Technological innovation at the service of Ubisoft’s creative ambitions

How we support innovation by our tech and gameplay devs in an increasingly competitive industry

Ubisoft Montréal prides itself on surprising and engaging our players, which means we must constantly push the limits of our creativity and technology. At the same time, as the competition in the video game industry stiffens, any misstep on the road to innovation and originality can be costly—our games have to be fun, without a doubt, but they also have to launch on deadline, be on budget and, well, they have to work.

So we find ourselves solving for a classic tech business problem: how do we balance innovation and risk?

Divide and conquer: capitalizing on our wide array of expertises

“One of Ubisoft’s great strengths is that we have within our company a very wide variety of expertise across many different fields,” says Cedric Decelle, technical director on Far Cry. Decelle has been at Ubisoft Montréal and on the Far Cry brand since 2005. He’s seen the evolution of our technical teams and processes first-hand.

“On a game, everything starts with an idea—usually a really, really ambitious idea. We want to revolutionize what’s being done, push our limits,” he says.

“And since we’re surrounded by so many experts, we can allow ourselves to take risks without jeopardizing our production.”

Over the last decade, Ubisoft Montréal has published nearly 30 games; with each launch we’ve collected key learnings about our processes and structures. One of the guiding principles in the evolution of our studio over this time, as our games and the industry became increasingly complex, has been focusing and streamlining our teams’ mandates.

Consequently, we’ve started extracting some core technology experts from game production and regrouping them into specialized tech teams. These transverse groups as a whole give production teams access to both a breadth and a depth of expertise that caters to them exclusively. At the same time, this refinement means that production teams can increasingly focus their energies on creative storytelling, rich settings, and novel gameplay.

“When we start a project we start looking at the collaborations they entail so we can be ambitious and successfully take on riskier issues,” says Decelle.

While Decelle’s engineers and programmers on Far Cry concentrate on bringing their game to life, they know they have access to a gamut of world-class specialists that elevates them with tech solutions, knowledge and innovation.

Tech expert groups as dedicated service and product providers

At any given moment, Ubisoft Montréal’s game production teams are at work on multiple AAA games that run on Ubisoft’s proprietary engines. In the past, these games tended to be developed in technical silos and on parallel technologies, and one of the major factors dampening our technological advancement was a propensity to reinvent the wheel. The creation of worldwide, expert technical teams has allowed us to pool efforts and accelerate our innovation.

Take, for instance, Ubisoft Harbour, our online platform developer. Harbour ensures that Decelle’s team of engineers on Far Cry has access to standardized online technologies that are optimized for Ubisoft’s engines. Among other things, Harbour provides a matchmaking solution that is proven in the field and easily implemented across Ubisoft’s games—no need to reinvent the wheel.

“There are so many features to develop for a game that I don’t necessarily want to assign resources to, because they aren’t necessarily where the added value is for our player,” says Decelle. “A group like Harbour spends 100% of its time on these topics, whereas, for us in production, we’re not experts on the issue. So these standard solutions are very beneficial to my team.”

Still, occasionally a standard service might not work for a team that’s looking to push the envelope, to create something that makes their game stand out.

“If you need something that doesn’t exist, you can make it, you can build it. If things don’t work the way you want them to, you can correct them,” explains Decelle. “You feel like you can take a risk, you feel like you can push the envelope, because there are experts that are available with whom you can speak, with whom you can validate your work.

“What you end up creating could become the new standard service used by all teams.”

Tech expert groups as vectors of research and development

And then, every once in a while, a production team will need a solution that simply doesn’t exist. That’s where teams such as Ubisoft La Forge come in. La Forge brings together experts with tech or academic backgrounds, and has the mandate of bridging the gap between theory and practice.

“La Forge is a group that does research to apply it to our games,” says Decelle. “They find ways to take something academic and give it an engineering application, apply it concretely in a video game. So if we need something that doesn’t exist, we’re not starting from scratch; the experts at La Forge can guide you. That’s the beauty of having so many people.”

Recently, for example, a production team approached La Forge’s machine-learning experts about teaching NPCs to drive better—or rather, drive more realistically.

“Today, when an AI drives a vehicle, you can feel it’s an AI,” says Decelle. “The driving is very mechanical, it follows roads precisely. It’s basically too perfect. You can tell it’s a robot.

“We want something that feels more natural, like an actual human is driving. And we also want these AI-driven vehicles to react to extreme situations more realistically. Right now, if an AI crashes into a tree, the NPC will exit the vehicle and behave in a way that makes no sense, that is in no way natural.”

Thanks to La Forge, Ubisoft Montréal’s game production teams can broach these kinds of hyper specific, highly specialized issues.

“Normally we wouldn’t be able to work on this, but having as many groups as we do, we were able to tackle it,” Decelle says. “We can work with them to fix this kind of problem and bring quality and value to the player so that when you play the game, it feels more real, more organic.”

And if something comes of it, La Forge shares its results with the rest of Ubisoft’s teams. If, on the other hand, the problem is particularly difficult, the lack of concrete results has minimal to no impact on a game’s resources.

Tech expert groups as asset and knowledge providers

This kind of redistribution of learnings and technology by transverse teams across production teams was particularly instrumental over the past year, as a new generation of consoles entered the market with myriad possibilities and problems following in its wake.

Take Ubisoft’s Technology Group (TG), which supports Ubisoft’s teams with tools and middleware. The TG, with the help of AAA productions such as Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry, was able to develop low-level rendering middleware that could run on a variety of hardware and make it accessible to everyone internally.

“It’s a real collaborative model; all our projects’ 3D experts contributed on a common basis that benefited everyone,” says Decelle. “The middleware brushed aside the complexities of being on all these consoles at the same time, and all our projects got it for free and rapidly.”

Meanwhile, production teams homed in on their own innovations, for instance by exploring exciting ways to use the haptics of the PlayStation 5 controller.

“Groups like the TG provide us with standardized tech but also with things like libraries, APIs, and SDKs that allow production teams to extend themselves and create their own services to innovate or set themselves apart,” he says.

Challenges, technologies and problems for every curious engineer

Ubisoft is well on its way to an organizational structure that not only protects the main game from the contingencies of ideation, it increasingly provides our experts with opportunities to innovate, be inspired and collaborate.

“With production innovating on gameplay, and transverse services innovating on core technologies, all groups have something to contribute depending on what you are looking for as an engineer,” Decelle says. “When you have the opportunity to work at Ubisoft, you can get involved in all these different expertises, all these topics.

“We really try to push the collaborative side of our engineers. Even if it’s not part of their project, we encourage them to contribute to the collective wealth. Even if it’s not directly related to their personal deliverable in their day to day.

“This definitely helps us all become better engineers and make better games,” he concludes.