By Alex Parizeau, Managing Director, Ubisoft Toronto
Six years ago, I moved away from my Ubisoft Montreal friends and co-workers – some of the best developers in the world – to help build a new studio in Toronto. And when I saw the giant empty floors of our beautiful brick-and-beam building in an area of Toronto known as “The Junction”, I was terrified. What was I thinking?
I had worked with many teams in the past, but I’d never had the chance to build something from the ground up. As terrifying as it was, it was also an exciting opportunity to get things right, it had to be the best place to make games – in the world.
Identifying the culture we wanted to create is one of the most challenging things I’ve had to take on in my career. It’s surprising how big an impact great culture has and how little our industry engages in discussions about what is important, and how to get there.
Our studio culture benefited from a strong foundation established by Ubisoft – creating memorable games that enrich players’ lives while supporting innovation, ideas and diversity across its development teams.
But locally, every decision we made, every process we put in place shaped it in a certain way. Authentic culture is a reflection of our teams at the studio, and by defining it together, it ensures it continues to inform our decisions and actions, while propelling us towards the kind of success we strive for. By engaging in discussions about what defined our culture with people at all levels, from diverse backgrounds, from newcomers to veterans, we collectively narrowed it down to three core studio pillars.
Lead with Creativity
Game development is a creative business – the top games each year are those that surprise and innovate. Creativity must be at the heart of every game we build. But it’s also at the core of our processes and the way we approach problem solving at the studio. Leading with creativity is about people leading with ideas, not through structure and hierarchy. Our team is empowered to take risks and find creative solutions throughout development. We ask everyone at the studio to not simply accept the status quo, but rather to look for ways we can be better, and our culture has to support and encourage that.
A great example of this was on Splinter Cell Blacklist. Our team developed a vision for performance capture that used a filmic approach to editing narratives and content. This process allowed us to become more efficient, saving a ton of time when creating cinematics for the game and became a best practice for performance capture at the studio. Since we developed this approach, we have helped over 20 teams from across Ubisoft build cinematic content more effectively.
Another team working on Far Cry 4 took its companion AI technology (developed for the Shangri-La missions) to the next level on Far Cry Primal, building a fully systemic version of the companion AI with multiple animal choices to give players an experience not seen in any previous Far Cry game. The feature became a highlight of the game, receiving positive accolades from fans and media.
In these two examples individuals passionate about their ideas got their teams excited, they had hugely positive impact on the game and shaped the studio for the long term. It was driven bottom up and we did everything we could at the studio level to support them. We strive to encourage, support and reward that kind of leadership at every level and with every role at the studio.
From the onset we knew the studio would grow at a fast pace. In just a few years we were already close to 300 people working together for the first time on Splinter Cell Blacklist. And something wonderful happened – the exceptional diversity of perspectives, with people coming from several different studios from all over the world, turned into an incredible asset. We were able to leverage the best ideas, learn from our colleagues, and grow together. Embracing that diversity became something that defined who we were.
Growing together is a mindset. The games industry is constantly evolving, and to be successful we need to evolve with it – learn new skills, adapt to new technologies. It’s critical that we create interesting opportunities for everyone to grow with the studio and find fulfilling career development at Ubisoft Toronto. This had us focus on everything from transparency with how we share information, to developing personalized training opportunities.
At our studio of nearly 700 people, over 150 of our team started their careers in games with us, and now many of these people have advanced to become experts, mentoring junior team members or have progressed into management roles overseeing teams. This type of organic growth is key to our ability to grow together as a strong, unified studio.
Make Good Games Well
We defined our third pillar fairly recently. We were looking for a way to define the “how” of our approach to making games, and I was inspired by a term used by Creative Director Clint Hocking, delivered as part of a presentation at the Montreal International Games Summit. It’s not enough to make the best games if it comes at the expense of its creators. We believe passionately that there is a way to work on creative, innovative, successful games, and to build a rewarding career, all while doing it in a sustainable way that is respectful of our team.
Making good games well speaks to using the best tools, constantly refining and improving our production processes, providing an exceptional development environment and being mindful that everyone has a life outside the studio.
It’s ambitious – and we don’t have all the solutions in place just yet – but we work hard to ensure we live these pillars at the studio each and every day, because they are the values that we strive for collectively. We want to be making amazing, successful games. We want interesting challenges to tackle with people we love and we respect. And we want to do it in the best conditions in the world.
I can’t say that these pillars will remain exactly as they are five or 10 years from now because the reality is that our culture will evolve and grow with our team, and our industry. But, what I can say, is that our culture will always be a priority at Ubisoft Toronto, and it will always be defined by the people at the heart of our studio. These days when I walk through the studio, looking at where the empty spaces used to be when it first opened, I now see friends, colleagues, and brilliant minds working together, linked by shared goals and values, and I know I’m home.