Meet the editors pushing Ubisoft to be better than Nintendo, Rockstar, Valve and Blizzard

Serge Hascoet joined Ubisoft in 1987 as a designer and tester of sorts, working on Iron Lord and Skateball for the home computers of the day. Over his 27 years with the company, he has been a game designer and studio head, but today he shapes Ubisoft’s creative direction as its chief creative officer and head of the editorial team. It was Hascoet who insisted that cutscenes were a redundant method of storytelling in the early ’00s, Hascoet who mandated that every Ubisoft game should aim for 60fps, and Hascoet who is driving the company towards open worlds and systemic games as it transitions to a new generation of hardware. His contribution to games is immeasurable – not simply because of its enormity, but because he has sat for fewer than half-a-dozen interviews and is quick to direct the spotlight onto anyone else. He refuses to be photographed individually, and is only prepared to go on record for the sake of his staff.

“It’s not for me, this interview,” he says. “It’s for the people here; they are working hard on games, but they are not known for what they do. For me, this is a way to help them be proud. Does that make sense? Besides, I’m not good enough [to make games myself].”

And yet Michel Ancel suggested in his biography that it was Hascoet who should be credited as France’s Shigeru Miyamoto, not him. Before Hascoet worked on 1995’s Rayman, which he counts as his first game, he had been credited on some 50 titles. “I was not coding. I was not a graphic artist. I was the guy giving some feedback about the design,” he says. “I was at school when I first played Nintendo [games]. They are my masters; I love everything they do. [I believe] we’re still at school and I think I have more to bring to the people [at Ubisoft] than to bring on one game. It’s a big reward when people are happy to work with me.”

For many years now, Hascoet has served as head of Ubisoft’s editorial team, a group that’s surprisingly invisible given its wide-ranging influence. The Parisian editors number just over 70 and oversee every aspect of the projects being executed by the 9,000 people making games at Ubisoft’s global studios. Before the editorial team was established, games were given the green light by the publisher’s executive management group, with Hascoet serving as a consultant. But since 2000, every facet of Ubisoft’s creative direction has been guided by a collection of designers and producers who collaborate with the studios’ directors from conception to shipping.

A gathering of developers from the editorial team and a rare photograph of Serge Hascoet (seventh from left). The team numbers around 70 in total, but it’s rare for all of them to be in the office at once with so many away visiting studios.

“Editorial’s first function is knowledge,” says IP development director Tommy Francois. “Editorial has three big [departments]. The first one, of course, is game design; we call them line designers. They all specialise in usability, accessibility and game design. Then we have line producers. In essence, they are more [the] planning and budget side. They usually come from production or QA or similar.”

Elisabeth Pellen, writer of 2003 FPS XIII and a lead level designer on King Kong, oversees the line designers, while longtime project coordinator Nicholas Schoener is the man in charge of the team of line producers. Above them all are Hascoet and general director of worldwide production Christine Burgess-Quémard, who oversees budgets and studio management.

“The third prong, editorial creative services, is mine,” Francois says. “The department is in charge of IP in general, and the types of profiles you’ll find there are directors, writers, scriptwriters, ex-journalists, video editors; it’s more on the creative side. We challenge [the teams] on innovation and quality. Now, that doesn’t mean we are right, but we challenge them. We try to understand that, as much as we are head office execs, we don’t make the games.”

Francois, a former journalist and producer at Shiny Entertainment, handles the very first stages of development. Ubisoft’s studios mostly develop pitches internally before presenting to the editorial team, and ideas are batted between Francois’ creative department and the studio in a series of kickoff meetings. It doesn’t end there: Francois has flown to Malmö, Sweden, to meet with The Division creator Massive 40 times over the past four years, overseeing design and IP workshops that will shape Ubisoft’s next major series.

Ubisoft IP director Tommy Francois: “Our motto is to try to make the best videogames in the world. There’s no secret sauce to doing that, and we have a process that’s a framework, but it’s there to be bent.”

“In terms of IP, we are a lot less experienced than Ubisoft and editorial as an entity,” The Division’s executive producer Fredrik Rundqvist says. “That’s where I think they have been extremely helpful, providing us with the tools and processes to come up with The Division. It’s very rare that the majority of your interactions with the publisher are conversations about being innovative and maintaining quality, rather than other topics. The corporate cultures of the two companies [Ubisoft and Massive’s previous publisher, Vivendi Games] are vastly different. Our main interaction with Ubisoft is with the editorial team, and there’s a constant focus on invention and quality. Without talking specifically about our past, that’s very different from the conversations that we used to have. Serge or Tommy or Elisabeth or Nicolas, they always… make quite an effort to empower us. It’s our team, our project. It’s our game.

“Just being constantly challenged and pushed to be more ambitious has actually been very helpful. Being able to tap into that vast pool of experience and best practices, and sharing knowledge with all the other studios, has been a real eye opener for us. I think Ubisoft has really taken us into the big leagues of development. It probably sounds like I’ve been told to say that, but I am 100 per cent sure that the quality of the game and the brand would be less without our interaction with editorial.”

“I am 100 per cent sure that the quality of the game and the brand would be less without our interaction with editorial”

“I’m not being a business guy here,” Watch Dogs’ creative director Jonathan Morin says, also acknowledging possible scepticism, “but Ubisoft is not a company that is driven at first by business logic. It’s why I’m still here after all these years. They’re really good at [making money], but there’s something more to it. The people I pitched Watch Dogs to, the editors, first and foremost are designers and they believed in Watch Dogs. [It wasn’t] just, ‘Oh my God, I can make a lot of money from it.’”

Watch Dogs is a game Ubisoft’s editorial team “backed from the start”, right up to the point of delaying the game to ensure it shipped as its creators had intended.

New game pitches, Hascoet says, can come from anywhere. “Sometimes it can come from teams, sometimes it’s me, sometimes it’s an MD… Everything is possible and there are no rules. Assassin’s Creed [comes from a book] I love: [Vladimir Bartol’s] Alamut. I gave it to Patrice Désilets and it was an inspiration. They were doing the next Prince Of Persia; then, with the book, they created Assassin’s Creed.”

In The Division’s case, editorial had wanted to make a Tom Clancy-based MMORPG for many years before the right studio came along. “We had a team that always aspired to do an RPG,” Rundqvist says, “and then we had a new publisher with a real need for a studio that could help them pursue their dream.” After a successful pitch, Francois’ team will pose questions to the developers and dream up possible solutions. Take The Division, for instance:  making a near-future MMORPG has inherent thematic constraints. “When you hit level 99, you don’t get a rain of fire [spell],” Francois says. “Who is your boss? It can’t be a monster on Mount Doom. What does your tank look like?”

Worse, attaching it to the Clancy universe throws up continuity questions. “We’re in Tom Clancy’s New York, right? So where is Sam Fisher? Where is Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon? We were like, ‘Are we fucking up Clancy? Are we creating discrepancies for Clancy fans?’” Those questions will be answered, we’re told. For The Division, the editorial team helped with research – Massive is now on its sixth fact-finding mission to New York – and liaised with FEMA and other experts to help the developers tap their expertise for its pandemic scenario.

Writer of 2003 FPS XIII and a lead level designer on King Kong Elisabeth Pellen now oversees line designers.

But the process is more than mediation: the editors will argue design and writing decisions with the development team in meetings, with a professional moderator from outside the company ensuring everyone is speaking on the same level. In a project’s earliest days, the editors and development team also spend three days at a rented chateau – “I know, that sounds awfully bourgeoisie,” Francois says – without mobile phones, talking with each other all day and playing board games at night. It’s all about building a level of trust and co-operation.

“If you’re in production and you’re talking to me, you’re like, ‘Do we have a good relationship with him? Do I trust him? Will he break my game?’” Francois says. “I can help you, but I’m still [from] head office, so it’s about building a relationship with the people, about respect. The more transparent and open you are, the better it will be.”

Before that meeting, every Ubisoft game is assigned at least one line designer and line producer, who will oversee the project from Paris. But perhaps the most curious aspect of Ubisoft’s editorial department is that joining it isn’t considered a promotion. A line designer in Paris is no more senior than a game designer in Montreal, and a line producer commands no more respect than their counterparts working in-house on The Division. Some line designers come fresh from university, others are ten-year veterans, and others still are longtime hands-on designers on sabbatical from their usual studio.

“I recruit [line designers] from the best design schools,” Pellen says. “I also ask them to have a great knowledge about games, so I try to hire [established] game designers and programmers. I try to find guys with a strong personality who are also good listeners. The role of the line designers is to communicate the editorial guidelines to the creative directors and lead game designers, but before you do that, it’s important to listen and respect the ownership and understand the vision.”

Nicolas Schoener is production coordination director for the editorial department, and is in charge of the line producers and production support team.

Those editorial guidelines include a push towards open-world systemic design and a focus on online elements, even in singleplayer games. “We are pushing hard to go to open world, mainly,” Hascoet says. “This is the best way to let the player express himself. I have a hard time with linear games – mission after mission after mission. I understand [it can be good]. The Last Of Us is great, but it’s not where we want to go.

“We are pushing hard to go to open world, mainly. This is the best way to let the player express himself”

“I know it’s not always obvious in our games, but my main [goal] is to let the player express [themselves]. I’m more about the systemic stuff than the narrative stuff. It’s not that obvious when you play Assassin’s Creed, but we are going in that direction. Far Cry 3 is a good [step toward that], and we worked a lot with the team during the process. What I work on most with the team is to always respect the player and have them create their own story, instead of being forced to live the story written by a creative.”

Another directive insists that a game’s context be grounded in reality, the odd Raving Rabbids or Child Of Light aside. It could be a past, present or near-future reality, Pellen explains, but Ubisoft’s editorial department likes games to draw inspiration from the real world. That would seemingly prohibit Ubisoft from ever making its own Mass Effect or Final Fantasy, but Pellen believes otherwise. “Yes, we could do a Mass Effect or a fantasy game, but supported with our pillars. Cloverfield is a perfect example. It’s so real when the creature appears on the screen.” District 9 is another example of fantasy grounded by reality, she says. The key difference is that the fantastic feels real.

Those pillars have changed over the years, though. “The guideline on [Peter Jackson’s] King Kong was: ‘You have nine months to work on the game and it should be released at the same time as the movie,’” Pellen laughs. Today, Ubisoft’s machine runs far more smoothly. “The modern [creative direction] is a mix between what went well on our own games and what we observe from our competitors. We play a lot of different games. We work with consumer marketing and knowledge, with the data analysts…. plus our own intuitions, our feelings, something not rational that I can’t describe to you.”

Left to right: Victorien Franzini, associate line designer; Thomas Berneau, assistant line designer; Guillaume Gad, line producer; and Guillaume Woillez, line designer.

The editors don’t always agree, either, and the guidelines shift as the thinking changes. An “angry discussion” with Serge Hascoet about playing as the hero in Assassin’s Creed – “I don’t want to be Ezio,” says Pellen, “I want to be an assassin myself and be part of the guild” – has dictated a new focus on player identity in The Division and The Crew, for instance. And the two-way design process means new editorial directives often emerge from game developers themselves. “I think [the always-online thing] was influenced by us,” Rundqvist says. “That’s the way we’ve always worked, and I think we’ve been very influential in that aspect. I think maybe it’s one of the reasons why Ubisoft bought the studio to start with: the experience and the multiplayer knowledge that we could bring to the group.”

Meanwhile, some ideas are simply considered good practice and have propagated among Ubisoft’s games. Francois points to the viewpoints in Assassin’s Creed, which have, one way or another, found their way into Far Cry 3 and Watch Dogs. “Right now, it’s the way we’ve found at Ubisoft for players to understand the content that’s there,” he says.

While Pellen has half a dozen directives for teams, production chief Schoener has only one: “A good job for our department is to ship the game on the right date and at the required quality. That’s the mandate.”

A 16-year veteran producer at Ubisoft, Schoener heads up editorial’s line designers and production support team, which oversees localisation, certification and quality control. His team’s job is daunting: coordinating work and budgets on games made by upwards of 1,000 people spread across up to four continents. “The line producers act like a hub,” he explains. “The important part of their job is to gather and structure all those thousands of information sources into something manageable.

Quentin Cucuel, project collaboration manager. The office space is open plan and filled with promotional materials.

“We decide, [via] many different criteria, which studios will work on which product, depending on their skills. Then we bring them together and we set up a specific structure for the collaboration. We have dedicated associate producers [at studios] who lead the collaboration. It’s a network of those people. It’s 24/7 synchronisation. We have specific processes for HD games and another one for free-to-play, but it’s more and more the same milestones.”

All Ubisoft’s games are subject to regular milestone meetings, attended by their developers and line producers, designers and IP developers. “The line producers are in charge of applying our process to their games,” Schoener says. “We call it the Stage Gate process. It’s a series of milestones when the development teams must deliver elements, but our studios have the usual development methodologies, [such as] scrum and agile. They choose the one that works for them.”

Early in the process, a game’s developers will produce a ‘first publishable playable’ (FPP) build of the game, a vertical slice that demonstrates key mechanics and upon which key decisions will be based. “There are certainly times when we don’t agree [in the milestone meetings],” Rundqvist says. “But we have a saying here at Massive: we want the game to decide what’s right.” Massive’s first presentation to editorial was a playable prototype focused on tech and it sold the editors on the game. “Ideally,” Schoener notes, “the FPP will be running on the target platform too. After that, [we] come with the recommendation [for the budget and timeline], and usually Serge, Christine and Yves [Guillemot] are involved in the decision.”

Audrey Laurent-André and Sebastien Odasso run a 19-strong team of designers and researchers who study players’ habits in in-development games.

This is how new games are born at the publisher, and while Ubisoft isn’t the only large company to share its knowledge and divide production between studios, its methods are its own and its executive authority is small. “We’re really lucky at Ubisoft,” Watch Dogs’ writer Kevin Shortt says. “The company’s done this before. All those big games were built from the ground up, so we often reached out for help, but in the end nothing’s ever forced on us.”

In a machine with 9,000 moving parts, studios are given enough autonomy that the work of Ubisoft Montreal is clearly distinguishable from Montpellier’s or Toronto’s. It was pride in its staff’s work that saw Ubisoft announce Watch Dogs before the specs of PS4 and Xbox One were even finalised. That same pride also saw it announce Rainbow Six: Patriots too early. The system isn’t perfect, but it is quite human.

“I speak about people because they are the most important [factor],” Hascoet says. “I think they could work without us, because they are talented; they are good, very good, some of the best. But we are here because we can help. We can share what can help the teams to get better. Maybe everybody can say people are the most important thing, but I feel it strongly. Truly. We are here to help the team and support the team instead of hinder or hurt them. We are really at the start. We have everything to do. I want us to be better than Nintendo, Rockstar, Valve and Blizzard. That’s it. That’s all I want.”

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