Reflections: From bedrooms to blockbusters

Newcastle-based developer Reflections turns 30 this year, and its team has come a long way from the days of Destruction Derby and Driver. James Batchelor visited the studio to find out what it has learned along the way
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Reflections is not only the oldest studio in Ubisoft’s global empire of subsidiaries, it’s also one of the longest-running in the UK. 

Established in 1984, the studio celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, with a current headcount of 230 spread across triple-A titles such as The Crew, Tom Clancy’s The Division and the latest iteration of Just Dance

It’s a far cry from what welcomed producer Will Musson on his first day back in 1994.

“When I joined, there were six people,” he says. “There was Martin Edmonson – who’d be out spreading the word rather than in the office – one artist, and four programmers. And together we made Destruction Derby.”

This 3D racer launched alongside the original PlayStation, and the studio’s biggest hit to date. But the team’s creative appetite was no longer satisfied by single projects. Instead they began prototyping multiple games. Not all were released, but one experiment eventually defined the studio.

“It started because of Destruction Derby 2,” Musson explains. “That game had a figure-of-eight track, and that sparked in Martin’s mind an idea: Could we not make this a bigger and more open world? It was highly ambitious, but we went with it.

“At the time we thought we could only make it for PC, that it wouldn’t possibly work on consoles. But it became obvious very soon – not only because of the hype the game was getting, but also because of Sony’s growth – that we had to get it on PlayStation.”

That game was, of course, Driver and the impact it had on Reflections was “astonishing”, according to Musson. The Derby games had already enjoyed reasonable success, but Driver thrust the team into the mainstream.

“We were receiving awards, on magazine covers, going down to parties in London,” Musson recalls. “It felt a bit rock and roll – Huggy Bear from Starsky & Hutch was at our Driver party. It was very odd to be geeky games people suddenly flung into the idea that you’re famous.”

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DRIVEN FORWARD

Fast-forward to 2014 and Musson (pictured left) says life at the studio is “a hundred million miles different”.

Destruction Derby was made in a bedroom,” he says. “There weren’t any processes, we were just enjoying ourselves and having fun. We still do that today, but there’s a lot more professionalism. People understand that roles like producer are much more important these days. I think there’s still some growing up to do, but there isn’t as much naivety any more.”

One of the biggest developments has been the acquisition by Ubisoft back in 2006. While the purchase of Reflections was nothing new – over the years it has passed through the hands of Infogrames, GT Interactive and Atari – this particular change has left a lasting impression on the studio and the way it operates.

“Ubisoft felt like the right partnership, and not just for stability but for their innovation and desire to push quality,” says Musson. “Before, we were very much of the attitude that only we could make our games. But Ubisoft made us realise you need draw on other studios’ expertise. So we’re now fully on board with the collaboration model, because we know it’s how you make triple-A games.”

Managing director Pauline Jacquey stresses that the acquisition has not changed the Reflections ethos: “It’s not McDonalds – every Ubisoft studio has a slightly different approach.

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“We can use all the best practices from the rest of Ubisoft, we use their tech, we’re in touch with our international studios on a daily basis, but we can also do things our own way.”

Ubisoft’s policy of collaboration can be seen in any of its major games. Assassin’s Creed Unity is being developed across ten studios, Far Cry 4 across five. While Reflections has yet to work on either IP, it is co-developing The Crew with Ivory Tower and The Division with Massive Entertainment, and helped out with new IP Watch Dogs earlier this year.

Jacquey says these collaborations are “based around the skillset of our guys”, giving The Division as an example. With the strength of Reflections’ UI team, this aspect features heavily in the mandate drawn up between the Newcastle studio and Massive. But that’s not the area Reflections is best known for.

It’s not McDonalds – every Ubisoft studio has a slightly different approach. We can do things our own way.

Pauline Jacquey, Reflections

“Our expertise is in open world games,” says Musson. “There are not many studios that have been making those as long as we have. We know what we’re doing – and that’s not just in terms of the technology behind it, but also how you use that world, how you put missions together, how the gamer can play around. People can learn those things from us, as well as our production methods.” 

Naturally, vehicles are another major area fellow Ubisoft devs seek help with. 

“And we don’t just mean muscle cars,” says Jacquey. “We mean helicopters, bikes, jet packs, hovercrafts, submarines: we know how to create toys that are really fun to play with in an open world. The idea of the journey, taking the most fun route from point A to point B, is going to drive us in years to come.”

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NEWCASTLE EXPORTS

Collaboration has allowed the team to significantly influence titles in other genres, too. One Reflections employee told us that almost every new feature from the last few Just Dance games originated in Newcastle. So does the studio get enough credit for its work?

“We’re working in big international teams, so people shouldn’t care which studio they belong to – they’re making a difference both as individuals and as a team,” says Jacquey. “We need to make sure what we create is of a high quality and consistent with the IP – the players really don’t care which bits were created at which studio.”

The MD adds that Reflections is fully integrated with the other Ubisoft studios, so all teams work closely in alignment with their international partners.

“It doesn’t really matter which country you’re in – we know who is strong at doing what and where they are,” Jacquey adds.

The studio’s current headcount of 230 is by no means the largest it has been. During the peak of production on Driver: San Francisco, up to 270 people were working at the studio.

This growth has also brought more diversity to the team. Reflections hires internationally, with roughly 30 per cent of the team from abroad and 20 nationalities among them.

There’s a backbone of people who have experienced Reflections’ journey. Even I was surprised by how many have been here more than ten years.

Will Musson, Reflections

And, as different projects require Reflections to scale up and down, the studio is continuing to grow. At the moment, it is hiring an extra 30 to 40 people. But Jacquey’s keen to avoid expanding too quickly.

“I have no plans to double the size of the studio,” she says. “Growth needs to be reasonable so that we can improve our processes, and it’s very hard to do that when you’re rushing to grow. One of our biggest strengths is you can work on big triple-A games in small teams: we offer the best of two worlds, and I’d like to keep this. I have no intention of running a gigantic studio.”

Fortunately, the new intake hasn’t squeezed out Reflections veterans like Musson, with around 40 long-standing employees still at the studio.

Musson says: “There’s a backbone of people who have experienced Reflections’ journey. They’re now high up and still have the ethos we’ve always had. Even I was surprised by how many have been here more than ten years.”

So why do they stay? In an industry where developers are often changing studios, how does Reflections retain its talent?

“For me, it’s because we’re always changing,” says Musson. “We’re never producing the same game. Even with sequels, there’s something new to learn, new technology to master.

“And there’s all these other projects to work on. You can move on to help develop The Division, The Crew, or our unannounced games. Most people move between studios because they want a new experience, but actually you can get that here.”

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THE FUTURE OF REFLECTIONS

Given that the studio’s legacy stretches back 30 years, it is perhaps strange that the team has yet to lead its own collaboration. But both Jacquey and Musson believe that, despite the developer’s extensive experience, there is good reason why we’ve yet to see Reflections headline a triple-A Ubisoft title.

 “We’re not ready yet,” Jacquey says. “If we want to create something that is a game-changer and phenomenal – and that will happen one day – we can’t fail.

“Everything we do now is preparing us. It’s not like we have a deadline where in two or three years we need to be able to lead a game – the speed is in our hands. 

“Working in collaboration is super comfortable. When you have the chance to work with Paris, Montreal and Massive in the same year on three games as different as Watch Dogs, Just Dance and The Division, you’re learning much more than when you work for four or five years on the same game.”

Whatever Reflections’ next hit will be, there’s no doubt that it will play to the studio’s strengths. In a certain corner of the building – literally behind locked doors – there are unannounced titles under development, but it doesn’t take a genius to guess what types of games they might be.

“It’s the way the industry is going – games are becoming open world and online,” says Musson. “With our experience and heritage, why would we not be there?”

So fingers crossed for a new-gen Driver soon, then.

AN INDIE IN TRIPLE-A CLOTHING

Reflections is presented to us as ‘a triple-A studio with an indie spirit’ – but how can a developer that is owned by one of the world’s largest publishers ever claim to be indie?

MD Pauline Jacquey says this refers to both Reflections’ roots and how it operates today: “This started with Martin Edmonson creating games in his bedroom in ‘84. It was just a group of friends doing something adventurous together, and this spirit is still very much alive in the studio today.

“People can pitch things in a ‘bottom up’ way. It’s not like there’s a big plan that’s totally solid – we build the plans with the rest of the team, so it’s pretty organic and iterative.”

Producer Will Musson adds: “Everyone has a voice, even the interns and junior developers. This creates what we like to think of as an indie spirit and we hope they want to be part of a team.

“The overall feeling is very much as it was in the early days: everyone here is very much part of something big. Granted that ‘big’ has got bigger, but everyone’s part of it. And there’s a lot more movement within staff; you’re not just stuck on one project. You can move from team to team.”

The studio also has a small experimental group – less than ten people, a mix of experts and interns – that work on new prototypes for new tech and games.

“They’re working like we would have done in the ‘80s or ‘90s, or like start-ups are doing nowadays,” says Jacquey. “It allows us to take risks and make mistakes – although, hopefully not too many. And hopefully, we’ll find something special.”

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Putting Reflections back into the spotlight

Once renowned as the creator of Driver, Reflections subsequently faded from prominence, handing the limelight to its sibling Ubisoft studios. With the success of Grow Home and The Division, the developer has returned to reclaim its fame