Sixteen years ago, Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot took a ride with the mayor of Montreal to an abandoned denim factory in low-rent Mile End. The 100-year-old location had once been home to the city’s largest textile operation. By 2013, it would be the HQ for the world’s largest game development studio known for its Tom Clancy’s titles, Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry series and soon… Watch Dogs. Today, we went inside.
I’m on the street outside Ubisoft Montreal’s nondescript brownstone. Apparently Mile End has become increasingly gentrified, yet maintains its reputation for artists — Arcade Fire started here, as did comic book company Drawn & Quarterly.
What would the neighbourhood look like today had the Guillemot brothers opted for initially favoured locations like New Brunswick and Boston? I’m surprised to learn that it wasn’t just about the French connection. The Québec government needed jobs, and after some early hand wringing provided Ubisoft with $25,000 incentive per employee hired in Montreal for the first five years.
The bet on game development paid off and the city grew around its new industry. Québec gave Ubisoft a further $19 million against 1400 more employees in 2005. By 2010, EA, Eidos, Warner Bros and THQ all called Montreal home.
The growth hasn’t stopped. Ubisoft bought THQ Montreal in January this year, and just last month received another $10 million in tax credits after committing to invest $373 million into the city over the next seven years.
Australian politicians take note.
Now inside the glass doors, I creak and squeak my way upstairs to level five: Administration. It’s from here, I discover, that the company first outgrew its space. These days Ubisoft occupies the entire building (with massive renovation plans) and owns five other sites around the city. The highlight is Studio Alice.
Started in 2011, the studio acts as Ubisoft’s key resource for foley sound effect suites, audio mixing bays, voice acting talent, scripting, narrative guides and motion capture stages. Khris Brown, director of Alice’s Narrative Talent Team explains the name: “It’s a reference to Alice in Wonderland — falling down the rabbit hole where anything is possible.” Enter motion capture and insanely detailed ‘4D Face Scanning’.
Studio Alice’s main mo-cap facility occupies an old train construction warehouse in the Montreal suburb of Angus. Khris energetically explains the group can build and break-down stages to order, and uses a ‘virtual set’ allowing actors to see their capture superimposed into an environment — in real time. The benefit: performances that emotionally connect with both the scene and environment. This is the story telling prefrontal cortex of Ubisoft Montreal.
I’m shown through the cafeteria: surely home to wrap parties and happy hours, but presently filled by coders with the anxious air of a looming milestone.
One wall displays the over 80 titles that mark the studio’s impressive history. Another lists Ubisoft Montreal’s “7 Pillars Of Creativity”. Twee it may be, but it’s a menu of values I want behind the games I play.
I’m not allowed to take photos here. There’s a clear focus among the rows of dev teams and sensitive IP scattered about. I get the impression that the entire open-plan floor is still coming to terms with having another six months to comprehensively play test their creation.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Blag Flag
No photos, do not pass go. There are, so I’m told, people down there. Somewhere.
My carefully guided circuit comes full circle and I’m headed back to the street. One last point of interest is the Waverly bar across the road. The Ubisoft local.
Celebration is the seventh pillar of creativity after all.