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 🙂
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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”.