Ubisoft Montreal: Convincing a AAA studio to try "indie" games

Patrick Plourde explains how he got his indie-styled Child of Light off the ground at the outfit behind Assassin's Creed and Watch Dogs

Ubisoft Montreal is the mammoth studio at the heart of Ubisoft's sprawling worldwide studio system. The 2,400 developers there are the stewards of some of the publisher's biggest series, including Assassin's Creed, Watch Dogs, and Far Cry. It is possibly the most AAA studio that ever AAA'd.

But early next year, it will release Child of Light, a turn-based combat game in a fairy tale world inspired by classic Japanese role-playing games. It's a personal project for creative director Patrick Plourde, one with a small team, a small budget, and a small scope. Plourde will discuss the project next Tuesday at the 2013 Montreal International Game Summit in a presentation titled "Going Indie in AAA," but he recently spoke with GamesIndustry International to discuss some of the issues in and around his talk, starting with how he got Ubisoft to go along with it in the first place.

"I finished Far Cry 3 and then I had one shot to make a pitch," Plourde explained. "It could have been for any type of game, and I decided to use that opportunity to pitch Child of Light. For Ubisoft Montreal, it's really different, so everybody was surprised when I made that pitch."

"If I would have pitched that for $40 million, then it would have been 'No.' But there was a certain level of risk I knew they would be willing to take financially."

Patrick Plourde

Even if the pitch wasn't what people had expected, Plourde was still optimistic it would be approved. Having worked at the studio for a decade, he knew what management, specifically Ubisoft Montreal CEO Yannis Mallat, would want to hear. He stressed that it would be beautiful and nostalgic, a small, artistic project that would stand out. And then he made the business case for it, pointing to sales of indie hits like Limbo, Journey, and Bastion as examples of the sort of returns these smaller projects could have.

"If I would have pitched that for $40 million, then it would have been 'No,'" Plourde said. "But there was a certain level of risk I knew they would be willing to take financially."

But a small project doesn't mean "low-profile." Plourde collaborated with well-known musicians in the local Montreal scene. That not only made the game better, but gave the project more credibility within the studio. Plourde wanted people to think of Child of Light as more "prestige" than simply small, and the approach seemed to be working. He described a sense of momentum behind the game, even in a studio as big as Ubisoft Montreal.

"It got a lot of traction, especially with people with a lot of experience, because there's a time where if you worked on like, four Assassin's Creeds and five Rainbow Sixes, or stuff like that, you go, 'You know what, I'd like to experiment with something else,'" Plourde said.


Child of Light doesn't look like your typical Ubisoft Montreal project.

Plourde also believes projects like Child of Light can be a good tool for large studios to retain top talent. Plourde suggested the studio might have easily lost 10 or 15 developers if it hadn't gone ahead with Child of Light. On top of that, the project has also attracted people from other studios to sign on with Ubisoft Montreal.

"It kind of rejuvenates the idea of Ubisoft Montreal," Plourde said, adding, "Basically, depending on what interests you, there should be something for everybody to say, 'You know what? I can build a career here and stay here.'"

As for how other AAA developers could convince their own employers to back such projects, Plourde had a wealth of advice, not the least of which was to understand one's own position within the company. Developers must look at their management as investors and be brutally honest with themselves as to whether or not they've established themselves as good investments. Are you a rising star in the company? Someone known for being able to ship stuff? Have you been able to interest a core team of experienced developers on board for your project?

If the answer to those questions is no, Plourde said, "Suddenly, this is going to be a really tough sell. In that case, I would suggest those people, if they really want to do it, to go indie."

That's not to say those developers aren't able to realize their visions. Plourde pointed to his former Ubisoft Montreal colleague Phil Fish as an example. He didn't have the pull within Ubisoft Montreal to get Fez greenlit, so he went off and made it a hit on his own. Of course, having that "pull" is a lot more than being able to answer the above questions in the affirmative. Plourde also stressed the importance of networking, of keeping a high profile within the company, and of being able to pitch.

"If the game is a missed opportunity, then it's going to be a missed opportunity for years. Even when I pitched Child of Light, they mentioned Beyond Good & Evil."

Patrick Plourde

"It helps to have been within the loop of doing that with big productions, because you kind of know how to make those presentations," Plourde said. "You know how to make a pitch for a concept around what people in the room like or don't like. It's not just about, 'I like this game, it's a cool game, and I want to do that with my friend.' It's going to be really tough to get funding, or footing to start that conception within the studio. I was that guy also, before. You enter the company and go like, 'I have these great ideas! I want to make some games, you should just let me do it.' It's junior people talking."

After a stretch in the industry, that youthful naiveté led to discouragement. But before long experience made him realize the right ways to go about getting his game made.

"You start to realize after a couple of projects, 'This is how it works. I understand the politics. I understand the machine. I understand what can be done. I know we can actually produce that and it makes sense.' That experience is great. It's a must if you want to do that within a big studio. Otherwise I think it's better to go indie."

Getting a AAA studio to sign on for a project like Child of Light may have been stressful, but the real pressure for Plourde is just getting started. First, the number one pressure on him is to make a great game. Second, he's more exposed, professionally and personally. Child of Light is "his game" in a way his previous AAA efforts were not, so the reaction to it can't help but be taken as a more direct reflection on him. Finally, Child of Light's success--or lack thereof--could have significant implications for other creators who would like to push their own indie-style projects at AAA publishers.

"If the game is a missed opportunity, then it's going to be a missed opportunity for years," Plourde said. "Even when I pitched Child of Light, they mentioned Beyond Good & Evil. They said 'Beyond Good & Evil was not a success, and we made that mistake once.' And it's like, yeah, but it's 10 years ago... If somebody tries something and fails, there are going to be repercussions for other people. For me it would be a shame if that happens. I don't think people are malevolent or evil about that. It's just if it fails, they're going to be careful greenlighting other projects like that."

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Latest comments (14)

Alex M Game Developper, Tribute Games Inc.8 years ago
As an ex-ubi mtl employe, i can tell that the small team/indie mentality existed for way more that most people believe. I worked on GBA license titles, most of them management didn't as care much as long as we shipped on time. That left us with more creative liberties than most teams. On the other end, we didn't get any spotlight compared to the big titles, even though some of our sales were on a massive scale (go check Star Wars Episode 3 GBA/DS sales figure). You can go wonders with a budget of half a million (ie about 15 persons). Which is still way more than any indie game budget. There was also some experiments with casual games for WII and DS when they tried to jump on the Brain Training bandwagon.

Anyway, i'm glad some suits at ubi's are starting to realize it's not always about big numbers... Game publishing need some kind of a "Fox Searchlight".
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Francis Cermak Website Administrator, HeavenGames LLC8 years ago
What's wrong with "standing upon the shoulders of giants"? That's how good ideas evolve into great ones and into an accepted institution.
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development8 years ago
Hmmm, did someone rework the meaning of "indie" yet again here? What exactly is this game independent of?
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Show all comments (14)
Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd8 years ago
@ Gareth You're giving Fez and Fish too much credit. Big indie successes have been common this generation (before Fez were LIMBO and Flower and many others), and yes, Plourde had to point to those to get Child of Light going, but that doesn't make it a bad project nor him a failure just because Fish left the company to make his own indie game. This kind of action should be encouraged, not criticized.

On the other hand, I'm genuinely disappointed to hear Ubisoft still thinks of BG&E as a failure, and that it thinks it was doomed just due to the status of the project. No, it was doomed by Ubisoft releasing it right next to Prince of Persia with no advertising and letting it die a silent death.
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Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd8 years ago
@ Paul The term indie is, let's be fair, total BS anyway. There isn't any defining "indie" characteristic. Bungie is indie and they're working on a $100 million budget game. But if you read the article you'd see he didn't call the game indie, just indie-like, in that it's created by a small team making a specialized product without the big budgets and oversight of AAA.
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development8 years ago
Does anyone actually buy that though? Count me out. Millionaires pretending to be street bums for a week know that if they don't like it they can go back to being millionaires again, and that paints an entirely wrong picture of the experience. What I read here is that "Indie" has some coolness about it, so big studios are trying to attach. Utterly missing the point.

I'm proud of Great Big War Game and I'm proud of Combat Monsters. I am not proud of being an indie. For pretty much all actual indies, indieness is not the goal but simply the method.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paul Johnson on 5th November 2013 11:30pm

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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd8 years ago
Incubating small, low-risk experiments should be standard practice in any large creative organisation. This story makes Ubisoft Montreal sound anomalous for not doing this before now.
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Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd8 years ago
@ Robin I agree the practice should be commonplace, but that doesn't mean it is in actuality. So no, I would say Ubisoft isn't particularly bad about incubating such projects. This sort of lower risk but market untested endeavor is what got games like BG&E and Rayman Origins developed in the first place.

@ Paul But then what's your line? Did Mojang with its tiny staff just instantly become not-indie when they made their first million? What about Thatgamecompany, who create small indie projects and are self-owned, but whose projects were funded and published by Sony? What's your line here? My point is that it's all arbitrary. You can't just define indie as "unsuccessful" so you may as well not use the term at all or use it to denote projects made by small teams with little oversight, as it's being used here.
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development8 years ago
I would say that about covers it. When you've earned so much money that you can stay in business even if your next project fails, then you're no longer indie - you can be dependent on yourself for your money. ThatGameCompany - never were. Mojang - yes once, no now.

I spent most of my long development career working at smaller firms with little or no oversight, none of which were indie. I don't think it's a blurry word at all - it only seems that way because so many people misuse it.
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Daniel Mesonero Studio Manager, Toadman Interactive8 years ago
I agree that it would be technically wrong to use the term indie for any title a team at Ubisoft makes. However, the meaning of indie seems to now primarily mean a certain aesthetic or gameplay, specifically non-mainstream. It's the same in the music and film industry, where they can have the backing and financing from pretty big companies and still be considered indie.
It is a constant negotiation of what is mainstream and what is not. Maybe not the best choice of word, but I won't try to fight it.
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Jakub Mikyska CEO, Grip Digital8 years ago
I think that being "indie" is not related to financial strength, but rather creative independence. Indie teams can make whatever they want, without anyone telling them whether that's OK or if something needs to be changed. They can release a terrible and no one will come shouting at them (except for their bank accounts). So, Mojang is indie. Thatgamecompany probably isn't. Bungie isn't indie. This Ubisoft venture... well, that's hard to say.
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Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd8 years ago
@ Jakub As someone who has spoken with Jenova Chen multiple times about his different games, I can tell you Thatgamecompany is creatively independent of Sony.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Nicholas Pantazis on 6th November 2013 11:09am

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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 8 years ago
I can see a AAA studio trying something differant with a smaller, indie "like" title risk free, since they probably are sitting on a few million dollars, throwing a smaller game into the mix to get out of the mold would be good for a team to just experiment and go crazy creatively.

So inbetween the assasins creed and COD games, it would be cool for studios to throw in a smaller game just for kicks, wether it sells or not. Who knows, we can see a brand new AAA IP born out of something small.

However I dont see a AAA studio going indie. There is no point when you have the resources to make bigger games. Unless the studio tanks.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Rick Lopez on 6th November 2013 8:37pm

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Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 8 years ago
We are in the middle of three simultaneous revolutions.
1) The availability of very high productivity development tools, Unity, Marmalade, Construct2 etc which allow small teams to create credible products. Especially when compared with the abysmal productivity that big team game development has complacently wandered into. This allows the "indie movement". So the brighter big studios are now setting up "indie" teams internally. Their problem is unlearning all the big team baggage they have accumulated over the years.
2) Digital distribution. This has removed the curating power that was held by a small handful of publishers. Now anyone can publish and there are over 100,000 publishers. So there is an explosion in creativity. And a whole new generation of publishers have appeared who are far more dynamic than the old big studio publishers.
3) The console platform holders' power over gaming has disappeared. Their business model has been undone. Disruptive models, sometimes on new platforms, now dominate real world gaming and have extended our customer base massively into new audiences.

So our industry now has several times as many customers as it had just 5 years ago. We are vastly more creative and innovative. And the establishment publishers and platform holders are having to adapt very quickly in order just to survive. Whilst new publishers and platform holders are taking their places.
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