The only thing worse than watching someone play a video game, I imagine, is watching them play one you’ve created. All things considered, François Pelland is being quite patient with me.
“No, no, you have to aim your cannons just ahead of the other ship to hit it. You have to give it time to catch up,” he says, his frustration barely concealed as I muddle through a naval battle in Assassin’s Creed III, the latest incarnation of a video game franchise that’s sold more than 40 million units.
I fire my ship’s cannons, but the shots sail wide again. The enemy returns fire and, instead of instructing my crew to duck, I take the barrage full on. Crew mates are blown away and the masts start to burn. I picture Pelland, watching from off to the side, rolling his eyes in disgust.
The trio of opposing ships closes in to finish me off. With their final shots, the screen dims and the words “memory sequence lost” appear. That’s how every Assassin’s Creed game tells you that you’ve failed.
“Maybe we should have started with the tutorial,” Pelland quips, smirking.
We’re lounging on a couch next to his desk while a hive of activity buzzes around us. The Assassin’s Creed team occupies the whole basement of the old textile factory that serves as Ubisoft Montreal’s studio. It’s mid-August, and they’re in full production mode; the game is due for release on Oct. 30. That’s in just over two months.
A digital clock nearby counts down the seconds, literally, until the game’s code is frozen and shipped to video-game console makers for certification. There isn’t much time left–about a million seconds, or 12 days, to be exact.
The game is “in great shape,” says Pelland, its senior producer. Quality assurance is the only stage of production left to complete. The team removed 9,000 bugs last week, but there are thousands more to go. Volunteers from the public are also play-testing the game, and the developers will make final tweaks. Scenarios that prove too challenging for the volunteers (say, certain naval battles) may have their difficulty levels dialled down.
It’s crunch time, and everyone knows it. “This is when I become cranky,” Pelland says. “This is where we have to guarantee that the game is going to be [delivered] on time.”
On some level, everyone at Ubisoft understands the importance of Assassin’s Creed. While the new game bears the numeral 3 (referring to the history-themed adventure series’ shift into a third era and the addition of a new protagonist), it’s actually the fifth Assassin’s Creed game created for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, not to mention the various adaptations for mobile systems. The series has been instrumental in building Ubisoft into one of the biggest game publishers in the world, with 26 studios in 18 countries. Though it’s based in France, Ubisoft can almost be considered a Canadian company. Nearly half of its 6,900 employees are here, while many of its biggest franchises–including Assassin’s Creed, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell and Far Cry–are Canadian-made.
Expectations are high for the new Assassin’s Creed, which is something of a risk because it introduces a new storyline, setting and main character. Nevertheless, in March Ubisoft announced that Assassin’s Creed III had shattered the records for pre-orders in the U.S., surpassing last year’s pre-release demand for Assassin’s Creed: Revelations by a factor of 10. The pressure for Pelland and Co. to deliver a hit is definitely on.
Arguably more importantly, Ubisoft hopes that Assassin’s Creed III will serve as the cornerstone of Ubisoft’s ambitious plan to expand its reach beyond mere video games. With its deep and well-established fictional universe, the franchise is fertile ground for “transmedia,” a growing trend in the gaming industry that enables companies to harvest more revenue from an intellectual property by taking the characters into other domains. While film, television and other spinoffs from video games have existed since the days of Pac-Man, they’re often licensed out to third parties. By attempting to maintain creative control over its expansion into these areas, Ubisoft is breaking new ground.
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Ubisoft, like most video game companies, was started by young men. Convinced that the market had a big future, the five Guillemot brothers–Claude, Gérard, Michel, Christian and Yves–founded Ubisoft in 1986 in Rennes, a small city about three hours west of Paris. The idea at the time was to publish and distribute games developed in North America and Japan to the growing audience in France. Yves, then 25, was named CEO. By the end of the decade, the company ventured into the creative arena with its own games. Rayman, a colourful adventure title, became Ubisoft’s first bona fide hit in 1995.