One morning late last year, not long after Guillaume, a developer at Ubisoft Montreal, had finished working on his newest game, he was told he'd be moving offices. This was not particularly unusual for Ubisoft Montreal, a company that employs close to 3,000 people and works on upwards of ten new video games at a time, moving developers around constantly. What was unusual was where he was going.
Guillaume -- who asked that I not use his real name for this story -- soon found himself on the third floor of one of Ubisoft's buildings in downtown Montreal. Today he describes athe building -- called "160," after its address -- as a dark, grey office, with dim lighting and a low ceiling. As Guillaume started settling in, he found other Ubisoft employees playing Facebook games and watching movies, essentially doing nothing as they waited for the company to give them new assignments. For the days, weeks, or maybe even months to come, they were in "limbo," as Guillaume put it.
This is "interproject," a little-known department at Ubisoft Montreal that houses developers who are between games. When a Ubisoft game is shipped, or cancelled, the company will sometimes send employees to interproject, where they wind up applying for new positions within the company, occasionally helping out other teams, and watching movies all day until they're reassigned… or laid off. Anywhere from 50 to 100 employees might work in interproject at a time, according to people who have worked there, and though they will sometimes be dragooned for game teams that need extra help, they spend most of their days doing whatever they want.
Sound strange? Call it Video Game Developer Purgatory. Ubisoft described it to us as a place that allows them to retain employees between projects. Although perspectives on the role and function of interproject are varied, people I've talked to who have worked there don't have a ton of great things to say about the experience.
"It's the most depressing building I have ever been in in my life," Guillaume said. "The lighting is so old and rundown… It looks like something you'd find yourself in while running from hordes of zombies."
In the gaming industry, it's become standard practice for publishers and studios to regularly let go of their staff after finishing or cancelling projects, a practice we've been spotlighting recently with our regular compilations of video game layoff stories. Over the past few months, while talking to people who have been part of those layoff cycles, I kept hearing about "interproject," a department at Ubisoft. It sounded interesting and unusual, so I started digging a bit.
Though interproject is not a secret, there has been very little public discussion surrounding the practice, and while researching for this story, the most I could find on the web was an occasional message board post from Ubisoft Montreal developers talking about going. ("Oh, you're moving to interproject. Good luck. It's boring.") One Glassdoor review also mentions the department in its "Advice to Management" section: "If an employee is part of the studio, and is trying to get onto a project, do not keep this person on 'interproject' - waiting to be assigned - for months on end. Make use of the skills you hired."
After extensive conversations with two people who have worked in Ubisoft's interproject department -- and others who have heard about it -- the details have become more clear. During the year, Ubisoft will put as many developers as possible on the likes of Assassin's Creed Unity and Far Cry 4, taking hundreds of artists, designers, programmers, and producers from all across their many multinational studios to finish their biggest games. But as each person finishes his or her role on a game, there won't always be new positions or projects open just yet. So instead of just laying off the ones who can't be placed on new teams, Ubisoft sends them to limbo.
Let's say Ubisoft employee Jack is an artist on Watch Dogs -- to name a game at random. He finishes his duties in January, four months before Watch Dogs is slated to ship. Since the bulk of the team is still working on Watch Dogs and they haven't yet started on another project, there might not be a new role for Jack at the company. Rather than fire him, Ubisoft might move him to interproject, where he can wait around for something new to open up.
Ubisoft isn't trying to hide this. They describe it as a good thing. When I reached out to the publisher for more information, they sent over the following statement, attributed to Ubisoft Montreal VP of human resources Cedric Orvoine:
Ubisoft Montreal is one of the largest game development studios in the world. We work on many different projects, with varying timelines and needs. Reassigning people from one team to another is a complex process that may involve some downtime as we assess project needs. This transitional period, known as interproject, which varies according to many different factors, can be used for personal training, skill development, and research and development projects. It's a standard practice for any large company operating on a project per project basis and allows us to continue investing in our talent and retain our team members for the long run rather than go through the more intensive back-and-forth process of quickly downsizing and then quickly ramping back up.
It's standard practice, they say. But I've asked around a bit, getting opinions not just from Ubisoft employees but from a number of people who have worked for major game studios and publishers. All have agreed that this sort of interproject department is unorthodox. And people who worked there say they have never seen anything like it.
"The fact that Ubisoft sends people to interproject is very unique," said one person who has worked in the department. "Also that you aren't assigned to another project and have to actually interview with teams as if you didn't work there to get on that team is unique to Ubi."
"I've never experienced it anywhere except for at Ubisoft," said a second person who has worked at interproject.
So is this a good thing for Ubisoft's employees? In some ways, it sounds like a smart and innovative method of avoiding layoffs and ensuring that staff get steady paychecks during periods of downtime. And to some extent it sounds like a vacation: people who have worked there say there's an "unwritten rule" that staff essentially come in for a few hours a day.
"It is one of the most depressing things that can happen."
But some people who have been there say it's not pleasant. One former Ubisoft employee, for example, said he was brought to interproject in 2012, after a free-to-play Assassin's Creed spinoff was unexpectedly cancelled, and that he dreaded every minute of it.
"It is one of the most depressing things that can happen," said a different person who has worked there. "Many people that do end up in interproject for any length of time just end up quitting. You go from working your arse off and giving a shit to just basically being set aside and forgotten."
One particularly strange wrinkle is the way in which interproject employees get new jobs. In order to get on another project, according to the people who worked there, interproject staff have to apply for new openings within the company. They already work for Ubisoft Montreal, but in order to find actual work, they often need to go through applications and interviews as if they're coming in from elsewhere.
Every so often, according to the people I talked to, Ubisoft will clear out interproject and let go of employees who have not found a new position in the studio.
"One day someone is there and the next they are not," said one person who has worked there. "There are like 2,500 people employed at the studio and its a good possibility you don't know many of them, so when someone comes in who you don't know, they could leave before you even know their name or whatever. So you really have no clue what happened to them other than that they are gone. I can't remember how many times someone would ask where that guy sitting over there went. They're just gone."
The silver lining: For employees who find new projects quickly, it can actually be a pleasant opportunity, according to a former Ubisoft employee. Programmers and project managers, for example, are often high in demand within the studio, and if they're sent to interproject, they could wind up leaving after just a few weeks.
"If you can get on another project quickly then it's like a little mini-vacation," said the Ubisoft employee. "You go there, hang out, and then move on."
But other employees said they spent months and months in interproject, unsuccessfully looking for new gigs within the company, before they were finally let go.
"If you can get on another project quickly then it's like a little mini-vacation."
Incidentally, Ubisoft Montreal has been growing at an impressive rate for several years now, primarily because of the publisher's deals with the government of Quebec, the province in which Montreal is based. Quebec offers big tax credits to video game developers based there, and although the Canadian government announced cuts to those tax credits earlier this year, they struck a deal with Ubisoft that will result in the game publisher getting compensated for the difference until 2019, according to a July CBC report.
Canada's government has also drawn up specific deals that help fund Ubisoft Montreal's staff. In 2005, for example, Ubisoft announced a major initiative to add 1,000 new jobs to their Montreal office in the next five years, which they pulled off, in part thanks to a significant investment by Quebec's government. By 2010 they had 2,000 employees, and a few years later, in 2013, Ubisoft announced yet another big plan, this time to employ 3,500 people by 2020, with help in the form of $US9.9 million from Canada.
These are huge numbers, and they may be helped by the company's impressive retention rate (they let go of just 173 employees in the 2013-2014 fiscal year, according to this year's yearly investor report), which itself is helped by a process that avoids the constant layoffs and hiring waves that are so frequent at video game companies. By offering this "limbo," Ubisoft can retain more staff and progress more rapidly toward its lofty hiring goals, in addition to whatever other tax incentives it brings.
So interproject, like most things, has its pros and its cons. Though I wasn't able to talk to anyone who had a positive experience in Ubisoft's game developer limbo, it certainly seems better for employees than mass layoffs.
However, one thing has remained unclear for many staff: how or why people are sent to interproject in the first place. "I know a girl who's never been at 160 in her eight years here," said one employee. "And I know other people who have been there multiple times."
Art by Tara Jacoby