Ghost Recon Wildlands is the biggest open-world shooter ever created by Ubisoft, with a detailed 256-square-kilometre world, more than a hundred missions, online connectivity that supports PvP and lets up to four players partner up at a time, and – most recently – the second year of planned post-launch content and support. Creating something on that scale takes a massive behind-the-scenes effort, and Senior Producer Nouredine Abboud is open about just how massive it was.
“What do you see if you look at the credits? 3,000 people credited,” Abboud says. The team behind Ghost Recon Wildlands began with 30 people in the prototype stage, he says, but eventually ballooned to include seven Ubisoft studios around the world, which spent five years creating the game.
The challenge in a project this size, says Abboud, is not only in managing that many people but in making sure that the individual creativity and innovation of the people working on it doesn’t get lost among so many other voices.
“There’s no way to innovate on a small, medium, or big project if the creative talent is not able to express themselves,” says Abboud. “[On a] big project where you have thousands of people working, the risk is that nobody dares to talk, nobody dares to be creative, nobody dares to express what they have to say.”
The first step in fostering creativity was a heavy investment in what Abboud calls “firepower” – high-end technology to support the development process. Early on, the developers partnered with middleware companies such as Side Effects and Allegorithmic, whose software was instrumental in procedurally generating the 3D world and its diverse textures. Data centres were needed to support the procedural generation of the game’s world, as well as the multinational workflow that made continual changes to that world, regenerating it every two to three hours.
Technology was only the beginning. To fill the open world and make it interesting, Abboud says, “You need human talent. Tech power alone is not able to handle the triple-A scope. Big games mean large teams; I’m not only talking about studios, I’m talking about networks.”
With multiple worldwide studios to use as a resource, Abboud’s team in Paris was able to expand by involving expert talents from Newcastle, Annecy, Montpelier, Milan, Belgrade, and Bucharest. “For me, as a producer, it’s fantastic,” says Abboud. “It was fantastic to know that we can tap into all these resources, and work with all these talented developers worldwide.”
It’s not enough to simply have a large team, either. “You need lots of experts, lots of technical guys,” Abboud says. “Before, you could say, ‘I have an artist here, I have a tech guy here… now, that’s finished. It’s together, it’s intertwined. Very often, it’s the same person.
“The good news is, if you have interest in the technology if you invest in understanding the technology, that’s your path inside the game industry. That’s what you can bring to the table,” Abboud says. “All of us, Ubisoft and all the companies, we are looking for that. We are looking for people – no matter where they are coming from, what we want is that they go in the direction of the technology. Our art directors are tech directors. Our sound designers are tech sound designers. Everybody, more than ever, has to deliver a scope which includes art, creativity, and technology.”
It’s also important that designers know their tools well enough to come up with ideas around them, rather than creating tools to enable specific ideas. “If I look at Wildlands, we knew we could create this 3D open world. We had the procedural technology. Then our designers, our creative directors, spent their energy trying to leverage this, and that’s how we came up with the setting of Bolivia, etc.,” Abboud says. “Everyone has to be tech-savvy, and again, a key way of generating creativity in massive projects is by making sure that everybody has the technology in mind.”
Assembling a huge, talented team is one thing; getting them all to work together effectively is another. To achieve that second goal, Abboud underlined the importance of two development methodologies, Agile and Lean. Agile emphasizes teamwork and collaboration between self-organizing teams, which frequently iterate and improve on working software.
“Very often, what I see is that people are Agile, but they don’t embrace Agile,” Abboud says. “They don’t accept the idea that if you’re Agile, you don’t know what’s going to happen in two or three weeks … you need to accept the risk-taking that goes with Agile.”
Lean, meanwhile, is about spotting and eliminating any waste by optimizing the production process. By way of example, Abboud points to a Kanban board, used by development teams to report their progress and issues, visualizing the status of development in one place. “You can clearly see here that the people working on the backlog and on the concept have too much work. The people in integration and debug have nothing to do. It’s a major waste,” he says. “By doing this regularly, you’re going to force your organization to change the way it works.”
The big creativity-killers on a massive project are often seemingly small things; email, for example. “Just imagine the quantity of spam you can have on a major team when you have 3,000 people working at the same time,” he says. “If you only receive 200 spam [messages] – which is quite easy – and you only spend 20 seconds checking that it’s spam, multiplied by 200, you are going to spend a big chunk of your day going through this email.”
According to Abboud, creativity needs travel and face-to-face meetings to flourish – and it’s equally necessary to make sure those meetings are laser-focused and aren’t cluttering up anyone’s agenda. It’s also important to have as few levels of management as possible; in the case of Ghost Recon Wildlands, the teams took a three-tiered approach.
“I’m the boss of the project,” Abboud says, “and under me, I have two levels: producers and associate producers. In the same way, our art director has leads and an artist [below him]. Between him and the artist, there’s only one level. It means that when the art guy has something to say about the art, the content, he can go fast.”
Going into further detail, Abboud brings up several specific departments on the development team as examples. In the case of the procedural 3D team, he says, there was a “very closely knit team” behind the technology that generated the world. “It’s a team where the difference between the art and the technology is not very clear,” Abboud says. “We’ve gone above the boundaries in terms of teams, in terms of organization. And behind this miracle of the technology, behind the way we leveraged all those tools, there’s really the idea that all those people were working together like a close-knit pack.”
The systemic AI team, meanwhile, was reorganized so that its focus was entirely on playtesting, and making sure that everything behaved in a way that was clearly understandable by gamers. Open-world designers were directed to create as realistic a world as possible, to better enable creative ideas to take shape within it.
Quality control (QC), instead of being relegated to the end of the process, was an active participant, coming up with ideas and helping drive the design. “The QC guys, actually, they are the ones who know what your game is about because they very often are the only ones who actually play it on a regular basis,” says Abboud. “There’s so much content to play that the producers, the creative directors, sometimes they just don’t have the time to play all this content. Why not listen to the people who know the game better than you?”
Finally, once it was time to focus on post-launch content, the developers were able to maintain their existing organization as they turned their efforts to new features. “If you have a very Agile team that thought about it during production, you can keep the same organization, because you’re in a situation where you’re able to deliver post-launch content on a regular basis,” Abboud says. “The same team that is able to deliver the prelaunch is delivering the post-launch. It avoids the [loss of the] creativity that is inside the team initially.”
In closing, Abboud says that the “next great steps” of game development will be about game logic – AI, machine learning, deep data, and so on – and that to leverage it effectively, future mega-projects will need to make sure every person on their teams can express their creativity while being able to use the technology effectively. And the future, he says, is “always more human than expected.”
Ghost Recon Wildlands is available now on PS4, Xbox One, and PC. For more on the game, check out our previous Ghost Recon Wildlands coverage.