Ubisoft: Defining a Breakthrough

By Adam Ma on November 26, 2009, 10:13AM EDT

Speaking to an audience of game enthusiasts and aspiring developers at DIG London - a video game developers conference in London, Ontario - Yannis Mallat, CEO of Ubisoft Montreal, painted a picture for global success in the gaming industry. Citing the 'Production Pipeline' as the backbone of the creative structure, the audience was taken through a series of Ubisoft's more groundbreaking games. Highlighting how "Ubisoft has been driven by high-risk but high reward decisions, innovation, and a desire to be creative" the pipeline is a precise guide to the methods of Ubisoft's game development.

From Splinter Cell's 'light-and-shadow' gameplay to the Prince of Persia's 'freedom of movement', listeners were given an intimate look at the core mantra of game creation. High risk can equal high reward, and in an industry where millions of dollars will be sunk into the hope that a new title will generate tens or hundreds of millions in return, minimizing the chances of failure is paramount. What makes Ubisoft so successful in the end is their ability to minimize their rate of failures, utilizing a unique method of development.

Ubisoft's basic 'Production Pipeline' is very similar to what someone would expect from any business: Conception, Preproduction, followed by Production. The idea behind it is to clearly organize what steps are necessary to take before a final product is reached. By formulating a core idea, then bringing it into a preproduction phase, Ubisoft gives themselves the elbow room to make changes before too much money has been invested. What gives Ubisoft the additional edge in the industry is the way they approach the conception process itself, adding a phase before it. This phase, known as the Breakthrough phase, is the driving force behind the creative minds at Ubisoft. Mallat even goes as far as to define the Breakthrough itself:

A unique and remarkable feature that is based on a technology called innovation that leads to a new way to play that doesn't leave the player, who are the core of this whole process, indifferent.

What Ubisoft does is build a game's world around a core mechanic, rather than hope an element of gameplay they create to fit a world will drive the player. By having small teams of developers each come up with their own unique gameplay elements they are then able to test multiple styles of gameplay in bite sized pieces. When asked what precisely the failure/success rate of a breakthrough is, Mallat responded:

At some point I think its a process that forces the risk, but on the other hand is very kosher because its inherent to the philosophy of breakthrough. If you cant prove a technological breakthrough in four months with the right amount of energy, time, and technology its probably not a good way, so we kill that.

With many of their hit titles being born from this breakthrough process Ubisoft is clearly onto something. With four to six months to create a catchy mechanic developers have plenty of time to work toward a bigger picture. Each independent project also has an extremely small budget in comparison to what a full title would cost, meaning a whole series of think-tanks can be formed all pushing toward creating a more fluid experience. With a process that lends itself directly toward harvesting creativity from its workers it's no surprise that Ubisoft is able to consistently improve upon their current titles. Ultimately there's no way to know where or when the next big breakthrough will hit, but it's nice to know that before ground is even broken someone's testing to make sure its fun.

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