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Crunch, work-life balance, and Assassin's Creed Odyssey: A view from the top

Three bosses at Ubisoft Quebec, the studio behind recently-released Assassin's Creed Odyssey, give us a bird's-eye view of crunch & work-life balance when making one of the biggest games of the year.

Kris Graft

October 25, 2018

14 Min Read

Workers' rights in the game industry is a topic that's reached fever-pitch as of late, sparked by mass layoffs that come without warning, studio closures, and horror stories of game dev death marches.

The labor required to make giant, sprawling worlds is partly the reason such stories exist at all. And when you think of virtual worlds that are astonishingly huge, Ubisoft and its open world Assassin's Creed series comes immediately to mind.

In a recent interview with the leaders behind Assassin's Creed Odyssey studio Ubisoft Quebec, the conversation turned to crunch and work-life balance. Though any one person's experience in the same studio will differ from another's (the bosses here admit there is work to be done), they were able to offer a view from the top of one of the biggest game productions of 2018.

Edited for length and clarity.

So you’ve got all this experience managing big teams and things like that, and of course right now we’re doing this interview amid these conversations about these labor issues, we're talking about unionization, talking about crunch, these mass layoffs that happen all of a sudden, work-life-balance.

I’m wondering, what do you think about these conversations that are happening, and how do you address these things at Ubisoft, at your studio?

Patrick Klaus, Ubisoft Quebec Studio managing director: Yeah, it’s a very real topic. And it’s something where the studio, over the past few years, has tried extremely hard to be super-proactive about, trying to hit the sweet spot of competing with the best, but also making sure that our teams, our talent, our creators, are in a good position to continue to develop, [they're] feeling good about staying at the studio and we want to provide a certain work-life balance.

"We...think that it is a false economy to burn out our teams. We risk losing them, or we risk disengaging them, and we will simply not get the best out of those talents if we’re forcing them to work insane hours in crunch."

We put a huge focus [on this] post-Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, which was a tough one. It was our first big triple-A [game] coming out of Quebec City. [We had] to look at improving some of the ways we develop our games in terms of scope, of the work that we take on in terms of prioritizing our investments, in terms of role and responsibility, in terms of tools; to be more efficient in the way we work.

While we can always do better, I can tell you hand on heart that [Assassin's Creed Odyssey] hasn’t required a massive crunch, like maybe some of the triple-As from five or ten years ago. We can still always do better, but we have managed pretty well to succeed in delivering a game of huge magnitude which is hitting a good quality [level], while making sure that our teams are not burnt out and disgusted with working in games.

We collectively, on the management team, think that it is a false economy to burn out our teams. We risk losing them, or we risk disengaging them, and we will simply not get the best out of those talents if we’re forcing them to work insane hours in crunch. We’ve got some way to go, but I’m feeling good about what we have achieved.

Marc-Alexis Côté, senior producer, Odyssey: Let me jump in...The way we’re going to keep making better games is if we keep working together as a team, and keep growing the team. The only way to be able to do that is if people want to keep working together. And the way to do that is to have a good work-life balance on the team -- because [a bad balance] is when problems start to occur.

I’ve been at Ubisoft Quebec since June 27, 2005, since the day the studio opened. I’ve been a programmer, a level designer, a game director, a game designer, a creative director -- I’ve seen pretty much everything. I’ve seen the growth of the studio and I’ve seen game production from many different angles. And definitely, at least here, within Ubisoft, the way we approach these big triple-A productions that are worth hundreds of millions of dollars is very different today than what it was in the past.

I think where we have matured is in the way where we manage what we are trying to achieve. It might sound trivial, but [the way] you avoid crunch in the long term is to continually reassess where you are, what you’re trying to achieve, how much work is left to be done, and to become better at measuring that.

It’s something we were very, very bad at 15 years ago, but as the industry is maturing, we are becoming better at managing our teams, managing our scope. Not every studio will grow in that way, not every team will grow in that way, but it’s one of the commitments we made to our team when we started: that we would manage the scope of the game, that it was super-ambitious, but that every two weeks we would reassess it with them to always make sure that it is doable.

Just to follow up: Patrick had mentioned being proactive, you talked about tools and efficiency and evaluating [progress] on a regular basis. Could you discuss in practical terms how you communicate with your staff? You mention every two weeks you talk to people? And also what metrics do you keep track of as far as the labor and the workload go?

"It might sound trivial, but [the way] you avoid crunch in the long term is to continually reassess where you are, what you’re trying to achieve, how much work is left to be done, and to become better at measuring that."

Côté: We try to have our teams evaluate the workload themselves. So we have creative objectives that come down from creative direction, from the teams themselves. But we want them to scope their own work, so we say things like: "This is the high-level goal that we’re trying to achieve, how would you achieve this?”

We try to bring the team in, bring a lot of principles of agile development into the larger scope of game development, so you don’t necessarily approach this as if it were only an engineering project, but rather try to approach this as a multidisciplinary work where everybody sits together and tries to [do] this work together.

And if it doesn’t fit -- sometimes the teams will decide, “This is so important for us that we’ll put in extra work.” And a lot of times when we see a team put in extra work, what we’ll do is we’ll rest them a bit afterwards; again, [in order to] not accumulate the kind of debt we often see on a three-year or four-year cycle of a project.

If a team says, “Oh we really think this will make the game better, we want to do an extra push.” It’s like okay, but then you need to lift the foot from the pedal just a bit to stay in good shape and maintain this kind of balance. These are the kinds of tools we put at the disposal of the teams to be able to scope properly, and come up with solutions to attain the creative vision so that it's not a dictatorship. Rather, it's really something that is an ongoing discussion between the management, the team, and the creative part of the team as well. And, again, resting people on a regular basis so that they can stay fresh and motivated.

A lot of jobs in studios in creative industries -- they’re not set 9-5 jobs. Do you think that’s a possibility; to have that kind “regular schedule” of a “regular job” in game development?

Côté: We give a lot of flexibility to our employees to structure their schedule around the work that they need to do. I really try to see this as kind of a three-year cycle, or four-year cycle depending on the project.

A lot of time during the development of the project, it’s not a 9-5 job as you would say. It might be a 9-3 job, it might be a 9-4 job. Sometimes it’s a 9-6 job, so again production of a video game is not constant work. We’re asking people to be creative, that’s what we look for in people.

But we try to give them the flexibility of both. It’s not about just showing up to work. If you’re in more of a down period, we think it's good for you to be home if you need to be, and let you cool down and think about things that could make either the game better or your career better, or everything.

But sometimes...and again a lot of times it comes from the people themselves. They have a brilliant idea, they want to implement it, so they’ll push for a couple of weeks and then rest a little bit.

Klaus: If I could add, what we’re finding is that we’re getting better results with a certain amount of autonomy [for our teams]. Obviously, with autonomy comes responsibility of the teams, of the individuals. That works better for us.

But also, we are not in New York, San Francisco, or London in terms of talent pool. So we need to keep our teams, our creators, fulfilled and happy and engaged in the studio. Because if we lose them, you know, it’s tough to find that level of talent that you’ve invested in. So it’s win-win to really care for our teams, not just to ship a game but also to [keep] our teams healthy.

In terms of some of the checkpoints also, in our projects we look at the deliverables, we look at what was achieved against what was planned. We also analyze, together, the team health results, based on certain indicators.

What certain indicators are you surveying? Can you give me some examples as far as measuring team health?

Klaus: Stuff to do with the net promoter score. I don’t know how familiar you are with that process, to take a snapshot of your team and have some data on the promoters minus the detractors and neutrals, and you can follow that trend over time and you can dig into it.

In terms of the pyramid, the Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs pyramid of fundamental scales, do they have the tools, do they understand the vision, do they have the structure, is the road clear? Marc-Alexis and the management team will, whenever they see some data that raises certain flags, will dig into and it and see that a little snowball doesn’t become an avalanche. Take action, then follow up.

"You want people to be invested, but if you’re just moved around from project to project this can also lead to creative burnout in a way, so we’ve found."

Jon Dumont, creative director, Assassin's Creed Odyssey: Without getting into big formulae, one of the design principles that we try to establish is that we review the game content every two weeks. The content directions team [helps determine what] we are going to keep pushing on -- the things that are panning out. But [it also helps determine which content to] abandon quickly -- the things that we are not sure of, or things the team doesn’t feel that are good.

Our commitment to the team is to pursue the right designs so that we don’t try to force something that does it all, you know, like a pizza. And then we try to figure out what’s good about it, what's true to the design process, every two weeks. We [also] have milestone reviews every six to eight weeks where we make a quick assessment about the game, what is missing, what should we stop working on, and what's fine.

And the team is part of that decision making, and part of those evaluations. It helps us not push a million things at the same time. Even though these are gigantic teams, and we have collaborators everywhere, we try to really evaluate what’s there, ask the right questions, and say what we’d like to pursue a little bit more. The team focuses on the right things most of the time. It’s not always perfect but we try to really focus on what makes the game better, instead of hoping 'these things' will make the game better.

We try to be agile in long-term management, as well as from a design perspective, instead of enforcing a game bible at the start of the game and doing that for three years.

In the game industry, there’s this idea that when a project is wrapping up, you lay off a bunch of people. But you don’t really see that happening too often with Ubisoft. So how do you manage the headcount when ramping up, and ramping down, and in between projects?

Klaus: We never do that at Ubisoft; those big rifts at the end of the project. It is not in our philosophy.

Two things to answer your question. The first one is that the triple-A games that we are making are evolving. There used to be a massive ramp-down when you get your gold master and you submit to first-party and go into manufacturing. Most of, if not all, of Ubisoft’s games, particularly Assassin’s Creed is working toward a long, long, really long gameplay cycle.

Yesterday we announced the post-launch plan, which is the most ambitious we’ve ever seen on an Assassin’s Creed. We want to keep the players in the brand to give them some content to continue to have fun and enjoy. What that means is that a significant part of the team will continue to work on Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and the post-launch for the foreseeable future.

In terms of managing the headcounts, that is the staffing from Odyssey. We’re lucky to have other projects going on at Ubisoft Quebec, which unfortunately I cannot talk about, but will take some of that [staff to] ramp up. And we also are a collaborative network of studios, where co-development across studios is part of Ubisoft’s DNA.

For example, right now if I’ve got 60 creators that may be available for the next six to nine months, I’ll have a chat with some of the [managing directors] from other studios -- Montreal, Toronto -- and talk to them about what that talent pool looks like in terms of functions, and how we could potentially help some of those other big triple-As across the Ubisoft portfolio.

Côté: Before every person transfers to another project, they get the time to rest as well. This is really a studio-level initiative, so that people have some time to cool down.

You become so involved in the work that you do creatively. You want people to be invested, but if you’re just moved around from project to project this can also lead to creative burnout in a way, so we’ve found.

The other thing that’s important is sometimes at the end of a project you’ll see you need certain types of people less than before, but you still might need their expertise. ... So [for example] we’ve got a bunch of artists on Odyssey who started to ramp up a project so that they can improve their skills, while still staying available for a project should the need arise. Again, this is our way of trying to make sure that we want to keep working together, that we become better at working together.

Klaus: I think that in that relationship of trust with our teams, and the growth of our people and the investment that we put into our people is more important than P&L optimization, because if we were only driven by P&L optimization, then we may make some cuts at the end of the project. But our talent is our power, and we will invest in our talent.

Note: In follow-up emails after the interview, we asked: "What’s Patrick [Klaus]’s viewpoint on suggestions that the game industry should unionize, and does he think Ubisoft would ever unionize? Has it come up before internally among workers and management?" Ubisoft Quebec declined to comment specifically on unions and unionization. The studio also declined to offer detailed metrics regarding extended work periods.

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