Stepping in is a surreal experience. It’s a lot quieter than I imagined, but that might have more to do with the fact that this place is still growing. There’s an air of excitement among the people though, as us journalists line up to try our hand at the new release.
The spotlight is on, and we’re about to judge what they’ve devoted the past few months in creating. No wonder some of them are a bit nervous.
Small talk is made, speeches voiced, and finally, the moment of reckoning is here. We’re sat down in front of a few PCs, peripherals primed and ready to go. One of the developers drones on about a few conditions, the restrictions on our recordings, how this is simply a pre-release build, all of that. Then he sits up straighter, as he gets to setting up the demo we’re going to be trying. “Listen to my instructions,” he says, “follow my lead for the tutorial”. And just like that, we’re in.
A few days ago, Ubisoft released ‘Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Breakpoint’, another title in the long line of tactical shooters for the studio. As a bonus, we got to take a trip to the Ubisoft India studio in Mumbai a while before the release, to take a peek behind the curtain at how a game is made. And let me tell you, you have a lot more respect for the work put into a new gaming release when you know how much work has gone into it.
Today, Ubisoft released ‘Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Breakpoint’, another title in the long line of tactical shooters for the studio. As a bonus, we got to take a trip to the Ubisoft India studio in Mumbai, to take a peek behind the curtain at how a game is made.
The Mumbai branch of the studio, in an office complex in Powai, is actually a bigger deal than it might seem at first. It’s the first AAA game studio to set up an Indian arm, though this is the second iteration of that. The French game publisher first came to Pune in 2008, which has since exploded into a full-fledged design hub.
In just 10 years, the Pune branch has been instrumental in the development of games like Steep, South Park, and even Just Dance, where they partnered with Bollywood dancers and artists for the songs.
The Devil in the details
Now, it should be pretty obvious that making a commercial game is not easy. But you may still be unaware of all the various parts that work together to create a title, especially at a major AAA studio like Ubisoft. Everything starts with an idea or a spark of inspiration, but there’s a long way to go from there.
For one thing, you can’t develop games the same way you do software, which is in clear linear phases. Instead, teams work simultaneously on the game engine, art, animation, music, and more. Then, when they have made enough progress, teams collaborate so that they can get a better idea of what the finished product will look like. And teams will often have to make changes based on that feedback or go completely back to the drawing board with their work.
Take for instance the art and animation teams, which seem like they should work just fine together. However, the art guys have to make the best looking thing that fits with the theme of the game and what’s planned for it. Animation on the other hand has to ensure the characters in the game look good while incorporating their costumes and the like. So if an art guy designs a character with an incredibly large gun, the animation guys may have to rework the gun draw animation they had prepared because parts of the item are clipping through the body.
And that’s just one example with two teams. In reality, you have more like a few hundred at least in various teams. The game design team develops content that goes into the games and the rules it plays by, programmers, codify it into a form that works with player input, and level/world creators build the environment you play in. Then you have the art guys designing characters and NPCs, audio guys doing sound effects, dialogue, and music, a separate team working on the game’s engine, and of course quality assurance testers. And for a AAA game, there might be dedicated teams for each of these sub tasks.
Basically, unless you’re going the indie route, you need a lot of people to make a game.
Bodies in the room
So when we say Ubisoft Mumbai is just a year old, they’re not a small studio, just relatively small. Though they started with just a handful of team members, they’ve grown to between 70 and 80 people now, and hope to hire 200 more by the end of the fiscal year.
“We set up Mumbai in October 2018, and it was really out of nothing. We had no presence in Mumbai, we were beginners in this big city not sure how to move forward,” says Jean-Philippe Pieuchot, Managing Director of Ubisoft Studios India. “And now, a year later, we’re a quite well-established studio, showing the capacity to go fast and learn fast, and to establish ourselves.”
And if you assume that, because it’s India, there isn’t a lot of important work to be done, you’d be wrong. There’s no specific pattern of jobs the Mumbai studio is assigned by Ubisoft and, as Pieuchot is quick to point out, it’s not all boring quality assurance testing. “From a studio ambition we don’t want to be focused on just one thing, we want to be exposed to a vast set of expertise,” he says.
“For instance, in Steep we were more focused on collaborating for the art and world design of that creation,” Pieuchot says. “We started with art because we had the most expertise there and then moved on. Now we’ve moved on to contribute to development as well.”
“We try to make sure we have a good mix of collaborations with other (Ubisoft) studios to bring us the right expertise.” Their current team is largely comprised of 2D/3D, character artists, VFX experts, animators, and level and game designers, and have contributed to production and art at Ubisoft, as well as even co-developed a few titles with the likes of Ubisoft Paris, Shanghai, and San Francisco to name a few.
Which is why, they’re excited to bring in a vast swathe of Indian talent into the market.
Pulling local threads
Just like it was at the time with Pune, the plan with Mumbai is to eventually fill out the team with local talent. So far, Ubisoft thinks it’s right on schedule.
Based on what Ubisoft’s HR Director Samira Chabani says, they’re casting a wide net here in India. For programmers for instance, they’re looking at top-scoring students from engineering schools here, as would be expected. For other areas like art and design however, they’re willing to take self-taught professionals with impressive portfolios. In both cases though, she says there are certain qualities more important than your talent. “We’re looking for talent that has both creativity and engineering skills,” she says. “But we also want people with the capacity to grow, to adapt to the unforeseen.”
It’s an accurate depiction of how far we’ve come over the years. Back in the day, everyone, including many of us, would have thought that India is only a good place to offload the grunt work that no one else wants to do. But if more AAA studios follow in the wake of Ubisoft, we could soon be defining ourselves as a game development hub as well.
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