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article imageDigital Journal Mavericks: The Video Game Guru

By David Silverberg     May 30, 2008 in Technology
A bold video game publisher is bringing a European flair to its titles. Ubisoft is experimenting with new technologies and stretching its lineup past its Tom Clancy series. Creative director Patrice Desilets exposes the firm’s challenges and goals.
Digital Journal's Mavericks of 2008 series will profile 10 trailblazers in various industries, allowing readers to learn more about the innovators and risk-takers who are making an impact in 2008.
Digital Journal — It’s hard to stand out in the $18 billion gaming industry in the U.S. How do you compete with Grand Theft Auto’s publicity and Nintendo Wii’s striking technology? But a gaming publisher is quietly ramping up revenue and winning critical acclaim for developing innovative video games that make a sharp departure from hack-and-slash action games. Ubisoft, based in France, is known for its Tom Clancy and Prince of Persia series, and it’s also getting recognized for releasing games built on unheard-of premises and intelligence.
Europe’s largest game publisher is luring gaming fans in North America, too. Rainbow Six Vegas 2 has sold 2 million copies worldwide, and online gaming mag GamePro gave Assassin’s Creed an impressive perfect score. Ubisoft’s fiscal 2008 revenue soared 36 per cent to $1.5 billion compared to 2007 figures. There’s no denying Ubisoft’s rising popularity with games soaring beyond the competition.
You may have heard about Electronic Arts, Rockstar and Sierra Entertainment; but Ubisoft is giving gamers a different take on home entertainment. It doesn’t spread its wings too wide by publishing sports games, for instance. It focuses on action and adventure games, such as Prince of Persia. It intends to bust out of routine’s box.
Always an original, Ubisoft is attracting attention for announcing it will create a game using “photorealistic 3D imagery.” Avatar, based on James Cameron’s upcoming film of the same name, is expected to be released in May 2009.
That’s not all. Its upcoming Tom Clancy’s EndWar features technology to control on-screen troops simply with voice controls. The recently released Haze allows players to ingest a performance-enhancing drug that grants the user enhanced speed and strength while also causing bouts of rage and even death when overdosed (sound familiar, Roger Clemens?). A Guardian review said Haze is “undoubtedly the best full-blown [first-person shooter] for the Playstation 3 so far.”
What gives Ubisoft its shine? Why does Ubisoft love transporting gamers back to ancient eras, as it does with the Crusades in Assassin’s Creed? Is the publisher worried about the rise of recent gaming mergers? To answer these questions, spoke to Ubisoft’s 34-year-old creative director Patrice Desilets, based in the company’s Montreal office, who was the brains behind Assassin’s Creed and Price of Persia: Sands of Time.
A fight scene from Ubisoft s Assassin s Creed
Fight sequences in Assassin's Creed last longer than hack-and-slash techniques in other action games.
Courtesy Ubisoft How does Ubisoft approach gaming differently than other publishers?
Patrice Desilets: Being here in Montreal gives us a multicultural flavour. There’s a creative European way of doing things that allows us to do a lot with less. We’re always trying to find new solutions to our problems. At Ubisoft, we have this goal of trying to say something, and games are a medium to spread a message to the rest of the world. You’ve said previously: “I believe that video games are our time machine. Eventually, fifty years from now, that’s what video games are going to be in general.” Why do you think that? How will the gaming experience be changed?
Desilets: Gaming is already like that, but people are not aware of it. You can relive part of WWII in Tom Clancy games or the Crusades in Assassin’s Creed and I believe in 50 years from now, when virtual interaction is as close as real-life relationships, we’ll be able to live in a different time period.
Some people who played Assassin’s Creed told me they feel like they are truly in Jerusalem. Ubisoft brings a European flair to the art and design of the time period while also adding a Hollywood-like element of action.
: You hold a B.A. in cinema from Concordia University, so are you a fan of adding film sequences in your games?
Desilets: I don’t like to do cinematics in games, because I’m not making a movie, I’m making a game. I think we’re still inventing our grammar in gaming. Some publishers want to tell a narrative simply through movie sequences because it’s the easiest way. The thing with interactivity is that when a player has control he can fuck things up, because he doesn’t have to play the character — he’s having fun. Then a game will cut away to a movie scene to show what it wants to show, like an avatar being sad, for instance. But game designers have to improve their storytelling techniques so they won’t have to rely on cut scenes.
At Ubisoft s Montreal studio
A designer hard at work a Ubisoft's Montreal office
Courtesy Ubisoft People hear about creative directors at game publishers but many are confused about the day-to-day job. Explain what you do on a daily basis, what you’re in charge of.
Desilets: I’m in charge of all creative aspects of game. I’m the boss of the content, so I look over the shoulders of the lead game designer, art director, level art director. All directors report to me. I’m truly in charge of the vision. During the game’s path, I’m adjusting that vision, perhaps rearranging people in the right direction. Day-to-day, I play the game and offer comments, issue creative briefs, work with script writers to make sure the storyline is to-notch.
I came up with the idea of Assassin’s Creed, of allowing the gamer to control an assassin in the medieval era. I wrote the plot and the gameplay ideas. It was a very fulfilling project. And we wanted to switch up how people viewed fighting scenes – we didn’t want one hit resulting in one kill, so we allowed players to use counters. People liked our ideas because it made them think harder compared to other action games. Why has Ubisoft committed itself so intently to the Tom Clancy franchise?
Desilets: If you look at the Final Fantasy series, they're at 12, so it's common to commit to a brand in the gaming industry. When you have something powerful, you use it. At Ubisoft, the Tom Clancy titles are known as our stealth action games, making it the meat of our catalogue. We want to create war games that are as realistic as possible. Your competitors Electronic Arts and Activision are growing through acquisitions. Do you think mergers are healthy for the gaming market?
Desilets: As long as there creative people still working on games, it’s fine. But if acquisitions just make publishers into creators of what was hot last year, that’s not a positive outcome. And maybe bigger companies will take major risks in what they produce. When new intellectual property and powerful products come from a big company, good things can follow.
: Will the gaming industry spawn any new technologies?
Desilets: What people have in their houses are still TVs and it'll remain like that for awhile. We tend to create games for the majority, so we'll still focus on doing really good high-definition games, because that’s what is becoming the norm. High-def will the the main thing for at least another 10 years.

Mavericks Series

This is the seventh profile in a 10-part series on Mavericks of 2008, focusing on trailblazers in various fields, from Internet to photography to music. Every day, read about a new industry maverick. Tomorrow, we find out how a university R&D lab is dedicating their time to tinkering with human-machine relationships.
Other Mavericks:
- Ron Deibert, creator of Psiphon software: Psiphon is a censorship-fighting tool, allowing those in oppressive regimes to access any website.
- Jayant Agarwalla, the inventor of the Scrabulous game: Scrabulous riffs off the classic Scrabble board game, and it's become the center of a controversial lawsuit launched by Hasbro and Mattel.
- Nikki Yanofsky, a 14-year-old jazz singer: Yanofsky is a teenage jazz prodigy who's already played Carnegie Hall and jazz festivals, giving audiences a taste of the talent brewing in her golden voice.
- Phil Borges, a photographer capturing the forgotten cultures of indigenous tribes: Passionate about foreign ways of life, Seattle-based Phil Borges wants to let the West know about endangered tribes and villages through his impacting photographs.
- Ben Popken, editor of blog The Consumerist: Few blogs fight for consumer rights as well as The Consumerist, which criticizes corporate scams big and small.
- Ausma Khan, editor of Muslim Girl magazine: Targeting an oft-misaligned demographic, Muslim Girl gives Islamic teens role models and advice on modern Muslim-American living.
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