MCV had a certain perception of Ubisoft Reflections before it visited the Newcastle-based developer.
The firm hasn't led its own triple-A games project since Driver: San Francisco five years ago. Since then, it has been largely used in a support capacity, helping out with the likes of Just Dance, Watch Dogs and The Division.
It felt like a shame, even a waste of talent, when you consider Reflections' history, which is littered with great IP such as Driver, Destruction Derby and Shadow of the Beast. The developer ought to be more than just a Ubisoft B-team.
Perhaps this is why MCV had been invited to the studio. Because after a day with the company and its employees, we soon realised our perception was wrong.
Reflections' enigmatic and eccentric MD Pauline Jacquey (pictured) explained to us that there are three strands to the studio.
The first strand is all about vehicles, which speaks to Reflections' 32-year history of making driving games. This department works with other Ubisoft studios in implementing vehicles into their games – it is currently working on Watch Dogs 2 and Ghost Recon: Wildlands.
Yet far from being frustrated for not working on its own driving game, the team quite enjoys the multiple projects.
It heightens the excitement for us,” says producer Will Musson. It is still our driving, it is still our vehicles, and instead of launching one product every three years or so, we have something new coming all the time. Last year we had Assassin's Creed Syndicate, then we'll have Watch Dogs 2 and then it's Ghost Recon.”
The second team is focused purely on The Division. That game is led by Ubisoft's Massive studio, but Reflections played a major role in its creation. The UK firm was eager to point out how it built half the districts, worked on the UI, created main mission content – including the final mission – and it was also the sole developer of the first DLC pack: Underground.
Massive trusted us a lot,” says level design director Manny Diaz. We had a big involvement in what is a huge game.”
The third team is a small unit devoted to experimental concepts and prototypes, and last year it built the platform adventure game Grow Home. It was intended for internal use only, but its popularity within the company inspired the management team to release it, and the critics loved it.
We were acutely aware when we were going through development of this game that Ubisoft had not put out a title like this,” says producer Pete Young. Games like [other small Ubisoft titles] Child of Light and Valiant Hearts are fantastic experiences, but Grow Home is almost a different tier altogether. So we really didn't know what to expect. What players would make of it... the character takes a bit of getting used to. The surprise was pretty acute for us.”
That team was just eight people strong at the time and has since expanded to ten when creating Grow Up – the sequel that arrives next week. This unit is now prototyping other concepts that may become its next game.
(Above left to right: Division level designer Diaz, and producers Young and Musson)
On the face of it, all three strands – The Division team, the vehicle experts and the prototype unit – look like entirely separate studios, with projects, challenges and tech unique to each of them.
Yet Pauline Jacquey says there is a unifying identity that runs through the entire company.
It is certainly not attached to one IP like it has in the past,” she tells us. It's not Driver. But I think our identity today is defined more by the values that our governing us, rather than an individual game, which it is better in terms of sustainability.
You said that the three strands are very different, and you're right, but they have a common heart, a common core. We like frugality, so we don't just throw money and people at problems, and we like to solve things in a very ingenious way. You can see this in The Division: Underground, and in Grow Home and in our vehicle expert team as well. We are extremely considerate with our teams, we don't think of them as just ‘resources', and everyone is working in areas where they are strongest and most motivated to do so. There is a lot of respect and empowerment given to the teams. The strategy of the studio came from the grassroots level.
On top of all this there is transparency. Everyone knows everything that's going on here.”
Yet surely it's hard to imprint that identity on projects where Reflections is just the support studio? There must come a time when it wants to emerge from the shadows and lead its own Division or Far Cry.
But we lead in what we do,” replies Jacquey. It may not be the consumer perception, but when you have found a niche where you are better than anyone else in the world [vehicles], and it is what you want to do, and you organise yourself and you choose your partners and you choose your technology... then you are leading in what you do. When you lead the development of a full piece of DLC, like The Division: Underground, it is the same as well. And of course we have Grow Home, which we create internally.
I see what you mean. But it is a bit of a naive view to think that because you are the lead studio, then it is easy, or that you have your hands free. You have to work with PR, marketing, journalists, finance, technological constraints, first parties... all of these are constraints. Working through all of that is our job, regardless of whether you're the lead or associate studio.
To you it may look like a lead studio with a collection of associate studios, but it's actually more a global co-opera
It was here that we brought up Ubisoft Annecy. Like Reflections, the French outfit has its own specialist area – multiplayer – and has spent much of its career contributing that to other Ubisoft games (including Assassin's Creed and Splinter Cell). Yet over the years, that studio has developed tech and expertise which enabled it to pitch its own project, Steep, an open world extreme sports game that was unveiled at E3.
That is the beauty of being a co-development studio,” explains Jacquey. There's less pressure on you than if you were a lead studio. You can think longer-term, and harmonise your short-term decisions with your long-term visions. And you can also do stuff under the radar.
I'm sure when the skills of our core teams and our methodology has developed enough, then we can bring together the three strands and do something together. That could lead into something like Steep. It could. But it's not like I have a masterplan and things are pre-defined, it will need to come from the team.
She added: You've seen what we're working on, and we don't have a Steep-like game hidden somewhere in the toilets.”
"The beauty of being a co-development studio
is there's less pressure on you than if you
were a lead studio."
Pauline Jacquey, Reflections
The Reflections team has seen plenty of change over its history. Will Musson has worked at the studio for over 20 years, while Grow Up's Pete Young joined back in 1999.
Ubisoft, by comparison, is a relative fresh face. It bought the studio ten years ago; Reflections had been operating for 22 years by that point, working for