Tuesday 15th November 2016
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“One of my original mandates coming to Ubisoft was to create a new IP, and we ended up doing The Division, but the original mandate – just so you know how adamant we are about doing something different – was to create an RPG that wasn’t sci-fi, wasn’t fantasy, had no guns, no deaths and no enemies.”
Tommy Francois is Ubisoft’s VP of editorial and one very interesting person. He has worked for the Watch Dogs maker for over 10 years and was at BAFTA in London last week to deliver a lecture on creating open worlds. It was a fascinating, eye-opening 90 minutes, and the exact sort of thing you’d expect from a man with a multi-coloured hat and a Donkey Kong backpack.
Early on during this talk, he made a small aside about how his dad would love to explore the historical worlds of Assassin’s Creed, but he is put off by all the stabbing. It was a sentence that bothered me, so the next day I met the man – in a PR office in central London – to ask him about this. He told me about his original mandate to make a non-violent RPG, and insisted there is a desire within Ubisoft to create open worlds that aren’t predicated on killing. He added: “I am sure that someday someone will create a GTA with no guns.”
Yet I wasn’t satisfied with the answer. If we can make these sumptuous, realistic, open worlds with a range of inventive ways of murdering people, why haven’t we done one without the violence?
“The easy answer is that the original games were made by testicles for testicles,” Francois acknowledges. “It sort of caters to the extremely reptilian, survival part of your brain.
“I’ve read a lot of Plutchik, who is a very famous psychologist. He has this ‘Wheel of Emotions,’ which cross-references two emotions into one – it’s very interesting. When you look at the wheel, I can see that games have only satisfied a small proportion of the pie. We have so much more to explore. We need to be more mature, we need to find different ways of interacting with our worlds, and that’s what we’re trying to do with our upcoming games.”
He pauses: “I also think, and maybe it is a sad statement to make, that the reason we go back to shooters is because they’re fun.
“But we need to challenge ourselves to think of different fantasies. We need more females in the industry, which will contribute 1,000 points in making our medium more welcoming to new people.
“I think doing this is necessary for our survival and if we want to be an impactful medium.”
Francois’ words echo that of Brie Code last week, who suggested that video games will reach a broader audience when people who currently dislike them start making them.
“Exactly,” agrees Francois. “At Ubisoft we were looking at new areas for casual games, and we got anthropologists and different types of experts go with us to other people’s houses to do interviews in context of: ‘why do you like games?’ And: ‘why do you hate games?’ I clearly remember one woman saying she hates video games because you can’t look at your friends in the eyes. I thought: ‘Wow. That’s cool. Could that be a design principle for me?’ How do you make a video game where you are gazing at one another?
“We are trying. Everyone collectively as an industry is trying.”
It feels a little unfair to challenge Ubisoft on violence. Compared to its triple-A brethren – such as those over at EA, Activision and Take-Two – the publisher has a good reputation for developing different types of games for different people. Also, Francois hasn’t taken this short trip from France to London to discuss this topic. He was here to explain Ubisoft’s process behind building its open worlds, and it’s an eye-opening procedure.
To ensure each world feels as authentic as possible, Francois sends his various development teams to the real-world location where their game will be set. These teams proceed to interview people and take thousands of photos and videos, which they upload to its online platform, delightfully named: ‘World Texture Facility’ – or WTF for short. The number of people it sends and for how long is gradually increasing, with between 10 to 25 employees going on these trips.
“It’s not only about artists and considered creative positions, we send programmers, gameplay programmers, anyone on a team should get to go,” Francois explains. “We’re a large company with 10,000 people, so it has been an incremental step-by-step process. The first time we did this was for only 10 days, and now it is three, four, five or six trips, and that’s multiplying the number of people. We are so adamant about people becoming experts that we almost sponsored someone to move somewhere for a year before we even started a project. This is where we want to go.
“One day, with virtual desktops and different ways of doing things, maybe some of the team can live in the environment that they are making.”
Francois offered several examples of how this process has improved Ubisoft’s world-building, but it can seem wasteful. During his BAFTA talk he showed a video about Scraper Bikes, a fascinating little business set in Oakland that modifies bicycles for the local community. Ubisoft researched this thoroughly ahead of Watch Dogs 2, including interviewing those behind the concept, but you won’t find these bikes in the game. He had to cut them out.
Nevertheless, Francois says that even research that amounts to nothing, or has to be cut, can still be inspirational, and extensive field trips are worth the expense.
“I used to live in Laguna Beach when I was a journalist, I was also working for Shiny Entertainment, so it was a huge conflict of interest,” Francois begins. “I remember having to do a piece on Novologic, who made all these chopper sims, and they’re famous for Voxel tech. If you played Apache or any of their games, you’d see these Voxel mountains. As I was driving to Malibu, where Novologic used to be, I could see all these mountains and I thought: ‘Shit, I am in the game.’ Without even doing it on purpose, they had reflected their environment in their game.
“Look at Tetsuya Mizuguchi [who Francois worked with on Child of Eden]. When he worked on Sega Rally, he came out to Europe. Japan doesn’t have a rally culture, so he was here for two months. In today’s world where we feel hyper-connected and hyper-informed, we need to fight even more for that. For New York [The Division] we spent about 126 days on location – if I take the ratio of one person spending a day over there – whereas some of our later games are closer to 200 or 300 days. I hope that in two or three years times, it will be 500 or 600 man days spent on location.”
It all sounds impressive, but for a lot of the people who were listening to Francois talk at BAFTA, it is a world away from their reality. I recognised many indie developers sitting around me, and for them the idea of sending teams to foreign climes for hundreds of days just isn’t plausible.
Yet Francois says there’s a message here for small teams – it’s not all about research, it’s also about experience. He referenced upcoming open world extreme sports game Steep, which is developed by Ubisoft Annecy. That team didn’t go on any fact-finding missions to build Steep, because the studio is already based in the French Alps.
“Inspiration has nothing to do with the number of people,” Francois says. “The guy who writes a book should be able to inspire himself, and he is alone with no tech. Anyone who writes and has not lived, I would probably not want to read his book. An indie or a garage developer needs to go through the same process.”
It’s a familiar piece of advice. I told Francois of an incident from my life when I was 20 years old. I had written a short story about a grieving husband whose wife had been murdered by her lover. I was proud of it and took it to my university lecturer. He read it in front of me, and said: “This is terrible. What right do you even have to write a piece like this? You’ve clearly never experienced anything like it.”
It hurt at the time, but the lesson was a valuable one and it echoes Francois’ advice to indie studios – the old cliche of ‘write what you know’.
“It’s not a cliche, it is the meaning of life,” Francois responds. “One of my best friends works at Ubisoft, who like you was a journalist but wanted to write stories. I think he is his tenth book in. They all suck and I told him. Not so long ago, he was going through a tough time in finding a partner and he started online dating. He tells me stories about these dates. And I said to him: “You know what, you’re brought me ten books and they’ve all bored the shit out of me because you’re writing about things and places you’ve never experienced or been, it’s quite insulting. But I’d love to read a book about your love life.” Because he lived it, these stories have more granularity.
“There was a documentary recently about Stanley Kubrick called Boxes. It’s brilliant. He spent hours walking the streets, taking pictures, even pictures of nightstands, he was asking what everything means. And on set, he was an ass when it came to making sure every item had a meaning. That’s because he lived it, experienced it and used all his senses. Some people think they haven’t lived but they have that power within them. There is not a single life that isn’t interesting, it’s just sometimes we don’t see the value in what we’ve lived, which is kind of sad. So we think it is better to write about other stuff.”
Kubrick using ‘all his senses’ is the last piece of Francois’ advice when building open worlds. Ideas can come from anywhere and anyone, so pay attention and listen.
“My paranoia at Ubisoft is that I would look down on someone and not talk to them and miss a great idea, regardless of where they are at in the company,” Francois continues.
“You must make sure you never look down on people and never buy your own bullshit that you’re a great creative.
“In my press days, I was fortunate to go and meet George Lucas a couple of times and Steven Spielberg. I was really looking forward to this as a geek and I couldn’t wait to visit Skywalker Ranch. I was so disappointed by George. Everyone listened to him and he didn’t listen to anyone. With him, there was no conversation. A few months later, I got to meet Spielberg. He was talking to me and then he hears someone say something at the end of the table, and he switches his attention immediately and wanted to hear it. He was avid. Avid for more life, more stories, more everything. To me that is important.
“The reason Star Wars was so great is because George wasn’t on his own. The teams around him would challenge him all the time. You need good friends to tell you when you’re talking shit.”
He concludes: “At Ubisoft, when I see people actually doing it, I like to leave them to it. As part of Head Office, I just want to trust people so that they feel empowered to do things.
“And not just to please stupid execs. They’re not the gamer. Who gives a shit about execs?”