Ubisoft Annecy was founded in 1996 in the mountainous Haute-Savoie region of south-eastern France. It was one of Ubisoft’s first studios, originally consisting of a team of six people working on Rayman, and it went on to collaborate on many key Ubisoft brands such as Splinter Cell, Assassin’s Creed, and The Division. In 2016, the studio took a leap by leading the development of Steep, a winter sports game that has been played by over 14 million unique players to date.
This year, as the 300-strong studio celebrates its 25-year anniversary, Ubisoft Annecy is launching a new IP, Riders Republic, which launches on October 28. The Ubisoft News team sat down with Gregory Garcia, the studio’s new managing director, to learn more about his career at Ubisoft, the studio’s priorities, and what’s next for the team.
You were appointed managing director of Ubisoft Annecy in May, and you spent a big part of your professional life at Ubisoft. Can you tell us about your career and how it feels to take on this new role?
Gregory Garcia: I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, so I logically began playing videogames. And as I had a computer, I quickly became interested in how they work. Although I’m a fan of videogames, I am, above all, a fan of making videogames. I gradually started to get into programming, self-taught at first, then with friends. By the end of the 90s, I knew that I wanted to work in this area. I was lucky to be living in Bordeaux at the time, so I was able to join a videogame developer called Kalisto as a programmer. After Kalisto's closure, I joined Ubisoft in 2003, initially in Annecy, to work on Splinter Cell and its multiplayer mode. Then I moved to Montreal to continue working on Splinter Cell, at a time when development teams were growing from 50 to 200 people.
When I returned to Annecy in 2006, they had surpassed the milestone of 100 team members. We needed to further structure our production processes, especially in technical professions. So, I chose to direct my career towards technical management as that is where I felt most useful. Like other areas required to produce videogames, technical professions continued to grow more specialized, and the teams involved grew greatly. When I took on the managing director role earlier this year, I came into it with this background in mind. I know where we’re coming from. We’re lucky at Annecy to have extremely motivated and passionate teams to offer experiences that are not only fun and entertaining, but also impactful.
Specifically, what is the day-to-day role of a managing director, particularly in a company like Ubisoft?
GG: We are lucky to be part of an international group and work with incredible talents from all over the world. And my role is precisely to ensure that we can work with the best team members, on extraordinary IPs, and to contribute greatly to Ubisoft's global strategy. In terms of the day-to-day, that means spending time with other managing directors and the teams at HQ, as well as ensuring, together, that we have and are providing good visibility on our projects.
That being said, the core part of my role is obviously with the studio teams. My main goal is to create and guarantee an environment that enables our staff to make the best games possible, so that everyone, when they get into the office in the morning, can thrive at work.
Your appointment comes at a pivotal time for Ubisoft Annecy, with the release of a game which you have been working on for almost five years: Riders Republic. What does this game represent for the studio and the teams?
GG: Riders Republic represents who we are. The Annecy team, to start with, is invested in the environment – it’s part of our DNA because of the studio’s location, surrounded by beautiful nature. Although the setting of the game is virtual, it’s directly inspired by the real world and by the natural environment.
Then, because our objectives were very ambitious, our team acquired a unique technical and artistic expertise to create a wonderful open world playable at 60FPS on the next-gen consoles, with up to 64 players at the same time. That's why we’re really proud to be bringing out a game like Riders Republic, even more so after the success we had with the beta – because it resembles us.
Lastly, there is the importance of our convictions on the type of experience that we want to deliver to players: an experience that is social, fun, and that players can really enjoy with their friends. We want them to be able to make it their own, to appropriate it for themselves, and ensure that they get what they want from it. Moreover, we have included a certain number of features in the game allowing players to shine as individuals and to create their own content. We've always made games for them first. Today, players and the community are so close to production teams; it’s really unprecedented in the entertainment industry. Because we can test the game, and because even once it goes live we can still enrich it, we’re able to offer the experiences that better fit player expectations.
Ubisoft Annecy is celebrating its 25-year anniversary, which makes it one of the oldest studios in the company. How would you assess this quarter-century in an industry that is constantly evolving?
GG: Ubisoft Annecy's story, in a certain way, mirrors that of Ubisoft. We were one of the first five Ubisoft studios, and there are people who were there when it opened and who are still there now. For my part, even though I joined in 2003, I look at this 25-year-anniversary with a great deal of humility. It represents the culmination of the work of hundreds of people involved in over 20 projects in total, shaped in part or entirely at Annecy. We are very proud of this heritage, and I think that it proves that we are capable of producing strong gaming experiences and always getting back in the saddle, without ever resting on our laurels.
Today, this is my message for the teams: it is only the beginning. Ubisoft Annecy's expertise in multiplayer games will last, even more so as we know there’s a lot of enthusiasm for online and social. We were already making multiplayer games in 2003, when I arrived. That's almost twenty years experience, and enriched by this long period, it is our wish and ambition to bring innovative experiences to this area.
In addition to studio’s expertise in multiplayer, what are Ubisoft Annecy's other strengths in your view?
GG: We have many team members who have significant experience in the industry, and it’s a real advantage. Our studio benefits from lots of expertise, whether it is in technology, art, design, production, or animation. All the professions are represented in our teams, and that’s invaluable. With all Ubisoft's strength behind us, of course, it means we’re able to take charge of a project, from the pitch to its release and beyond. We will continue to organize ourselves in this direction, to pursue Riders Republic, but also other exciting projects on which we have already started to work on, whether that’s with the studio's or the group's IPs.
How do you organize production in a studio like yours, with back-to-back projects that are sometimes developed in parallel? How is the staff organized around these projects?
GG: The videogame industry is, by definition, a creative industry. For each new game, the balance of innovation must be enough to appeal to our players. And that is where our teams' experience is vital.
Production is, in fact, a constant balancing act between the desire to innovate on the one hand and timing and budget constraints on the other. One of the roles of the producer is to ensure that balance. Teams have to be adaptable and ramp up efforts, since we can’t plan everything in advance. And this also means that at certain key moments of the project, the size of the team and the skills required also change.
On Riders Republic, for example, we had quite a clear idea of what we wanted: an open world depicting the American national parks, allowing players to practice outdoor sports in a highly social and playful way with friends. Over the course of production, we had to refine the details of what our game would become and make choices on what we wanted to develop or innovate on thanks to Ubisoft’s production process. The process allowed us to confirm each production stage and adjust the size of our team and the expertise required.It’s great to have several production lines within a studio: when a project expands, another may need fewer people or different skills, which makes transitions easier. It also means our talent has the ability to switch from one project to another, offering them different outlooks and challenges.
What's more – and this is one of Ubisoft's strengths – the collaboration between studios is an extremely important element in organizing our production. In the case of Riders Republic, the teams from Ubisoft studios in Belgrade, Pune, Montpellier, Paris, Kyiv, Odesa, Berlin, and Bucharest greatly contributed to production and quality control. We would not have gotten there without them!
How is Ubisoft Annecy working to enact Ubisoft's promises to promote greater diversity and inclusion within teams?
GG: As we make games designed to reach as many players as possible, we are all committed to making games that are representative of the world we live in.
We deal with creative and technical professions in which good ideas do not come from a single person; they are created together, by iteration and interactions between team members. This is what gives our ideas and solutions strength. For that reason, we aim to include as many perspectives as possible in the creative process and ensure we’re inviting a diverse group of people to the table, be it team members in our studio or external consultants.
We know this is a journey and that we have a lot to learn, and we’re continually working to define best practices and ensure we have processes in place that allow everyone to contribute.
The other challenge facing production has to do with new ways of working. To what extent can a studio like Ubisoft Annecy drastically change its working methods, notably after the COVID-19 crisis?
GG: In the first weeks of the crisis, we managed things in the moment out of necessity, and we were really proud and appreciative of how our teams adapted to the situation. As we settled into work-from-home in the longer term, however, one of the real challenges was creating a sense of community. How do you create a team dynamic in a context in which everyone is at home? It takes a real organizational effort from production to management, and it has to take into account the structure of teams themselves. You don't manage a team which has lots of senior profiles and a team with lots of junior profiles in the same way, for example. And then you add another layer of complexity like the context of team members’ personal lives. We don't have all the answers yet, but I think it’s a real opportunity to completely rethink our way of doing things. We want to make sure we’re creating space for informal exchanges that spark creativity, while also providing teams the opportunity to work in the way that best promotes their well-being. Across the whole group, we’re trying to support what works well and tweak what needs to be improved.
What about technology? It needed to be adapted to remote work, and evolving technology is also at the heart of production. How does a studio like yours – one which highlights its expertise on the subject, especially for playing online – position itself on technological innovation?
GG: We could talk about this for hours, but I’ll try to sum up the issue in two sentences. First, we make use of everything Ubisoft has to offer, because we have access to high-performing technological tools that we can greatly benefit from. Second, we innovate when we see an opportunity. At Annecy, we’ve always had a pragmatic approach: we leverage what already exists and works well, and we take risks when we see a chance to bring something new to our players.
There is a lot of work being done in this area more globally at Ubisoft. Our model and organizational structures are evolving to allow teams to be even more efficient, and to allow us to ensure technology and technological innovation is driving forward our strategic vision.
This is precisely the mission of Guillemette Picard (VP Production Technologies) and Stephanie Perotti (VP Online Services): to define and implement this global strategy by capitalizing on the expertise available within the production and technology teams. Through our expertise, the teams at Ubisoft Annecy will strive to contribute to this global vision.
In your view, what will the videogames of the future look like, and what role will Ubisoft Annecy play in their creation?
GG: This is the question that everyone is asking in the industry. I don't have a crystal ball, but I can try to give an answer based on the trends I see emerging. In my view, there are two areas to watch. The first is deep, immersive narrative experiences, in which we tell stories to players by having them embody a character. It’s something that Ubisoft already does very well with games like Assassin's Creed. Alongside that, we see more social and connected experiences emerging, and these are all about spending time and sharing with others. In these games, it’s the players who tell the stories.
At Annecy, in view of our history with multiplayer and online, we want to place ourselves within this second area. Riders Republic is the perfect example. During our last beta phase, it was amazing to see our players streaming their game experience with their friends on Twitch or YouTube.
In the future, there is nothing to stop the two areas from joining to give us games which offer very immersive environments while allowing players to meet people, spending time alone or together. I love the idea of the metaverse since I think that a portion of young players already consider that videogames and social media are completely connected. It is dizzying to think of all the possibilities that this greater connectivity can offer. And even if it’s impossible to know precisely what the videogames of the future will be, at Ubisoft Annecy we are determined to be at the cutting edge of the field.
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A French version of this article was originally published on Ubisoft Stories.