Mention Reflections to a certain generation of gamer and they’ll go misty eyed, fondly remembering PSone car-’em-ups Driver and Destruction Derby. For 16 years the developer was synonymous with the roar of engines and the crunch of metal-on-metal.
But the studio has made a dramatic handbrake turn in recent years.
In the present day, Ubisoft Reflections, renamed after the studio’s acquisition by Ubisoft in 2006, is best known for a series of pioneering curiosities. In the last three years the team has released four games: platformer Grow Up and its sequel Grow Home, multiplayer shooter Atomega and musical exploration Ode, all of which are known for well-polished but weird central mechanics.
Ubisoft Reflections output doesn’t look much like a regular publisher-owned studio, and according to the team, that’s the way they like it.
To find out more, we spoke to producer Anne Langourieux, and art director Jack Couvela, to reflect on their studio’s process and success.
The team say that the studio’s process is always different, but Ode is a good example of when things just work: "An interesting point about Ode," says Couvela, "is that it came entirely out of Atomega."
Atomega is a multiplayer shooter focused on shooting your enemies to acquire mass, making successful players big and less successful players small as you fight to bulk up. It shares DNA with multiplayer flash successes like Slither.io or Agar.io. Ode, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to share many outward similarities, being a single player game about music and exploration.
"I wanted to push for the characters of Atomega to be actually made up of the little bits that [you collect], so you are literally picking up bits and getting bigger," Couvela continues.
"One of our expert coders, Chris Jenner did a prototype of collecting up balls and bubbles and just attracting them to each other. He made this thing where you could become this swarm of bubbles and we experimented with creatures made out of these bubbles. It was magic, it was great. But it doesn’t really work with eight players."
Ubisoft Reflections couldn’t use the technology directly with Atomega, but everyone was so passionate about it, and saw the potential in the way that it moved and broke up that the team decided they wanted to make a game about that.
Most of the studio’s more interesting ideas were borne from interesting side effects on other projects. Atomega itself came from a prototype one of the team created for themselves that the studio embraced, while Grow Up came from a physics idea that one programmer put together to create a character that itself was supposed to be used to help prototype a variety of new games. The physics-driven biped didn’t need any animation or any other assets.
"You could just throw a character in a game and use it. Again, we just saw this stumbling, drunken little movement and saw huge potential and character in the technology. We built Grow Home entirely around that," says Couvela, laughing.
Prototypes in the Ubisoft Reflections office are called Toys, Langourieux explains, and the team could go through dozens before they find one they want to develop into a full sized game. "We don’t throw them all away," Langourieux says when we ask how many are typically discarded. "Sometimes they’re just closed. We see potential, we keep it for later. We’re a small team, and we already have two teams working on two projects this year, so we can’t take on any more, no matter how good the idea is."
This atypical development process extends to production time too. Ode was in development for a year and a half, with Couvela describing the process as "a long time for what we’re used to", with the game sitting as a concept for a year, and being produced in just six months. Production time varies from game to game obviously, but is usually limited by the assigned budget for the title.
Despite relatively short development times, the team is keen to keep things open to changes until a very late stage. "The way we handle production is by taking this into consideration and making sure our design is always scalable so that we can build on what is key to the experience" says Langourieux. "We run a lot of playtests internally as well to get feedback on the experience and help us improve it constantly. It makes up for planning with the budget always in mind, but also keeping it open enough to improve it until the end."
When they’re not producing these more experimental projects, Ubisoft Reflections is helping out with development on Ubisoft’s bigger titles, providing support on games such as The Division and The Crew. We ask whether their trailblazing approach, which mirrors that of many indie studios, is only possible because of the support of Ubisoft.
"It’s always awkward." says Couvela. "There are double meanings for ‘indie’ where people describe the games we’ve made. That’s because it means two different things. We are not an independent studio, we have this huge luxury that genuine indie studios don’t have. "
"It would be very unfair for us to not recognise that and be very clear about what we’re trying to do, away from financial risk, is have an independent mindset and mentality and agility, and that’s a self-imposed budget restriction. It’s all part of that. But it would be wrong of us to pretend like we don’t have the security of an Ubisoft studio. "
"We punch way above our weight considering the scope of the projects, the investment that they take and then the profile that they get for the company," Couvela says. "It’s massively disproportionate. We’ve shown that we can make a real impact in the eyes of players and get a huge audience for games that otherwise would never have existed."
"This brings with it the pressure on delivering something that is very innovative and creative as well," adds Langourieux. "It brings a level of quality that we need to deliver for every project as well. It’s true that we have this safety net in a way, but I mean everyone that’s in the team is extremely conscious about the budget aspect. We need to find solutions quickly, and this is why we use iteration so much as well."
With low budgets, Couvela suggests it means that the team can be very focused on the kind of player that will enjoy the game. Ode, being a niche game, was never going to attract the attention of the entire gaming public, but as the costs associated with the game aren’t huge, the studio are freed from having to worry about features to extend playtime, or hitting any core audience.
"We’re very proud to have shown a different side to what you can do at a Triple-A studio" Couvela says.
"We’re just really proud that we’re able to demonstrate such creativity, even if I do say so myself." Couvela laughs. "There was a huge AGM for Ubisoft a couple of years ago with Yves Guillemot standing in front of a massive panel representing all the IPs and brands for the company, and in amongst that was a pretty large and fairly central figure of Bud from Grow Up. We announced Grow Up, the follow-up to Grow Home, on-stage at E3."
"To be on that stage with games of this scope and size, with a tiny team, it’s amazing. To make a game like Ode, purely about spreading light and love and joy, everything the world needs, the freedom to make a game purely about things the world could need a little more of, it’s great."