Category: Ubisoft

Radial Level Design

Radial Level Design

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– Premise –

I wanted to write something like for a long time now. Talking about some of the process I’ve used in my career. This time, I’ll write about Radial Level Design. Most specifically the process I used to create London on Assassins Creed: Syndicate at the start of the project when we were only me as Lead Level Design and the Level Design Director Jo.

“What’s Radial Level Design?”, you’ll say. Or even, “What is this weird term?”

Well, this is what I’ll explain in the lines bellow. The goal is to share what I’ve learned on creating a city that exist in real life with all it’s landmarks and personalities in a video game.

Disclaimer: I’m not working at Ubisoft anymore so no image whatsoever will be taken from the actual game and I’ll even take a completely different city for the purpose of this explanation.

– The Process –

The first thing you have to keep in mind while doing a real city in a video game is that obviously, you won’t (well, most of the time I guess) be able to recreate that city as is. The goal though, is still to give a really good feeling of “I know this part!” to the player if they have already visited that city and to respect the city itself.

AC Syndicate was set in the Victorian London era during the Industrial Revolution. One thing that was really interesting and useful for us is that it’s during that time that a lot of stuff that we are still doing today came to be. Like, photography. That was so good for references purpose, even though most of the pictures were pretty much take 20-30 years later than our period in the game, points of interest in a city barely ever change though the years.

So, since I’m from Quebec, I’ll take the beautiful Quebec City as an example throughout this blog post and refer to the process we were doing.

Here is a google satellite view of a part of Quebec.

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– Step 1: The Landmarks –

The first step is to take a map and identify the landmarks and/or all the points of interest.

Landmarks are the spots where every tourists go visit when they are travelling.
Points of interests (PoI) are less important part of a city that still attracts a lot of people.
One last thing that is also a point of interest in itself is a park. Nature/vegetation in a city is always something that creates a wow.

These areas are the pillars of the city. This is where the majority of the production time will be spent. These areas can’t really be bent or altered.
This is also the areas that the player will remember in a game and help him/her navigate in the city remembering where he/she is.

In the map bellow I marked the Landmaks with blue dots, the PoI in orange and parks in yellow.

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– Step 2: The Main Roads and Water –

The 2nd step is to identify the main roads of a city and where the important water flows. I’m not talking about a tiny river here, I’m talking about a nice river or a lake.

Identifying where the main roads are will help you structure the city. The landmarks are where the attention will be gathered but the roads are the back bones, the spine of the city.

The rivers, on the other hands are good mainly to create guidelines to the players. How many times in your life as a gamer have you followed a river? That’s super easy to follow right? Also, sometimes, they are really useful as path blockers or end of map. How many game world end into the ocean at some point?

Another thing that can give a nice guideline to the players are railroads.
We don’t have a lot of important railroads in Quebec so I’ll skip that in the example.
On a side note, in London, on AC, it was on the contrary, really important.

In the image bellow, in blue are the rivers (not a lot!), in red, the main road.
There is also something pretty interesting in Quebec, the city is made on plateaus. The upper city and lower city are separated by a pretty big cliff. There is also another (even bigger) cliff going down the St-Lawrence river.
So, in this specific example, it’s pretty important to take that in consideration.
I represented that with the yellow lines.

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– Step 3: The Districts/Neighborhoods –

Normally this part should be easy. You basically have to split the city into districts. If you are recreating a real city, this should be pretty straight forward.
The goal here is to create zones, not too much, not too little.

Note: This is related to the game you’re doing. Maybe you need 50 different zones, maybe you need 5. So either way, don’t hesitate to merge some or split some if needs be. Back on AC, splitting London into districts, we ended up with 11 at first. (I’ll talk about that later because you always end up with less.).

You can see in the image bellow that I ended up with 9 districts in white.

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First interesting obvious point, just following the river/roads creates districts by itself.
Second interesting point I found that the game would probably be big enough cutting it after that big road to the left. There was just a park after that anyway!

Note: Even in conception, it’s important to think about the production of the game. What is useless now, will also be useless later. So don’t hesitate to cut stuff already.

We had the same thing happening on AC. There was one super cool landmark that was so off of the city that even if that was a really good one, we decided to cut it already at that state of conception.

– Step 4: The Cropping –

Alright, this is the most important part of the process and the hardest. This is also where the whole purpose of this process takes place.

Designing in Radial around the landmark areas after the cropping.

Right now, we have all that we need to create the city but obviously, it’s way too big for a game. Well at least, London was way too big as is, for an AC game. We had to cramp 50 square kilometers into 2×3 kilometers. That was a constraint we had for a lot of different reasons that I won’t explain here.

Note: Again, think about production here but it’s ok to think bigger. You’ll end up, I can assure you, cutting more and more during the production of the game.

So, what you do here is that you take the software that you want and you draw the global layout of the city taking every single landmark/PoI you’ve tagged above related to your main roads, rivers and other important thing you pointed out.
It’s time to go a little bit more micro and it’s time to bend reality.

Note: It’s important to remember that this is conception and that this step is strongly going to change for different reason in production. But this is just an example.

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This is what I came with.
I left the step 3 map under to show the difference in size.
Everything that was on step 3 is still in but is also way closer.
If you see, there’s now a green line (I forgot that on purpose for the sake of the example). Sometimes, you’ll find new interesting things to add as you discover the city more and more.
Around Old Quebec there’s a huge wall, remnant of the construction of the fort, around the city. It’s pretty important! This is the green line.
You can also see that I went from 9 districts to 7.
Cropping everything forced some districts to disappear since they were not needed anymore.
Another point here is that district 5 has no landmark or PoI at all. I like the shape of it since it completes the global layout of the map but if cuts are needed in production, I would kick that one out or bend it to merge with 4 and/or 6. Could also do the same thing with 7.

– Step 5: Radial and Micro –

Now, it’s time to go micro and crop again, on a micro scale, if possible.
For the sake of the example I’ll take the part of the map at the top-right with a bunch of blue points (landmarks).

At this step, the radial design finally comes to life.
There I take a closer look at the map, mark the exact landmark (blue in the image bellow) and make some kind of circular shapes around them.
I usually make a tiny shape around the landmark itself (orange) so the facade around the landmark looks exactly how it’s in real life. It’s important.
Then, I draw another shape around the last one, a bit bigger (yellow), this is the back of the facades and it should respect shapes, since it’s still pretty close to the landmarks.

Sometimes, really often in fact, landmarks are really close to each other so it’s pretty important to create shapes around them all in one. You can see that on the left of the image. There are 4 landmarks really close to each other.

After doing this for all the landmarks in an area, you can chop in the meat. Everything between landmarks are filler. Something that is not important to do as is. It’s shown in the second part of the image bellow.

asdasd.png

You can see here that, the right landmark is way closer. I chopped in the meat. Then, I draw the roads on a micro scale, leaving the mains roads that we had earlier in step 2 becasue they are still the back bones of the city and adding some more to make small areas, thinking about flow and other level design principles.

Then you rinse and repeat for all the landmarks, PoI and other marked areas of your city.

– Step 6: Finishing Up –

So at this stage, you’ll have a pretty detailed first draft of your city. For this step I won’t put an image because it’ll just look like a spider web with all the lines and circles but I’m sure you get the idea.

Now it’s time to put that in the game!

What I do normally is that I put the image I created in photoshop and export that so I can use it as a texture in a 3D software. I put that on a plane, scale it so it makes sense for the size of the main character and then I just create 3D shapes out of the image. Respecting everything that was made above.

Then you put that in the game editor, check the flow and the size, and tweak and check again and tweak again until it feels good enough.
At this point, it’s normal game development. Creating the vistas, the beauty shots, thinking about the flow again, going micro on the filler areas and so on. Then testing again and tweaking again.

– Ending notes –

So, like every single design process, this can be bent and changed, useful or useless. Everyone has his own way of designing things. I found that method was pretty good for planning ahead. It’s pretty straight forward and easy to do.

This is also a a method that can be used to create any kind of map in general. Obviously you will start from blank but building in radial around landmark is one pretty usual thing to do. With that, your layout, your world, will be structured.

Hope that gave you, readers, ideas for some future projects.

I would like to thank Jo Dumont, he’s the one that showed me this method back then.


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Ubisoft is GREAT

Ubisoft is GREAT

maxresdefault – Premise –

With my last blog post concerning my opinions on what is AAA game production I talked with a lot of my friends, coworkers, ex-coworkers and people around the Internet about the impact on these kind of posts and other things.

I have also read a lot of replies on my friend’s first post and it always come to the same thing, Ubisoft Bashing. It’s a trend right now, and I hate it. It’s probably better now than what it was when Unity came out for example. Ubisoft bashing was all over the place like it was the only bad thing that ever happened in the industry. That was pissing me off at the time and even now, I’m not even at Ubisoft anymore and that pisses me off.

I was not the first to talk about my passed experience and my friend Max was not either. In the last 10 years I saw a lot of posts here and there about people who left Ubisoft (or other companies). Sometimes anonymously, sometimes saying who they were. Some were just plain trash talking, other, like Max’s posted was really professional. The thing I haven’t seen at all (correct me if I’m wrong) is saying how great, as an employee, Ubisoft is/was. So here, I’ll write about my last 10 years at Ubisoft. I’ve stayed here for 10 years because it was GREAT.

– So what is Ubisoft (for me)? –

– The differences between studios –

First of all, I’ve worked at Ubisoft Québec (if you don’t already know). I started my career a little bit more than 10 years ago, on the 7th of November 2005 as a video game tester. Ten months later I became a Level Designer and I moved forward with that and that’s still what I’m doing professionally.

Ubisoft is a really big company. I don’t remember the number of different studios Ubisoft own but they have a lot all around the world. You can also add studios that got bough like Red Storm, Massive Entertainment, Bluebyte and so on.

Because of this, because of the mentality of every countries, habits and all other things, all Ubisoft studios are different. It’s a multicultural company and that’s really nice. I went to Ubisoft Montreal a few times, I worked at Massive for a few months but I mainly worked at Ubisoft Québec. I met a lot of Ubisoft of employees from all around the world in my career and I’ve learn stuff from every one of them.

You can have totally different experiences depending on the studio you work on but still, the same “base” is there for all the studios and I must say, Ubisoft base is great.

– Flexible Hours –

This is a common thing I think in most of the video game companies now but still, it’s part of what define Ubisoft. You can go to work almost between a certain period of time and leave after a certain amount of time (depending on the country you are working). So if you get a pretty big hangover because you were partying the day before, well, instead of going to work at 7 in the morning, just go at 10! There’s no problem with that.

Also, you are not “punching” your time. You know, nobody gave a single damn if I was working 7 hours on one day because I had to go to the dentist for example or that I needed to do whatever else. Your job is done? Sure, take that free hour. Go spend time with your family. Go do whatever you have to do that is important. If your job is done, what is the problem anyway?

– The Environment –

You know, age of people working in the video game industry is low. People are still pretty young. The industry is also pretty young so that’s probably linked I guess. People are getting older that what it was 10 years ago obviously but it’s still the case. The majority of people are under 40.

Young people means FUN.

You know, drinking beer on the job, throwing football between the desks to other people, Nerf gun fights, babyfoot/ping pong/pool table, lounge with all the consoles, arcade, gym, etc. This is what defines the environment.

One other cool thing is the open area. Well, for me it is. I know it’s not for everyone, but it’s really nice to be all in the same space without any little walls blocking us. It’s easier for communication. It’s cool to see people around, hearing a joke here and there, screaming nonsence stuff at other… Having fun!

– No “Clients” –

This is not true for everyone but most of the dev teams don’t have “clients”. What I mean by that is that you never deal with the outside world outside of the job. Why is that a cool thing?

Well, you put the cloths you want at the office. Nobody will give a damn about what you are wearing.

You have a mohawk? Nobody gives a damn about it.

That mohawk is pink, blue and purple? Nobody gives a damn about it.

You have 12 piercings? Nobody gives a damn about it.

You have tattoos all over the body? (I worked with a guy like this and he’s awesome) Yet nobody gives a damn about it.

No clients means casual as f**k!

– Free Foods and Drinks! –

Every morning we had fresh fruits for everyone. On Friday, we had super tasty fresh bagels. The fridges were always open so you could have any kind of juice, water and/or soft drink if you wanted.

At Massive, it was even better! Every morning, we had breakfasts. Sandwiches, cheeses, delis, etc.

We also had a lot of cool events related to foods were we were able to tastes awesome stuff like teas, chocolates, wines and so on.

– Parties/Happy Hours! –

Obviously, since we are “young” in the industry, we like to party a lot. At the beginning of Ubisoft Québec we had happy hours every 2 weeks or so. Free beers and foods for everyone. On AC Syndicate, it became a habit. We had happy hours every week with free beers and stuff.

Parties is also a big thing at Ubisoft. Parties are BIG and awesome. Obviously, with open bar… We had all kind of crazy things at our parties. I was there for 10 years! So that’s a lot of parties to go. Every Christmas, every shipped projects and other reason where all good to throw a party somewhere. About the crazy stuff, I can remember parties with inflatable fighting ring, flame spitters (?), jugglers, dancers, fit man in kilts, Tyrolean traverse, pirates, music bands, sugar shacks, bus trips, and so on.

That was something.

I’m missing that for sure!

– Traveling –

This is one big thing at Ubisoft. You can travel a lot if you want to. I haven’t travel that much for personal reason but I still when to Paris for two weeks and in Sweden three times and one of them I lived in Sweden for four months. All that being paid!

I’ve a lot of ex-coworkers who traveled a lot more than me. Going all around the world.

Like I said above, Ubisoft is big and has studios all around the globe. More than often you will be sent on a mission for a few weeks/months in another country for various reasons like mentoring, learning new tools, teaching stuff, helping starting up a projects and so on. And remember, ALL PAID.

– Resources Sharing –

Again, because Ubisoft is SO big, there are a lot of resources sharing between studios. You know, when you want a crate in your game for example, you don’t ask a modeler to create another crate that was created on another projects in the last year. You take a crate in the shared asset bank and you pimp it a bit for your project.

There is also a pretty big intranet site that looks like any other social media but more focused on sharing information. There are a lot of people sharing how they work, their tips and tricks and other things like this. Lot to learn there.

There is also countless training videos around there where you can learn a lot of stuff. I know a guy, who was a level artist and became a level designer just because he learned a lot by himself using these training videos.

– Talents –

There are a lot of people at Ubisoft, a few thousands. One thing that is pretty amazing is the number of persons there who are SO talented. You can learn a lot in your department and even in other departments just by speaking with other employees around the globe. It’s good for the company, it’s good for the juniors, it’s also good for the seniors and it’s good for the point above (resources sharing).

– And so on… –

I could probably continue talking a lot about cool things. Some of them are probably also available in other video game companies. There are probably also a lot of other companies who gives even more stuff than this! I could talk about insurance plan at Ubisoft (that is really super duper awesome) for example or the classic bonuses after you ship a project (and when you are on a project). That big money you get and say “Well, cool, thanks! I was not expecting that”, etc…

– Ending notes –

So, all in all, I wouldn’t have spent a third of my life in a company if it was not that great. I seriously think that more people should also write/talk out loud what were the awesome things they experienced in they career after leaving a company or even when they are still working for a company.

I’ve no idea if this post will get a lot of attention because it’s always better for the big lines to say that something is BAD or why someone LEFT. Because of the blog I posted to follow what my friend Max has said I never got that much people ending here. That would be great that double this amount would see this one instead.

I still hope that a lot of people will read it and realize that there are grey zones everywhere. For me, there were way more “white” zones than “dark” zones at Ubisoft for sure.

Seriously. If you read this, I’m not asking that normally but SHARE this post everywhere that you can. I want to know that people will also be aware that most of the time (by far) it’s AWESOME to work for Ubisoft.

EDIT (29/01/16): Thanks to everyone who shared this blog post. I’m really happy to see that a lot of people also like to read about the good stuff of the industry, not just the bad. ❤

EDIT#2: To whoever shared that in Romania, you guys just made that blog post explode. Thanks for passing by!

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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 🙂
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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”.