Ubisoft: Ubi, Uber, Uni

Everywhere and Nowhere


It’s not often that an editor comes to you and asks for something so, when Russ (the new guy at The Escapist who pulls the strings to make the writers dance) approached me with a hole in his schedule, I felt quite flattered.

And the assignment was – I chose to assume – a simple one. Write a company profile on Ubisoft. Naturally, I waved a Spanner flag in one hand and blew my own trumpet with the other.

“No problem,” said I, confident in my ability to hack out a few thousand words of romanticized eulogy. “Ubisoft is vast, and certain to be steeped in glorious history – ’twill be but the work of a couple of hours. The best thing about an assignment like this is that nothing – nothing at all – can go wrong.” As you can guess, I was off to a good start.

Well, I poured my afternoon rum and ginger and set about making good on my bold promises of uncovering the humanity cowering behind the veils of one of Europe’s biggest game developers. Eight hours later, with eyes so square I could dress them in dungarees and take them to a barn dance, I came to realize the internet is small, cancerous and filled with the same repeated, empty webpage surrounded by a billion different banner advertisements.

Who the hell is Ubisoft? It’s like some kind of personality black hole; compressing a galaxy of individuality into a dimensionless, cross-platform singularity so dense that no personal information can escape its vast event horizon. (Everything I know, I learned from Star Trek.) Has it grown too big to support an individual identity, or has it become the worst kind of soulless byproduct of a passionless corporate mind? It started life purely as a publisher in France, so could it be possible Ubisoft was born as a peddler of another’s imagination, feeding on the commercial creativity of bedroom programmers with no discernable spirit of its own?


It’s equally possible that Ubisoft pours its gargantuan resources into making games rather than painting a high gloss public veneer; promising revolution upon revolution until its back catalogue is a vortex of downwardly spiraling anticlimaxes. All I had were theories and the kind of questions no public relations manager worth his salt would answer candidly.

I did uncover a few tenuous facts, I suppose.

  • Ubisoft was founded in 1986 in France by the five Guillemot brothers as a computer game distributor. Good business tactics soon led to U.K., German and U.S. divisions and working relationships with Sierra On-Line, EA, Microprose and a whole load more.
  • In 1994, it established an in-house game development arm where Michel Ancel quickly invented the prolific Rayman character. Keeping a steady pace allowed the company to go the distance without too many perturbing chest pains, and in 2000, it acquired Tom Clancy‘s Red Storm software label along with its catalogue of espionage and tactical thriller titles.
  • It now enjoys distribution in over 50 countries and has a physical presence in 21 of them, with its various development studios having turned out well over a thousand titles and an annual turnover of blah-di-blah-di-blah millions of euros.
  • Ubisoft gets its name, and therefore (presumably) its founding philosophy, from the word “ubiquity.”
  • A guillemot is a sea bird found in the northern Atlantic and Pacific waters. (I don’t know what flavor it is, though.)

An impressive, self-made legacy of hard graft and competent management. Trouble is, none of this stuff is especially unheard of in the industry or, for that matter, particularly interesting to read about. Other than a brief moment of uncertainty when EA suddenly devoured just under 20% of the company’s shares and a degree of controversy surrounded its workers’ strict employment contracts, no substantial scraps of hot gossip have ever really fallen from Ubisoft’s expansive table.

I cannot accept, however, that a company with such a significant history and massive profile is so totally void of personality. I must be looking in the wrong places.

My research went from the jumbled mass of non-information that is cyberspace to the seldom updated, yet well-stocked video shop down the road which also rents out games. I came away with anything and everything proudly bearing the Ubisoft logo.

After an hour or two of playing – err, research – the lines that I had been looking for, between which I hoped to read the story of a world class software developer, began to appear.

It seems the identity of Ubisoft is lightly etched across their entire back catalogue, not particularly visible from any single game, but present in the background nonetheless; delivering a warm, familiar climate to its games via a deep undercurrent of experience. Let me explain how my personal meeting with the entire workforce of Ubisoft – past and present – transpired.

Although I looked up the Ubisoft timeline, the random selection of games I’d rented didn’t really lend themselves to an anal consideration of chronological arrangement, and I got straight on with playing whichever game adorned the top of the pile – Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones. Being a one-time fan of the old Amiga version, I had high hopes for this game, and wasn’t disappointed – in fact, it proved to be a superb introduction to the Ubisoft hive mind.

I suppose you could call it a strategy game, or a puzzle game, a fighting game, an RPG, even a racing game during a thrilling chariot race through the streets of Babylon. Suffice to say the list is endless enough to ensure the Prince cannot easily be pigeonholed into any specific genre. An impressive feat for a game that has a very distinct style and theme while refusing to restrict itself to one specific mode of gameplay; and without ever feeling like a mishmash of cobbled together mini games. If it must have a genre, it can only be classified as a “Prince of Persia-’em-up.”

Once my mind had regained its composure from the toe-curling vertigo and breath-taking anxiety found high above the labyrinthine alleyways of Persia, I was put in mind of the company’s name – Ubisoft. My seemingly wasted time surfing the still waters of the internet had at least dredged up the snippet of trivia about the origins of that name, “ubiquity.”

Reflecting on the last couple of hours spent clinging to the window ledges of Babylon, sword fighting with savage hordes, deciphering the 3-D physical enigmas of an ancient city and navigating narrow pathways in a high speed chariot derby, the answer to uncovering the identity of the French developer turned out to be in the question.

Ubisoft, like the Prince of Persia himself, really is ubiquitous; everywhere at once, moving in a pattern of its own design. Whether this is an aspect of company policy that dictates the requirements of all Ubisoft titles, or a coincidental parallel of philosophies between the company’s founder and the designer of Prince of Persia, it’s not my place to say. But that parallel exists nonetheless, and after such an invigorating experience, I was itching to see if it was reflected in any other games.

Next in the pile was Splinter Cell; not an entirely different game. In fact, after the first 10 minutes I was prepared to journey back to Persia, but in the name of research I persevered. And, as you fans of Splinter Cell already know, I’m glad I did.

A favorite of mine back on the PS1 was Tenchu, but Splinter Cell took the concept of a stealth-based game to a whole new level. If I were the designer of this game, you can bet it would have descended into macho mayhem and juvenile violence a long time before the depths of this masterpiece had begun to be explored; a little bit of tip toeing around the corner followed by a bucket full of brawn and bloodshed would have been my course, much to the detriment of this astounding game.

By focusing the emphasis on the stealth aspect of gameplay, yet another new genre seems to have been cut from the dead wood of the often overcomplicated espionage thriller.

Even as I belatedly read the old advertisements and reviews of Splinter Cell, the descriptions suggested that all the best parts of this kind of game (for an uninspired player like myself, at least) had been pushed to the background for the sake of what seems a minor characteristic – stealth. Creeping around in the shadows instead of shooting, fighting and jumping off things (I’m shallow, and don’t care who knows it); a risky strategy that has certainly paid off.

Yves Guillemot, CEO of Ubisoft and one of the founding brothers, gave a speech a while ago advising the videogame industry not to blindly pour its efforts into mimicking Japanese developers’ abilities. He spoke of Japan’s notoriously discerning, experienced gamer and the difficulties Western publishers face when trying to crack that particular cultural barrier. Though it may seem harsh and a little shortsighted, he went on to suggest we shouldn’t even bother trying. To do so would only hamper the successful recipes many developers have created for making more locally appealing games.

Splinter Cell struck an immediate accord with this line of thinking. Where Ubisoft vehemently avoids building its games around genre, it does at least have a strong sense of who its audience is, creating titles that hit their intended mark with unswerving accuracy.

Splinter Cell, developed by Ubi’s Montreal Studio, shares Ubi’s philosophy of building trans-genre games without the confusion or aggravation of making them cross-culturally relevant. Whether this is a good or bad facet of Ubisoft’s profile really depends on which side of the ocean you live on, but having titles specifically geared to my Western gaming fingers was no bad thing.

These ubiquitous themes were repeated throughout my pile of games, and every time I came close to recognizing a specific genre, it ducked out of sight like the stealthy, balletic characters that permeate Ubisoft’s massive catalogue. Rainbow Six, XIII, Beyond Good & Evil, even Rayman (one of the in-house development team’s earliest outings) seemed to nimbly side step any expected facets of the 2-D platform game, aiming at the younger player who traditionally prefers this type of bouncing cutesy character, while offering a challenge grueling enough to make the most seasoned joystick junkie sit up and take notice.

With this year’s E3 disappearing into the distance, a further source of evidence presents itself in the form of the shameless self promotion that is key to the event. Ubisoft’s public face certainly seems to be behind the next generation of consoles and the new realm of gaming delights they pledge to bring us. Looking at its forthcoming lineup, it seems the French giant is continuing to build its empire with yet another multiverse of horizon-expanding titles, such as Assassin’s Creed and Rainbow Six Vegas, all promising to hold Ubisoft’s defiant, genre-less principles at their core.

This trend for creating strong brands (even those that may have originated elsewhere, such as the Tom Clancy franchises) is another telltale piece of the jumbled Ubisoft jigsaw. Many large companies, and not just within the video and computer game industry, are well known for latching onto a popular product and milking it dry until people lament the day they ever heard of it. Ubisoft, however, has a frankly remarkable track record for not only sustaining a brand longer than its limited life deserves, but consistently improving it with each new incarnation.

When looking at the origins of the company itself, bred and built from such strong family stock, it’s no surprise that the empire is growing precisely as the Guillemot family has always intended it to. Rather than following the established route to software success, which consists mainly in conquering the U.S. and/or Japanese markets, Ubisoft first set its sights on a distinctly Eurocentric domination; improving its stamina in a local arena before breaching any demanding cultural barriers.

Though he may only have voiced his opinion openly in the last few years, Yves Guillemot’s mildly controversial advice about dispensing with the incompatible Japanese market is apparently not a new philosophy for his company. Forging alliances across the globe and building a personal presence with strategically placed development studios in such places as Romania, China and the heartbeat of modern game design, Canada, the software powerhouse is mustering a wealth of industry strength.

It would appear the Guillemot foundation holds true to more than just a 20-year-old company mission statement. With its established family heritage, penchant for strong brands and a shrewd understanding of its own scope, Ubisoft has evolved more akin to an imperialistic French noble house intent on broadening its empire.

Although the colonies may be no more, the new world to be conquered is undeniably that of emergent businesses, and approaching it as a noble and ancient imperial clan establishes a principal set of unbendable values that cannot fail to permeate every aspect of the company’s existence, from the people who choose to work for it to the customers who unswervingly salute the company banner.

Despite being the appointed lord of a powerful European dynasty, Yves Guillemot remains adamant that Ubisoft attain its successes by allowing its workers more creative room than most developers would feel comfortable with. I suspect, in a roundabout sort of way, this is true.

Naturally, all people at the helm of an industry are going to proclaim their fundamental connection with the little people; movie producers sustain they listen to the average cinemagoer, music managers declare artists are in full control of their own voices and game developers insist that creation is left to blossom in the hearts and minds of the common player. None of this is remotely true, of course. It’d be a ridiculous and suicidal way to run a business, and these people know it better than anyone.

Looking at the impressive Ubisoft vista, it does seem plausible that its designers are, at least, free range; allowed to roam unsupervised around the Ubisoft pen. Within the camouflaged structure of the company’s mission plan, over a thousand different games have been released with massively varying content, yet certainly the ones I have played appear to be built according to those few fundamental Ubisoft laws of game creation. I’m confident, now, that after my intensive induction into the French developer’s fan base, I could look at 10 new games and pick out the Ubisoft among them.

Up to this point, my research into the mystery shrouded world of Ubisoft had provided me with an ironclad opinion of who it is, but I had yet to hear any of my hypotheses echoed from within. All I needed was a brief discussion with the people at the helm to grant solid foundations to my new faith.

Unfortunately, Ubisoft doesn’t talk. Even with the considerable journalistic weight of the Themis Group behind my complimentary tribute to the French giant, there is apparently no one at Ubisoft (U.K., France, U.S. or Canada) that can be persuaded to breach the peculiar media blackout that envelops the entire company.

While this may climb up the nose of an investigative writer and kick at the inside of his skull after a month’s worth of trying to get answers to apathetic questions such as “We think Ubisoft is great. Do you agree?” in truth, it matters little to the player.

It seems my first attempt to understand the mind of Ubisoft was correct; it really isn’t interested in building a media pedestal from which to shout its own name into the abyss. Perhaps it’s no bad thing that whatever it is that goes on behind Guillemot’s iron curtain, the only result is a protracted catalogue of highly enjoyable games. Certainly it is not whiter-than-white; otherwise it would have answered my phone calls, but in the end, I feel I know – on a very personal level – who Ubisoft is, and that has come solely from sampling its impressive wares.

It seems a little backward, in retrospect, to try and research any company’s history without first sampling its products (in the case of many it can easily be done, however), but with Ubisoft, its legacy – past, present and future – begins and ends with the games. It may not sit quietly in the background, but this well-principled noble French house certainly doesn’t march to the beat of the industry’s drum; it’s a company, nay an imperial family, which pursues an ancient principle of colonization, bound by its own code of honor and set free by a love of great games.

Spanner has written articles for several publications, including Retro Gamer. He is a self-proclaimed horror junkie, with a deep appreciation for all things Romero.

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