The Messy, Stalled Reckoning At An Assassin’s Creed Co-Developer

The Messy, Stalled Reckoning At An Assassin’s Creed Co-Developer

Ubisoft Singapore has always been kind of known [internally] to be one of the worst Ubisoft studios in terms of culture,” said one former developer at the publisher of Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry. “People would visit [from other studios] and be like, ‘What the fuck is wrong here?’”

More than any other publisher of its size, Ubisoft loves to spotlight the people behind its games. Developer interviews are featured prominently on the company’s website and social media channels. Its writers, designers, programmers and artists appear at E3 and other industry events to geek out about their projects and help put a human face on hundred million products. But the reality on the studio floor is often very different, and Ubisoft Singapore is a perfect example.

Ubisoft Singapore, which has led development on the pirate blockbuster Skull & Bones and co-developed Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Immortals: Fenyx Rising, was created in 2008. In exchange for setting up shop on the tropical island city state and hiring local talent, Singapore’s government would provide the French company with generous subsidies, according to three sources with knowledge of the agreement. Like the seventeen studios that came before it, Ubisoft Singapore would help the mega publisher churn out sequels for franchises like Assassin’s Creed. In return, local talent would be trained up, jumpstarting a new game development revolution in Singapore and eventually taking the reins of the growing studio.

Years later, some say that hasn’t quite happened. Ubisoft soaked up the government subsidies while not paying some local junior developers enough to move out of their parents’ homes. Some would eventually filter out of the studio after gaining experience working on global blockbusters, while others who stayed were rarely promoted to the highest reaches of its managerial and creative departments. Some said the de facto arrangement could even give Ubisoft Singapore the feel of a colonial outpost in a country with a history of domination by European powers. Some workers described the unofficial pitch as: go do a one- or two-year tour in the exotic Ubisoft Singapore, enjoy the tropical climate and easy access to nearby vacation hotspots in neighbouring countries, and maybe even find romance along the way.

“They had 10 years to integrate,” said one former developer. “They just value the face of the company more than the actual employees,” another former Ubisoft worker said.

While problems at Ubisoft Montreal, Toronto, Quebec, Montpelier, and the head Paris office have been widely documented, Ubisoft Singapore has gotten less attention. But based on interviews with over 20 current and former employees there, there was no shortage of issues, ranging from sexual harassment and racial pay disparities to bullying by managers. Most of the middle-management and staff are “absolutely lovely, talented people with the potential to make amazing games,” said one former developer. But bad projects, toxic leaders, and the feeling that developers weren’t empowered in the face of office politics could often sabotage that potential.

Many of those toxic working conditions happened under the leadership of Hugues Ricour, former managing director at the studio who was responsible for overseeing the studio’s growth and how resources are deployed across its various projects. “The head was rotten, so the body was incapable of functioning properly,” one developer said.

Ricour was eventually forced out of his role at Ubisoft Singapore last fall, to the relief of many developers who spoke with Kotaku. But many were shocked to hear that he’s still at the company as production intelligence director in Ubisoft’s headquarters, now responsible for “operational” matters on the publisher’s AAA games, according to his Linkedin page. The company said that the results of a new leadership audit made it clear he couldn’t carry on as the studio’s boss, though for many, Ricour’s toxic management style was an open secret for years. When asked for comment, he referred Kotaku to Ubisoft PR.

In response to many of these allegations, Ubisoft released the following statement. It refused to answer any specific questions or concerns raised by Kotaku based on its reporting, or make anyone available for an interview:

We celebrate our international culture at Ubisoft and work to ensure our teams are deeply integrated into the local communities where we operate. We do not and will not tolerate abuse, harassment or discrimination at any level.

Ubisoft Singapore is proud of the studio culture that has been built over the last thirteen years with 35 nationalities and talent coming from a wide range of backgrounds. 40% of expert and senior expert roles are Singaporean or permanent residents. Our objective is to continue to increase Singaporean leadership through various programs including a dedicated management learning path to accelerate the development of new leaders. Compensation is determined by role, responsibility, market practices and performance.

Over the course of the past year, Ubisoft has implemented significant and meaningful changes that seek to ensure a safe and inclusive work environment for all. These have included trainings and more comprehensive procedures that allow our employees to bring forward concerns and claims, and ensure they are investigated and dealt with in a timely manner. It’s our hope that through our ongoing actions all team members feel supported, valued and confident in Ubisoft’s ability to foster a culture of respect and belonging. For our most recent updates on our company-wide efforts to build a better Ubisoft, you can find a message from our CEO here.

Ubisoft is a global company, and our offices and studios around the world are made up of diverse groups of people. We have a deep respect for local cultures and strive to create environments where everyone feels welcome and respected.

All of the people Kotaku spoke with for this piece were granted anonymity because they were either not authorised to speak to the press or feared that speaking out about a past employer might hurt their careers in the video game industry.

Ubisoft was founded by five French brothers, including current CEO Yves Guillemot, back in 1986. Despite having grown to nearly 20,000 employees with offices all over the world, much of its core leadership remains French or French Canadian, even in places as far flung as Ubisoft Singapore.

A few people nicknamed it the “French Mafia.” Others referred to it as the “French Connection.” Whatever they decided to call it, many who Kotaku spoke with felt there was a “French ceiling” at Ubisoft Singapore that made it hard for those from other countries or who didn’t speak the language to succeed, especially if they were from Southeast Asia or were women.

Meetings might begin in English, the official language of the studio floor, but they would eventually transition into French when someone had a question or if people broke out into side conversations. While a few developers said there was a concerted effort to put an end to this practice over the years, they felt the underlying hierarchy remained, both in terms of office politics and in terms of pay.

“If you’re not French you have to take their side and cover up for their mistakes,” said one current developer.

“We have a joke: there’s a French multiplier and there’s a skin colour multiplier,” said another.

For a number of positions on a government site that posts new jobs, four current and former developers told Kotaku that local employees might be paid just below the minimum salary range listed, while expats were paid somewhere in the middle, a difference that could add up to anywhere between $US5,000 ($6,803) and $US10,000 ($13,605) a year, or more in some instances.

“The salary gap between locals and expats was just insane,” one former developer said.

Image: Ubisoft
Image: Ubisoft

When confronted over these disparities, which several people described as a known issue, HR would chalk it up to different levels of experience or defend it on the grounds of different costs of living, they said. Singaporeans were more likely to live with their parents late into their 20s, so they could do without the raises, HR’s reasoning might go. This was an HR department primarily managed by local Singaporeans but beholden to the priorities of management and production, these developers said.

Every blockbuster game studio outsources work to other markets — the spiraling cost of AAA development all but necessitates it — Ubisoft just happens to have created a sprawling network of global studios to help it do so internally. And the payoff can be huge. Everyone who spoke with Kotaku praised Singapore’s creative output when it came to co-production.

“Ubisoft Singapore is an amazing [collaborative] studio. Every time they work with another project — a new Assassin’s Creed or even Immortals Fenyx Rising — all those parts are really great, sometimes even the best parts of the game,” said one former developer.

But the spoils aren’t always shared evenly. In addition to the claims of racial pay disparity, three former developers claimed that senior managers at the studio are paid significantly more than their counterparts overseas at studios like Massive or Ubisoft Montreal. Following a year of fraught development and delays amidst the global pandemic, 2021 pay raises at Ubisoft Singapore were limited to just 2 to 3 per cent on average, according to two sources with knowledge of the decision. It was a slap in the face to some at a time when competitors were already paying much more. Such measly raises also make it hard for locals and junior developers to ever catch up to other peers in the industry in what is already a low paying company, they said. “The shareholders need to get paid,” one recently departed developer said. And they have been. In May, Ubisoft announced record sales and $US128million in profit for the year prior.

Multiple current and former developers said HR wasn’t helpful when it came to other complaints as well. When sexual harassment occurred, HR appeared to brush it under the rug, they said. One former developer recalled a painful incident in 2018 in which she was walking back from an elevator into the office with a coworker who unexpectedly started rubbing her shoulders.

“I actually shouted at him, I said, ‘Don’t touch me, stop.’ And then he stopped, but he followed me all the way back to my desk and just continued to try to get my attention,” she said. “And I was using my phone and texting my boyfriend at the time to try and just get him to go away, but then he was like, ‘Who are you texting? Who’s more important than me?’”

Despite this, she said the coworker still came back to her desk on other occasions and would touch her shoulders, something made all the more uncomfortable by the fact that he would approach her from behind.

When she first informed HR representatives about the incidents, she said they initially sought to excuse what had happened, blaming her “body language” or miscommunication due to cultural differences on the part of the offending manager.

When a formal review by HR finally did occur, it took months, and only resulted in a formal warning and compulsory cultural sensitivity training, based on documents reviewed by Kotaku. During the interim, the manager was still sent to Europe’s biggest video game conference, GamesCom, to help show of the studio’s upcoming games to fans.

She later appealed that decision by HR, however, and he was eventually moved to a separate building. The entire process took roughly nine months, and while the former developer said it resulted in a new formalized email reporting system for similar complaints and mandatory sexual harassment training, it still felt like an uphill battle to change the “bro culture” on the studio floor.

“The training couldn’t change a culture that’s so ingrained with misogyny that every time someone comes out of their training they just make fun of it and say things like, ‘Oh no, you complimented my hair, that’s sexual harassment.’”

Another former developer told Kotaku about a series of incidents beginning shortly after she arrived at the studio. Like many who passed through its doors, she had grown up a big fan of Assassin’s Creed and couldn’t believe she would finally get the chance to add her contributions to one of gaming’s biggest, and at times, most progressive blockbuster gaming franchises.

But early on, she ran into Ricour, then a producer, who, in their first interaction, made a suggestive remark about having tattoos hidden where she couldn’t see them, she said. Sometime later, in the lead up to an office party, he commented to her on the attractive dresses other female coworkers were wearing and asked her where hers was. Once at the party, while standing around the bar, he asked her to kiss him on the cheek.

“I was too shocked and awkward to properly respond,” she said. “I couldn’t shoot him down because, by this point, I knew who he was, and there was only one other individual at Ubisoft Singapore who outranked him. I attempted to laugh it off and told him no, trying to stall until the drinks arrived.”

Image: Ubisoft
Image: Ubisoft

But he didn’t let it go, she said, asking her why not. She responded that she didn’t even give hugs to her good friends. She said he then proceeded to dramatically throw up his arms and declare, “Oh! But my world will be turned upside-down the day you decide you kiss me!”

Eventually, a friend intervened and she was able to escape the situation, but the experience cast a shadow over the rest of her time at Ubisoft Singapore. Despite trying to avoid the producer whenever possible from there on out, he would occasionally try to make small talk at the office or at other parties, she said. It was also impossible to completely avoid him since he was a senior producer on one of the projects she contributed to, Skull & Bones.

She finally told her direct managers about the experience in late 2017 because it was affecting her work, she said. While she did not report the incidents directly to HR because of a lack of trust and fear of repercussions, she said she later found out that her managers reported the incident on her behalf but was unaware of anything HR might have done about it.

In early 2018, Ricour was promoted to head of the entire studio. The developer who says he sexually harassed her resigned shortly after.

“I’m not going to stick around in a studio that bullies my friend into leaving and promotes the guy who did it and who makes all these creepy comments to girls,” she told Kotaku.

When comparing Ricour’s management style to that of his predecessor, Olivier de Rotalier, one current developer said it was like replacing a velvet glove with an executioner. Ubisoft Singapore, like all of the company’s studios, invests a great deal in its front-facing image as a diverse, collaborative, and fun place to work. And for some former developers, it was.

But for others, especially on the Skull & Bones side where they said things were the worst, it was an untenable environment, where much of the pressure and anxiety emanated from Ricour, who was at times also a senior producer on the project, down.

“I was warned when I first got there not to get on his bad side, that he’s very vindictive and petty,” one former developer said.”Get on the wrong side of Hugues and you’ll be disappeared,” said another. They said anyone who voiced doubts about the project, or other concerns about how the studio was managed, would be iced out of meetings and see their career prospects killed.

“When you feel like you’re going to get fired because you’re saying the truth on a project that’s by definition a toxic environment,” said one former developer.

The repercussions could vary from being passed over for a pay raise or promotion to being subtly undermined on a project or pushed out altogether, according to six people Kotaku spoke with. The flipside of this, several current and former developers said, was that those at the studio who were ambitious and tried to curry favour with Ricour could follow the same spiteful playbook.

“The only time I ever saw him truly happy was watching his reports fight,” one former developer said.

Ricour was a fan of patronising power moves, they said, like fixing someone’s collar, making condescending remarks about people’s appearance, or throwing pens and markers during meetings. While Ricour could evoke the menacing calm of the titular Dexter from Showtime’s cop procedural, according to two former developers, he could also swing into threatening outbursts, slamming fists on tables in meetings or yelling at the room if someone tried to crack a joke.

“He seemed to be the kind of person who got off on making you feel inadequate,” one former developer told Kotaku. Some recalled an episode where Ricour threatened to punish a developer if they didn’t produce an updated development asset as quickly as he demanded it. They also said he would encourage the leads below him to make examples of people on their teams to get people to fall in line and boost productivity.

Image: Ubisoft
Image: Ubisoft

Those who were lucky escaped to other projects, like Assassin’s Creed. “We were seen as a life raft for many on that team,” said one former developer on the series.

According to several former developers, employee evaluations played a major role in driving a culture of fear and intimidation at the studio. One supervisor told Kotaku they could only give out a limited number of positive reviews, forcing them to leave even great developers with largely negative feedback.

“It always felt like you were fighting for your team just to give them what they deserved, trying to make sure that they got at least some recognition for the stuff that they did,” said one former developer.

“[Ubisoft Singapore] had one of the worst evaluation processes I’ve seen out of any company,” said another.

Rather than a mix of things you were doing well and areas that needed improvement, the evaluations were largely lists of weaknesses and failures, they said. The process could take its toll, especially when it came to a project struggling as much as Skull & Bones. Said one former developer, “You start to forget you’re good.”

The result can be unhappy developers stuck at the studio because they don’t think they can be successful anywhere else.

“Hugues was open in saying that everyone was replaceable and you should all be thankful to be there,” said one current developer.

Said someone who has since left, “The developers there are treated like resources, not people.”

Some of these longstanding issues at the studio finally surfaced publicly for the first time last summer in an August 14 report by Gamasutra. It detailed allegations of sexual harassment and toxic management at several Ubisoft offices, including the Singapore studio. It also included charges specifically aimed at Ricour about inviting a female colleague to kiss him at a work party. Some at Singapore saw this as an opportunity not just to investigate the accusations but also for the studio to reckon more broadly with how things were being run and how people had been treated.

The reckoning didn’t come, though. According to three sources, Ricour immediately went on leave after the article came out, but no official investigation was launched. According to an internal email sent the following week, a copy of which was obtained by Kotaku, management said it would only investigate claims brought through HR or its internal anonymous reporting tool. It was a bizarre policy considering all of the investigations launched at other Ubisoft offices based on public and media reported allegations. Ricour returned to work days later, followed by a town hall in which he apologised if his actions had ever made anyone feel uncomfortable, but stopped short of admitting culpability for anything raised in the article, two sources present said.

But people at the studio wanted answers. Alongside the Gamasutra article, there was also a series of posts by an anonymous person on the Whisper network for National University of Singapore alleging that a programmer from Ubisoft Singapore coerced the poster into sex after they expressed interest in applying for a position at the company at a 2019 campus job fair.

It had been over a month since Guillemot pledged to “personally follow each of the situations that have been reported” in a company-wide message to employees. The head of Ubisoft’s Canadian studios, Yannis Mallet, had been summarily let go on July 11 simply for overseeing studios where sexual misconduct was reported.

Ubisoft Singapore is particularly far-flung, and those who have passed through its doors have often felt the effects of that, forced to go-it-alone in what they believe to be one of the company’s more toxic work environments.

“The studio of Singapore has always been very isolated compared to the other studios of Ubisoft,” said one current developer. “The communication with HQ has never been easy.”

Eventually, a third-party HR firm called Wellness Associates was brought in to investigate the complaints and make an official report. In early October, the firm determined that there wasn’t enough information in the anonymous NUS posts to warrant action, according to two sources familiar with the findings, but nothing further was mentioned about Ricour until the following month when the newly appointed head of global studio operations, Virginie Haas, announced internally that he would be removed from his post as the studio’s managing director.

Image: Ubisoft
Image: Ubisoft

It wasn’t until Ubisoft’s official statement to Kotaku on November 18 confirming that Ricour would be transferred back to its Paris-office that those in the studio learned he would remain at the company despite his alleged conduct.

One person described a November town hall meeting meant to discuss the news that followed as a “shitshow.” Two sources described Haas’ responses as defensive and said the meeting had strict time limits and was bookended by threats about further leaks to the press. When pressed about why Ricour was transferred rather than fired, Haas said, according to two sources present, that Ubisoft has “a culture of memory,” which was interpreted by them to imply that he was owed a second chance.

But Ricour’s removal was still an opportunity to overhaul the management structure at Singapore and elevate a new set of more diverse voices. It’s unclear whether that’s actually happened though. More cynical current and former Ubisoft Singapore developers predicted Ricour’s seat would simply be filled by yet another white man from Paris or Canada. In December, Ubisoft proved their scepticism was well founded and announced internally that Daryl Long, formerly the head of the much smaller Ubisoft Winnipeg studio and part of Montreal’s Far Cry team before that, would take over. Current developers tell Kotaku that Long is an improvement, but are still waiting for an end to the studio’s alleged pay gaps and informal hierarchies.

No one would expect a 30-year old company with more than 10,000 employees to transform its workplace culture overnight. But a year after Ubisoft was the centre of widespread allegations of employee misconduct, harassment, and bullying, there are plenty within the company who feel it hasn’t acted quickly or decisively enough.

Many HR managers responsible for the mess are still at the company, French publication Le Télégramme reported in May. Sources tell the French workers union Solidaires Informatique Jeu Vidéo that multiple toxic managers are still in place at Ubisoft Montreal.

“Nothing has changed” in Ubisoft Canada, one source told Le Télégramme via

It’s currently run by Christophe Derennes, one of CEO Yves Guillemot’s cousins. Despite accusations in a report from September 10, 2020, by Numerama of bullying and fostering a poisonous workplace, Florent Castelnérac, who denies the allegations, is still the head of Ubisoft Nadeo, the studio behind Trackmania.

“We have a saying: At Ubisoft, you always have a second chance,” Christine Burgess-Quémard, then-director of Ubisoft Worldwide Studios and Haas’ predecessor, said in a 2019 interview. “We don’t cut people’s heads [off] if they make a mistake [the] first time. We would give them a second chance.”

A year after Ubisoft promised to take bold action in the face of mounting allegations of misconduct, the second chances to Ricour and others are a symbol of the old Ubisoft controlled mostly by lifers and the family who co-founded it.

“They love to say when you first join the studio, you either sink or swim. And it’s like, that’s ridiculous,” said one former developer. “It’s got nothing to do with sink or swim. It’s got nothing to do with your ability to do your job. It’s more about your ability to be able to deal with these people.”

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