Hu Yi Fan is a producer at Ubisoft Shanghai who works on Just Dance, and on the production and operation of its China-exclusive version on Nintendo Switch. After graduating from university with a major in language, she took on jobs in quality control and business development before finding a career path that suits her the most.
After eight years at Ubisoft, working on 12 titles, and building her team from three people to 80 currently, Hu is an experienced producer. We spoke with her to learn more about what she’s accomplished, what drives her, and what advice she has for future game developers.
How did you start working in games? And how did you start working at Ubisoft?
Hu Yi Fan: It was purely a coincidence. I graduated university as a language major, so I was looking for jobs that required translation skills. A management role in quality control was available at Activision Blizzard Shanghai and I was hired. I worked in many different positions across the industry before making my way to Ubisoft where I started as a coordinator supporting Assassin’s Creed.
It seems like things went smoothly after graduating. Have you encountered any major challenges since then? How did you overcome them?
HYF: I can think of two. At the beginning, the Just Dance China team was small, and we had to figure things out quickly and expand. We needed to find a costume designer, a choreographer, and a makeup artist. We also needed to find a photography studio that fit the Paris studio’s criteria and transform it for our map filming. And above all, we had to learn everything! Luckily, the Ubisoft Paris studio was patient with us. It took a while, but now, we are quite good at what we do, and continue to seek excellence as we create AAA maps that are liked by players worldwide.
There’s another interesting challenge. When we were making the Yo-kai Watch Dance: Just Dance Special Edition, we needed to report to the Paris studio and collaborate with Level-5, a Japanese company. Overcoming the intersection of three different cultures was a big challenge. With lots of learning, communication, and polishing, the team delivered the game, which received positive feedback in the Japanese market. Our sister studio and the Japanese partner congratulated us on the work, which exceeded their expectations. We were overwhelmed by this achievement, and quickly forgot the previous frustrations.
People tend to think Just Dance is more popular with female players. Is that so? Is gender a consideration in its development?
HYF: Worldwide, the gender ratio of players is quite balanced. We make the game with a broad audience of all ages and all genders in mind. The game is about dancing, happiness, connecting with friends and family and staying active; these are not gender-based enjoyments.
What’s been your biggest achievement since you started working on Just Dance?
HYF: The most visible achievement is the team growth. At the very beginning, everyone had multiple areas of expertise. Now we have lots of experts working in their own areas.
I’m really proud of the local version of Just Dance created for Chinese players on the China-exclusive version of the Nintendo Switch. We’ve been providing high-quality content focusing on their preferences and culture. For example, in the last two years, we have been creating maps with the Chinese New Year theme through Just Dance Unlimited, which are highly sought after during the Spring Festival holiday. We are so happy to see the player activity and retention peaks upon the release of Chinese exclusive maps, that motivates us to keep working harder and better.
What qualities should a good producer be equipped with? What have you done to develop these?
HYF: Communication skills are key. A producer serves more as a guide and an adhesive for the team as well as being a decision-maker. When the team grows, I need to ensure transparency, and that information about our progress and objectives reaches everyone in time. Meanwhile, I try to understand and care for each member so that everyone feels at ease and trusted. This helps everyone on the project reach their full potential.
The ability to review things is also important. Regular reviews of our work can help us to learn from past failures and successes, and guide our future moves. Therefore, when a project reaches a milestone, I set aside some time to review and identify key learnings.
Additionally, I find a broader perspective to be very helpful. Just Dance is a game that taps into what’s going on now in pop culture and it’s been a successful franchise in the entertainment industry for over a decade. To help me stay “in the know” I follow trends in entertainment closely for inspiration. When we do team building activities, I tend to find interesting exhibitions so that the team can learn something beyond their areas of expertise in a relaxed state of mind.
Every producer is different, I can’t speak for others, but I believe in our game and question it at the same time, I project myself as both developer and player, I play our games and watch gameplay videos a lot, I try to hear all voices: from players, from the team and the peers. I always try to listen carefully and openly, then analyze the information thoroughly and objectively, it helps me to make the right decisions on adapting game direction and planning.
March 2022 marks your eight-year anniversary at Ubisoft Shanghai. What makes you want to stay at Ubisoft?
HYF: Indeed, eight years. Time flies!
Prior to Ubisoft, I had worked at several companies, foreign and domestic, but I love the work environment at Ubisoft China the most, not only because of what I’ve achieved in my career, but also its inclusive and diverse workplace culture. By working with its studios in different countries, we have opportunities to get to know different cultures and mindsets, as well as many interesting insights that nurture creativity.
And of course, great colleagues. Ubisoft is committed to creating high-quality games, so we are not short of great talents who are hungry for new knowledge and technology. Work-life balance is a priority for teams at Ubisoft, which gives us the time to develop hobbies, so we have a lot of fun together as colleagues.
While many companies are working toward gender equality in their teams, women are historically underrepresented in the videogame industry. As a female developer, have you ever encountered any barriers because of your gender?
HYF: Before I was at Ubisoft, I experienced being questioned about private information, questions about marriage and plans about having a kid. It was totally unpleasant. Nothing like this ever happened to me at Ubisoft.
I have found Ubisoft China to be an inclusive and welcoming place to express my creativity, and I would recommend working here to any developer of any gender.
As a team leader, do you consider gender in talent recruitment and development?
HYF: We have a gender-balanced team at Just Dance in Shanghai, with about 50% women developers. However, in developing and promoting talent, we only look at capabilities and contribution. It’s important to us that what we create is popular with all genders. When it comes to dancer selection, level design, internal and external tester selection, we make sure we have gender balance. We want every map to be played by all players.
Do you have suggestions for young women seeking a career in the gaming industry?
HYF: Most important, I think, is to embrace the ever-prospering creativity and innovation in this industry, if you are passionate about games, don’t hesitate, you will find your place here by working hard and playing harder. You won’t find many people on our team who are doing a job that’s relevant to their majors at university. My academic background is language. A programmer studied desertification treatment. A concept artist was supposed to become a utility engineer. We all chose differently and taught ourselves a lot on a new path.
Be ready to work hard, keep your passion alive and continue to sharpen your skills, your opportunities will come sooner or later.
For more interviews like this, be sure to check out the Women of Ubisoft series.