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Building Believable Worlds: Yannis Mallat On Production At Ubisoft

With Ubisoft Montreal now housing 2000 employees, Gamasutra sits down with CEO Yannis Mallat to discuss managing the unique studio and its breadth of development, from Far Cry 2 through My Weight Loss Coach.

As what the company calls the 'CEO' of Ubisoft Montreal, Yannis Mallat -- formerly producer on several games in the Prince Of Persia series -- is responsible for managing one of the biggest single game development studios in the world.

Mallat, who has been working at Ubisoft since the year 2000, is responsible for managing a 2000-person studio that has the responsibility to create games for all audiences and across all platforms -- and is actually developing titles all the way from the most casual (My Weight Loss Coach) to the more 'core' (Prince Of Persia), all under one roof.

Gamasutra recently sat down with Mallat to discuss the ways in which a studio that produces games ranging from Dogz for Wii to Far Cry 2 for PS3, 360 and high-end PCs approaches production.

Ubisoft Montreal a very large studio that produces a wide range of games. At this point, the challenge is doing really good casual games at the same time as doing really good, solid core games like Assassin's Creed or Prince of Persia. Having a studio that can carry that breadth must be pretty challenging.

Yannis Mallat: It is challenging, but I used to say and I love to say... in a way, we're not a 2000-person big studio. We are an "X projects" studio. We have a project-based team structure, and we want to make sure that we respect that. We want to make sure that the studio is in fact at the service of the creators' vision.

And that helps us in the very early stages of any production, so the creators actually get that ownership on what they're actually doing before staffing and either becoming a big project or a smaller project in terms of staff.

Now regarding the casual games, I used to say as a joke that when you have 2,000 people, it's twice the necessary size for surveys, so that the results are meaningful -- which means of course that you're going to find people that are going to love to work in casual, and stuff like this.

Our structure is at the service of the product, thus it helps us to not preformat the way we are managing projects, so you can have projects like Assassin's Creed and smaller projects like the casual games.

We had a recent interview with Benoit Galarneau, who is working on Dogz for the Wii. We think of most developers as being interested in working on high-tech, hardcore games. Many developers come from a gaming background. But he found it really gratifying to work on a game like Dogz. I was wondering if you were finding it's easy to recruit people and keep them interested in these projects? How does that affect the process?

YM: Yeah, absolutely. It's a different challenge. It's a different way of approaching production and creation. For sure, casual people, especially casual games on the Wii and DS, attract people with different challenges such as, "Okay, it's not going to be the big tech demo thing."

The challenge lies more in the game design and how we nail the concept that is accessible. It's psychologically very exciting. It's a nice, brilliant challenge, because it's a nice, brilliant platform for those products. It attracts a lot of people.

Nintendo's success has been based around not just the fact that its games are accessible, but the company also does have a really intrinsic understanding of gameplay.

YM: True.

The games wouldn't be successful if Nintendo didn't have that real kernel of understanding gameplay.

YM: True. That's true, and they were the first one to nail down the recipe in a way. But this is what we're doing on all of our projects, not only on the casual side -- give room early in the production to prototyping.

Nailing down what's the behavior of the main interface and what's fun. How is it well-rounded? Where does the pleasure come from? Is it something that is meaningful in terms of the experience? Doing that early, and making sure you nail down the gameplay. It's a good way.

What kinds of tools do you use for prototyping games? I guess it would differ based on the intended platform, obviously, and maybe even the intended target audience. But what kind of prototyping do you do?

YM: Everything can be prototyped -- that, I want to mention. Sometimes we even prototype game structure with Flash, for example. When it comes time to prototype the gameplay, we have our own internal engines that are very flexible and easy to iterate on. That's in-house technology, so there is no tech barrier to prototyping.


Ubisoft's Far Cry 2

Well, I was talking to Dominic Guay about the new engine that's driving Far Cry 2.

YM: Dunia.

Yes. I spoke to him at the NVIDIA Gamers Day. One thing we're talking about with the engine is that game has many different types of gameplay, and that sort of helps drive the feature set of the engine, to have a back-and-forth. That makes it a more flexible engine to work with in the future, too.

YM: Absolutely. If there's one thing we could say about our internal engines, it's that they are native next-gen technology. It's not an engine that we refactored from previous technology onto next-gen.

It took us a while, obviously, because we wanted things to be well-done, but now the results are exactly what you say. We can easily come up with different gameplay and easily address the open-world stuff. And actually now, some of our engines are used by other projects, which is a really good sign.

Do you have several internal engine projects?

YM: Yeah.

And do you share them between the studios elsewhere in the world?

YM: Yes, absolutely. We promote sharing a lot. We want to make sure that before we share the engine, we've reached a certain maturity level, because there's nothing worse than sharing something that's not in an appropriate state. But yeah, we encourage sharing for sure. We have several technologies within Montreal, and there are different technologies in other studios.


Getting back to the talk about prototyping, I often hear that people really wish they had more time up-front, but the big challenge there is funding up-front. Obviously, it's not as much of a challenge for you guys, because you're a publisher and developer, and you have such a large staff, but finding the time and the correct staffing up-front still has to be pretty challenging.

YM: I can understand why. I would like to mention that prototyping is sometimes not that expensive. The only downside is always for the good -- meaning sometimes, you have to be ready to throw stuff in the garbage.

That's okay, in a way. You keep the best. If you know why you throw things away, it's good for helping the project be where it needs to be. Obviously, as you mentioned, we are in a very luxury situation, working for a publisher who's also the developer, so it helps a lot.

But at the same time, there's got to be pressure to get things rolling, even for you guys.

YM: Oh yeah. It's a business.

Exactly.

YM: But again, the best way to deal with that pressure is to make sure that what you're about to produce is great, unique, and tested in its fundamental mechanics, rather than trying to make something work that is not fundamentally good. It's better, even economically speaking.

Prior versions of some of the casual games, like the Petz series, were either developed externally, or games that were licensed and then came into the series, but now you're developing the Wii version of Dogz internally at your studio, and it's a high priority. I wouldn't go so far as to say that's unique in the industry, but it represents a shift in thinking, I think.

YM: I don't know if it's a shift in a way. What it shows is that it's an interesting project for us. Put it this way: every new project for us will help us learn something new, and this huge depository of knowledge is good for growing the studio.

The Petz brand is important for Ubisoft business-wise, and I think it's also important for us in technology and AI and how that can interact with gameplay. It's interesting for us.

Getting back to the idea of creating games that have a casual target but have depth to them, I think that one thing that doesn't happen maybe in the way it could is the cross-pollination between different kinds of games, taking what works and maybe recontextualizing it.

YM: You're so right. This is also why we think the formula is good at Montreal -- having people at the same studio being able to work on the Petz series or some casual games, but also after that -- why not? -- going back to more traditional and more hardcore games. Again, there is always something to learn from any new experience.

Just to expand a little on that, the casual games for us have, depending on the project, have to bring something and be meaningful for the target [audience].

Not to mention the Coach series, which has been created at Ubisoft Montreal. It's definitely an attempt to make a new brand, a new IP within casual games, and the main driving force has been to get us to learn something, and give something to the player. The experience is really rich.

You can take Assassin's Creed and contrast that with Dogz, just as an example. They're quite different. But do you see more middle ground and cross-pollination, and not such extremes for games that could work really well for players?

Right now, the audiences are perceived in terms of casual, accessible, and young kids, versus a hardcore gamer. Is there a middle ground? Is there an audience that would respond to something that's...

YM: Not one and not the other?

Yeah, kind of somewhere in between.

YM: Yeah, probably. I cannot think of a project right now, but the main goal here really is to say, "You know what? We are a content provider, and we are happy to provide any content that suits any segment." I think we're pretty good at that.


Do you think about cultivating your audiences from your titles? Especially if you started working with kids as they grow up. They might stick with the DS for a long time. How do you look at that challenge?

YM: It's a really good question. I think the challenge needs to be addressed, and the way we do it is to always provide high-quality games, so that you can have consumers that can trust you, trust your product. It's an experience, and when they get attached to the products, they stay with you.

Someone used to say that it's harder to attract new consumers than it is to keep one. Definitely the quality benchmark at Ubisoft Montreal and Ubisoft in general is the right strategy.

Something that Nintendo does very well is make games that appeal to a broad range of ages. I see adults having as much fun with Wii Sports as kids, and you see that over and over with its games. It's a challenge from a production perspective, but I think it's a mindset perspective too. I think people in the past have thought of casual games as kids' games. They didn't take them quite as seriously as they should have.

YM: Yeah, it's interesting. I think games are for everyone. Again, I can't help myself but think of Rayman Raving Rabbids, which is definitely a game to be played by kids, parents, and all their family members.

It's a good product, and it's a good strategy, as you say. Games are for everyone.

Another game I can think of that is pretty famous for having content that scales well is Smarty Pants. It's an EA quiz game for the Wii. You input your age, and it gives you questions targeted to your age group. So a parent can have parent-targeted questions and compete with a kid with kid-targeted questions. They can still excel at their own level. Things like that are the kinds of accessible options that need to be put into games now.

YM: Interesting.

Have you given thought to that kind of stuff? Maybe not specifically that, but about how you might broaden the target.

YM: Yeah, definitely. Again, Rayman Raving Rabbids is aiming that way. We also think that each segment is not only defined by age, but is also defined by their hobbies and interests.

As an example, there's the My Coach series of games, with My Word Coach for people who love playing with words or My Weight Loss Coach. So different interests, different topics.

The only thing is that you have to have a good experience, you have to learn something if you can, and you have to have quality time with quality products.

You talk about how you have many different games from many different interests, and part of the ability I think to be able to do that is that you're not spending four years and 20 million dollars on them. You can see what sticks. It's a little bit of an experiment. So how do you gauge those things? Is it just through sales, or is it through consumer response? How do you decide what's going to work for you in the future?

YM: Both. We are definitely a big defender of early play test, and putting the game in the hands of the consumers very early, and getting their feedback.

That is tremendously precious and rich, and it goes with the prototyping strategy. So, one and one. We know where we're going, and we know approximately where it goes, and once we have created a brand, we try to capture the audience again and again.

Speaking of working with consumers and giving them early versions, do you do a lot of early testing and focus testing and play testing with consumer groups?

YM: Exactly. That's the point. We put the game early in those guys' hands, and it's really precious what we learn, absolutely. It's a must right now. Nowadays, it's a must. You have to do that.

And do you iterate very rapidly based on the feedback that you get? I've talked to some developers who do play tests as much as every two weeks. They bring in a new group, which plays it, the developer observes it, and they iterate right away. Do you have a similar experience?

YM: Yes. It depends obviously on the scope of the game. Some games are heavier in a way, in terms of iterating. With casual games, you can do that right away, because the technology is flexible and simple in a way. And it's necessary. It's good.


One thing that I found interesting, speaking about Dogz specifically, is the integration of the Toyota Corolla into the game, which is more like product placement than an in-game ad, in a certain sense, because it's sitting there in your garage. I think that's interesting as well. And it's a family car. It's not Mountain Dew.

YM: True. The game answers some of our target's topics or interests, and if you can leverage the economics with some interesting product placement, for example, why not? It's good.

Have you done stuff like that, or is this new territory for you guys? Have you done much of that so far?

YM: We've done much of that, for instance in Rainbow Six Vegas. That's the first example that comes in my mind, with Axe and some other products and Jeep and GM, I think. It's getting there.

What's the reaction of the different audiences that you see? Is it broadly positive? Obviously, Rainbow Six Vegas and Dogz are quite different target markets and products being placed.

YM: That's a good question. I think people might not expect that, but it's an entertainment product. It happens in movies, it exists in TV, and it's part of the product, I would say. So people react positively.

It fits the world of the game.

YM: Exactly.

Because ultimately, if your game only has a few environments, potentially, it still has a world view.

YM: Totally. And don't forget it's aimed at being an immersive experience. You don't want something to distract you totally, like, "Hey, what is this thing there?"

I think in a certain sense, obviously it's important to build a believable world. Especially with a game like Assassin's Creed -- a physically huge, compelling world. But at the same time, you have to make a credible world for Dogz for it to connect with the audience.

YM: I would use the word "believable," as long as the right references are put together and as long as the player can hang on to something that makes sense in that world. It makes that world credible, you're right. It's really important. It takes some time and research, and it's important.

And something that's also recently been proven by Nintendo is that the general audience doesn't care about fidelity of graphics, as much as we thought it was part and parcel with the gaming experience. What drives their interest?

YM: I think if you have a good gameplay experience first -- that's important. That's necessary. You cannot go without that. Once you have that, you can add on that. You can add to enrich the experience or give some eye candy.

That's always a reason for people. But the goal, really, is first to nail down fun, addictive gameplay that makes sense in a way that the player has an evolution within the game.

We've been doing a series of articles on the site called "What Gamers Want" where we talk to different groups of people. We recently gathered several older gamers in their 50s and beyond to let them try games, and they found the interfaces confusing. For example, "D-pad" for the directional button didn't make sense to them. Have you done any interface testing for a general audience like that?

YM: Yes. Absolutely. We came to the conclusion that thanks to those guys at Nintendo, they did an awesome job lowering the entry barriers, so that the games are accessible in the way they are played, with what I call the interface -- the pad and the controls.

It's somewhat hard for non-gamers to translate a 3D world, if it's a 3D game, with an analog stick. It's really important, because it's the only link between you and the experience, so it has to be perfectly nailed down. With casual games on the Wii and the DS, hopefully the controls are seamlessly intuitive.

It does also mean that even in traditional games, even for [core] gamers, it has to be perfect controls. That's the keystone.

Nintendo recently announced the MotionPlus for the Wii. Do you have any thoughts about utilizing that?

YM: I'd have to say that I wouldn't realize at first that it would add so much to the experience. It's one thing to have your brain interpolating what you're doing. It's another thing to not need that interpolation work.

It's so comfortable. It'll certainly add a lot of pleasure to the experience.

And the Balance Board, also. Do you feel comfortable making games that would require these peripherals?

YM: Oh yeah, totally. It's extensions -- to get a wide audience with new peripherals in order to interact with a game. I cannot help but think of Shaun White Wii, which is definitely a must-try. It's so intuitive.

You don't need your brain to do that interpolation work, because it's so seamless, and then you immerse yourself into that experience. Oh yeah, definitely. It's really good.

And you feel confident of the penetration on these peripherals into homes through Nintendo packaging them with software?

YM: Yeah. I think the figures speak for themselves. It's getting there. It's becoming mass-market.

And obviously Nintendo recently overtook Microsoft in install base. So you're confident. Do you see that as the leading platform for your studio, from a console perspective?

YM: I cannot speak for Nintendo and the others, but I think the figures speak for themselves. What is sure is that we are a content provider and an experience provider.

We will, for sure, make games for everyone -- hardcore gamers on that console, and casual gamers on this console. We'll make games for everyone, because that's our job.

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