Seven years ago, Clint Hocking shipped Far Cry 2 as a creative director at Ubisoft Montreal. Since that time, he's worked at LucasArts, Valve, Amazon and, for the last few months, Ubisoft Toronto. But in all that time he hasn't shipped another retail product. In advance of his talk today at the Montreal International Game Summit, Hocking spoke with GamesIndustry.biz about what he's been doing, and how his growth as a developer has continued, even if his body of released work looks largely unchanged.
As Hocking explained, much of that growth came from simply seeing how other companies run things. At LucasArts, he got to see behind the curtain at Lucasfilm, Skywalker Sound, and Industrial Light and Magic. At Amazon, he saw how a massive online giant went about building processes from whole cloth, as well as its approach to creating a studio and shaping its culture.
"At Valve, I did ship stuff," Hocking noted. "I shipped levels in Team Fortress, I got my hands dirty in Steam and looked around behind the scenes of how they manage the Steam community and how Valve reaches Valve's audience, the Steam audience, which overlaps with but is not a 1:1 correlation to the audiences of Ubisoft or any other publisher."
"At the end of the day... the game I'm being offered here will ship. And no one else can make that promise to me"
It hasn't been wasted time by any means, but Hocking is clearly frustrated with his output over those years.
"I think it's terrible that I haven't been able to ship a game in seven years--or kind of haven't shipped a game in seven years--but at the same time I've had a lot of broader and different experiences than I would have had if I'd just been [at Ubisoft] for the last seven," Hocking said. "That said, I'm not a patient person. So after really trying to ship games for seven years and not being able to see the end of the tunnel on that, I just wanted to go back to what I'm really passionate about. Hopefully I can leverage some of the skills and experiences I gained in those other places and use them to make better games here."
As for what led him to sign on for another tour of duty with Ubisoft, it wasn't just the familiarity of going to work with some old colleagues. Hocking said the fact that Ubisoft has a pretty good track record of actually shipping games it starts work on was "absolutely fundamental" in his decision to return.
"I had other options, and I was very close to closing on a couple of the other options," Hocking said. "Some of them were very ambitious and very exciting options as well, but what it came down to was taking option X--a long timeline, a huge amount of creative freedom, an important position, lots of money, a great city, and all that stuff--and comparing that to a very similar offer here. What it often came down to was that I know for a fact if I go to Ubisoft I will ship the game I'm working on. And I said to a couple of the people I ultimately had to decline, 'At the end of the day, unless an extinction event meteor lands in fucking Paris or Montreal, the game I'm being offered here will ship. And no one else can make that promise to me. And that was the deal-closer."
Of course, familiarity didn't hurt. Hocking said the Ubisoft Toronto studio feels a lot like the Ubisoft Montreal team he joined in 2001: similar size, similar culture, and similar ambition. Even the projects Hocking is going to work on will likely have similarities.
"At a higher level, in terms of the way we're expected to make games and the kind of games Ubisoft is pursuing and the high-level mandates we have to make games, I feel like there's been a pendulum swing that goes back and forth in the way Ubisoft makes games," Hocking explained. "I left when the pendulum was moving in one direction and I felt like I wanted to move in a different direction. And now that I'm back, it's very true that the pendulum has just started to move back in the direction I really want to go."
That direction for Hocking consists of games with rich systems and emergent behaviors, which sounds a lot like a description of Far Cry 2. Fortunately, that approach to games is ideally suited to capitalize on the current wave of social trends powered by game streaming and YouTube makers. And it's not just that the rest of the world is coming to appreciate the kinds of games Hocking wants to make; he's also spent a lot of time thinking about how to adapt the kinds of games he makes for this new audience.
"I'm not a hip, young kid with pink Converse on or whatever, so I'm not deeply a part of those communities. I'm definitely more a creator who works to make things for those communities"
"Back when I was making Far Cry 2 before it shipped, we didn't really think very much--arguably we didn't think enough--about how the game would thrive in the community," Hocking said. "There was no such thing as Twitch. The fact the Idle Thumbs guys still continue to make crazy videos of their Far Cry 2 exploits and put them on YouTube. If we had anticipated that in 2006, we would have invested differently, probably doubled down on a number of different things... Admittedly, I'm much older now and I'm not a hip, young kid with pink Converse on or whatever, so I'm not deeply a part of those communities. I'm definitely more a creator who works to make things for those communities. But I'm very glad it's the kind of community we have."
Of course, game streaming is just one of a number of hugely disruptive trends that have hit games since Hocking last shipped a title. However much he thought about or worked on mobile, casual, free-to-play, cross-platform interconnected experience with microtransactions and/or downloadable content subscriptions, can he really say he's kept up with all the industry changes of the last decade?
"That's a fair question, and I think the answer is 'partially.' Because I don't think the answer can ever be 'yes' unless you're shipping. And that's my own personal [opinion], my own sword of Damocles or something. You have to be shipping. I don't think you can be more up-to-speed on what player communities are doing than when you're going to work on the floor of The International, or shipping Team Fortress 2 updates every couple weeks. I don't think you can be more connected to what's going on than when you're going down to Twitch and meeting with Emmet Shear and the CEO of Twitch and senior designers and production people to talk about how they work with casters and how they engage those communities. So yes, I've been exposed to the very cutting edge stuff--in some ways more than anybody here at Ubisoft has--but again that sword of Damocles is that I don't consider those things to be--for me, anyway--theoretically valid until I push games through to ship that are informed by those things."
Full disclosure: MIGS has a media partnership with GamesIndustry.biz, and will be paying for our travel and accommodation during the event.