At Ubisoft, big video games like Assassin's Creed are developed by hundreds of people at many different studios across the world. As you might imagine, this can be an organisational nightmare. Former Ubisoft technical architect Maxime Beaudoin, who quit the company late last year to work on indie games, wrote a candid blog post yesterday titled "Why I Quit my Dream Job at Ubisoft" that goes in-depth on what it's like to work on the likes of Assassin's Syndicate. While Beaudoin loved working on small teams for prototypes and games like Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, he grew frustrated by the complex process of AAA game development -- and how it felt like he was just one cog in a massive, unwieldy machine.
After a few months, Syndicate started for real. The team was getting bigger and bigger as we entered production. For me, this is the root of all issues on AAA games: big teams. Too many people. Syndicate was created with the collaboration of about 10 studios in the world. This is 24 hour non-stop development. When people go to sleep in one studio, it's morning in another one. With so much people, what naturally occurs is specialisation. There's a lot of work to do, and no one can master all the game's systems. So, people specialize, there's no way around it. It can be compared to an assembly line in a car factory. When people realise they're just one very replaceable person on a massive production chain, you can imagine it impacts their motivation. With specialisation often comes tunnel-vision. When your expertise is limited to, let's say, art, level design, performances or whatever, you'll eventually convince yourself that it's the most important thing in the game. People become biased towards their own expertise. It makes decision-making a lot more complicated. More often than not, it's the loudest voice who wins… even if it doesn't make much sense. On large scale projects, good communication is -- simply put -- just impossible. How do you get the right message to the right people? You can't communicate everything to everyone, there's just too much information. There are hundreds of decisions being taken every week. Inevitably, at some point, someone who should have been consulted before making a decision will be forgotten. This creates frustration over time. On top of that, there's often too much people involved in making a decision. Usually you don't want to make a decision in a meeting with 20 people, it's just inefficient. So the person in charge of the meeting chooses who's gonna be present, and too bad for the others. What it's gonna be? A huge, inefficient meeting where no decision is taken, or a small meeting that goes well but creates frustration in the long run? Being an architect, I had a pretty high level view of all technical developments on the project. While it sounds cool, it has its disadvantages too. The higher you go up the ladder, the less concrete impact you have on the game. You're either a grunt who works on a tiny, tiny part of the game ("See that lamppost? I put it there!"), or you're a high-level director who writes emails and goes to meetings ("See that road full of lampposts? I approved that."). Both positions suck for different reasons. No matter what's your job, you don't have a significant contribution on the game. You're a drop in a glass of water, and as soon as you realise it, your ownership will evaporate in the sun. And without ownership, no motivation. I could go on and on. There's tons of other reasons why AAA projects are not satisfying. Don't get me wrong: it's nothing specific to Ubisoft or Assassin's Creed games. This is an inevitable side effect of creating huge games with an enormous team. I have to add that, obviously, some people are motivated. Those are usually juniors and people who never got the chance to work on a AAA project before. But when you've done it a couple of times, the excitement disappears, and you're only left with the sad, day-to-day reality. That's a huge problem for studios working on AAA projects one after another. Senior staff gets tired and leave.
Combine this general sense of malaise with the exhausting and unhealthy practice of crunch and you've got a system that seems pretty damn hard to sustain.