Too remote. Too expensive. And too darn hot!
It’s easy enough to come up a short list of perfectly valid reasons to not have a game studio in Singapore. After all, the challenges are plentiful. Singapore, for starters, isn’t known as a hub for gaming – both in terms of talent (so there ain’t a whole lot of seasoned development professionals to recruit from) and market size (in other words, not necessarily the best place to market-test new ideas). Plus, Singapore is relatively expensive compared to other locations around the globe when it comes to everything from the cost of office space to the price of employing top-tier talent. And then there’s the heat…
And yet Ubisoft has always been about risk-taking. The company took a giant leap of faith when it went big in Montreal, and since then the Canadian studio has become a major global player, leading the development of many of Ubisoft’s biggest brands and helping build an entire development community in the region. So instead of seeing the challenges of opening up in Singapore, Ubisoft executive Olivier de Rotalier (pictured above) saw opportunity. The soon-to-be Managing Director of Ubisoft Singapore started with the understanding that the company wanted to continue to expand its global reach. Southeast Asia was quickly identified as both a place where Ubisoft would like to gain a foothold, as well as a region with a strong talent pool (albeit one that was green in game development). But, the question remained, where exactly makes the most sense?
That’s when Olivier set his sights on Singapore. A relatively young country – fully independent since only 1965 – the city-state has quickly grown to be a global force in less than 50 years. That’s because the government has invested in everything from infrastructure to industry-building. “Everything here is made easy,” Olivier says. “Everything is made to help your company be a success. Especially in the games industry, the infrastructure is perfect.” So when Ubisoft approached the government about collaborating to not just help Ubisoft become a new employer in the country but to aid in the establishment of the videogame industry in Singapore, they found a willing partner. Singapore also has one of the best education systems in the world, meaning it’d be easy to find employees with the right background to learn the ins and outs of gaming development. (Ubisoft Singapore has since began a collaboration with DigiPen, which settled in Singapore around the same time Ubisoft did; they’ve since built an entire campus together, which along with government support has helped further develop Singapore as an emerging hub of game development.) Finally, English is one of the primary languages in Singapore, meaning it’d be easy to communicate internationally in the common tongue of Ubisoft’s global development teams.
Yes, it was still risky. “Ubisoft likes to take risks and go into new territories no one has gone into,” Olivier says. “In Singapore we took the risk.” And five years later, that risk has more than paid off.
Learn, Contribute, Innovate
Ubisoft Singapore was established in July 2008, and since the studio opened its doors, it’s played pivotal roles in seven shipped games, starting with the full development of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time Re-Shelled on XBLA/PSN. Those early days, of course, were spent establishing the studio by supporting other titles while sharpening their development chops on remakes like the TMNT game. But the goal was always much bigger, and since then Ubisoft Singapore has grown to become a key player in the development of Assassin’s Creed, as well as a test bed for new technology and ideas with the free-to-play Ghost Recon Online. “Being in Asia, we wanted to learn from this culture of free-to-play online games that’s very much present here,” Olivier says. “But we wanted to do it the Ubisoft way: If we enter a market we do it with something that’s very high quality and with high production values for our players. That’s why we started to work on Ghost Recon Online.” Olivier mentions that Ubisoft has since learned how to adapt the free-to-play model to one of the publisher’s existing brands. “We’ve also learned what it means to deliver a game as a service,” he adds.
But it’s the growth of Assassin’s Creed that really mirrors the growth of Singapore. Indeed, the two go hand in hand, beginning with Ubisoft Singapore’s involvement in Assassin’s Creed II. “At that time we were a very young studio with a small team,” Olivier says. Singapore was offered the opportunity to build 10 levels for the game but with no guarantee that lead studio Ubisoft Montreal would take any of them. Olivier was glad for the opportunity to learn, figuring that maybe they’ll take one or two levels at most. But in the end, Montreal took all 10 of their Assassin’s Tombs levels and “they were actually reviewed as some of the key parts of Assassin’s Creed II,” Olivier says. “For us it was an amazing start, because we had delivered something great – and it was great for the team itself to have its first big success. From Assassin’s Creed II we learned how to work on a big brand.”
‘If we enter
we do it with something that’s very high quality and with high production values for our players’
Next, Ubisoft Singapore moved from what Olivier referred to as the learning phase to the contribution phase with Brotherhood (10 levels in total, including the Romulus Lair levels and two Desmond free-running missions) and Revelations (11 missions, of which nine were on the main path). With these games, the team at Singapore added even more maps while pushing the quality, the visuals and the action. “We contributed some advanced ideas, and we built our first open world in Revelations,” Olivier says. “That was a step forward for the team, and we were really contributing to this brand. It was no longer about learning.”
Finally came innovation with Assassin’s Creed III. “This time we were in charge of a full game within the game – a full new experience within Assassin’s Creed – as we were given the mandate to do the naval battles,” Olivier says. Everything about the naval battles was built in Singapore, from the complex new ocean technology to the rules and design of the gameplay. And all of it had to be at the same level of quality of the rest of Assassin’s Creed III. In the end the hard work paid off, as the naval gameplay has since been recognized as a key feature of the game.
“It’s been a very big step forward for the team, because it’s really building our own game within the game,” Olivier says. “We were bringing some innovation to the brand – and it was the first step toward Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag.”
Which brings us to 2013. Ubisoft Singapore is now a full-fledged studio within the Ubisoft global development team with more than 260 people on the team (from 31 different nationalities, no less) – and plans to grow to around 300 soon. That makes Singapore the biggest studio in Southeast Asia… but as Olivier suggests, size isn’t everything. “Being the biggest is not the most important,” he smiles. “We want to create the best product.”
With the naval gameplay often cited as a highlight from Assassin’s Creed III, Ubisoft Singapore was given the mandate to further develop the ocean tech and fully handle (in partnership with lead studio Ubisoft Montreal) the ocean-based gameplay, which now comprises almost half of the gameplay for Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag. “We opened the door to building a much bigger open world using the ground and the sea at the same time. And now the sea and the naval gameplay are pillars of the next game.”
And that’s not all. Along with Ghost Recon Online – solely being developed by Ubisoft Singapore – the studio continues to quietly focus on new ways to contribute to Ubisoft overall, including some top-secret projects in the works. Olivier is careful to point out, though, that Ubisoft Singapore isn’t necessarily working on a new game or franchise. Instead, they’re focusing on innovation. Whether those innovations – be they in technology, gameplay, visuals, level design, or elsewhere – help to make the current brands even bigger or be spun off into new franchises has yet to be determined. Instead, the focus is on “thinking about what kind of benefit we can bring to the player,” Olivier says. “What’s driving growth is the opportunity that we have to work on different projects and ideas to bring something more to Ubisoft.”
With such success and innovation it’s easy to see why Singapore makes sense as a perfect location for one of Ubisoft’s development teams. Too remote? Not when you have an incredible technical infrastructure and an ability to communicate and collaborate globally. Too expensive? Not when you consider the wealth of opportunity and talent this location offers. And as for that heat? “We have air-con everywhere,” Olivier says with a smile.