Interview: Ubisoft Montreal's next-gen agenda

Studio chief executive Yannis Mallat outlines his team's approach to new tech and IP

While others do their best to sidestep the next-gen issue, Ubisoft is one company which has embraced the impending transition with unabashed pomp.

Yannis Mallat sees PS4 as "a radical change" for Sony

Microsoft's delayed announcement of the next Xbox has, to be fair, ensured that at least one elephant still hangs around the Ubisoft meeting room we're sat in.

But although this forward-thinking publisher respects its NDAs, its executives aren't scared of talking around them. In fact, CVG's interview with Ubisoft Montreal chief executive Yannis Mallat is far more revelatory than we were expecting.

Perhaps we shouldn't have been so surprised. After all, Ubisoft is usually the quickest of all publishers to make major investments into new game technology, be it a motion controller or a 3D camera. In fact, even before the PS4 and Next Xbox dev kits were sent out to the third parties, Ubisoft Montreal was already in production on next-gen games that were based on 'target render' high-end PCs.

The results are resplendent in Watch Dogs, a new IP which CVG readers recently declared their most anticipated game of 2013 - just ahead of Rockstar's crime opus GTAV .


What does the transition to a new console generation mean for Ubisoft at a studio level?

I used to say that all the innovation from Ubisoft Montreal was a bottom-up thing. We're very pleased with each new system when they eventually come because it comes with its own opportunities for creativity, innovation and new things. We really rely on our creatives to do that.

So from a pure principle perspective, I don't want to say it doesn't change much but it's the same culture... it's the same way of approaching creativity. That being said, with each new generation you have this feeling where the teams suddenly get out of what they know well - in this case Xbox 360 and PS3 - and it all feels brand new.

It's all in our minds really: 'oh my god, we're finally going to be able to do this and that.' It gives us this extra boost to just try new things. This is really what we've been seeing at the studio.

It has been a long cycle, so we didn't wait for the guys to come and give us their specs, dev kits of anything like that. We quickly targeted the high-end PC for our developers to get ready to tackle that. Suddenly we've got Watch Dogs, Black Flag and all those nice projects coming up.

Is this transition an easier one for you, because of the focus on PC-based architecture?
It's true. It's really true, at least from what we can talk about which is PlayStation 4. It's been a radical change from those guys.

I'll tell you this anecdote: when I was the producer on Prince of Persia: Sands of Time we managed to get our hands on a very good programmer who's still on the Assassin's Creed core team. One day on his desk he had a black book all written in Japanese, and I was like, 'what is that?' It was the documentation support for coding for PS2. 'That's why I wanted to have Japanese lessons,' he said - to understand and make the most out of the machine.

"PlayStation 4 really comes as a pleasant surprise because indeed it's a very familiar architecture and I think it's paying off"

That day I understood how complex it was to develop on PlayStation 2. So we were eager to find out what the PlayStation 3 would be in terms of architecture, and it was pretty much the same but more complex. So PlayStation 4 really comes as a pleasant surprise because indeed it's a very familiar architecture and I think it's paying off for us deciding to develop on high-end PCs early. It's a less complex transition.

Is there more of a mandate on companies like Ubisoft this time to set the agenda on what a "next-gen game" is?

I think it's a combination of both [us and them] really. They are the ones who decide that the console is connected. Let's stick with the connection thing... they are the ones who decide that. In a way that kind of choice will more define a next-gen game than more beautiful graphics, more power and stuff like that. Because that kind of strategic decision will probably impact that way players will play their games. So I think it's both. After that of course it's up to us to make use of that feature and make sure that we are giving the player a new experience.

Ubisoft Montreal is a huge studio with more than 2000 employees. What does the increased complexity of new console games mean for how you dedicate your resources?

What makes a game beautiful is definitely not the amount of manpower that you can put on a particular game. We used to say that it's not about if you're 1080p or whatever... You can be at a slightly lower resolution if you manage from a tools perspective and an art direction perspective to make the most out of your pixels.

It's a combination of having the right talent in key positions - art director, tech director - and those guys decisions will probably have a bigger impact than whether you decide to have a 200 people or a 100 people team. The number of people you have definitely has an impact on the scope of the game, but probably not on its crafting and how it looks.

So it's not something that particularly worries you then?

No, absolutely not. Of course the more we advance and the more we see the gigantic task that it is to make huge triple-A games like an Assassin's Creed of Watch Dogs, we are trying to be clever. We invest a lot on tools, productivity and making the most out of the hardware so we don't have to produce gigantic data.

We also have the hardware working for us on a tools perspective. If you come to the studio we'll show you how quickly a level designer can create a rough map in Watch Dogs for example, with the building blocks, traffic blocks and roads. You of course need graphics to make that super beautiful, but we don't have to create everything from scratch. That's made possible by the machines themselves.


Watch Dogs appears to be a particularly significant undertaking. How many studios are working on it?

There are already several studios, Montreal being the lead one on this. We have Reflections in Newcastle, a studio in Bucharest and also the Paris studio doing some work. That's already three [additional] studios and maybe Sofia, which proves that we are getting more and more organised.

Watch Dogs is the first game from a brand perspective, while on Assassin's Creed it took us until the second game to adopt the multi-studio approach. So my point is we're learning from our experiences and also because it's the first one we absolutely need to make it the best and give it the time.

It's been a long development cycle, but very well mastered. We went from a small team with a very strong pre-production.

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