The games industry affords very few opportunities to celebrate a 30th birthday. New technologies emerge, the marketplace shifts, companies go bust through mistakes and mismanagement. These are harsh realities in any kind of business, but there have been few more challenging in the last ten years than game development. Reflections is a survivor. One of the rare chances to raise a glass to a studio that has kept its seat at the top table for three decades
And Will Musson has been there for two of them. The sixth employee of Reflections Interactive, Musson joined the studio just before work started on Destruction Derby, a key early release for Sony's new, fangled PlayStation console. It's safe to say that the game industry was very different back then, and yet Reflections has weathered the many changes since, changes that ultimately got the better of all but a few of its peers.
"A lot of studios have gone down," Musson says as we talk in his office, the walls adorned with posters from the numerous AAA projects that were developed at the studio. "And there'll be another week and we'll see another studio go down. We have been resilient to that, and I think it's because we never stand still.
"A lot of studios have gone down. We have been resilient to that, and I think it's because we never stand still"
"We're not an arrogant studio. We don't think we're the best. We think, 'We're good. But how do we get better?' That's helped us be more open to change down the years. Even during Driver [Reflections' influential open-world driving game] we had multiple projects. Some of which didn't come out, but we were always trying new things and trying to protect ourselves at even that early stage."
Of course, there's one detail that I haven't mentioned yet. A detail that, when it comes to telling the story of this studio as it reaches its 30th year, is the most crucial and instructive of all. This is, after all, Ubisoft Reflections, and it has born the name of the French publisher for nearly a third of its lifetime. The desire to improve and experiment has no doubt been a huge advantage over the years, but the helping hand of a wealthy and growing parent company cannot be discounted. Even at the time, Musson says, the security Ubisoft could offer against the spiralling cost of development was an obvious advantage.
"Reflections had been bought out several times beforehand, so it wasn't new to us anyway," he says. "The difference with Ubisoft was you always felt that there was a solid basis in quality and innovation behind it, which suited us well. But it became apparent very quickly - and it had done already at that point - that you can't make these AAA games all on your own any more. All the ramping up and ramping down - it's just not sustainable."
And the value of that stability would be neatly illustrated on Reflections' very next project: Driver: San Francisco, a very good game for which no official sales figures were released, but which didn't seem to set the charts ablaze with the force of its commercial success. That's anecdotal, more an observation than a fact, but it's also a fact that Driver: San Francisco took five years to reach the market - a very long time in the high-cost world of AAA development.
"It was a long project, with its ups and downs," Musson admits. "Ultimately, we're very proud of it."
"It became apparent very quickly that you can't make these AAA games all on your own any more"
Looking back now, though, Driver: San Francisco appears as a dividing line, a blank page between the different chapters of Reflections' history. Those posters on the walls I mentioned earlier? Just Dance, Far Cry, Watch Dogs, The Crew and The Division, each one an IP developed elsewhere in Ubisoft's global organisation. Reflections Interactive created Shadow of the Beast, Destruction Derby and Driver in the space of ten years - albeit when the economics of game development were very different. But Ubisoft Reflections has never created an IP, and since the release of Driver: San Francisco it has worked as a support studio on seven games across five different franchises. Whatever Reflections used to be, and whatever it used to represent, it's perhaps more difficult to spot that lineage today than Musson lets on.
After all, Ubisoft has made no secret that this global, multi-team approach to development is the way it intends to tackle its blockbuster releases from now on, and Ubisoft Reflections has been one of the key studios in that mix for nearly four years. The studio's managing director, Pauline Langourieux, was instrumental in shaping Reflections to meet the needs of that new structure. She arrived at the end of 2012, just after the rundown from the long development of Driver: San Francisco - an experience she describes as, "very painful for everybody."
"When you have a studio with a strategy based around one single product it makes that very difficult. You have to ramp up and you have to ramp down."
This cycle of hiring and shedding staff is one of the less humane aspects of AAA development, redundancy becoming an essential part of a career in the games industry, and the foundations laid for months of brutal crunching as temporary contracts wind down. Which is not to say that Reflections engaged in any such thing, of course; only that those circumstances were common enough for Ubisoft to seek a corrective in the form of a collaborative, global production strategy.
In less than two years as MD of Reflections, Langourieux has nearly doubled its headcount: 230 full-time employees, with another 40 to be hired in the coming months. There is, she tells me, a "sweet spot" for the way Ubisoft wants to make its tentpole releases, and after this next wave of hiring Reflections will finally have the right balance of expertise and sheer numbers to fit neatly into that bigger picture.
"You need to have a certain critical size to be able to be flexible and efficient enough to have a portfolio of titles," she says. "That was very important to me. I felt that, at 130 people [Reflections' headcount after Driver: San Francisco], we were a bit below the critical size. With 200 people, you can have conception, you can have co-production like we're doing on The Division, and you can have side projects and experimental projects. That's okay, because you can still deliver on the big things."
"We know that it can be considered a weakness being a support studio, but it's absolutely not for the people that work here"
The idea that Reflections is a AAA developer with an "indie spirit" is stated often during my day at its offices in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. As a sentiment, it clearly matters a great deal to those that work here, and it's the sort of nebulous concept that can easily be accepted at face value. But exactly what "indie spirit" means in the context of a 240-person studio working on half a dozen different projects at any given time is never properly explained. If the intention is to trace a line back to the six people who made Destruction Derby, to establish that inscrutable link between Reflections' past and what appears to be its present, well, that message didn't quite come across.
What did resonate was the validity of Ubisoft's way of working, and how effectively it seems to have neutralised some of the widely tolerated rigours of this kind of game production. There is a commitment to keeping individual teams as small as possible, and ensuring that their contributions are both tailored to their skills and modular enough to give them a sense of ownership on any given project. And with so many different games in development, there's no reason for anyone to spend five straight years working on the same thing any more. I'm not sure that justifies a term as fanciful as 'indie spirit', exactly, but in the way the studio is organised, and the benefits that yields for its employees, there is much to admire.
"When you have a team of 25 experts who have known each other for years, and they're trying to push at one specific innovation within one game, the way they work isn't like the way you work when you're in a gigantic team," says Langourieux. "You can do things in a way that's not too industrial, while still touching the interesting part of the industrial aspect of it.
"We know that it can be considered a weakness being a support studio, but it's absolutely not for the people that work here. They are able to work on a lot of very, very good games in a short space of time. It's an accelerator of learning. If you work on a very big game you can feel like a pawn, and it's the scope of the project that does that. Here, it's the best of working on AAA, but in a team size that's more human, where you know everybody, and the hierarchy is very flat.
"It's sustainable. It's costly, it's painful, and maybe less efficient in the short term. But in the long term it creates a very good culture for the company."
"Here, it's the best of working on AAA, but in a team size that's more human, where you know everybody"
And that may be the true nature of Reflections in 2014: not a continuation of the culture that evolved decades ago, but the building of a new one that can thrive in a landscape that may have overwhelmed the studio had it genuinely stayed true to its past. As the industry changes, so too do the requirements of existing near its bleeding edge. After talking to Musson, I left with the impression that this, more than anything else, is where he wants Reflections to be. That, and the opportunity to once again create an entirely new IP.
"We don't have our own IP," he says, "but everybody here understands the problems associated with having your own IP. Driver: San Francisco was five years. A very heavy project that, while we're very proud of it, wasn't without its difficulties. We owned that. It was ours.
"But if collaborating on lots of different IP helps us advance and helps us push forward, if it gets people's confidence up and gets us excited again, then that's good. You're building up the experience and the talent within the studio for the future, and maybe there's a new IP down the line. So when that new idea comes along, it's not a case of could Reflections do it? It's a case of, well, of course Reflections can do it."
Langourieux is even more definitive. "It's very simple," she says, smiling, "it will happen. Of course it will happen. We have the creative talent to do it, but I want it to be absolutely exceptional. I want it to be a game changer, so we won't do it before we're ready. Right now, we aren't ready, but we're getting there."