Inside vs Outside AAA

Inside vs Outside AAA

– Premise –

One of my ex-coworker, Maxime, wrote an article on his new-indie-company blog that got a lot more views that he was expecting. If you haven’t read it already (because it was on all the big sites), have a look right there : Why I quit my Dream Job at Ubisoft. It’s pretty good.

I wanted to write about this because of the “storm” that article created.

I must say that it really surprised me how much attention it got because for me this is “obvious” things. Day to day business and nothing more. Well, used to…

But then, I realized that these kind of things are not “going out” a lot. People, gamers, have no clue for the most part how it’s done in the inside. The typical stuff we hear from non gamer is, “You play games all day.” Then the stuff we hear from gamers is normally, “That company sucks hard, all their games are shit, etc, etc”.

So, let’s talk about this.

– The Outside –

From a developer with more than ten years on my belt, it’s hard now to put myself in the place of someone who has never worked in the industry. Like I said above, all the stuff that seems to be so “incredible” for people outside is just day to day business that I lived for the last ten years. Like many others.

There are so many people talking about so many different subjects on so many different website related to the gaming industry but a few of them dare to talk about “the real stuff”.

I can understand why, I mean, the industry is pretty small. Really small in fact. Everyone knows everyone to some extent. You don’t want to trash a company just for trashing it. You’ll be flagged for sure.

People knows about the basics, the stuff that gets out like crunches, unpaid overtime and so on but people don’t know how it is on a daily basis. Long crunches leads to burnouts. I’ve a few friends who had to leave for a long time because they were totally burned down.

Some people say that we play games all day. Other people say that “we’re just making games”. Well, a job is a job. Yes, creating games is awesome but that’s still a job. There are good stuff and bad stuff in every job. Video game development is no different.

I’m glad though that Maxime dared to talk about his past job at Ubisoft in a really professional way because all the points he said are valid and really true. Because of that, more people know about the inside. The part of the industry that is pretty well hidden. Some day it’s really bright, some day it’s not.

So, let’s talk about it.

– The Inside –

I won’t repeat what Max said in his article because I don’t have the same parkour nor the same background. On the other hand, we have worked on a lot of project “together” during our 10 years at Ubisoft.

He left a few weeks after me if I remember correctly.

All in all, I think we have left Ubisoft mostly for the same reason.

I also tasted “the forbidden fruit” of small team awesome development on Duel of Champions. Luckily for me though, the game I co-created (I was Game Designer on the project) got released compared to both his two small games Maxime worked on.

My dream was never to work on AAA games or anything like him though. I just wanted to make games. Games that I would be proud to say that I’ve worked on like Prince of Persia Forgotten Sand Wii, Duel of Champions and AC Syndicate.

Maxime wrote that he left because he had no motivation anymore because he didn’t had really any impact on the game as an architect on Syndicate. I’ve no idea about his job back then but I can understand why. It was really different as a Senior Level Designer and also Lead Level Designer though. I had a lot of impact on the game. I built the whole skeleton of London from scratch with the World Director. It was a really big challenge to fit London in a 2×6 km map without losing any key locations. London is what it is right now mostly because of what we’ve done back then at the start of the project. I’ve also worked on all the districts to some extent and was in charge of one. I also worked on a lot of milestone demo and other stuff.

All in all, my impact on the game was really big on my point of view.

But I still left Ubisoft and I’m also not interested in the job interview I get from big companies anymore.

Why did I left then?

Well, like Maxime wrote, in big teams people get super specialized in one way of working. I really realized that when I was doing the test for Larian before I got hired. Basically, I didn’t knew how to do “anything” anymore. I’ve worked on six Assassin’s Creed games. That was what I was doing since Brotherhood. AC, AC, AC and AC games… I had a small break with Duel of Champions and The Division. But they were small breaks. I really knew how to do AC games but that was it! When you are doing the same thing over and over for years. You forget everything else. There’s a joke we were saying back then about “a dude” who was in charge of placing bird shit on roofs. You know, it sounds funny but that was not far from the truth.

The first half of Syndicate I was a lead Level Designer. I was in charge of a small team of six Level Designers. That was my goal at Ubisoft for a long time. I wanted to be a mentor, someone in charge. I became Lead LD on The Division. I was also lead on Black Flag but both of these project were nothing compared to Syndicate. It was fun the first year, when the team was still relatively small. Under 100 persons or something like this. When production really started though, that’s when shit started to hit the fan. Being a lead was not exactly how I was seeing it anymore.

I’m a Level Designer, I need to work and create stuff in the editor. That’s my trick! But yeah, as a lead, I was doing task management, planning, bug assignments and other stuff like this. That was when I was not in meetings, because, on a project THAT big, you are always in meetings. If fact, I was doing overtime just to do some Level Design… One day, I decided to take a step back and asked to be a “normal” Level Designer again. It was the best move for me and the project (LD-wise).

Another thing that is “shocking” on big projects like Syndicate is the layer of managers. From a “floor employee” to the Creative Director you have layers and layers of management, leads, project managers, associate producer, producers, coordinators, production managers, etc. There were also managers to manage managers because they were so many. That was seriously crazy. We had people who were only tracking information between studios. That’s what they were doing eight hours a day. Forwarding info from a studio to another. Too many chiefs I must say…

Also, probably like any big companies, not only in the game industry, when you are that big, there are a lot of political games all around the place. It’s even “worst” when you are a manager. It’s incredible how you need to make sure what you say, write and do is politically correct every time. You can’t do any mistakes or you’ll get burn really hard. You need to be friend with the right people and walk straight. I got a lot of friends who got burned just because they said legit stuff to “harshly” or because they were “saying the truth”. In my mind, making games were all about fun no?

Over the years, all these “smalls” things became bigger and bigger and at some point I decided to leave. I wanted to know something else. To learn new things. To see how other people were doing games.

All in all, I’m really proud of what AC Syndicate became even if I was not there at the end. It’s a really great game. But like Maxime and all the other seniors who left, I guess that was just too much for us. I’m sure some people say that we are leavers or anything like this. That we could not handle that big machine. Maybe it’s true but I don’t take it that way.


– Ending notes –

Compared to Maxime, I didn’t went Indie. Well, in some kind of way yes maybe. I work for an  indie company now. It’s so different on many level. It’s cool to not feel like a number anymore. It’s also awesome to know that the CEO of the company knows you really well. Life at Larian is not perfect but it’s really great. For me, it’s better that way. Smaller, more human approach on projects. What Ubisoft Québec used to be back in the days in fact. A place where you knew everyone.

PS: Agree/disagree, questions? Don’t hesitate to leave a comment 🙂
Also, follow me on Twitter!

EDIT (27/01/16): One important thing to note there though is, probably compared to Maxime, that I would have stayed at Ubi if it would not have been for Larian opening a studio in Quebec. I will also write another post to talk about my life at Ubi in detail because it was a great 10 years for sure. I just found out that AAA production is probably not for me so I left to work on “smaller” projects but more importantly, to see “something else”.



30 thoughts on “Inside vs Outside AAA

  1. Hi Jeff. Thanks a lot for the write up. As a gamer and software engineer, I love getting the inside story about the AAA games that I play every day. I have a few questions. 1. Why do you say that Black Flag was nothing compared to Syndicate? I have not played Syndicate, but does it have more to do with the games themselves or that your role was different on Syndicate. 2. How many people did Syndicate end up growing to? 3. Did it grow and shrink or only grow as time passed? I think it is crazy to call a team small that is just under 100 people! 4. On the big AAA teams, you mention that there are too many managers, but do you think it is a necessary evil? I can understand how you can have managers managing managers just like any other hierarchical company, so do you think that game dev can be different? Thank you for your time.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi ! Thanks for the comment 🙂 I’ll answer your questions for sure.

      First of all, Black Flag was different in every way because it was a collaboration with Montreal. They were the lead studio and for us in Quebec, our workload was only 2 missions and the hideout in the game (if you’ve played it). There is a world of difference when you have the responsibilities to ship 2 missions and a whole game like AC. Black Flag was just after AC3 and the people who worked on AC3 were pretty burned down, that was a big production. So you want to take a small project to refill yourself. Black Flag was a walk in the park for us in Quebec

      When I started working on Syndicate I think the team was around 40 people and we were only doing stuff in the Quebec studio. I think though, when the production really kicked in, at its peek we were probably around 800 people working on the game in 8 (I think) different studios around the world. Team growth is base on the state of production you are in, it’s an inverted curve going up and down again at the end of the production. Long story short, when you start a project you only need a handful of person that we call the “core team”; directors, leads, technical people. At the end of the production, you only need technical people on all departments and a lot of programmers to debug the game.

      For the manager thing, I don’t think that the video game industry is different than any other. For me, it was probably just a point of view and something that was new. To see that much managers was just crazy. For us “on the floor” we wanted to have more people who can work on the game than people to manage other people. Is it really a problem ? No. I don’t think. I wrote about it though because for me it was feeling like “too many chiefs for the same gang”. For example, like I wrote, I was a Lead Level Designer half of the project and decided to go back on being a “normal” LD after the first half of the project. We didn’t had any “lead” anymore for the team and it still went really well with just a project manager. Our team was self sufficient. I would have though that it could have been the same in other department.

      Hope that helps 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Completely agree with your analysis on AAA game developers. I had the privilege of working at BioWare last year and it had all the same pros and cons. In general, it was a great company to work for. They took care of their staff; we had free food, event days, free gym passes, etc. My co-workers were awesome. Everyone loved gaming and they were all spectacularly talented and creative people. You do get stuck in a niche though and you don’t really see many of your co-workers aside from in meetings and in the lunch room. As QA, I had no creative control over the game, which was understandable, but since I prefer making games to playing them I felt my motivation ebbing away too. Lucky for me, when my contract ended, I got a job with Choice of Games, which is perfect for me.

    From the sounds of it, Ubisoft is a great company. I heard that Ubisoft has many projects underway in order to keep its staff employed, which I think is really amazing and considerate. I also feel like the AC games have come a long way in terms of story, graphics, gameplay, design, and combat, which is something you obviously contributed to. I get why you want to be a bigger part of the design though and I wish you all the best. You only live once, so why not experience everything? Besides, if you’re not growing, you’re dying. Keep those talents sharp 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Great articles, I read both of them. Great insite. You guys pretty much summed up some of the reasons why I didn’t pursue a career in Game development. I did courses and self taught to do 3D animation, texturing, level design etc. Made maps for games, level editing etc as a hobby. The more I learned, the more I started to see the reality of the industry, and the more I turned away from it.

    I always like to maintain a high standard in everything I do, I always aim for perfection, and anything less I don’t bother. I knew without a doubt, from the quality of the games that I saw being released, I would be hard pressed for anyone to listen to what I had to say. I didn’t want to be a part of a game dev team who put out anything less then the best.

    I decided not to join the gaming industry period. I did branch off into the IT industry, just not game related.

    I think these such large teams, political games, which become toxic in the workplace, create a negative work environment, people lose happiness and motivation and the company loses good talent. This could explain the downward spiral of AAA quality, I no longer call them AAA, but BBB titles.

    Even now, in my current IT role, IT support Engineer, I have days that I think I want to get out of it and completely change my career, it can be so depressing, when basically you are trained/suppressed from talking the truth. You are told to lie to the customers in order for the company to save money and at the very detriment to the company itself, these companies literally bite there own foot. They convince the customer otherwise, rather than what they should be doing. Everything is based on deception. There is no input from anyone, all decisions come from management who are just taking orders from someone so detached at the top. It seems to be everywhere I go now. I’m speaking from experience, I have and am currently working at some of the so called best places you can work at.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s