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Building the Ship as it Sails: The Creation of Ubisoft Singapore

What does it take to build a new triple-A studio from nothing? Olivier de Rotalier, general manager of Ubisoft Singapore, explains both how the studio grew to 300 and how he keeps things working day-to-day.

What does it take to build a studio from the ground up, in a new region, with a non-native manager? That's what Ubisoft tackled with its Singapore studio, which formed in 2008. By 2009, the team put out the poorly received, but commercially successful Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time Re-Shelled. 

The studio was then invited by the parent company to contribute a level to Assassin's Creed II's more linear areas. The team submitted 10 levels, hoping one would pass muster -- and they were all accepted. It was at this point, based on this success, that the team became a cohesive unit. This gave the higher ups the confidence to trust Ubisoft Singapore with a bit more work in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, and then to allow them to create the entire ocean sequence in Assassin's Creed III.

But it's not all so simple as that, of course. There are language barriers -- in a region where English is one of four major languages, but nearly nobody speaks it as a first language. And while building an international team is great, how do these people communicate? When you ramp up a company so quickly, how do you get to know everyone's name? How do you make sure everyone's doing what they should be?

Ubisoft Singapore general manager Olivier de Rotalier had to face all these challenges, albeit with a windfall in the form of government grants from the Singapore government. How does one go revving up from a studio of one to 300 in just four years? We aimed to find out.

With this venture, Ubisoft chose to build a new studio in a new region from scratch, where there is not really a very large existing talent pool. Within the team culture, you've got established people that you've shipped in, and you've got people you have to train, and you have to integrate these folks. How do you go about bringing people up to speed quickly? 

Olivier de Rotalier: I think the first thing when you start a new studio -- what I did here in Singapore -- is you identify the potential of the country itself to beyond the video game company. What we saw in Singapore is that the education was very good, and the country was attractive to people whose first language is English. There were a lot of conditions that made us very optimistic about our ability to leverage this pool of people, of talent. So that was the first thing.

After that, when you start here, there are two things. First, there is how much training you can do, and this is where working as a network with other Ubisoft studios, we could bring people from Montreal, we could bring people from Paris, either for a short or a long stay to transfer their experience, share their expertise with people here, where the level of experience was proven to be lower than some of the Western countries. We could leverage this Ubisoft network and attract people here to provide that training. That was a big thing.

After that, as you can see in how we've handled those four years, the challenge that you take on has to match what your team can deliver. Of course we couldn't start from the beginning in Singapore working on Assassin's Creed III, for example. We had to move the teams, step by step, to take on challenge after challenge, integrating more and more people in the team, and making those people live together, to be able to take on these challenges. In terms of how you define a strategy for a new studio, you have to take into consideration the growth of your team and the growth for things that are more and more ambitious. 

How important when you reach a new region is the government in terms of its help and subsidies? It feels like there's a pattern, through establishing companies in Montreal and Singapore, of heavy government assistance. 

OdR: For government assistance.... When we considered coming here, what we needed to see was their commitment to build industry, their plan -- beyond the pipeline -- building a strong indication in the game area, and they had a long-term vision about what they wanted to do, and that they were committed into executing their plans. So, that's the main commitment we have on their side. But, yes, of course, if you need to build a full industry like this, it goes well beyond having one company and expecting it to build a fully custom system. So, we had this commitment from the government to build an ecosystem around us and to be serious about that. 


In a country that is very regulated, I don't want to necessarily say, "Will they be able to innovate?" but does the quality of that creativity change? 

OdR: I think it's changing very quickly here, and people are more and more exposed to old media and old games and such. So, I think there's not much restriction there, and people are introduced to the same things that you are introduced to in the U.S., et cetera. 

So, I think they are growing well on that side, and also I think that it's not so much about the creativity of Singapore. I think when you see it around you, you can feel those people -- they know what they're doing, and they can be innovative in their approach, and how people want to lead. They have a big imagination, and I think they can build on it.

But I think the challenge may be that this [is a country of] five million, and in a five million person country, you can probably innovate, but you cannot have so many innovations. But we're trying to create this environment where people want to come, because they are in a strategic area in Asia that is amenable to build a city that will attract people because the quality of living is good, because it's got good infrastructure, and so forth. 

They know that they need to attract talent from abroad to innovate and to fill in some gaps that they might have because of the size of the population, and I think they've been very, very clever in building this up. We see that already here with the work we've done here. We were able to bring the right people that work well with Singapore and people from the region. 

The reason I brought up is that my Singaporean friends talk about feeling a lack of creative culture here. They go abroad and see interesting art, and people just being creative because they can -- that vibe of, "I want to do this, and so I'm gonna do this." 

Leaving that alone for a moment, how have you found communication in the studio, where almost everyone's common language, English, is also often their second language?

My friend in Korea, he sometimes finds that has a difficult time getting his idea across the language barrier, even if it's fairly basic. So, he's found that drawing things and making quick prototypes is an easier way to share things with people, sometimes. Because, obviously, talking about nuance of game design and mechanics, you really need to understand what the other person is trying to communicate. How have you found that?

OdR: I think in general, even being in France with other French people, one of the very, very complicated things in video games is being able to convey a strong idea. I insist a lot with my team here: You have to use different media to bring across your ideas. So, you have meetings, you have presentations, you have emails, but you also have videos. You must be able to illustrate your ideas. 

I don't think it's a problem with anyone's character, I think it's a big challenge in the game industry in general. You have to convey your idea to many kinds of people from different job functions, and they give you feedback. That's one of the big challenges: Communicating efficiently and coming across the idea, it's a big big challenge. It's something we discuss a lot here: "Okay, you sent your email, that's good, but it's not enough." You have to build a video. So, we have some dedicated people for handling video all the time. 

You have people who help create videos to present an idea? 

OdR: Exactly. When you start a sprint, show a video. What's the intention? And show a video, send an email, do a meeting presentation, get feedback, bounce off people's feedback because it shows how they understand your idea. So it's -- I don't see that as a language challenge. I see that as a creative challenge to be able to come across with your idea. 


Does it get difficult when you have this many people -- I mean, 300 people is a lot of names to remember, even. Can you actually identify everyone in the studio? I'm not trying to challenge you or anything like that. It just seems like it would be a really difficult thing, when you have this many people, to even understand who everyone is, especially when you've ramped up so quickly over four years. Have you kind of filtered down that information, or does it filter back up?

OdR: That's the challenge you have growing from one-person studio to a 300-person studio. When you are 10 people in a studio, you know everyone really, really well. When you are 50, you still know people pretty well. When you are 300, you have to really rely on your team, to be able to know that team pretty well, or very well, because, yes, it's not just me here in the studio. 

The managers need to do their check on the human side to make sure that they convey the right message, they convey the message that we are aligned on, and they also relay the message from the dev team back to me, and also able to identify what the key potentials are, and the best way we can out bring the best ideas. I try to keep a lot of contacts with the team, but, yes, I rely a lot on my team to do that.

I know Ubisoft has a lot of methodologies for different aspects of development. Do you have something for figuring out whether you are getting the right feedback from people? Do you have some kind of process to understand that your lead is actually paying attention in the right ways and that they're actually giving you proper feedback that you can use? 

OdR: We have different tools that we use both on Ghost Recon Online and Assassin's Creed. We do rigorous evals about team morale. We send them questionnaires like, "How did you feel?" etcetera. We do that maybe every three months on a regular basis. 

Ubisoft has also built some group surveys to measure the mood and the perception of the company message, and you can compare with other studios how your team received a message, what's the mood there. So that's at the team level. 

As an MD for the studio, I'm trying to very regularly organize breakfast with small groups, and meetings with small groups, where I tell them about where we are going and why we are going that direction, what's the idea behind this or that, and getting their feedback. It takes a lot of time. It takes me maybe six hours a week, at least, meeting people in small groups.

Some people will not be there, asking their questions about the games, or giving feedback, so in that case it's not the right format. But for some of them it's a good opportunity to discuss issues with me and to give their feedback, so it's a good thing. 

Also, we do performance reviews of our managers, a more 360 approach, where it's not only the manager giving feedback about how the game is doing, but it's the team around him that he's giving feedback about. Does he have the right approach? Does he give the right feedback?

So, yes, that's something that we take very seriously, because we know everyone will not give you feedback the same way, and they don't feel they need to give it the same way. We have to use different approaches to be sure that we have the right people on the team. The bigger the team grows, the more you need to deliver this more structured approach to feedback. 


Yeah, I was talking to a producer once who said he would often go take walks with various people in the studio and just say, "Let's go for a walk and talk about stuff." And they would sort of naturally get to talking about the game. And that was how you would find out the things that everybody knew was wrong but nobody was really talking about. 

It's just stuff where it's like, "Yeah, this thing is constantly causing problems for us, but, you know, they're going to get to fixing it eventually, so it's going to be fine." Then you realize that five different people in an art team of 15 are talking about how this is a problem they're eventually going to get to. And you're like, "Okay. This is a problem we need to fix now." 

OdR: But you need to have your formal reporting and trust your people, because you cannot drop those decisions because it will make a mess. You need also to build a lot of informal relationships with different people and provoke them to get more feedback. Even though you want to go the opposite direction of their own managers, it's good also to have different feedback, and different approaches to getting it. You don't want only the feedback that's filtered out by the one that's reporting to you, even if you trust him -- but you do have to trust him. That's the most important thing. 

It must be difficult to be sure that you're getting accurate feedback from people when people speak differently to their managers than they do to their peer-level team members. You're probably always getting a certain version of what they actually feel.

OdR: But that's why you have to know your people. And still, with this size, I know the people quite well. I know who will never say anything, and those who will probably be easier to get feedback from. You have to find your own ways to identify the best points of your team.

It's a bit like a game in itself. You have to understand the tactics of building your team and how they're going to interact.

OdR: I think it's very, very important to keep this contact with the team and take every opportunity to explain to them why you are doing what you are doing, why they are doing what they are doing, and provide the opportunity to talk together. What you want to avoid as much as possible is a disconnect, not understanding where your team is going. That's part of the day-to-day effort.

One thing I liked that you said earlier is that shipping a product kind of builds a team. They weren't really a team until they shipped some early levels on Assassin's Creed II, and got the excitement of them being accepted. Having done something as a team that shipped, you can look at it and be like, "Oh, we did this together." It's a smart idea, because I know some folks who have worked on games for 10 years and shipped maybe two products. 

OdR: I think that's key. You need to be able to look at your success, whether you're big or small. I think that also one of the big objectives when we came here, and this was also the objective when we did TMNT, was to be able to ship things regularly that the team is proud of. 

"Hey, we shipped it together. We know that together we can reach something and we can deliver a final product together, and I know what you did on the project." That's the best way to build trust, I think, between people, and to build the team. I think if we were able in a few years to build teams that are able to deliver very high quality content, it's also because we could build this trust step by step where, "Okay, we build this AC2 level -- where no one really could believe we could ship all these 10 levels -- and we can be proud, and I know what this guy is bringing to the team." 

Step by step, you don't question their ability anymore. As long as you have not shipped anything, you still have that doubt, or maybe not. But here you don't have that. And I think that's what sticks a team together, and that's really, really important. Shipping games regularly and creating success -- it makes everyone believe that it's possible. I think here, that's one of the main achievements. For my team, the sky is the limit because they've been involved with such high quality productions. They've been progressing. Each time they realize a success -- it's the best way to always challenge yourself and to say, "Okay, we can do something big."

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