There’s a story some people tell at Ubisoft Toronto, the studio currently finishing one of this fall’s bigger planned releases, Watch Dogs: Legion. It goes something like this: Maxime Béland, one of its co-founders and, until last week, a 20-year veteran of Ubisoft, allegedly choked a female employee at a work party. Some heard it recited as a bizarre one-off. Others shared it as a warning to women at the studio to be wary of Béland.
To some employees, it represented a pattern. These current and former Ubisoft employees say Béland was known for making them feel uncomfortable — commenting about how women who worked for him dressed, staring at them as they walked across rooms — and also that he seemed untouchable. For years, no one who heard about the alleged choking incident ever heard about any repercussions. Instead, he continued on as the studio’s star creative director, briefly leaving for Epic Games in early 2019 before returning to Ubisoft in an even more powerful role in the company’s centralised Editorial division.
The past two weeks have been filled with accounts, some anonymous, some with names attached, as people, mostly women, take the risk of speaking out on social media about harassment, abuse, and assault, mostly against men in gaming. And while abuse allegations have rocked Twitch and other corners of the gaming world, no one company has seen as many reports leveled by and against its own people as Ubisoft, the multinational video game publisher behind Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and Rainbow Six Siege.
In an interview with Kotaku, the woman who says Béland put his hands around her neck at a party shared not just an account of a disturbing incident but of a structure and culture that she said made her hesitate to report it. “You’re conditioned to feel like you’re lucky to be there,” she said of her time at Ubisoft Toronto, which is just one of several Ubisoft studios named by people speaking out. “And I think, especially for women, there’s a lot of pressure to not rock the boat and to kind of be one of the guys. And it’s like, as soon as you blow the whistle, you don’t look at that as, ok, I’m setting a standard, you kinda look at that as, well, I don’t want to be the one to paint myself with a scarlet letter.”
Now, suddenly, change seems to be coming, and events are moving fast. A version of that choking story appeared on social media on June 23. Three days later, Bloomberg reported that Béland had been suspended by Ubisoft, pending an investigation into allegations of misconduct. On July 1, Kotaku sent Ubisoft a long list of questions about Béland and the apparent lack of consequences for him and others accused of misconduct at the company. Two days after that, in an email to employees, Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot announced Béland’s resignation.
Béland himself has said nothing. He has not publicly addressed what is being said about him. He did not reply to numerous requests from Kotaku for comment about the alleged choking story nor other complaints made about him.
But based on conversations with 12 current and former employees of Ubisoft Toronto, the studio’s problems appear to go beyond a few men like Béland and how they may have been dealt with in the past. Instead, the people we’ve interviewed described an overall workplace culture that undervalues women’s contributions, normalizes sexism and harassment, and makes excuses for the worst offenders while complaints about them go unheeded. “The way the studio — HR and management — disregards complaints just enables this behaviour from men,” one told Kotaku.
When asked about Béland and these deeper issues involving Ubisoft two days before the news of Béland’s resignation, a company rep avoided answering any specific questions. More than 24 hours later, they pointed us to a new statement from Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot who promised “to revise the composition of the Editorial Department, transform our human resource processes, and improve the accountability of all managers on these subjects.”
Emails Kotaku sent last week to managers at Ubisoft Toronto inquiring specifically about the alleged choking story and other concerns of employees did not get a response, but at least one of them was forwarded to a PR firm, one of whose specialties is “crisis leadership,” that provided the following statement on behalf of Ubisoft:
We strive to create and foster a culture that Ubisoft’s employees and partners can be proud of, and where every member of our community can thrive. We do not and will not tolerate abuse, harassment or discrimination of any kind.
The recent claims and allegations are deeply troubling, and we take them, and the underlying questions they raise, very seriously. Immediately upon being made aware of these allegations, the company launched comprehensive investigations, which are being supported by specialised external consultants. These investigations are ongoing, and we intend to take swift, appropriate action based on their outcomes.
We have policies and procedures in place that address misconduct and provide ways in which employees can report any inappropriate behaviour. We are conscious of and deeply saddened by the fact that these systems may not have done enough to protect our employees and community in the past, and we have launched a comprehensive audit to understand why. The recent allegations and employee feedback have made it clear that we must do more as a company to ensure our employees and community feel respected, safe, and empowered, and we will be taking significant, tangible actions to improve. We will transparently communicate on measures taken and changes made as we implement them in the coming days and weeks.
Ubisoft Toronto was founded in 2010 inside of a four-story brick factory originally built by General Electric that overlooks a quiet residential street in the city’s Junction Triangle neighbourhood. It was established to develop its own AAA games while also co-producing franchise sequels with Ubisoft’s massive Montreal studio. It was a new branch of a giant company, but it operated with the pressures of a start-up pursuing lofty goals. Studio leaders were tasked with ramping up from zero to 800 employees in 10 years as part of an investment deal with the Ontario government in exchange for $US263 ($379) million CAD in subsidies, according to press reports from 2009.
Toronto’s first big-budget game was 2013’s Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist, which two of the studio’s co-founders, Maxme Béland and Alexandre Parizeau, helped direct and produce, renewing the partnership they’d had back in Montreal on Splinter Cell: Conviction. In the years since, Toronto’s headcount has grown as it has supported projects across the rest of the company, including Far Cry 4 and Watch Dogs 2. This year, pending any further delays, Toronto is set to deliver Watch Dogs: Legion.
This should have been a time focused on the outward celebration of a new game launch, but it has become a potential turning point of inward examination and reform. Members of the studio, many still hopeful that Ubisoft can be a good place to work, are calling on management to deal more openly with problems of misconduct and how HR handles them, and to institute changes that could help create a safer and more respectful work environment.
On Friday, June 26, more than 100 Ubisoft Toronto employees sent a letter to the studio’s leadership, including managing director, Alexandre Parizeau. “We, the undersigned employees of Ubisoft Toronto, are coming to you with grave concerns about ongoing reported harassment and an inability to feel safe or protected within our own studio,” it began. It came after a week of allegations against several employees of Ubisoft, including one from a woman who said on social media that Andrien “Escoblades” Gbinigie, a prominent Ubisoft development liaison based at the studio to work on marketing Watch Dogs: Legion, sexually assaulted her, while others said he harassed them. Shortly after the woman told her story, Gbinigie denied the assault claim in a now-deleted Medium post. Shortly afterward, Ubisoft said they were “looking very closely into the allegations to determine next steps.”
In that Friday letter, the employees demanded more accountability for how the studio treats complaints about workplace harassment or abuse, according to a copy of the document reviewed by Kotaku. Among other things, the letter called for more transparency from HR on how it follows up on specific complaints once they’ve been reported, as well as mandatory harassment training for all managers at the studio.
The letter also noted that the employees “expect HR to never order or suggest that a victim confront their abuser about an incident,” either. This is a reference to part of Ubisoft Toronto’s Workplace Behaviour Policy and a suggestion about how victims should resolve conflicts. While Kotaku was not able to review Toronto’s Workplace Behaviour Policy specifically, we have seen similar suggestions for direct confrontation from policies and worksheets at other Ubisoft studios. The logic behind it was frequently cited in interviews with our sources as a deterrent to employees reporting issues to HR in the first place.
Sources who spoke to us shared problems that go beyond HR policies or particular individuals, however. Among their concerns, some Ubisoft Toronto workers point to a party culture, where booze-filled events could sometimes prove hostile to female workers. “The rampant use of alcohol and parties as a retention technique certainly added to — if not created — the permissive culture at Ubisoft Toronto around sexual harassment,” another former Ubisoft Toronto developer said.
Sources who shared their experiences at these events spoke of men at Ubisoft Toronto who pretended to be producers to try and get newer women at the studio to dance with them. One person recalled a man who asked for a blowjob as the punchline to a demeaning joke. And some men, two sources said, would get too close, invading personal space, touching shoulders or rubbing arms while trying to make unwanted advances. Often, there was alcohol involved, as there appears to be at many Ubisoft Toronto events. Much of the studio’s Facebook page looks like an ad shoot for a beer company.
In addition to parties to celebrate game launches and holidays, Ubisoft Toronto held monthly work parties called UbiBashes where people eat, drink, dance, and play games as the workday fades into evening. These events were billed as a way for the new hires constantly pouring in at the rapidly expanding studio to meet and socialise with coworkers. They could even be a lot of fun. But some former employees also blamed the parties, in conjunction with lax standards from leadership, for creating an atmosphere in which it was easier for incidents of harassment or sexual misconduct to be shrugged off.
“Directors would get drunk and get handsy,” one person said. “Even if you rejected their advances, it would continue to happen. It would happen in public and be laughed off in public and alcohol would be used as an excuse, or it was ‘just how that person is.’”
Another former employee said they eventually felt like the frequent parties were simply a way to distract from other problems in the workplace, like long hours and poor pay. “To keep people from absolutely hating their lives they give you booze,” she said, and after two years stopped attending many of the studio’s work mixers. “I didn’t want to get drunk anymore, I wanted to get a promotion.”
Frustrated current and former Ubisoft employees have much to say about Maxime Béland, who was a fixture at the studio for most of its existence. One former developer told Kotaku that he made her feel uncomfortable at a party after she expressed interest in working on one of the studio’s current projects with him. “For the rest of the night he would engage in conversations with me by walking up behind me, touching my back, and whispering in my ear that we should go talk more,” the person said. “I was incredibly uncomfortable, but also this behaviour was so normalized. He was constantly behaving the same way toward women in the office in broad daylight. I felt like this was just the way he was and everyone silently agreed that it was ok.”
Another former employee said he had on one occasion asked her “who she was fucking” at the studio. A current Ubisoft employee said Béland would often make negative remarks about her appearance during a period in which she was required to interact with him for a game they were both working on. “It made me feel self-conscious and lowered my self esteem,” she said. “I didn’t have the courage to say anything back, since I was a new hire and he was management.”
Even amid all of this, the choking story stands out. The incident is said to have occured in 2014, during a party to celebrate the launch of Far Cry 4, which Toronto co-produced with Ubisoft Montreal. Members of the team met at a bar in Toronto’s Liberty Village for an evening of raffles, games, and a lot of drinking. It was still relatively early in the night when a former employee, who spoke to Kotaku by phone under the condition of anonymity in order to protect her privacy, said she was talking with Béland, one of the most powerful people in the studio. In this article, for the sake of clarity, we’ll call her Jane. They stood in a narrow room in the back of the bar as she texted a coworker. At one point, Jane said, Béland looked over at her phone to see who she was contacting.
“Completely out of the blue, he said, ‘Do you know what she likes?’ and I said, ‘What are you talking about?’” Béland then put his hands around her neck and squeezed, she said, as if performing a “creepy demonstration.”
“I didn’t react right away, because I was sort of like, ‘What is happening here?’ and then by the time I realised what was happening he stopped,” she said. “I looked at him totally stunned, and he said, ‘Was that not cool?’ like in a coy type of way, and I said, ‘No, that was not cool.’” She recalled immediately walking over to some friends who were nearby to ask them if they’d seen what just happened, but they hadn’t. She stayed at the party but avoided Béland for the rest of the night.
“That’s the thing with this type of culture, too,” Jane said. “I didn’t feel threatened by it. It was just a very bizarre incident. I knew obviously it was inappropriate. That’s not how you conduct yourself.”
She told a coworker the next day at work what had happened, and they encouraged her to make a report. But she had heard about HR not following up on incidents in the past and was hesitant to do so. “I knew if it was going to be his word versus mine, or, [if] it was going to be him or me, then it was going to be him,” she said. “So I didn’t feel like there was a point in stirring the pot and branding myself with the incident.”
Later in the day she said she was contacted by a senior member of the management team who asked her what she wanted to do about what had happened the night before, and added that Béland wanted to apologise. “At that time I just wanted it to go away, because I didn’t feel it was even worth filing a report,” she said. “I sort of brushed it off because it felt impersonal and it felt like just a representation of how he looked at women, not an actual targeted thing.” She said she also didn’t feel encouraged to make a report since it seemed like a person with more power than her who was in a position to escalate the issue didn’t automatically do that. “So I said no.”
After declining to file a complaint she agreed to go with Béland for coffee at his request that afternoon, where, Jane said, he apologised. “He said he didn’t remember what happened. I didn’t necessarily believe that, but I figured it would be better for me and my longevity at the studio if I said we were all good. It didn’t feel right. It felt like someone should do something, but I didn’t really see any power in my role to do that, so I felt like it was easier to just sort of let it slip.”
Complicating things further was who was in HR. Rima Brek, a tech producer and co-founding member of the studio, was serving as interim head of HR at the time and was also married to Béland, three sources told Kotaku. “If you had a complaint about Max, which I didn’t, but if you had a complaint about Max, where would you go?” one former employee said of this period. “You’re not going to go to his wife are you? That was always kind of awkward.”
When Jane chose not to go to HR, her coworker who she had previously told tried to file a report on her behalf. This coworker told Kotaku that, in their meeting with HR, the awkwardness around Béland being Rima’s husband became a reason for not escalating the issue to her. They also said they were told no report could be filed without an official statement from the victim herself. Jane assumed Brek had heard about the incident. “I figured that if she was going to do something about it, it would have already been done on a personal level,” she said. Brek, like Béland, did not reply to multiple requests for comment.
“I don’t see [Béland] as some mustache-twirling villainous type,” Jane said. “It’s not like that.” Instead, she said the part that really bothered her was how she felt manipulated into not being able to do anything about it afterward. “Not to excuse any bad behaviour, of course, that should be reprimanded. But at the same time, there are a lot of people who could have done a lot of stuff and didn’t.”
Structural failures — conflicts of interest, power imbalances, and a prevailing sense among those involved that a better outcome isn’t possible — make it easy for bad behaviour to go unpunished.
Many of the alleged instances of misconduct described to Kotaku weren’t reported to HR, the people said, because of the department’s reputation for being unhelpful at best. Some feared that reporting incidents would put a bullseye on their back. It didn’t help that they’d heard the story about Béland choking a coworker and how nothing had ever seemed to come of it. “A white guy can get away with just about anything, but I’ve seen a lot of women’s careers get destroyed by speaking up,” said one former male Ubisoft employee. “And when the company structure is almost all white guys, women who ‘cause a fuss’ will get pushed out.”
When one former employee went to HR to complain about a department head giving preferential treatment to the other men on the team while women struggled to get promoted, she felt unsupported. “He asked whether I ‘wanted it on file’ that I had called someone out as sexist and that ‘It’s a really serious accusation and lots of conversations will need to happen if you make this formal,’ while motioning to his notebook and waving his pen around,” she said. “He claimed it would be impossible to pursue a solution to the problem without telling the head of the department I had complained about that it had come from me.”
Even employees who described working at Ubisoft Toronto as the highlight of their careers were critical of the HR department. They shared stories of being given promotions on paper but not the corresponding pay bumps, or being given the runaround on trying to transfer departments. “It felt like [HR] were overreaching a little bit,” one of them said. “As in, well, this isn’t your job anymore, why are you getting involved in this.” Meanwhile some women said they were lowballed offers for new positions or passed over for promotions that went to men who they believed to be less qualified. And they say they felt like raising these issues would have made it even harder for them to get ahead.
When it came to trying to report harassment, one former employee said they felt their complaints about sexist behaviour were being excused away by the idea that “boys will be boys.”
Some of the boys certainly do well at Ubisoft. This past January, Ubisoft announced the reconfiguration of its powerful Editorial group, a senior team that oversees the work done by the company’s many studios. Among the people added to the group — a group of seven white men — was Maxime Béland, who would be returning to the company with a big promotion after briefly leaving for Epic. On the company’s internal message board where Ubisoft workers post with their real names, employees fumed, not necessarily at Béland’s appointment in particular, but at the powerful group’s lack of diversity.
Four days later Serge Hascoët, Ubisoft’s chief creative officer and the man responsible for picking the team, tried to apologise. “We have heard this feedback and agree that we can and must do better when it comes to diversifying the Editorial Team and our development teams at Ubisoft in general,” he wrote in a follow-up on the company’s internal messaging site. “The entire Editorial Team, including me, is acutely aware of this need and is making it a priority.” To that end Hascoët said the Editorial Team would be taking on mentors, and encouraged “a diverse pool of internal applicants.”
Six months later, one of those members — Béland — has now resigned and a second — Tommy François — has been placed on disciplinary leave pending an investigation into allegations of misconduct, many of which have been detailed in a report by the French newspaper Libération published July 1. Of the accounts in that report, François’s lawyer said they should be brought to the attention of the judicial authorities. “Such complaints would thus have the advantage to allow authorities to assure the authenticity of these allegations and allow us to respond and demonstrate their falsehood,” the lawyer told the paper, based on a translation of his remarks by Kotaku. The Libération report also described François as Hascoët’s right-hand man. A day after the report came out, Guillemot announced he was going to “revise the composition of the Editorial Department.”
The letter employees sent on June 26 did not mention Béland by name, nor others at Ubisoft Toronto with allegations against them, but management at the studio did respond. On Monday, June 29, Parizeau held an all-hands video meeting with staff. He appeared to be upset and taking the issues seriously, according to two sources present. During the meeting, he announced that two people at Ubisoft had been suspended while a third had been fired — no names were given — and he promised reforms in how workplace complaints would be handled in the future. (A July 3 notice to employees from CEO Guillemot noting Béland’s resignation and François’ suspension also mentioned that “One other individual in our Toronto studio has been terminated for engaging in behaviours that do not align with what is expected of Ubisoft employees.” A rep for the company declined to say who that employee was.)
At the all-hands meeting Parizeau spoke about the failure of the Human Resources department at the studio to create a safe environment and said Toronto would contract with an outside firm to audit its current processes for dealing with complaints of harassment. Some current and former employees Kotaku interviewed spoke highly of Parizeau. But they also felt let down by what’s happened. They still want Ubisoft to be the place they believe it can be and are disappointed that it’s taken so long for studio leadership to confront some of these issues.
“I feel like they want to change but will need the employees to make sure it happens properly,” one source with knowledge of the meeting said. “The meeting was handled respectfully for what it was, but Alex couldn’t discuss any of the allegations directly and we still want answers on those from studio leadership,” said another.
Parizeau has long talked about the importance of transparency from leadership and giving everyone at the studio a voice. “If people have a voice, you’re going to do well,” he told GamesIndustry.biz in a 2015 interview. “This is the most important thing. It’s been part of our culture and philosophy since the beginning.”
But, almost from the beginning, lots of people passed through Ubisoft Toronto who didn’t feel like their voice mattered.