply put, impossible. How do you get the right message to the right people? You cant communicate everything to everyone; theres just too much information. Hundreds of decisions are made every week. Inevitably, at some point, someone who should have been consulted before making a decision will be forgotten. This creates frustration over time.

On top of that, often too many people are involved in making a decision. You dont usually want to make a decision in a meeting with 20 people. Thats inefficient. So the person in charge of the meeting chooses who will be presentand too bad for the others. Whats it going to be? A huge, inefficient meeting where no decision is made, or a small meeting that goes well but creates frustration in the long run?

Being an architect, I had a high-level view of all technical developments on the project. While that sounds cool, it has its disadvantages. The higher you go up the ladder, the less of a concrete impact you have on the game. Youre either a grunt who works on a tiny part of the game (See that lamppost? I put it there!), or youre a high-level director who writes emails and goes to meetings (See that road full of lampposts? I approved that.). Both positions suck for different reasons. No matter what your job, you dont make a significant contribution to the game. Youre a drop in a glass of water, and as soon as you realize that, your ownership evaporates in the sun. And without ownership, theres no motivation.

I could go on and on. There are tons of other reasons why AAA projects are unsatisfying. Dont get me wrong: Its nothing specific to Ubisoft or Assassins Creed games. This is an inevitable side effect of creating huge games with an enormous team.

I have to add that, obviously, some people are motivated. They are usually juniors and people who never got the chance to work on a AAA project before. But the excitement disappears after youve done it a couple of times, and youre left with the sad day-to-day reality. Thats a huge problem for studios working on one AAA project after another. Senior staff members get tired and leave.

Taking the Leap ofFaith

Since my very beginning at Ubisoft, I knew I wouldnt spend the rest of my days there. I was already dreaming of starting my own indie company. Making my own games. Back then, I didnt know much about making games. I still dont know a lot, just a tiny bit more.

Indie games dont suffer from big-project issues. I think the ideal team size is five or six people. Thats when team spirit is highest, as well as ownership and drive. Youre not wasting time with endless email threads and bad communication. Theres a lot less specialization, because a handful of people are doing everything. The job isnt tedious, and it rewards you every day.

For me, going indie also means I can work on nontechnical stuff. I like tech, but I also love the creative aspect of games: gameplay, visuals, sounds, ambiance, the whole experience. Only indie games will let me cover all aspects of the creation process.

So thats it. Thats the number one reason I quit Ubi to make indie games. Im sure if you ask other developers, theyll tell you another story. Some of them really like it, Im sure. Others might be unhappy for a completely different reason.

For me, this leap of faith was the right and only thing to do.

A version of this story first appeared on gingearstudio.com.

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