Ubisoft embracing indie-style projects at big studios

Jade Raymond talks about how Ubisoft Toronto is looking to leverage industry best practices, including indie-style development

Last year, Ubisoft Montreal creative director Patrick Plourde discussed how he pitched a small project like Child of Light within a AAA games development studio. Getting a massive studio within a major publisher to sign off on a small project isn't the easiest thing to do, but the small games approach appears to be catching on within other Ubisoft studios. At a special GDC dinner last week, Jade Raymond, managing director at Ubisoft Toronto, discussed how her studio has looked to the indie scene in Toronto for inspiration.

Ubisoft Toronto currently has five projects in motion, with two of them being collaborative efforts amongst multiple Ubisoft studios. The other three will be smaller-scale projects, and Raymond said that's a good thing as it's giving her studio a chance to experiment creatively.

"They are smaller [projects]. One will be smaller always. One of them is only a 20-person team. So don't expect that out of Ubisoft Toronto and the five projects that you'll see five new Assassin's Creeds. I think that's great because when you look at the industry these days the products like Assassin's Creed are still doing well, we can have them every year and innovate and they'll grow, but there are also other interesting opportunities to explore and they can be done with smaller teams and you can keep some people really motivated because they want to have the experience of doing both things," she said.

Raymond continued, "I think it's a win-win if you can figure out a way to have the more indie-style development work within a bigger structure. I think that's an advantage we have in Toronto too, because there's a really great indie scene so it would be dumb of us not [to leverage that]. Lesley [Phord-Toy] is one of the producers at [Ubisoft] Toronto and is also the president of the IGDA in Toronto and really involved in the game development scene. Nathan [Vella] from Capybara comes and hangs out, and there's so much interesting stuff going on and we want to leverage that and take the best of what's going on in the industry in general."

"I do feel like we're in the age of self-expression. It's an age where everyone is an artist... it's a move to systemic games that allow you to play the way you want and you can share it..."

Jade Raymond

One of the themes that Raymond repeatedly touched upon during the dinner was that of ownership. Whether it's a small team that's given a chance to work on a smaller indie-style game or an entire studio that takes complete control of a particular aspect of a larger AAA game - like how Ubisoft Singapore did everything related to naval battles in Assassin's Creed 3 - that feeling of ownership and sense of pride yields better results. Quite frankly, it's a sign of good management, said Raymond.

"It's human nature but it's also how you create great games, like Singapore being able to say 'we did the naval parts and that's 100 percent us.' They wanted to bring it up a level. If they had been doing [a variety] of cinematics across the whole game they couldn't point to any one thing. Ideally you take a chunk and you let people own it," she noted.

And that ties into another theme: self-expression. While Ubisoft is proud to let its creative talent express itself, Raymond identified that self-expression is actually becoming more and more important for Ubisoft's audience. Increasingly, gaming experiences are about the players and how they express themselves rather than what the game developers want them to see.

"I do feel like we're in the age of self-expression. It's an age where everyone is an artist... and everyone wants to share. We see that evidenced in very simple products like Minecraft and it's about what I create... It's about what I think is great and what I'm sharing with people and what other people care about. In terms of games, really to me, it's a move to systemic games that allow you to play the way you want and you can share it... it's really games that facilitate that," Raymond said. "It's about, 'I had this experience and I was playing this way and this was what happened and this is my story.' That's the big trend."

When asked if that means that one of the five projects at Ubisoft Toronto might be in the vein of Sony's LittleBigPlanet, she responded, "I love LittleBigPlanet but that's the thing about the spectrum of creativity - I don't think it has to do with creating levels. There are so many ways in which you can be creative, so it's about 'this is my way of playing this thing and I can show you my experience.' It doesn't have to be creating levels; so I think in the same sense that Facebook expands to offer different levels of engagement you have to allow a different level of engagement for people. I do think it's important for people to have the ability to create things but that's still going to be three percent of the population that spends the time to learn and do that. But everyone else still wants to be creative so what's their avenue?"

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Latest comments (10)

Steve Wetz Reviewer/Assistant Editor, Gamer's Glance7 years ago
"One of them is only a 20-person team." Small for Ubisoft, big for most indie companies. It's all relative, really.

Ubisoft has been excellent as of late, and I hope it never changes. If they pivot to smaller projects, all the better. Of course, the best way they could free up personnel for other projects is to shut down that ridiculously useless uPlay...
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 7 years ago
I do think if a big company starts making smaller indie-like games these low production value games can serve well for two things...

1) To experiment new ideas with little financial risk involved and if one idea hits, it can become a franchise or a full production AAA game.

2) The income these games can aid the production of higher production value AAA games.

Examples of the games Im refering to is Towerfall Ascension, Guacamelee, FlappyBird
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Christian Slater DevilBliss Games Consultancy 7 years ago
They're also a nice freshener for programmers, designers, artists etc who are getting a tad weary of the AAA dev cycle treadmill,, helping avoid burnout and the subsequent brain drain.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Christian Slater on 25th March 2014 1:49pm

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Christopher Bowen Editor in Chief, Gaming Bus7 years ago
I think realizations like "hey, we're kind of sort of indie-like" kind of betray the main point: companies the size of Ubisoft, EA, Square-Enix, etc., can't really do "indie". Even their concept of the term is flawed. They got beat to the market by smaller, more nimble competition, and like any behemoth with a punishing bureaucracy and a first and foremost responsibility to shareholders, they just kind of... lumbered into it. Like any big company, they're not small enough to be "indie".

I hope they pull it off, because Ubisoft's been on fire lately, but it's antithetical to believe that they Ubisoft can be "indie".
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James Brightman Editor, North America, GamesIndustry.biz7 years ago
Indie is probably the wrong term, and I don't think Ubi is thinking of itself as indie at all. It's more that they are looking at doing smaller projects and taking inspiration from the booming indie scene, especially in Toronto.
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Adam Campbell Product Manager, Azoomee7 years ago
Its a great idea.

Despite being a massive corporation, if they use their resources in a way that allows very small teams to make great, innovative new properties in a similar way to an indie studio (and this is possible by the way), I'm definitely for it.

We don't necessarily need all games to come out of a large publisher to follow the model of hundreds of staff and astronomical budgets on each title. Or using a set way of working and producing content.
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Mbuso Radebe Producer, Electronic Arts7 years ago
This seems like a natural, evolutionary step for larger studios and publishers to retain talent and potentially develop the next big game without breaking the bank. Film has done this for ages; Sony Pictures has Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Entertainment has Fox Searchlight etc. Emulating this model should help foster more creativity within larger studios...sounds good to me.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Mbuso Radebe on 25th March 2014 7:26pm

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Alex M Game Developper, Tribute Games Inc.7 years ago
They should call these titles "B games", but considering prior statement by Ubisoft's management that "no more new IP only AAA games" but they to resort to appropriating the word indie since it's quite popular lately.

Small team development is nothing new at Ubisoft, take handheld projects or live arcade (Scott Pilgrim) but at least now they are encouraging it instead of hiding them in some basement and giving them no credits whatsoever.
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 7 years ago
A "feeling of ownership" is not ownership.
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Yiannis Koumoutzelis Founder & Creative Director, Neriad Games7 years ago
Great going there Ubi! Well done!
I was a bit afraid that Ubi had started fading to obscurity but the last few years they have mostly (bar the horrible Rayman publishing disaster) made the right moves and the game quality overall has improved! Well done indeed!
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