Ubisoft Berlin's growth ambitions will need government support
"We intend to grow to a considerable size," says studio director Istvan Tajnay, "but we could grow to a huge size if parameters were right"
Ubisoft's new Berlin studio would like to build a team of "hundreds" of people and become a focal point for AAA development in Germany, but better support from the German government will be crucial if it is to achieve its goals.
The French publisher already has studios in Dusseldorf and Mainz, both of which are under the Ubisoft Blue Byte brand. The new premises in central Berlin will be part of the same group, all of which are overseen by Blue Byte managing director Benedikt Grindel, but it will not carry the Blue Byte name. Instead, it will simply be known as Ubisoft Berlin.
Speaking to GamesIndustry.biz recently, studio manager Istvan Tajnay explained that the move into Berlin is partly down to Ubisoft "constantly growing, everywhere," but there is a broader strategic motive to setting up in the German capital - versus, say, expanding the Dusseldorf and Mainz studios more rapidly.
"Berlin has unbelievable potential for creative talent," Tajnay said, referring to the city's international reputation for art and culture. "It's a very attractive place for creative people, it's really dynamic, especially on the visual arts side. We knew that the potential to build a studio of large proportions was definitely there."
"The question was how do we make ourselves very attractive to Central and Eastern Europeans. For us, Berlin was the obvious answer"
Ubisoft Berlin officially opened on January 2 this year, but recruitment of a core team with "a very strong technical backbone, a strong engineering backbone" was underway well before that date. According to Tajnay, the initial goal is to build a team that can take on features from larger Ubisoft projects, and work directly with the company's bigger studios in cities like Montreal and Toronto.
In that sense, then, Ubisoft Berlin isn't far removed from a variety of Ubisoft studios around the world, which all operate under the same collaborative model. The difference with Ubisoft Berlin, Tajnay said, is Berlin itself, which has a solid local industry of its own, but can also serve as a magnet for talent from areas that the publisher wants to reach more effectively.
"There's a good scene in Berlin - a lot of indies, a couple of established studios," Tajnay said. "But we also knew that Berlin is a very attractive city to Western Europeans, and to people from Central and Eastern Europe.
"The question was how do we make ourselves very attractive to Central and Eastern Europeans. For us, Berlin was the obvious answer."
Indeed, with Ubisoft Berlin already working on the Far Cry franchise, it has automatically become one of the more important AAA console studios in a country that has a surprising lack of the same. Crytek and Yager were once the standard bearers in that area, but both companies have experienced difficulties since the heyday of the Crysis franchise and Spec Ops: The Line respectively.
Today, the German industry is more accurately represented by companies working in mobile and free-to-play - Goodgame Studios, Innogames and Flaregames are among the most obvious examples - while Berlin is home to Jelly Splash developer Wooga, and a wide variety of indie studios attracted by the city's vibrant cultural scene and relatively low costs.
This notable lack of bigger developers working on console isn't lost on Tajnay, who spent six years working in the UK before moving to Dusseldorf to take a job at Blue Byte in 2012. Where Britain had many significant AAA studios during his time in the country, there is a dearth in Germany.
"The virtuous circle is complete. The feedback from the local scene on our arrival has been extremely positive"
"Honestly, there's no good reason for this," he said. "The talent is here, it's the third or fourth biggest market in the world, you have Gamescom, and yet a very small percentage - if you remove mobile and web I think it's two or three per cent - of games purchased in Germany are actually produced in Germany.
"For me, it's not a question of potential or available talent - that's already here."
In fact, Tajnay believes the benefits will flow in both directions: Ubisoft will establish a presence in what is arguably Germany's most affordable and cosmopolitan city, one closer to Prague and Poznan than to Frankfurt or Munich; and Berlin will gain a focal point for talent with an interest in games like Far Cry, and a stable option in a city full of startups.
"If you're looking at the local ecosystem here in Berlin, it is quite dynamic," Tajnay said. "What we offer allows it to become a bit more sustainable. You have your indie scene and your startup scene, but then you also have your big player that is very stable from a financial point of view, that has proven business models, that can offer stability for people who have been in the industry for a while and are looking for things longer term.
"Then, the virtuous circle is complete. The feedback from the local scene on our arrival has been extremely positive."
Ultimately, Tajnay wants to lead a big AAA project from Berlin, or as a collaboration with the Mainz and Dusseldorf studios. Getting there will require it to grow to a certain size, much larger than the 50 employees he outlined as a "first step" in recruitment. Indeed, Berlin has proved to be so full of talent (and so attractive to talent from outside of the city) that Ubisoft will complete that first step well ahead of schedule, and the idea of just how much it could grow beyond 50 people is now a matter for discussion.
"Going further than that is speculation, but we believe we will be in the hundreds," Tajnay said. "Whether we grow to 100-plus, 150-plus, or far beyond that also depends somewhat on the development of the gaming ecosystem here in Germany. Mainly I'm talking about governmental support on the financial side."
"Whether we grow to 100-plus, 150-plus, or far beyond also depends on the development of the gaming ecosystem here in Germany"
A query about whether this means tax breaks, like those that helped Ubisoft Montreal to become the publisher's main studio, was answered with a silent nod.
"This is one of the essential parameters for us to grow much further," Tajnay said. "We intend to grow to a considerable size, but we could grow to a huge size if those parameters were right."
When Dr. Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, opened Gamescom last year, it was taken by some to be a signal that the government would soon offer more direct support to the national industry. The two German trade bodies recently merged in order to present a more unified voice in pursuit of that goal, and the new body, Game, recently announced the intention of Germany's new coalition government to set up, "a fund...for the purposes of providing financial support to games developers in Germany at federal level for the first time."
In a statement released at the time, Game managing director Felix Falk said: "The results of the coalition negotiations send an important signal: with the implementation of the agreed measures, the vast cultural, commercial and innovative potential of computer and video games for society and the economy is finally being recognised and harnessed.
"Above all, it is vital to launch the planned games fund very soon so that we do not end up lagging even further behind European countries such as the UK and France."
For Ubisoft, these are very positive signs, and Tajnay confirmed that the publisher's three German studios will be key players in making sure that conditions improve - conditions that could eventually result in Ubisoft Berlin growing from a 50-person support studio to one of Europe's leading AAA console developers.
"We are very involved at Ubisoft Blue Byte," he said. "Benedikt Grindel, my boss, is one of the key players on the political interaction and lobbying side. There is increased awareness on the political side, and it's growing. We're pushing harder and harder for the next concrete steps."