How Ubisoft Shanghai went from porting games to pretty damn awesome in less than a decade
Corinne Le Roy had just come back from the south of Russia when Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot asked if she wanted to go to China. An ex-nurse who had worked in hospitals as well as in charity organizations, Le Roy had travelled extensively for work and even managed teams in four different countries before. Guillemot felt that Le Roy might be a good fit to go to China, since she had had experience working in a former Communist country.
She took a while to take him up on his offer. “I love reading books and I love watching movies,” she said. “I was not playing games because it was not my generation, but I like what’s new, what’s moving the trend on.”
Eventually, Le Roy found herself telling Guillemot: “Wow, in this part of the world, you have all the ingredients to make incredible games.” And it was this realization that took her to Shanghai, China.
The trip was supposed to be just a year-long posting that would give Le Roy enough time to see if China was suitable for a Ubisoft studio. But the people she met, who were “very young and very passionate” as well as a heady atmosphere of “creation, story, technology, energy” kept her in the country.
One year turned into another. Ubisoft Shanghai was established in December 1996. Developers were recruited in May 1997. The studio proper opened in July 1997.
Ubisoft Shanghai started porting IPs first. Games like Rainbow Six started pouring out of the Shanghai studio. This went on until 2003, when the studio completed its port of Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell for the Xbox, GameCube and PlayStation 2. The following year, Ubisoft Shanghai was given full reign to develop Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow. Its blinders had been taken off. It was ready to race.
Today Ubisoft Shanghai has 40 international titles under its belt, not to mention several more titles developed for the local market. It has the IP rights to Tom Clancy’s EndWar series as well as to 2012’s survival horror game I Am Alive. Ubisoft Shanghai fully developed Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow and Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Double Agent, and has co-developed Far Cry 3, Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Blacklist, as well as Trials Fusion, Trials Frontier and Trials Evolution. It also has a big hand in the upcoming racer, The Crew. And let’s not forget its two free-to-play titles: Football City Stars, which has so far only had Asian releases, as well as the upcoming EndWar Online. The studio has come a long, long way since Le Roy first arrived in 1996.
Today, Ubisoft Shanghai had 367 employees at the time we visited, and hosts between twelve to fourteen different nationalities in its staff. Although it is a very diverse staff, 90 percent of its hires are local, and this has come with its own challenges.
Le Roy said a large majority of the obstacles the studio faced while finding its feet were due to human resources. Although China is a big country and the local hires back then were willing to work in the industry driven by passion alone, initial hires were “not as well trained as now”, especially in important skills such as 3DS Max, a 3D modelling and animation software. However Le Roy also noted that local hires are “extremely hardworking” owing to how difficult it is just to qualify to study in a Chinese university. This results in them working very hard in order to remain competitive in all areas of their lives.
The Ubisoft Shanghai team has now grown into what Le Roy calls “a versatile one”. “It was more difficult [back then] but the experiences trained us to establish a company that stimulates dynamic knowledge sharing,” Le Roy said.
In 1997, Ubisoft Shanghai’s developers still had to be trained in workflow and project management methods. By 2002, a year that also saw over two million foreigners living in Shanghai, the studio had managed to conceptualize and produce the much-lauded Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell, the first game in the distinguished Splinter Cell series, which it would later continue to develop.
In 2008, the Shanghai studio’s Tom Clancy’s EndWar would be voted E3’s best strategy game by three notable media outlets. Le Roy recounted that moment as one of Ubisoft Shanghai’s highest points: “We were so proud, we are still proud,” she said. “It showed that you [can] have talent anywhere in the world. It was a kick to ideas that the Chinese are not creative. and it showed what a multicultural team can do.”
Ubisoft Shanghai is also responsible for the production of Football City Stars, a free-to-play football manager type of game little known beyond Asia. The game is still live in China and Thailand, and its production cemented Ubisoft Shanghai as the forerunners of free-to-play games in the Ubisoft ecosystem.
The studio’s location contributed greatly to its development of free-to-play games. The technology used in free-to-play PC games is very different from console, Le Roy said. One has to watch for back-end servers and internet latencies, all the while working around PC infrastructure, which is not as protected as the consoles’. “Consoles are supported by first party servers,” Le Roy said. “PC is more of an open world, and you have to build your own infrastructure.”
Ubisoft Shanghai was lucky that, given China’s gaming industry, engineering hires already had experience working on servers and client online infrastructure as well as databases. Though Le Roy feels the Chinese are typically weaker in game design, they are ahead of the others in free-to-play games. “They are specialists in game design for retention, acquisition and monetization,” she said.
With such deep roots and schooling in the free-to-play PC arena, you must wonder why Ubisoft Shanghai wasn’t awarded with the Ghost Recon Online project. “We had a full schedule,” Le Roy said simply. “Not everyone can do everything.” She added that Ubisoft Singapore are “a very talented team,” as we already know.
In spite of its accomplishments, the Ubisoft Shanghai studio still hits a few stumbling blocks now and then. Shanghai produces expert engineers, who according to Le Roy have “extremely great foundation[s] in technology” and talented artists, but has fewer game designers available for recruitment.
“Education in this field is still up and coming,” Le Roy said, of game design. Both level and gameplay designers are difficult to find and train in China, though Ubisoft Shanghai’s experience and numerous projects in third-person shooter and first-person shooter games have helped develop the level and game design community immensely. But are there other factors at work as well, apart from a simple lag in education programs? Ubisoft develops IP based on Western countries and concepts, and one does wonder if the lack of exposure to Western culture ever affect production in Ubisoft Shanghai.
On the contrary, Le Roy feels it benefits production. Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Double Agent featured China as one of its main universes, while Far Cry 3, which the studio co-developed, was able to have missions on an island that once was inhabited by Asian civilizations. The art directors at Ubisoft Shanghai are also extremely good, with “specific Chinese art sensibilities”. Le Roy feels this is because the Chinese are “trained in aesthetics from very early on” thanks to their preexisting art, language, and calligraphy, and all these contribute to a Chinese artist possessing “a better sense of colour and trend” as compared to the West.
Of course, there are occasionally downsides to having an art team primarily brought up in the East. Le Roy recounted an occasion where the artists in Shanghai misunderstood the interior of a train in France, because they had had no influence or exposure to the country. However artists also have access to the internet nowadays, and people are travelling more in general. Some of the Ubisoft Shanghai staff even went on a work trip to Italy to gain exposure to the country, and the studio on a whole works with relevant experts to get the right influences for their games. For instance, the team got in touch with seismologists in California so they could correctly produce a post-apocalyptic California setting for I Am Alive.
But art and influences aside, there still remains the question of how a Chinese engineer develops for a console in a country that has no console culture. To this, Corinne had a smile. “People here are gamers,” she said. “For sure, there’s no console culture, but those who are passionate make sure they can play.”
Things are changing for Ubisoft Shanghai, as they are with the entire world. The gaming industry’s focus is shifting, and the studio already has three mobile games in the works, set to launch later this year. It will continue to develop on mobile in the foreseeable future, with a 65 to 70 percent focus on triple A and a 30 percent focus on mobile and online free-to-play games. “[Mobile and online free-to-play] are key for us in the world,” Le Roy said. “It will allow us to develop content for larger groups of people.”
Ultimately, she said, Ubisoft Shanghai wants to be “creating content that will be real playgrounds for players and communities.”
With EndWar Online online set to be playable by this first quarter of 2014, we have no doubt it will.
(Far Cry 3 screenshot from hdoesheritage. Special thanks to Sylviane and Wilfried from Ubisoft for making this happen!)