The only thing worse than watching someone play a video game, I imagine, is watching them play one you've created. All things considered, François Pelland is being quite patient with me.
"No, no, you have to aim your cannons just ahead of the other ship to hit it. You have to give it time to catch up," he says, his frustration barely concealed as I muddle through a naval battle in Assassin's Creed III, the latest incarnation of a video game franchise that's sold more than 40 million units.
I fire my ship's cannons, but the shots sail wide again. The enemy returns fire and, instead of instructing my crew to duck, I take the barrage full on. Crew mates are blown away and the masts start to burn. I picture Pelland, watching from off to the side, rolling his eyes in disgust.
The trio of opposing ships closes in to finish me off. With their final shots, the screen dims and the words "memory sequence lost" appear. That's how every Assassin's Creed game tells you that you've failed.
"Maybe we should have started with the tutorial," Pelland quips, smirking.
We're lounging on a couch next to his desk while a hive of activity buzzes around us. The Assassin's Creed team occupies the whole basement of the old textile factory that serves as Ubisoft Montreal's studio. It's mid-August, and they're in full production mode; the game is due for release on Oct. 30. That's in just over two months.
A digital clock nearby counts down the seconds, literally, until the game's code is frozen and shipped to video-game console makers for certification. There isn't much time left–about a million seconds, or 12 days, to be exact.
The game is "in great shape," says Pelland, its senior producer. Quality assurance is the only stage of production left to complete. The team removed 9,000 bugs last week, but there are thousands more to go. Volunteers from the public are also play-testing the game, and the developers will make final tweaks. Scenarios that prove too challenging for the volunteers (say, certain naval battles) may have their difficulty levels dialled down.
It's crunch time, and everyone knows it. "This is when I become cranky," Pelland says. "This is where we have to guarantee that the game is going to be [delivered] on time."
On some level, everyone at Ubisoft understands the importance of Assassin's Creed. While the new game bears the numeral 3 (referring to the history-themed adventure series' shift into a third era and the addition of a new protagonist), it's actually the fifth Assassin's Creed game created for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, not to mention the various adaptations for mobile systems. The series has been instrumental in building Ubisoft into one of the biggest game publishers in the world, with 26 studios in 18 countries. Though it's based in France, Ubisoft can almost be considered a Canadian company. Nearly half of its 6,900 employees are here, while many of its biggest franchises–including Assassin's Creed, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell and Far Cry–are Canadian-made.
Expectations are high for the new Assassin's Creed, which is something of a risk because it introduces a new storyline, setting and main character. Nevertheless, in March Ubisoft announced that Assassin's Creed III had shattered the records for pre-orders in the U.S., surpassing last year's pre-release demand for Assassin's Creed: Revelations by a factor of 10. The pressure for Pelland and Co. to deliver a hit is definitely on.
Arguably more importantly, Ubisoft hopes that Assassin's Creed III will serve as the cornerstone of Ubisoft's ambitious plan to expand its reach beyond mere video games. With its deep and well-established fictional universe, the franchise is fertile ground for "transmedia," a growing trend in the gaming industry that enables companies to harvest more revenue from an intellectual property by taking the characters into other domains. While film, television and other spinoffs from video games have existed since the days of Pac-Man, they're often licensed out to third parties. By attempting to maintain creative control over its expansion into these areas, Ubisoft is breaking new ground.
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Ubisoft, like most video game companies, was started by young men. Convinced that the market had a big future, the five Guillemot brothers–Claude, Gérard, Michel, Christian and Yves–founded Ubisoft in 1986 in Rennes, a small city about three hours west of Paris. The idea at the time was to publish and distribute games developed in North America and Japan to the growing audience in France. Yves, then 25, was named CEO. By the end of the decade, the company ventured into the creative arena with its own games. Rayman, a colourful adventure title, became Ubisoft's first bona fide hit in 1995.
Ubisoft was lured to Canada by prolific Québécois lobbyist Sylvain Vaugeois, who saw the firm becoming the linchpin of a new digital economy for Montreal. The federal and provincial governments teamed up to give the company generous annual tax credits of $25,000 per employee for five years in exchange for creating 1,000 jobs. Montreal, which was experiencing a corporate exodus (following the narrowly defeated 1995 referendum on sovereignty), was desperate for investment. Mayor Pierre Bourque personally drove the new studio heads around in his little blue car to look for office space. They settled on an old textile factory in the run-down Mile End area. The operation got up and running in 1997 with 50 employees imported from France, as well as seven tons of Playmobil sets. The studio heads awkwardly explained to customs agents at Montreal airport that the toys were needed to train recruits in the basics of three-dimensional modelling.
The 2002 spy game Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell–Ubisoft Montreal's first high-profile title–won critical acclaim for its advanced use of light and shadow, and sold more than seven million copies. The next two years saw another pair of hits with Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, relatively unremarkable "platformer" (think running-and-jumping) games that would go on to become part of a franchise that sold more than 10 million units.
Suddenly, Ubisoft Montreal was catapulted into the premier leagues of game development. The studio had expanded to nearly 1,000 employees, and a Quebec City outlet was in the works. Eager to capitalize on the successes, the bosses in France ordered another Prince of Persia game. They expected a follow-up within the fantasy adventure-themed franchise.
Instead, Montreal went rogue.
It was January, 2004, and, fresh off a long vacation after the frantic production of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, creative director Patrice Désilets wanted to try something different.
The new Prince of Persia was supposed to run on the next generation of game consoles, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The only problem was, no one knew what the hardware specifications of the new consoles would be.
"It was a good thing," Désilets says, "because we just started to dream."
Désilets saw an opportunity. He envisioned a game similar to the popular Grand Theft Auto series, where players could roam freely and accomplish objectives in any order they liked, though they were usually confined to city streets. In a clever twist, Désilets wanted players to be able to go wherever they wanted, without limit. If the player was curious about any structure visible within the game, they could climb on top of it.
The problem with building a more action-oriented instalment of Prince of Persia was that the series' protagonist didn't fit. "The Prince is someone who's waiting around for the King to die so he can take his place, so while he's a Prince, he doesn't do much," says Désilets.
While considering the dilemma, Désilets suddenly remembered a book he had read in college about the hashashin, an order of warriors who inhabited mountain fortresses in Persia around the time of the First Crusade. It was the perfect backdrop for this next-generation adventure. Thus, Prince of Persia: Assassins–the game's unofficial title for its first two years of development–was born.
About 80 people worked on the game for the next two years, and by mid-2006, the team had a playable demo. By this point, Désilets could no longer hide what he had known all along–that this wasn't going to be a Prince of Persia game. After years of subtly hinting at the truth, the team finally pitched Ubisoft's management as well as its marketing department on the idea that they had come up with something genuinely original. To their surprise, management agreed, and Assassin's Creed was officially born.
"I'm a bad employee because they asked me for Prince of Persia and I came up with Assassin's Creed," Désilets says. "I didn't listen to my mandate."
The big test came in May, 2006, at the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo (known as E3) in Los Angeles, the game industry's most important showcase. The team showed off the prototype, and it was an immediate hit; Assassin's Creed won numerous accolades, including best action/adventure game in the Game Critics Awards.
It was finally released in November, 2007, and Assassin's Creed went on to become Ubisoft's biggest hit to date, its various instalments selling more than 39 million copies.
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In a darkened conference room in Ubisoft Montreal's basement in March, François Pelland and Alex Hutchinson, Assassin's Creed III's Australian-born creative director, are about to show me the genesis of their new game. The pair came on board in early 2010, after Désilets had a falling-out with management over creative differences (he subsequently ended up at rival publisher THQ), and after the series' original producer, Jade Raymond, was promoted to head Ubisoft's new Toronto studio.
The first game in the franchise followed Altair, a Crusades-era assassin, on a quest through cities such as Jerusalem, Damascus and Acre. Assassin's Creed II, released in 2009, shifted the story to Renaissance Italy, where a mischievous nobleman's son named Ezio Auditore discovers his family's links to the assassin order. That game proved to be so successful for Ubisoft that it came out with two direct sequels, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood in 2010, and Assassin's Creed: Revelations in 2011. With Assassin's Creed III, Ubisoft has finally retired Ezio and shifted the focus to a new character, a half-English, half-native American assassin named Ratonhnhaké:ton, or Connor Kenway.
The franchise's underlying story, however, centres on Desmond Miles, a modern-day descendant of this assassin brotherhood who is forced to use a virtual reality device that lets him experience the lives of his ancestors. From an intellectual property perspective, Pelland and Hutchinson explain, the Assassin's Creed universe is cleverly constructed, in that it isn't wedded to one particular character or setting. It can move freely from the Crusades to the Renaissance to colonial America without missing a beat.
The potential variety of settings is also why Ubisoft management believes it can release Assassin's Creed games annually without the franchise getting stale. A road map for future instalments, is in place until at least 2019.
Pelland and Hutchinson show me a "mood" video, a trailer they put together early in their conception process that was intended to convey the new game's essence. Toy soldiers and model buildings–harkening back to the studio's Playmobil beginnings–stand in for the 3-D animation to come. Fife-and-drum music plays, giving the clip a real, colonial-era feel. The video was meant to unite the creatives behind a common vision. "One of the big disasters you can have is if your art team is over here making a fantasy game in primary colours, and your engineering team is making War and Peace," Hutchinson says.
The next video Pelland and Hutchinson show me was made later in the development process. A hallmark of Assassin's Creed games has always been the main character's ability to run freely along rooftops and buildings. Assassin's Creed III extends that ability into the natural world–a significant technical challenge. Hutchinson beams with pride that his team was able to overcome it.
At one point, the creators had planned to allow players to scalp their foes, but though this practice is historically accurate–scalping was a common battle ritual among some native American tribes–it was scrapped. "You know some creepy kid is going to do it, like, 50 times, and it's going to be on the Internet," Hutchinson says. "That's all your game is going to be about. It's the game where you scalp everybody."
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While the gaming media loves Ubisoft, analysts aren't terribly crazy about it. In September, only a handful were rating the stock a "buy." In contrast, Activision Blizzard Inc., one of Ubisoft's main rivals, has more than a dozen "buy" recommendations, even though it is often criticized by gamers for milking its franchises such as Call of Duty and Guitar Hero.
Some feel Ubisoft may be overfocusing on certain franchises, such as Assassin's Creed, at the expense of others. The Splinter Cell series, for example, initially saw four releases in four years, which fatigued the market, while other franchises, such as Far Cry, go four years between releases.
"They need better planning," says Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter. "Assassin's Creed? I don't get doing that every year and I think I'm pretty typical."
Yannis Mallat, president and chief executive of Ubisoft Montreal and Toronto, seems unwilling to strong-arm his creative team, pointing to the positive results of their decision to disobey their mandate and create Assassin's Creed instead of Prince of Persia. The Montreal studio also currently has half a dozen early-stage projects on the go that headquarters doesn't yet know anything about. When the executives visit from France, the latest projects will be sprung on them for the first time, Mallat explains.
"We let the teams express what they want to do," he says. "It's really not an organization where the teams do what HQ wants. It's an organization where HQ wants to make sure the teams are empowered enough to impress and come up with content they're proud of."
The creativity-first approach may be paying off. After posting a full-year loss of €52 million in 2010, the company bounced back to a profit of €37 million this year, thanks to strong growth in digital and online sales. Creating and scheduling the release of various games isn't a science, Mallat says, but he feels the company is getting better at it. "Quality and innovation definitely go hand in hand with profitability and good figures."
Louis-Pierre Pharand is also looking for ways to help Ubisoft please the financial analysts. Two years ago, he made the jump from producing games–he worked on Far Cry 2, as well as two of game publisher Electronic Arts' key franchises, Medal of Honor and James Bond–to directing a new "transmedia" division at Ubisoft. It's a term that makes creative types cringe. "It's a big bullshit word that people use for everything," Pharand says. "It's used for everything from licensed products to a cellphone with a logo on it."
Ubisoft's transmedia efforts had to be different, Pharand says, because he didn't want to be some "executive schlub" looking to extract every last penny from the company's intellectual properties. Rather than just a simple licensing and marketing branch–the parts of a creative company tasked with extending its brands into other, potentially lucrative media, from TV and movies to T-shirts and mugs–Pharand's new UbiWorkshop division has narrative development and expansion as its core philosophy.
As Assassin's Creed became a priority for Ubisoft, UbiWorkshop has evolved into the company's own vertically integrated multimedia production house, charged with exploring potential new revenue streams. When Pharand wasn't happy with the job of mainstream comics publisher DC (Batman, Superman) in distributing the Assassin's Creed comic book, he pulled it in-house. The company was then able to control the size of its print run and its release dates. "On ubiworkshop.com and in Quebec bookstores alone, we surpassed what DC did with the sales of the soft-cover [comic books]. We also signed multiple deals in different territories," Pharand explains. "With a partner, these deals would have been complicated, if not impossible, to manage."
Then there's Ubisoft Montreal's new, proprietary Passenger technology, which takes 3-D animation and artwork created for games and repurposes them into footage that can be used in television, movies and online. Bringing in a 22-person team to test it out, Passenger enabled UbiWorkshop to create the 21-minute animated film Assassin's Creed: Embers, which depicts the final days of Ezio Auditore, one of the franchise's most beloved heroes. By using environments and crowd models created for Assassin's Creed II, Pharand estimates Embers was three times cheaper to make than if it had been animated from scratch. The film was packaged along with various in-game extras into several versions of Assassin's Creed: Revelations, which moved an additional million copies on top of the standard edition's sales. More importantly, Pharand says, UbiWorkshop now has the infrastructure to create an animated TV show completely in-house.
At Ubisoft, each game franchise has a "puzzle maker," or a person who ensures that transmedia opportunities (known as "gateways") are added during the design process. The puzzle maker is essentially the guardian of the franchise's canon, entrusted with making sure that a character created for a story in one medium, for example, fits in and doesn't conflict with the continuity in another medium. Puzzle makers are also there to remind every game developer to think about more than just games, and to design those gateways into their product, which is the opposite of how things have traditionally played out.
"We've all worked on games where someone has handed us a novel and said, 'Here.' And we're like, 'We didn't have anything to do with this,'" says Pat Redding, game director on Splinter Cell: Blacklist.
"We're having the opposite problem now, which is that we're very involved," adds Maxime Beland, Splinter Cell: Blacklist's creative director. Game developers will now sit down with comic-book writers and novelists, and brainstorm together. Some of their ideas might end up in the game itself, while others will filter into other media; regardless, there will be links and references between the two worlds. The process is creatively engaging, Beland says, though it does take time.
The vertical integration extends to the company's biggest projects, such as the recently announced Assassin's Creed film. Ubisoft Motion Pictures is now developing the Assassin's Creed project with Hollywood star Michael Fassbender (X-Men: First Class), who will act in and co-produce the film.
There's a pervading sense in the games industry that Hollywood studios just don't "get" games.
"Video game franchises usually don't make the jump to movies well. That's what we're afraid of. We don't want to be a statistic," Pharand says. "You don't give your baby away to anyone without being there as a watchdog."
Many comic book franchises once suffered similar fates, but, recently, companies like Marvel have become adept at churning out successful adaptations. After years of licensing characters to third parties that produced flops such as Daredevil and Elektra, Marvel formed its own movie studio. The move allowed the company to maintain creative and quality control over its properties. Marvel's subsequent box-office success culminated with this summer's Avengers, one of 2012's biggest hits, with gross worldwide revenues of over a billion dollars .
Ubisoft had initially been in talks with Sony to produce the Assassin's Creed movie, but in 2010, when Disney's movie Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (based on the Ubisoft game) turned out to be both a critical and a commercial disappointment, the video game studio decided to go it alone. With Fassbender connected to the project, and Jean-Julien Baronnet, former CEO of EuropaCorp (the studio behind the popular Transporter series), heading up Ubisoft Motion Pictures, the new arrangement involves participants with track records as filmmakers while keeping things firmly within Ubisoft's grasp.
Pharand's next move is to transition UbiWorkshop into a group responsible for thinking up online initiatives based on non-traditional business models. In early 2013, the division will release The Mighty Quest for Epic Loot, a humour-driven, downloadable title for PCs that will generate revenue through in-game purchases such as weapons and armour. Free-to-play services, which are already huge in Asia, are projected to become a $7-billion market by 2015; in Europe, free-to-play titles make up more than half of the market for games.
"We're not a major player now [in free-to-play] but there's definitely an intention to have a wider offer there," Pharand says. "We want to build a different type of game development. We see ourselves as the renegades."
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Back at Pelland's desk, the clock counts down the seconds before the code behind Assassin's Creed III is frozen. Media and format expansion are the furthest thing from his mind; the immediate future of the Assassin's Creed franchise rests on the game itself. At this year's E3, with neither Microsoft nor Sony revealing much about their next-generation consoles, the show was anyone's to steal–and Ubisoft stepped up in a big way. Led by Assassin's Creed III, the company wowed audiences with a full complement of impressive games. A number of gaming critics declared Ubisoft "best in show," and Assassin's Creed III scooped up numerous awards.
Pelland walks me through another sequence in the game. This time, I'm on terra firma, exploring an abandoned mansion that holds clues to a murder. I'm stuck inside one large room with no apparent exit. "Let's see how long it takes you to get out," Pelland says.
Unlike the naval battle, this is a familiar experience in Assassin's Creed games. Having to climb one's way out of places is old hat. After a few fruitless efforts, I discover a stuffed-bear trophy off to the side of the room. Grabbing onto his open maw, I climb up, then jump to a nearby chandelier. From there, the escape is easy. Pelland and I share a smile of satisfaction.