Iam the vice president of Fun House, which is probably the best job title a person can have.”
Patrick Plourde sounds like the boss of a kids' play park, or a classic 1990s children's TV show, and, to the team at Ubisoft Montreal, what he actually does isn't that far removed.
Plourde holds the keys to an unusual group lurking within Ubisoft's monster Montreal studio – the developer behind Assassin's Creed, Far Cry, Rainbow Six and Watch Dogs.
Simply named ‘Fun House', the division is made up of several smaller teams working on niche, indie-like projects. These games can be of any genre, for any platform and any target market.
The creativity going on right now makes some people nervous,” says Plourde. They ask: ‘Are we really going to go in all these different directions? Why not just focus on free-to-play?' And it's: ‘No, we can be whatever we want'. Fun House is a place where we say: ‘yes'.
We say yes to different takes on existing IP, we say yes to new IP, we say yes to multiplayer games, single-player games... we are format agnostic. Out of the five projects we currently have in development, we do not have two games on the same platform.”
There are just two rules for games in the Fun House. The first is that the core gameplay has to be enjoyable – Plourde is not interested in just a good story. The second is that a project cannot mimic any of the other triple-A titles Ubisoft is working on.
If someone has an idea to make, say, a cheaper Rainbow Six game, we'll reject it, because we're making Rainbow Six already. There is no value in doing that. We are doing projects that are testing new markets or new machines.
For instance, right now, we have the VR game Eagle Flight. That is a new market opportunity. The VR headsets are not even out yet, nobody knows how they will do, but everyone is excited about them. And since we are small and nimble, we have the flexibility to take the risk on a VR project.”
"Failure would prove that we are taking risks.
When you're doing that, it is expected
that some projects will fail."
Patrick Plourde, Ubisoft Fun House
A division within a studio dedicated to experimenting with new ideas is not uncommon. But what makes Fun House noteworthy is that anyone can pitch a game and join. From designers and artists, to the studio's receptionist.
The foundation of Fun House is the idea that there are 2,000 people who work at Ubisoft,” Plourde explains. 2,000 brains that are dedicated to thinking about games all the time.
We are technically the biggest machine that is making games in the world. That is a big resource of ideas.
It doesn't matter what job they do, because we are not judging the person: we are judging the idea and the passion. I am really interesting in buying passion - somebody could be passionate about fishing, and then they can talk to me about it, and what the activity is, and create something that's unique. If they're going to the Fun House, there's a chance they could be working on this for two or three years, so it is important they're passionate about it.”
Plourde is talented when it comes to pitching games. This is the man who convinced his bosses that he should stop making Assassin's Creed and Far Cry, and instead create a side-scrolling playable poem called Child of Light (an award-winning project that inspired Ubisoft to launch the Fun House in the first place).
Of course, not everyone in Ubisoft Montreal possesses Plourde's pitching prowess, which is why he has created a step-by-step guide called the Fun Box. This tool is available to the whole studio, and is designed to educate staff on how to sell their ideas to management.
Yet even so, getting a game approved won't be easy, with Plourde insisting that Fun House will never expand beyond 100 staff.
It forces us to make choices, and to stay small and nimble. If we become bigger, then it might become too busy and lose that entrepreneurial spirit.”
Plourde is cautious of using the term ‘indie', but confesses there is a certain ‘indie spirit' about the Fun House, and says the firm will be relatively free of Head Office interference. He also expects plenty of failures along the way.
If an idea stops progressing or the concept isn't coming to fruition, then it is our responsibility to stop it early and just move on,” he explains. Failure would prove to everyone internally that we are taking risks and, when you're doing that, it is expected that some projects will fail. That is normal and part of the process, and also part of the culture that we are trying to start. It is not a personal failure if your project doesn't come out. There is that term: ‘fail fast', and that is what we are embracing.”
"If I find the next Minecraft, thenit would be mylife's success."
Patrick Plourde, Ubisoft Fun House
Plourde talks a lot about creating a specific culture within the Fun House. He says his staff have to genuinely want to work for him – this isn't some half-way house for developers who are between triple-A projects.
When we made Child of Light, it was the first choice for everybody who worked on it,” he explains. It was all their passion project. And when we shipped the game, the team had really bonded together.
We don't want people who are just waiting for a better opportunity. This has to be their No.1. Even when you're about to ship a game and you're going to E3 and presenting things... there are always moments of crisis. We are trying to create a place where those moments are just going to strengthen the team's bond.”
But what is the aim of the Fun House? Is it just a creative outlet for staff fed up with making endless big budget sequels? Plourde makes no secret of his goal.
If I find the next Minecraft, then it would be my life's success,” he concludes. But we are not trying to replicate Minecraft. It is about creating a place where - if we turned back the clock five years, and had a programmer that had an idea about a game that involved crafting and blocks – we want to be able to say yes to that.”