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."
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 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."
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."