At San Francisco’s Game Development Conference 2019 earlier in March, the CEO of Google Sundar Pichai had a big announcement. Stadia is a new gaming platform means playing AAA games through a Chrome browser. While he is not a big gamer, Sundar Pichai knows that gaming, AI and computing power are closely related. A major project within Google was to make sure that streaming high fidelity graphics over a low latency network would become a reality.
Google Vice President Phil Harrison (pictured above) showed a public test of the technology last October with Project Stream where Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey was the test case. Streaming at 60 frames per second at 1080p HD quality, all through a Chrome browser on a laptop.
The concept is simple. Merely log into YouTube and look up your favourite game’s official page. To the left of the screen there will be a Play Now button through Stadia. You are able to play the game with Engagement Play. Crowd Play. State Share allows players to jump in and all of this is available on any size screen.
You will also be able to watch along to other’s playing. Over 200 million viewers logged into YouTube to watch gaming over the last year. These aren’t the players. These are the people watching recorded or live games as they stream onto the web. The Head of Gaming at YouTube Ryan Wyatt states that 50 billion hours of gaming content was watched in 2018.
As a leading producer, publisher and distributor of interactive entertainment products and services worldwide, Ubisoft is among the tight crowd of AAA-game producers the world over. Everyone with a spirit of gaming in their heart will know Ubisoft and their great titles.
I flew to China last month, with a view to visiting Ubisoft who have a couple of studios scattered around the country. One was in Shanghai, having opened in 1996, and the other was out west in Chengdu. This studio was opened in 2008 by a team led by Jean-Francois Vallee, the Studio Manager. “When we opened here in Chengdu, the game industry was virtually non-existent,” says Vallee. “There were perhaps two or three small companies producing PC games for the local market. We knew we really had to start from the ground up.”
Ubisoft in Chengdu started small and started fast. Vallee admits they recruited about 80 people in the first year. “Equal parts in art and design, then in project management, programming and within this group, we built six or seven small multi-disciplinary teams. They all had the same project to do and there was this great sense of competition and collaboration where they all had to nut in and plan, conceive and produce a game in about six months.”
Ubisoft first came to China with the idea to enrich the diversity of its talents. During those 23 years, recruiting and training Chinese developers brought Ubisoft a better understanding of Chinese player’s motivations. Back then, there were a great many games being produced here in China that were free to play on PC. In Europe at the time, Ubisoft was producing a web game as a subscription model. “So here, the first challenge was to reimagine this model, but make it free to play,” says Vallee “The free-to-play mechanic was an interesting model, with its engagement loops, and this opened up a whole range of ideas for working to the local audience.”
In Montreal, Ubisoft was producing a game called Scott Pilgrim Versus the World and they needed a team to help them finish the game. This proved to Paris that Chengdu could jump into an international project.
“I remember because there was a map originally named the Shanghai Garden,” recalls Vallee, “and when the team came here to finish the game, they changed it to be Chengdu Garden. We started off doing more basic outsourcing, and from there we learned a lot more about the brand and took on more independent projects. Then worked on a lot of the series of Assassin’s Creed, Rainbow Six: Siege, and Tom Clancy’s The Division, Skull and Bones, and For Honor.
Assassin’s Creed: Origin and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, are big worlds. From the concept, the idea, the creation, publishing and shipping, part of this world is designed and produced in Chengdu. “We are a co-development game company at a partnership level to all the other branches of Ubisoft around the world,” says Vallee.
The top engineering university is the UESTC here in Chengdu, and this is where Ubisoft was able to find some of the best programmers and game engineers. There are designers and artists that have been brought onboard from Sichuan University where the reputation is well founded to find all kinds of talent. Ubisoft also presented their aims in demonstrations for the engineering students, in a bid to entice the best talent, and they continue to do this today. Ubisoft Chengdu is at the moment running two floors, and when heavily in production, they also fill a floor of another building across the street. The primary open-plan office at the moment is filled with AAA production staff. There is a team on the game For Honor, where about 20 in the team have been here for about four years, working on branding, concepts and managing communications and guidance between here and Montreal.
SKULL AND BONES
The Skull and Bones game is a co-production between Chengdu and the Singapore Ubisoft studio. Working closely together on the art direction, Chengdu helped in building the ecosystem in the Indian Ocean, which is crucial for the gameplay. Skull and Bones is a multiplayer naval-themed game in an open world. Singapore developed the expertise for real-time display of the displacement of the ocean water as the ships cut through the water. They first showed their iteration of the water on Black Flag, Rogue and all of the Assassin’s Creed games.
Now, Google and Stadia have proposed an instant way to play, without the need to buy consoles or install the games. For game companies, the mission is to create the best game worlds and the best gaming experience to gamers. “We are excited to see in the future a wider audience reaching these games, through the cutting edge technology of streaming,” says Vallee.
It was a pleasure visiting the team at Ubisoft Chengdu.
© Paul Hellard 2019