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"If people have a voice, you're going to do well"

Ubisoft Toronto's Alexandre Parizeau talks management strategy and how the indie boom is inspiring the next wave of AAA innovation

"If you had asked me, let's say two years ago, 'Are you hoping that at some point you're going to get into an executive position or get a studio [management] job,' I would have said, 'Never in a million years,'" Ubisoft Toronto's Alexandre Parizeau told last week.

It's a good thing then that Ubisoft Toronto waited until one year ago to ask the then-senior producer to step up to managing director, filling the role vacated by Jade Raymond. At first, he worried that switching his focus from close-to-the-project needs to bigger picture problems would make him feel detached from the projects themselves.

"In a different context, I might not have been interested in a position like this," Parizeau said. "But it's because I know the people and I'm so attached to the studio that I thought it felt good at the same time."

"I spend a lot of time making sure we're transparent, that people know what we're going through--good or bad--that everyone has a voice."

Parizeau has been with Ubisoft for 10 years, and was part of Ubisoft Toronto's founding team (the studio celebrated its fifth anniversary last month). That connection to the studio and a shared history with many of its roughly 375 employees has been invaluable in helping him manage the transition and still feel connected to the end product. In some ways, it's not all that different from his time as a producer.

"When you're making a game, you want the person's creative talent, passion, dedication and all that stuff to come to the surface and be as close as possible to what the player's experiencing," Parizeau said. "Everything that's in the middle, you want it to disappear in a way. And that's how I saw my job as a producer. It's the same kind of philosophy I have for the studio. I want to make sure that people shine through in the projects we do, that there's a personal touch, something [so] you can feel that there are people who are passionate delivering the experience for you, the player."

One of the keys to accomplishing that is a focus on transparency in the studio culture, something that Parizeau's predecessor has also emphasized.

"I spend a lot of time making sure we're transparent, that people know what we're going through--good or bad--that everyone has a voice. If people have a voice, you're going to do well. This is the most important thing. It's been part of our culture and philosophy since the beginning."

Though five years might not sound like a lot of space for a studio to cycle through good times and bad times all that much, Parizeau said there'd been plenty of both. The hardest stretch came first.

About 100 of Ubisoft Toronto's 375 developers started their game industry careers with the studio.

"You're setting up a studio from scratch in a province where there's not a lot of AAA development and you've got to hire and build a game at the same time," Parizeau said of the founding years. "That was probably the biggest, most difficult thing, and the biggest challenge in my entire career. We had to recruit over 250 people to ship a game in under three years, and make the game in the same time. Those are people you don't know. You have to learn to work with them, set up a structure and organization that's going to be efficient and deliver the high quality that players and the industry expect for a game to be successful. And that was insanely difficult."

The challenge wasn't just hiring that many recruits; it was also on-boarding them, getting them to understand the tech being used, the studio culture, the brand they were working on, and in many cases, the challenges unique to working on a large team. That can be difficult enough with experienced developers, but in many cases Ubisoft Toronto was dealing with people entirely new to the industry. Parizeau said about 100 current Ubisoft Toronto developers started their game industry careers with the studio.

The good times are just as easy to identify. Parizeau said the completion of Splinter Cell Blacklist was "absolutely amazing," and one of the biggest achievements of his career. Since that game's launch, Ubisoft Toronto has been working as a support studio on titles like Assassin's Creed: Unity, Far Cry 4, and the just-announced Far Cry Primal. But Parizeau said it will return to spearhead its own projects once again.

"Going forward, I think you can expect a mix of projects, so we'll have big brands Ubisoft is known for and a mix of things of our own, as well," Parizeau said. "The focus is on AAA console games, and a big part of our focus is also on open worlds."

"I think the big indie boom we've seen has reminded everyone that what we're doing is very simple."

As much as phrases like "open-world AAA game" might conjure up a very specific type of formula refined in recent years, Parizeau believes the recent wave of indie hits is having an influence on AAA developers that we'll likely see played out in the near future.

"I think the big indie boom we've seen has reminded everyone that what we're doing is very simple," Parizeau said. "It's someone putting together a creative experience they want players to enjoy and experiment with. I think as AAA projects were getting comfortable with processes and working with bigger teams, it was harder to let that creativity and innovation shine. And I think right now, we're just at the cusp. We've matured to the point where we're mastering it better. We're more comfortable with bigger teams to a point where we're able to deliver extremely creative experiences. And I think you're going to see a big boom in the coming years on that front."

However the AAA world changes in the coming years, Parizeau is confident Ubisoft Toronto can adapt in stride.

"The past five years have set us up for the next five, in a way," he said. "I feel like we're in a really great space right now."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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