Yannis Mallet runs the huge Ubisoft studios in Montreal and Toronto. Those teams are putting out sequels such as Assassin’s Creed III and Far Cry 3. Mallet’s job is to make sure the teams work on titles that will delight gamers and expand the audience for games. We caught up with him on Sunday in Los Angeles just before the start of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) video game show. Here’s a transcript of our talk.
Yannis Mallet: E3 2012, I think it’s a big E3 for Ubisoft, Ubisoft Montreal is putting out two of the biggest games that we’ve made, so I think it’s… I think it’s the strongest E3 lineup ever for Ubisoft Montreal. And I think it has to do with the brands. If you look at the brands we have, Assassin’s Creed III, Far Cry 3… The studio this year is celebrating its 15th anniversary, it’s been 15 years of growing the talent and growing the expertise. Capitalizing on the brands. I think that 15 years later, Assassin’s Creed III shows that this is a good strategy. Far Cry, you look at the game, for a big studio like us, it’s something we can be proud of.
GamesBeat: How many people is it now?
Mallet: In the main building in Montreal, we’re now at 2100. Add to that 200 people, or 300 people in Quebec City. Another 100 people we moved from Montreal… In Quebec, that’s a whole 2500 people.
GamesBeat: Wow. How many people do you have at the show this year?
Mallet: That’s a very good question. I don’t even know. I think we’re probably close to 400 people at E3, but that’s Ubisoft worldwide. So yeah, I think the main subject at the table here was the long-term prospects for our brands… I don’t think you can come up with such big brands like AC or Far Cry without building it on the long term. We’ve been doing that with AC, AC was the first actually to have this long-term building strategy. We have a name for that actually, internally… But the goal is to make sure that the brand grows from a content perspective, from a talent perspective, and the technology that runs all those games behind it. This is where the studio has a role to play. I think it’s a very specific studio, I don’t think you could find another studio like it in the world. We have all this talent we can benefit from, helping to improve the brand requires a strategy that we’ve been applying for quite some time now.
GamesBeat: How involved are you in the marketing of the games?
Mallet: Ubisoft has a very specific structure regarding marketing. On one side you have the creative people, the production people, and on the other side you have the marketing, which has to do with PR, marketing, sales. That being said, we in production have, embedded in the teams, some marketing people, more on the strategy side of marketing, they work with the creatives, but they are actually creatives also, as well as marketing professionals. They help us early in conception, early in the production process, to think about what we’re about to produce and make sure that we are making the right calls in terms of market relevance. Positioning… We build the positioning up front, actually, from way before we hand off to operational marketing. Past FPP and… “FPP” stands for “first playable publishable,” this is a very… As in the name, it’s the first milestone, the first deliverable, where we have a vertical slice of the game, the systems, the settings, the main character… The fhree Cs, camera, control, character, et cetera. That is enough for us to use our prediction tools, prediction methodology, the team can prove the concept…
GamesBeat: Is this like a proof of concept…?
Mallet: I think it depends on different definitions in the industry. I think “proof of concept” sometimes comes earlier than that. It relies less on “are we able to produce that game?” and more on “what we want to make.” FPP has both, which proves to be very interesting to us, because once you hit FPP and you greenlight the project, then you’re pretty much sure, pretty much confident, that you have everything it takes to make the whole game. Because you’ve tested everything in terms of technology, talent, systems… Everything. You proved to yourself that you are able to produce the game with its full scope because you’ve made a vertical slice of it. Two percent, five percent, that’s FPP. After FPP we start to talk to operational marketing and say, hey, we have this game, blah blah blah.
GamesBeat: What’s the kind of spill rate? What percentage of those go on to become full games and what percentage do you say, no, this isn’t going to make it?
Mallet: I’ll probably give you a very intriguing answer here… The higher the better, in a way, because you want to make sure that you’re not producing a game that doesn’t fulfill the fun requirements, the market appeal requirements. You want to make sure that you’re not going to screw everything up in production when you have a big team and a big budget. You want to fail fast. I don’t mean that the rate is high, I mean that we are very mean to ourselves on that milestone, because it’s a very important milestone. And also, it varies very much from team to team and brand to brand. It depends on the maturity of the teams, the maturity of the brand, the maturity of the technology. This is where the strategic thinking of how to plan the brands and plan the project around the brand is very important. As you may guess, on Assassin’s Creed, which is our most mature brand, mature in the sense that the teams are senior and everything, the technology is tested… We have very low rates of failure at FPP, because we know how to make an Assassin’s Creed game.
GamesBeat: I had heard a while ago that you had more than 500 people on it…
Mallet: Yeah, absolutely. In Montreal we have a lot of people in the production phase… Again, the production phase is when we know exactly everything we have to produce, we know how to produce it, we know it’s going to be good, so we can put a lot of people on it. It’s a monster game, it’s a massive game. But we don’t come up to 500 in Montreal. There are other studios that help us on out that.
GamesBeat: That’s how you can get one out every year?
Mallet: Also. Although Montreal is always the lead on that, meaning that the core design, the setting, everything, is made in Montreal, and all the other studios are helping on parts of the game, like Annecy working on the multiplayer side for Assassin’s Creed. Our Quebec CIty studio is also working on it, Singapore is working on it. It’s important to say that Assassin’s Creed III had three years in development. When it ships we’ll have three years. It’s not as if the idea is to throw a huge amount of people at it to do the game in a year. This is where the solidity of a brand like Assassin’s Creed is formed… We keep hearing that some people may think that with one game every year, you get a fatigue of the brand or the teams. Actually, no, because we could make, with several teams on one brand… Well, it’s pure maths. With two teams you can have a two-year development cycle and make a game every year. With three teams, you can have a three-year development cycle. This is what we’re applying…
GamesBeat: Is that typical? Have you been able to reduce the amount of production time, or is it always…?
Mallet: It depends on the project and it depends on the studio. Assassin’s Creed III was the first one to benefit from three years of development after AC1. Because AC1 had to build the whole technology at the same time as we made the game.
GamesBeat: Is there any similarity to Call of Duty and how many resources Activision puts into it? Is there something very different about how you do Assassin’s Creed?
Mallet: Well, I can’t really speak for Activision and how they do things. It’s very hard to get… You guys would actually know more about that, really. They have several teams, we know that. Infinity Ward and, what’s the name of the other studio?
GamesBeat: It’s more than 500 people too.
Mallet: So yeah, we’re working on big games now.
GamesBeat: Is it basically after the success of the first one that you realized that much activity? Three games in the works at once or something like that?
Mallet: Yes, but in the meantime we were able to anticipate a lot on that… We were able to anticipate the success of Assassin’s Creed one. I think that we hit the right target and the right numbers with this one. So we can manage the studio and the team on that brand. Because you have to picture yourself… When you invest in four years of technology, on a team, on a game, and you decide to push this new IP, you expect it to be going on afterwards. So…
GamesBeat: How did you select the colonial period? I can see how at some point you’re going to run out of history…
Mallet: You would think so, you would think so…
GamesBeat: Of course, you could always do a prequel…
Mallet: You know, you would be surprised. We have content in Assassin’s Creed III that is already planned… That has us looking as far as beyond 2018, beyond 2019. So history is our playground, definitely, and history is rich. No worries on that one. Really no worries.
GamesBeat: Do you feel an advantage in that… Activision takes a lot of heat for putting out Call of Duty every year. I haven’t heard those sorts of complaints about Assassin’s Creed, even though it’s an annual franchise. It seems like from my perspective, the king of the hill is always the one that takes the heat from people on those forums… Does that work to your advantage, as far as your place in the industry…?
Mallet: I wouldn’t put it that way. I would say that as long as you can innovate and come up with new, interesting content, then you’re fine. I think, you know… I think people sometimes are quick to say, oh, we have too much of this, too much of that, but it’s not really that they have too much, it’s just that sometimes it may mean that it’s not good enough, or it starts to fade from your interest because it doesn’t manage to bring something new and interesting. As long as we do that, I think we’re fine, and I think that with the brand we’ve been able to prove that, which is why we had to plan ahead, enough R&D, enough team, with the liberty and the freedom to think about that without being in a shipping mode… Each Assassin’s Creed actually came out each year with some interesting new stuff. I think that’s more the answer.
GamesBeat: Are you able to keep Jade Raymond out of the equation now, when she’s so busy with other things. I talked with her back at GDC, she said that was the hardest thing she ever had to do, was walking away from Assassin’s Creed.
Mallet: She was ready to do something else. But I understand. Most of the people we place in charge at Ubisoft from a production standpoint, they have a strong content orientation. I think also this is part of… I hope this is part of the success. It seems to work okay. And Jade, as I used to be myself, which is why I can understand her… We used to be very much invested in content, with our own teams. It’s so fascinating when you work on a brand like Assassin’s Creed, you know. I think this refers to that, you know? But she was definitely ready to help us tremendously on another level. Acting as a leader, I think our job is to find other leaders.
GamesBeat: I hear that Canada is the third largest country for game employment now…
Mallet: Yeah, I heard that too.
GamesBeat: That happened very fast.
Mallet: Yes, it was very fast. But at least for now, we’ve had growth that isn’t insane. It’s still manageable. There are still a lot of young people that are training to join the video game industry. So we have found, in Montreal and in Quebec province, very good talent, people who can help us in building this industry. We can say that after 15 years of being a leader in the industry over there, I think we’ve also helped to make this industry an ecosystem that is viable, with a lot of different companies, different-sized companies, not just video game developers, but also middleware developers… There is an equilibrium that is sane and healthy for the industry right now. And we need to protect it.