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Ubi-Art cultivates both creativity and culture at Ubisoft
The 2D UbiArt framework plays an interesting role in Ubisoft's strategy: It's an avenue to create riskier games with smaller teams, and to refresh developers who've long worked on triple-A brands.
Major publishers' software showcases have historically often been noisy spaces, where big, dark games loom from monitors in all the glory of their technical fidelity. But Ubisoft’s recent Digital Days event seemed to focus most proudly on Child of Light and Valiant Hearts (pictured above), new IP created with 2D illustrations by small teams. It’s the diversification strategy that the Ubi-Art Framework, the company’s proprietary 2D game toolset, was partially designed to address. Its procedural, animation and level design tools are specifically designed to equip small internal teams to make artful games for consoles, PlayStation Vita and mobile platforms in less time and with fewer resources. "The idea was to create an engine with tools powerful enough that we could take a drawing from an artist, render it in an engine, and play it," says Xavier Poix, managing director of Ubisoft’s French studios in Montpellier, Annecy and Paris. The first test of the tech was Rayman Origins, well-received for its bright, stylish look and fluid, spry gameplay. At the same time, high-end mobile games began to rise, bringing 2D art back into popular view thanks to the ideal design forms for touch devices with simple inputs. Mobile title Rayman: Jungle Run uses the same assets as the console game, says Poix. "The engine helps us make sure we’re platform-agnostic." From a single engine designed for one game, Ubisoft now has many teams working with the framework, able to create distinctive games like Child of Light and Valiant Hearts with fewer staff -- the former has a team of about 30, the latter just 15 -- and smaller budgets.
Child of Light
It allows the company to test out new IP at lower risk, and to experiment with aiming for what’s thought of as the "indie market" -- a large publisher able to create small, agile, experimental teams as a response to the fact that traditional triple-A is increasingly unsustainable.
"It’s a great tool to make sure we can propose what could be considered as niche products, because now we can speak directly from the developers to the audience," Poix says. Now that next-gen consoles are adapting to more flexible distribution models, "there is a good system now which enables us to think about new things, more risky [games] and smaller teams."
And having an accessible alternative toolset internally actually may help sustain its employees’ focus on new innovation. The publisher is still dedicated to large, open world games, says Poix, but getting to make smaller games in between major franchise launches helps celebrate developer creativity.
"You need to refresh your mind," says Poix. "In order for a passionate team to be innovative again, [they need to] think about something else. What’s interesting about the framework is it’s a good tool to tell stories, to imagine new stuff, and it could be a good proposal to give to [developers] after a few years on one franchise, to think outside the box."
"We hope Ubisoft is also seen as a publisher that is willing to take risks and innovate in terms of artistic and technical approach," he continues. "A Ubi-Art game should be a profound and intimate game, with high production values specific to one experience."
"The big titles are bigger and bigger. We’re good at it, and there’s much innovation we can bring. But the average [triple-A game] won’t exist anymore, so we have the Ubi-Art framework, to show another way," says Poix.
Although the publisher had previously discussed plans to license the framework to other studios and developers, currently it’s not clear whether that will ultimately happen. "It’s not ready yet," Poix says. "At first, [licensing the framework] was a part of the dream, but it’s a complicated dream. Internally, creating games is the first goal… and we have some room for improving the tools."
"We’re not yet at this objective of ‘create a game with two people," he adds.