As we all embark upon a new year, Ubisoft welcomes and officially opens a brand new studio, Ubisoft Winnipeg. This newest studio will focus on creating technology to empower the creators at the other Canadian studios to build even better worlds across major Ubisoft brands such as Far Cry, Assassin's Creed and Watch Dogs. Darryl Long is the newly minted managing director of Ubisoft Winnipeg, responsible for shaping the industry-leading team that will create technology to help build the next generation of Ubisoft game worlds.
Fifteen years ago, Long moved to Montreal in the hopes of working for the company that made his favorite game, Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield. Since then, he has worked as a programmer and producer at Ubisoft Montreal, most recently on Far Cry 5. Now, Long – who has been making games since he was a child – gives us a glimpse into the process of heading up a brand new studio in this entry of Empowering the Creators.
How does working on a single game differ from managing an entire studio?
Darryl Long: As a studio director, you're building something more abstract when compared to a concrete deliverable, such as a game. I've really had to think about how we retain the greatest strengths of the established culture of Ubisoft, and how to merge it with the culture of Winnipeg as a city. We need to create something new that's still a part of the Ubisoft family.
The focus had to shift from one of a production mindset to "build a successful game" to "build a successful environment." We're in a customer service type of mentality now; it's our job to support Ubisoft to continue advancing video games.
What exactly does a managing director do?
DL: It's a broad title because it varies depending on the studio and where that studio is in terms of its evolution. Within the context of Winnipeg, my first priority is setting the vision of the studio and making sure that it develops into a culture that permeates throughout the entire development team. The second is, of course, recruiting, being an advocate of what the studio is, representing its mandate to develop technology, and making sure that's communicated across the world to people that would be interested in joining us. Right now, it's all about growing the studio and developing the workplace practices that allow people to explore their technological creativity.
"I've learned more from the people I've hired than I have from anyone else."
You've been a programmer, producer, and now studio head. How does your approach to management change with each of those roles?
DL: As a producer, you're carrying the vision of the game, but you're not necessarily crafting the vision. As a studio director, in this case, it started with, "What is the vision of the studio?" In building that vision, I knew it was important to capitalize on the strengths of Winnipeg, because it has a deep talent pool of technologists and has very strong post-secondary schools that are already generating the kind of talent that Ubisoft needs to be successful at making videogames.
As we created the vision or mandate for this studio, it was about focusing on technology we use to build video games; we need to leverage the strength of Winnipeg as a tech hub and use that to assist other studios in building better game worlds. One of the happy results of this has been learning just how deep the candidate pool is here in Winnipeg. The quality and talents of the people we've hired so far has been great.
Why is it so important for you to incorporate the culture of Winnipeg into the studio culture?
DL: I think it's critical for the success of the studio to be connected to the place where it is and be informed by the people and community around it. One of the first things we did when we moved here was reach out to the videogame development community and make sure that they understood that we wanted to become part of the existing community and help make it stronger. We're a part of an ecosystem now, and it's not just Ubisoft.
As someone who is currently building their team, how do you ensure that the team is diverse and inclusive?
DL: Ubisoft, from the beginning, has been a diverse company built by people all over the world. It's one of our strengths; we're a truly international corporation. Everyone at Ubisoft knows that part of our strength is our diversity and that our creative ideas comes from a large and talented pool of people from different perspectives and viewpoints in life.
I make every possible effort to lead by example and embrace the rich diversity Ubisoft was founded on while remaining thoughtful that we can always do better. We make sure that the language we use in our job listings is accessible to everyone, and that we're emphasizing abilities, rather than specific qualifications. We're trying to be as transparent, accessible, and balanced as we can be with our application process. We need to make sure that within the studio, everyone has equal opportunity for advancement. And while the talent pool in Winnipeg is incredible, we also work to attract leading talent within many different industries including communications, construction, education and more, from around the world. We aim to stay ambitious and increasingly recognize the value in growing the most diverse workplace that we can.
We continue to look for talented individuals to join our diverse and growing team, so I encourage everyone with the passion to check our job postings and to reach out.
What qualities do you look for in an employee?
DL: It's been an interesting learning process for me. Throughout my career, and up until now, I've been hiring programmers that generally have experience in video game programming and now, in Winnipeg, the video game industry isn't as large as what I'm used to since it is a younger industry here. So I've had to adapt, but it fits into the mandate of Winnipeg as a technology studio that we're able to tap into the tech pool here. We have people that have five, 10, 15 years of experience that have never worked in games before, but we're training them to be experts at Ubisoft.
We're trying to build a culture of listening, constant learning, and sharing ideas. We want to make sure everyone in the studio has a voice and that they're part of our development and our success. As an example, when there are decisions we need to make, we make sure to get as many people involved in that decision as possible to do collaborative problem-solving and decision-making to leverage that experience from outside of Ubisoft.
What qualities do you look for in a boss?
DL: I think that the most important thing for me, is the ability to listen and to keep an open mind for what is possible and what I don't know. In my experience as a programmer, I've always tried to have the right answer, but I think a leader needs to be a conduit for the talented people that work with them. Being able to listen to the team and hear their ideas, so you can help them be successful, is the most important thing.
"Everyone at Ubisoft knows that part of our strength is our diversity."
Are these goals and leadership methodologies something you've learned throughout your career?
DL: When I first started working on this, I had an idea of what it would be like to open a studio and learned quickly that it was something else entirely. Opening a brand new studio in a brand new city is much closer to starting a new company than what I was used to as a producer. I read a lot of books to learn what it takes to make a tech startup successful. Of course, the biggest thing is to learn from your employees. Honestly, I've learned more from the people I've hired than I have from anyone else. Their skills, knowledge and insight has been invaluable as we begin our growth. We're all learning right now, but it's not a one-way street. We're teaching them how to work at Ubisoft and they're teaching us fresh new perspectives and I'm making sure we're taking that to heart and learning from it.
How have you seen leadership change in your 15 years at Ubisoft?
DL: The leader at Ubisoft has always been Yves Guillemot since I've started. For me, the real change has come in my understanding of Yves' leadership. At the beginning, I didn't necessarily fully comprehend his vision for the company and that's something that now I've come to learn is one of the greatest strengths of Ubisoft. Yves enables us and empowers us, the studio teams, to be creative and to pursue our dreams. I think that's extremely unique among the major developers and publishers. The company is structured to be "bottom up." Taking risks and moving forward are part of Ubisoft's culture; if we're standing still, we're essentially dead. Instead of being disciplined for moving forward it's fostered and encouraged.
One of the great inspirations for me is Yves' belief that we owe our players the best games possible, because it is them who enable us to do what we love. Without the players, our jobs don't exist. In Winnipeg, we're bringing that same mindset to the development of technology. We want to build the best tools possible so that Ubisoft can build the best games possible.
Do you have a peer in the industry outside of Ubisoft that you admire?
DL: For a long time now, an inspiration for me has been John Carmack. He's one of the founders of id Software. He helped make Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Quake, and other iconic games that I grew up playing. His work is a part of what got me interested in programming as a kid. But it wasn't just his games that inspired me, he is a visionary. He saw that the internet – which was still in its infancy in the 90s – was a way to distribute information to expand the videogame industry by sharing his knowledge. He shared his dev tools, his algorithms, his experience building those games, and even sharing his source code of games like Doom. To me, he changed the videogame industry and helped define what it is today.
I have to add that that the largest influence on my life has been my mom. When I was young, my dad waited in line to buy one of the first Commodore 64s, but had no idea how to use it. My mom thought it was ridiculous that we'd just spent thousands on this thing and no one knew how to use it! So she actually joined a Commodore 64 users group and started bringing home games, word processors, and other programs for us to use. When I was around nine years old I said to her, "Mom, I don't just want to play other people's games, I want to make my own games." She went to the Commodore 64 users group and asked them how to do that, and they told she'd have to learn how to code. And that's exactly what she did! With no background in technology, she learned to code so she could teach me how to code, and I could start making my own games. She and I built games together because my mom wanted me to follow my passion.
Why do you think you were the right person for this job?
DL: I think that comes down to the question of motivation. My background is in technology; I've been involved in tech from a very young age and I'm passionate about technology development. This has been the strongest motivation throughout my career. What really makes work fun for me isn't just the technology we work with, but the people we work with every day. What gets me up in the morning with a smile on my face is working with people that share that same passion for technology in a fun work environment where we have so much freedom to create and explore new ideas and contribute to making the amazing games Ubisoft is known for.