Emmanuel Yao doesn't see change as a challenge; he sees it as an opportunity. A games-industry veteran from West Africa, Yao has worked at Ubisoft for 17 years in a number of different positions in Canada, China, and now Singapore. To learn more about his career, we spoke with Yao about the practice of open-mindedness, why diversity in gaming is important, and what advice he has for those looking to get their start in the industry.
What drew you to work in videogames? How did you get your first job in the industry?
Emmanuel Yao: I come from West Africa, specifically the Côte D'Ivoire. Thirty years ago, no one in Africa thought too much about videogames as a career path; I wanted to be an airplane pilot. I left Africa because I got a scholarship from the Côte D'Ivoire government to go to France for engineering. After getting my degree, I got a master's in networking and telecommunication. My early career was in telecommunications companies like Telco and Alcatel, doing some wireless, some broadband, and so on. I didn't think I would go into videogames.
After France, I immigrated to Montreal, and kept working on telecommunications with Nortel in 2001, but unfortunately lost my job in the market crash not long after. However, at that time, Ubisoft was looking to move from single-player to multiplayer and online gaming, so they opened a technology group at Ubisoft Montreal. I applied there, and was hired. The first day I started, my boss showed me my desk and asked me to play games. I was shocked. But I came to understand you need to act as the player to understand the reality, and make sure you're bringing solutions for the player.
After 17 years, I'm doing the same thing, and I'm happy.
You've been at Ubisoft for 17 years. Can you tell me more about your journey through the company?
EY: I'm really proud to be part of this family at Ubisoft; it's full of opportunities. After about two years at Ubisoft Montreal, we were working remotely with Ubisoft Shanghai on online multiplayer, but the time difference caused some delay in support. As the team lead, I went to Ubisoft Shanghai for two weeks and worked with them to improve the workflow, because developing a game is heavily tied to roadmaps, timelines, and deliverables. It was an amazing experience. Then, I had an opportunity to move to Ubisoft Shanghai to be a network lead for a new game, focusing on the multiplayer with my background in online gaming.
In 2011, there was the first online, free-to-play game at Ubisoft Singapore, Ghost Recon Online. I started to work with Ubisoft Singapore from Ubisoft Shanghai with a small team, working on the PvE experience while Singapore was working on the PvP aspect. We did this collaboration for one year, and then Ubisoft Singapore asked Ubisoft Shanghai if I could come work with them as the lead network programmer. But the day before I took my flight, the producer called and said that given the scope of my job in Singapore, they needed me as the technical operations manager instead.
When I arrived in December 2011, we worked on Ghost Recon Online. I was not doing any more programming, but I was working closely with developers who packaged the game. They would give us the game, and we as the operations team needed to find issues and debug the game before putting it in the hands of the player. After we shipped Ghost Recon Online, I became a technical project manager, taking care of the online and multiplayer employees under my umbrella.
At some point, an associate producer on Skull and Bones left Ubisoft Singapore, and asked me to take over his position. I said OK, and work as an associate producer for world-building, working later on AI for characters, control, and the camera (3C), as well as combat systems. At this time, the manager who brought me from Shanghai to Singapore was running production services. He was asked to move to Skull and Bones, and I was invited to fill his role as production services director.
What does a Production Services Director do? What does success in this position look like?
EY: The idea is to have a transversal team who can make sure that they consolidate everything that production needs, like tools, QC, build and release, deployment and automation. These things don't go into the game's content, but they're important to have for the game's production.
To be successful in this role, I think you need to spend maybe two or three years in this position. The first year is for you to discover, to learn, and to make some mistakes. The second year is to deliver what they are expecting you to do, because now you know how everything works. The third year is where you bring the excellence and surpass expectations. I'm really happy, and I'm working with great people. For us, as a partner of production, it is important to take into account what production needs because you are working with them. You want them to be happy, so you need to understand every requirement. You also need to sometimes tell them that no, we cannot deliver want you want, but we can offer another solution. We are working hand in hand, it's a partnership, and we need to make sure that what we are doing is very useful in production.
Throughout your career, there have been several times where people have come to you and asked you to step up to a new challenge. When that happens, how do you prepare for those new roles and challenges?
EY: For me, it is normal when new challenges come. I left Africa when I was 19, and I didn't know anything about France, nor did I know anyone there. Soon after, I moved to Canada, from Canada to China, and China to Singapore. You can't be afraid; you need to take it as a new opportunity to grow. Of course, you can do some research; now that the internet is everywhere, you can know exactly what life is like in a new place, what the big challenges are, and so on.
I've changed careers several times, and I'm still learning, after 17 years. Maybe tomorrow, a marketing person will come tell me, "Emmanuel, we need you in marketing to sell the game." I think it is part of my DNA to change, but it's not easy. When you move someplace, you need to start from scratch, and it can be difficult. You want to stay in your comfort zone, have the same friends, and so on. But now, we have technology; I'm still in touch with my family in Africa, I have some good friends in France, Canada, and China. Now, you can be everywhere and succeed.
As a native of Côte D'Ivoire, what has it been like adjusting to life in France, Canada, China, and Singapore?
EY: The first change is the environment. That includes weather. Africa is hot, you go to France and it's kind of cold, but when you move to Canada it's freezing! [laughs] You need to be open-minded to adapt yourself to the environment, to see how people are living so you can integrate into society. I remember it was minus 20, but it did not prevent us from building friendships or going out to enjoy life.
As you travel, you can see that there are a lot of similarities between cultures. In China, for example, I saw a lot of respect for parents, grandparents - this kind of hierarchy where the parent is always right. This is the kind of thing that we learn in Africa as well. I tried to take the best of everywhere that I go; people are different, and they each bring value. When we build a team, we need to make sure that we are diverse, because we know that everyone comes with specificity, and basically this is where creativity and performance comes from. When we talk about creativity, that's putting things together to be successful. Alone, you may not think about something that another person will like, for example, so having a diverse team will help you touch at least most of the interests and be creative. Diversity comes with creativity.
You do a lot of work supporting African developers, particularly through the African Games Coproduction Market. How did you get involved with that organization?
EY: Yves Guillemot, the CEO, came to visit Ubisoft Singapore in 2017 with France 24. They were looking for success stories to inspire African people about gaming. They asked if there was someone from Africa who was successful in the industry at Ubisoft Singapore, and our communications director thought of me. So they came to my home and did some reporting with me and my family. I also went to Ubisoft Singapore to do some filming. One day, I woke up and my WhatsApp was overwhelming, because this report had been shown in Africa and all my friends were pinging me that they had seen me. I was like, "OK, this is where everything starts," and people were interested to see that Africans can be successful in games.
I went to the first African Game Week in South Africa with another person from France, just to go check things out, and I saw the dynamic of indie games in South Africa, and Africa in general. I saw the developers want to learn, but don't have the assets they needed. And for Ubisoft as an organization, we already know what to do to be successful in games, and there is a place where we can come with education to teach people and support them. It was very good for me as an African to go there and talk to the people, share with them how I have moved inside the gaming world, and show them where I am now and inspire them. I'm part of a WhatsApp group with African developers, where I can provide insights from my role at Ubisoft and use my connections in the industry to help others.
Then, I served on a selection jury for SpielFabrique's African Games Co-production Market; that organization shows me what top African developers are doing. Ubisoft also came as a sponsor, and we provided some prizes and mentorship. I'm really happy that Ubisoft supports these endeavors, and I hope that more people will come. Everyone can contribute, because there are so, so many things that the African games industry needs to learn from us to avoid mistakes and go faster.
Why do you think it's important to support these up-and-coming developers from Africa and other underrepresented parts of the world in this industry?
EY: When we look at Ubisoft, our motto is to enrich players' lives by creating memorable and meaningful gaming experiences. It is important that we also push this industry where it is underrepresented, so these people can have the opportunity to play, to understand what we are doing, and to create some games that can match with their own culture. This is why I think it's good that Ubisoft is not only in three or four regions, but is a global organization that embraces this kind of change.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to make a career in videogames?
EY: As you've seen with my career, you have to be open-minded. You need to be ready to fail, to learn, and to grow. Of course, come with a background, something that you know you've mastered, and you will have a lot of opportunities. The videogame industry is one of these places where you can do a lot of things: you can change careers, you can have vertical progression, and you can have horizontal progression. I have a lot of horizontal progression; doing that comes with challenges, but if you are open to learn, you will be successful. The gaming industry is open to everyone, but you need this attitude of open-mindedness and learning and knowing that failure is okay.
One thing that is important: you will not succeed alone. You will succeed as a team, so be mindful to be a team player. Be open to listening when a colleague comes to you about what you're doing and gives you constructive feedback. Don't be afraid to say, "I don't know, but I want to learn." This kind of attitude is very important. This is where team spirit will help you grow inside an organization.