The Struggle To Release ‘Indie’ Games Inside Ubisoft

The Struggle To Release ‘Indie’ Games Inside Ubisoft

Yoan Fanise spent 14 years working at Ubisoft, and during that time — some of which was spent working on the blockbuster series the company is famous for — he was also somehow able to release one of the smallest, bravest games we’ve ever seen from a major publisher.

This story was originally published in March 2015.

That game, Valiant Hearts, is both a war game and fiercely anti-war at the same time, a story not about conflict’s heroics (though these obviously feature) but about their tragedy and ultimate futility. It’s also a stark contrast to series like Assassin’s Creed in terms of scale and funding; while that franchise is made by hundreds of people worldwide, Valiant Hearts was developed by a tiny team working with relatively few resources.

So how did he, his colleagues and those working on similar “indie” projects at Ubisoft like Child of Light and Grow Home get away with it?

“You can easily see how, business-wise, games like Valiant Hearts were nothing compared to the revenue earned from AAA franchises”, Fanise — Content Director on the game — tells Kotaku. “Add in the fact the the game’s themes and its artistic approach weren’t necessarily ‘sexy’ for marketing and financial types and you can understand why it’s rare to see those kind of games reaching the public.”

“For example, the First World War itself is not a theme with a very wide appeal. It’s even less appealing in 2D, and even less again with no gun in your hands, so we had to constantly be knocking on doors to even exist alongside Ubisoft’s blockbusters.”

The Struggle To Release ‘Indie’ Games Inside Ubisoft

Yoan working on the script for Valiant Hearts

“Our luck was that Yves Guillemot, the CEO of Ubisoft himself, was emotionally touched by the story. He was a constant support for us.”

While this makes it sound like the game was only ever made through the blessing of the big boss himself, Fanise says that studio politics can play as big a part in getting “indie” games made as a helping hand from upstairs.

“Don’t get me wrong, it is not a general rule that there’s opposition to smaller games within Ubisoft, and each studio has is own political approach to this. It is possible to make those projects emerge, with Grow Home being the latest example of that.”

“This is the eternal dilemma for something that is both an art and a business at the same time”, Fanise says. “The movie industry has the exact same problem, but is more mature and is often willing to take bigger risks. I think it’s time for our industry to grew up and be less scary about original ideas, or trying new things. Every genre has a potential audience, and not everything has to always be about jumping or killing.”

The Struggle To Release ‘Indie’ Games Inside Ubisoft

The audience that Valiant Hearts eventually found, and won over, had to wait a long time for the experience. The game was first born as a concept imagined by artist Paul Tumelaire, and for years went untouched and unnoticed, known to a few internally only by its codename, WW1.

The project’s obscurity was ultimately to the developer’s benefit, though, as well as its ultimate goal of making an important statement. When the game was rediscovered a few years back and work began on it in earnest, the team originally consisted of only eight people. Fanise remembers “we were under the radar during the beginning, and those times were precious.”

“Paul was really happy to find this kind of scale and energy in a project at a company as big as Ubisoft. His extraordinary artistic talent was set free in a way, he was drawing all day long, during the entire production. Every in-game pixel came from his hands, something I’ve never seen before at Ubisoft.”

The Struggle To Release ‘Indie’ Games Inside Ubisoft

Yoan doing some field research for Valiant Hearts

Fanise says that the Valiant Hearts released last year was quite close to Tumelaire’s original vision, at least visually, but that in terms of content and themes it was “a constant fight to convince people that creating a game to make people think about war as a real thing would find an audience.”

“One of the issues you face with major publishers is that you have a constant flow of input, ‘you should do that, change that…’, etc. And I think the biggest challenge we faced with Valiant Hearts was to listen to that feedback but still filter it through our initial vision, the reason why the project existed in the first place.”

That challenge is one that other projects of a similar smaller scale have failed to heed at Ubisoft in recent years. “I’ve seen several awesome projects lose their initial purpose, slowly, step by step, milestone by milestone, until they were cancelled. Like our first trailer said, ‘Some made it, some did not…’, and I’m blessed we actually made it and am really proud of Valiant Hearts‘ team.”

Fanise, who had previously worked on everything from Beyond Good & Evil to the naval sections of Assassin’s Creed III, is now leaving Ubisoft behind for new challenges. “Following the success of Valiant Hearts, there are a lot of really interesting opportunities out there, and I’m still taking time to find the one that is the most exciting. Maybe I could become a “real” indie after being called a fake one during the two years of Valiant Hearts’ development!”

As he leaves, though, he’s happy to see that the legacy left by games like Valiant Hearts and Child of Light is being carried on by newer projects. “Grow Home is a very nice initiative from Reflection Studio, probably the most ‘indie’ game Ubisoft has released in a long time. It’s really nice to see other original projects managing to reach the public, even if I would like if there were more of them.”


  • Maybe the truth is that Ubisoft asked him to release sequels every following year.

  • You think that major studios having the massive resources from a franchise like AC would make them more willing to venture on small projects like this that won’t eat away much money or comparatively as many man(sorry, people) hours.

    Kudos to Ubisoft for doing so but it’s a starc contrast to someone like Square Enix counting millions of sales for Tomb Raider or Hitman and calling them a failure and cutting jobs left right and centre

    • Or EA buying developers, degrading them then killing and blaming their failures on them.

      • Is anyone truly surprised by this anymore. Whilst i agree that EA is freaking amazing at exsanguinating a company some blame needs to be put at the heads of the companies making the sale. It looks like that they are just wanting to cashout – retire. Look at Bioware for an example of this. I will never forgive them for turning dragon age into some unholy action rpg hybrid with absolutely terrible UI and controls for PC and why the fuck couldn’t they just do another KOTOR game instead of that stupid MMO.

        • Also note that BioWare didn’t really have any choice in their EA buyout. They decided they needed extra money to produce games of the scope and quality that people had begun to expect from them. So they went to a company called Elevation Partners to bankroll them. Pandemic were in the same boat. EA bought Elevation Partners, and as part of the deal acquired both Pandemic and BioWare.

          This means neither studio really had any choice in the matter. Even if their contract with Elevation Partners might have permitted them independence rather than forcing their acquisition by EA, BioWare would have had to give back all the money they had been provided. It’s highly likely that a significant amount of that money would have already been spent, essentially leaving them the choice between bankruptcy or acquisition. The former would have killed the studio, lost everyone their jobs, and destroyed the games they were working on. To add insult to injury it’s possible EA might have attempted to acquire the rights to the IP or their work as it was in lieu of monetary compensation.

          EA is a hideous predator in terms of its treatment of developers and customers. It appears to possess absolutely zero ethics in its pursuit of money.

    • If you have PS Plus it’s FREE!!!!!

      By the way, the piano in Valiant Hearts is extremely beautiful. My wife was listening to it in the car to work this very morning.

      • you say free but he pays $3.74 for it now and keeps it for ever, you pay $70 a year and the moment you stop paying you loose all these “free” games, its not free if you pay for it first then loose it the moment you stop paying

  • This is on PS Plus this month, and I just finished it. I loved the story and the puzzles were great, totally not-obscure. I really enjoyed reading the historical texts and information about the collectibles. You could tell is was well-researched and a very affecting game!

  • Indie games are mostly shit, I got over playing platformers with brightly coloured sprites and animations in the mid 90s. Now it’s platformers with brightly coloured main characters and flowery oscar-bait style art.

    • Sturgeon’s law – 90% of everything is cr*p.

      The indie scene is plagued by platformers; I’ve never been a fan of the genre, so filtering them out isn’t an issue for me, but you would think the devs themselves would try to spread their wings a bit more.

      (I do wonder how a game that fit on a single, sub-megabyte floppy in 1990 gets a re-release at 100MB+. I’m looking at you, Bitmap Brothers and Team 17.)

      That said, there are quite a few indie games out there. I would even go so far as to say most are at least somewhat playable. Finding the few gems of excellence is a major task, unfortunately (although the three Ubisoft pseudo-Indies mentioned in the article are all pretty good.)

    • Horses for courses. That’s your opinion, and you’re entitled to it, but there are plenty of people (myself included) that love them.

  • I own Valiant Hearts on Steam, PS4 and Xbone, but I’ve never finished it even once. It’s not that it’s a bad game, I did like it, but I find it hard sometimes to stick with anything for very long.

    Really should go back and finish it.

  • I’d be one of the folks throwing money at all their little UbiArt projects if not for the damned Uplay requirements – I mean sure they have a history of some really neat little titles, but they also have a history of screwing up access to said titles with variously dysfunctional DRM schemes… I wonder if part of the risk comes from the fact that the people most likely to want to buy games like that are also the sort of people most likely to avoid platforms like Uplay.

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