Working in Ubisoft Singapore: On family, job perks, and opportunities

Ubisoft Singapore - Ubi Panel 2018 - 01

In ten years Ubisoft Singapore has moved from strength to strength, growing exponentially to now support a head count of 340. What started as a small remastering outfit is now a significant Assassin’s Creed collaborator, with enough staff and expertise to lead development on their very own Skull & Bones.

With a decade’s work behind them, the studio’s messaging has lately been that of people — of growing the family — and it’s a message you’ll hear from both the new managing director, Hugues Ricour, to the men and women working in the digital trenches.

Related: Ubisoft Singapore celebrates 10th anniversary, appoints new managing director

We heard from that latter group in a closed-door panel comprising both veterans and relative newcomers to the Singapore team. Dressed more formally than usual, the four-member panel shared what life is like in AAA games development, whether its convincing family about their career choices or how opportunities abound for those willing to take the leap.

Who’s who

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From left to right:

Brandon Chua earned his Ubisoft seat in 2015, just in time to wrap up production on AC Syndicate. A Nanyang Technological University graduate, he has worked on the franchise as an artist, advancing his 3D animation skills as a generalist. More recently, he has focused his efforts on 3D modelling.

Paul Fu boarded Ubisoft in 2009 to work on multiple Assassin’s Creed games, and was one of the game designers behind the rise of naval combat. His gaming journey is a well-travelled one, beginning with mobile games and the now-defunct LucasArts Singapore. He has since jumped from game design to be lead narrative designer on Skull & Bones.

Rika Lim took Ubisoft’s offer in 2015. She worked in indie games after graduating from Singapore Polytechnic and DigiPen Singapore, before making the jump to Ubisoft Singapore midway through AC Syndicate’s production. After trying her hand at both level and quest design, she is now associate lead level designer.

Terry Han joined Ubisoft in 2009 to work on Prince of Persia and 11 Assassin’s Creed titles. He graduated from Nanyang Polytechnic with a diploma in Digital Media Design, in a time where no game dev student programs existed. He started his career making level art for indie studios, before finally joining Ubisoft to grow as a games designer. He is now content director.

Note: The following has been edited for length and clarity.

How their families reacted

Terry: My parents are generally supportive, surprisingly (laughs). They don’t really have very high expectations, like “You need to be a doctor” or to go along with what they have in mind. I’m grateful they allowed me to pursue what I like because Singapore didn’t have a gaming industry at that time; I was just taking a leap of faith blindly. When I pursued a diploma in game design I didn’t really think about getting a chance to work on any of these titles, it was more of a “Let’s see how it turns out” and hope things turn out well. I think the Singapore government actually did have some grants and investments in this field when I was coming out to work, so it attracted big companies to set up here in Singapore.

Rika: At that time my mom was asking me, “Why don’t you choose something better to do like banking?” I said this was my passion, that I want to do something that I’m interested in for the rest of my life, not something I can do with. So I continued pursuing a games degree and actually got another job offer. It was a full-time “life designer” so it dealt with online games and  weekly and daily events, but I chose to take the contract Ubisoft job instead. My dad was like, “Just go ahead and do what you like.”

Paul: Just last weekend I had a family dinner and an old uncle asked me, “What are you doing now?” I told him I was working in games and he said in Chinese, “Wah, you’re so old and you’re still playing games?” I said I’m actually making games, not playing games. It was kind of hard for me to explain what the game making process is for the previous generation.

I had the same feeling from my family. It wasn’t exactly a negative feeling or anything, it was more of them not understanding that a game required a huge amount of people to make. So when I first told my mom that I was getting into the games industry, I think she was just happy I had a job (laughs). But for the longest time it was a very generic Asian family situation — “Why don’t you be a doctor or a lawyer?” I think right now she’s happy.

Brandon: I had half-half support. My dad was very supportive but my mom wasn’t. She wanted me to become a businessman or something, and then I told her: “I’m joining not just the games industry but the media industry as a whole.” She was very skeptical, like, “How are you going to make a living out of this? How are you going to support yourself in the future?” My dad on the other hand, he wanted to pursue art when he was younger so he put his dream on me instead.

As for my mom, I told her I wanted to go to a job that doesn’t feel like work; I wanted a playground every day. So while everybody is like, “Oh shit it’s a Monday tomorrow, I have to work,” but to me: “Its Monday tomorrow, I’m going to work.” I really like this job, and I look forward to it every weekend. And that was something I told my mom, that I wanted to enjoy whatever I want to do for the rest of my life. She got that and stepped back a bit to see how I’d progress, and she’s really happy that I’m making a living out of this.

What their Ubisoft career has been like

Terry: My first game was AC2, the first game that the studio was making, so I was working on the linear gameplay sequences. While I was fortunate enough to do the first one, it was also pretty stressful because it was the first product ever to be released from Ubisoft Singapore to Montreal for validation — to make sure that we are able to hit that quality we are looking for.

I think I’m lucky in that I had really good mentors from Montreal. They’ve been pretty open and caring about how we do things, and with the parting of skills and knowledge because they have been around for decades. I was really lucky to be one of the few that learned directly from them.  From there I think it was pretty interesting because we got our hands involved in more things. Every project for me is a learning curve, and I started to grow and learn how to lead as well — to manage people and see how I can impart my knowledge to the team, so that we can grow as a whole.

Rika: I joined Ubisoft during the halfway mark of Syndicate, so I was just jumping in to settle the remaining stuff, integrating bits and pieces of the level design. I had quite a lot of good mentors in Singapore who taught me how to use the tools, and I got the chance to figure out stuff on my own. It was quite an interesting experience, and eventually I got to work on both level design and supporting the quest side.

Moving over to Origins was largely similar, but I also got to take care of one of the regions by building up places of interest from scratch. During Odyssey I was actually given the opportunity to be the associate lead level designer, so I’m now transitioning from doing hands-on stuff to leading and mentoring another group of level designers. I’ve also been building locations that have been used as benchmarks by the lead studio. I hope that I could guide the level designers to do something similar in the future.

Paul: After working as a game designer at LucasArts I came to Ubisoft, and my first project was AC Brotherhood. I was an animation scripter then, and that was when I really realized that game making was very hard (laughs). One day somebody would put a table into your scene and your character would walk through the table, or someday the door knob would move and your hand won’t fit — you know, things like that. From there I moved on to level design, I did a bit of AC Revelations with Terry and then I did an internal move to AC3 to work on game design for naval combat.

That’s when things really started to get interesting because naval was a huge beast for the Singapore studio — we were essentially handed the mandate and they said, “Hey do whatever you want with this” — it was a big deal and a very challenging time. I was taking on a slightly more leadership role as an associate lead for Rogue, and transitioned to lead for AC Origins. That was possibly one of the most memorable projects, I did everything from driving the small boat that you see in the demos to the big ship that you can crew. So now I’m working on Skull & Bones I decided to try something new, and my new my role is in between a designer and a writer, working on things like narrative structure and how stories are delivered.

Brandon: I joined 3.5 years ago, near the end of Syndicate same as Rika, and I was also tying up loose ends and making sure the game can ship on time. Following that I jumped onto Origins for two years and then subsequently Odyssey, where I worked on the small little boats that you sailed — there are six variations and I worked on all six of them. Later in the project I was moving towards a lead role, collaborating with another studio and discussing how we wanted to handle things, how to polish things, and there was a lot of bouncing back and forth.

In Odyssey I was also doing the level art, which is basically like playing the Sims games, building cities and villages. Hopefully in the near future I can slowly move out of that as well and into more of a leadership role, so that we can lead a team to create more content.

The perks of working at Ubisoft

Brandon: You get a lot of free gifts (laughter).

Terry: Yeah, you get a lot of merchandise. But aside from the more visible stuff, I think working here allows us to open our eyes wider because we travel to quite a few cities, like Paris which is our HQ or Montreal which is our lead studio. They allow us to interact with our partners overseas and we get a sense for how they do things and how they operate, as well as the strategy in running the studio compared to Singapore.

They also allow us to, not so much revise but test the temperatures of the different styles of working, so we could adapt since we collaborate with different studios. There are some downsides, like the lead studio is halfway across the globe — Montreal, Quebec is 12 hours apart — so when we have a conference call with them it’s usually late or night or very early in the morning. But that’s kind of like a compromise and i think we’re starting to get used to do that.

Rika: As for me it’s learning their expertise. We have regular Skype calls each week to know what they’re doing and getting to learn from these very experienced people is like one of the perks. And of course the free T-shirts, and also you don’t have to wear formal clothes to come into work.

Paul: Yeah I think merchandise is a big part of it (laughs). Probably one of the biggest things, like what Terry said, is opening your eyes. As game devs we’re creating worlds, almost a simulation, and one of the things that is required of your job, whether you know it or not, is to observe life. Figuring out how water moves, how to make someone cry, things like that, that you can put into your game.

It took me awhile to realize that it’s the job of the designer to research what goes into a game. We tend to take for granted random facts on Wikipedia like how many people it takes to drive a ship, but when you’re actually making a game you need to get the figure right and more or less find your own way to marry reality with fantasy. You gather knowledge from everywhere and it helps to enrich your life.

Brandon: You have all these talents that are coming into Singapore, so you get to work with people from all over the world, with different backgrounds, different cultures, and different languages. It’s like you’re travelling but in Singapore. And like what Paul said, getting to work on AC really pushes you to the very limit, because you need to replicate all these reality in a game but at the same time make it fun. The thing that I got the most was all these skills that I have gained, and when I do my personal projects at home I get to use these knowledge for them as well. It really changes me as a person, not just as an employee that’s moving in and out of the company.

On the freedom to pursue what they want

Terry: I think the opportunity is there for anyone to take up any roles. The key thing is knowledge. In order to move to a role, we need to better equip whatever the individual needs so he can succeed in that role, because we wouldn’t want to set up people for failure. Our strategy is usually to make sure that the skill sets are there and to improve those skill sets, so we know that person is able to handle that role.

How their work culture differs from other Ubisoft studios

Terry: Based on my own experience, I think one thing that we focus a lot on in the studio is that we tend to develop people as much as possible. We want to avoid hand-holding, we’re not a school. Part of it is imparting the knowledge, but part of it is also to give people the autonomy to push his or her own ideas. That’s something we really treasure on the team. No matter how junior or senior someone is, anyone is welcome to chip in.

The other thing is to push quality as much as we can, because we know as a collab studio its the quality of content that really matters. It’s the only reason why other studios want to work with us, so that’s something we really uphold and come through. Whatever we push its always about quality, sometimes even challenging ourselves such as the naval and gameplay innovations. It is challenging sometimes because there is no benchmark out there, there is no reference, so it’s going in blindly based on our research. But it’s those things that also give us the greatest reward because once we see the project being shipped, and we get great feedback from the user or the lead studio, that literally is the most satisfying moment for us.

Rika: It would probably be the opportunities given to everyone. Whether you just came in as a junior or are an intermediate member, you are given an opportunity at some point of your career in Ubisoft to start growing as an individual and, together with your team, to be more autonomous. It’s a great chance to step out of your comfort zone and to try out new things, and like Terry said pushing up the quality bar by working with people from different backgrounds.

Paul: I haven’t worked extensively in other Ubisoft studios so I can’t say for sure but, based on my random trips there, we’re actually pretty similar in terms of culture. Almost every studio is a melting pot of people; in Singapore we have over 30 nationalities, and we get along really well together. But the best part is the knowledge exchange, which gets seeded in other Ubisoft studios as well. AC Rogue, Syndicate, Origins, and Odyssey are all really good examples of other studios using our stuff. In return, we get different expertise from other studios, such as AI or monetization and other kinds of stuff.

Brandon: I haven’t been to other Ubisoft studios as well but in Singapore, there’s a feeling that if you’re willing to take up the challenge, the company is willing to offer. I tried to climb as fast as I could so I mentioned wanting to move into a leadership role, but of course I don’t jump into the role directly. They gave me similar challenges to see whether I can take it up, or rather to learn from all those experiences and become useful in the future. That itself was super helpful.

On what makes working on Assassin’s Creed unique

Terry: Each game comes with their own set of creative challenges and mandates. Being exposed to all these elements lets me be a better designer, to learn and to gain knowledge so that whether its a new IP or a tricky mandate to come, we are able to tackle it as a team.

Rika: For me it was the opportunity to play different roles throughout Syndicate, Origins, and Odyssey. I started out mostly with level design, which is kind of like an architect in a virtual world. From there I took on some designer role while supporting and creating quests. In Origins I went back to designing levels and some quests, and at some point I was also able to support the artists. It was quite interesting to see how things start forming and how everything comes together.

Paul: For me the AC franchise has always been very closely tied to history, so one of the big benefits is that you get to do a lot of research and relive history like how it was back then. You get to read a lot about the stories of farmers, or scholars, or philosophers, whichever setting the game is in. I’m a bit of a geek so I like to read up on all these kind of stuff, and I feel that its very enriching to be able to understand life in a different era.

Brandon: AC is very tied down to historical facts and that itself really pushes the game and me as an individual. We spend a lot of time researching before we even start doing anything in the game itself. That also pushes me to really understand history and its importance, and knowing how much fans appreciate the effort that we put in.

Their advice for aspiring game developers in Singapore

Terry: I would say to follow your passion and to put in the hard work, because nothing comes without the hard work. I think a lot of people might just see the surface, that you did a big game and these are all the flashy stuff that you did, but when you look behind the scenes there’s a lot of blood and sweat goes into a project. And it’s not just individuals, it’s the team. It’s not just one or two persons but massive teams behind these projects. So the amount of effort and dedication from each individual is really important, and so is the willingness to learn. We have to constantly learn, even though we have worked on the brand for so many years, because there are so many things for us to learn. It’s this attitude that helps us constantly improve ourselves.

Rika: To be really open-minded to new ideas and opportunities given to you. Don’t be afraid to go ahead and try it out; if it doesn’t work out just take a step back and do what you think might be suitable for you. There’s always a chance for you to step back if there’s a need to. The passion itself is also something that will probably keep you holding on till the end of development.

Paul: I guess for somebody looking to get their foot in the door a portfolio is really important, especially if you’re entry-level. So the best advice I can give is to focus on your portfolio and to find a domain that you’re really passionate in, and to push your technical skills. Because when you join a game company you’ll be tested a lot on your technical skills.

Brandon: Be hungry for knowledge and always try to improve yourselves. The industry is constantly evolving, so if we stay stagnant we’re actually falling behind. We’re always trying to find out what’s the latest technology that we are using in the company, or to understand the concept and the technicalities. Also be open-minded that you’re working with a lot of people, and that feedback is constantly back and forth — any kind of feedback is to help improve yourself, it’s not anything personal. So pushing yourself constantly will give you that world-class standard.

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We thank Terry, Rika, Paul and Brandon for taking the time to share their experiences, as well as producer Matt Thorpe for giving a recap of Ubisoft Singapore’s involvement in the Assassin’s Creed franchise.

If you haven’t already heard, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is out for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One — check out our review.

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Ade Putra

Ade thinks there's nothing quite like a good game and a snug headcrab. He grew up with HIDEO KOJIMA's Metal Gear Solid, lives for RPGs, and is waiting for light guns to make their comeback.