What comes to mind when you think of a Ubisoft game? If you thought of Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, The Division, or Watch Dogs, you’re likely not alone. Studios like Ubisoft Montreal, Ubisoft Quebec, Ubisoft Toronto, and Ubisoft Paris have developed reputations for themselves by creating expansive open-world games filled with hours of activities to complete. But, a few blocks from San Francisco’s picturesque waterfront is Ubisoft San Francisco, a studio that’s been making games for the past 10 years. In that decade, its games – including the Rocksmith franchise and South Park: The Fractured But Whole – have sought to innovate, diversify, and redefine the perception of what a “Ubisoft game” is.
“There are still people who say, ‘I didn’t know there was a studio in SF!’” says Nao Higo, VP of product development and studio head at Ubisoft San Francisco. “I think we’re still relatively under the radar. But for me, I like that. I like that we can surprise people with our projects.”
This year, Ubisoft San Francisco celebrated its 10th anniversary, and despite its relatively small development team and “under the radar” reputation, the studio behind Rocksmith, Rocksmith 2014, and South Park: The Fractured But Whole has made an impact by creating games unlike any other Ubisoft studio.
More than a decade ago, Ubisoft’s presence in San Francisco looked very different. While the city was home to Ubisoft’s North American business and marketing headquarters, the idea of a studio wasn’t even under consideration. At the time, Higo was a senior producer working on third-party games alongside third-party game director Paul Cross. Together, the two worked closely with non-Ubisoft studios to help develop games that Ubisoft would publish. Cross helped the teams evaluate their games from a creative standpoint to make them as successful as possible, while Higo was in charge of budgeting, schedules, and logistics. Embedded within these third-party studios for months, if not years, the pair helped them meet their goals, but quickly found that the experience and knowhow they brought to the studio quickly disappeared after the game launched and they left the studio.
Rather than repeating the process of embedding within a studio and bringing knowledge and workflow improvements over and over again, Higo and Cross had another idea: What if they could start a small studio in San Francisco that would conceive of and develop game prototypes, which could then be developed by a larger studio? The two pitched the idea opening a small studio in SF with the goal of starting development on an action game to Ubisoft NCSA President, Laurent Detoc. Detoc liked the idea, but he had another project in mind for the nascent studio.
“There was a small studio called Game Tank that had been trying to sell us a prototype for a game called Guitar Rising that followed the principle of a highway of notes, but used a real guitar instead of a plastic one,” says Detoc. “I thought it was a good idea, so I encouraged them to work on the project that would become Rocksmith. It was an opportunity to do something that we could own, and that we could grow into.”
Detoc’s decision made a lot of sense. In 2009, franchises like Guitar Hero and Rock Band were as popular as ever, but those games relied on plastic instruments and didn’t translate to real-world counterparts. Game Tank’s technology allowed the game to detect the actual note on the player’s guitar. The technology was unlike anything else on the videogame industry. With Rocksmith, Ubisoft San Francisco had the opportunity to teach players how to play a real guitar, and have fun while doing it.
Head to the company overview page of the Ubisoft website, and you’ll see a statement that says, “Ubisoft is a creator of worlds, committed to enriching players’ lives with original and memorable gaming experiences.” For Detoc, few games embody that statement more than Rocksmith.
“Rocksmith exemplifies the notion of ‘enriching player’s lives,’ says Detoc. “It’s very creative and outside the boundaries of other games we (Ubisoft) make. Rocksmith teaches our players a new real-world skill.”
With Detoc’s approval, the SF studio was born and had its first project. The only issue was that Higo and Cross knew nothing about playing the guitar, a skill that seemed necessary when developing a game like Rocksmith. Thankfully, they weren’t the only ones tasked with making this new game. Two developers from the original Guitar Rising project, Jake Parks and Nick Bonardi, joined the team in the Game Tank acquisition and brought their expertise to the table. But this presented another issue: Guitar Rising was a game built by people who knew how to play the guitar, and as a result, it relied on a very traditional user interface that mirrored real-life, printed-out tablature music. If the team was going to teach people how to play the guitar, they needed a new approach. In the end, Higo and Cross’ lack of familiarity with the instrument, combined with Parks and Bonardi’s experience, ended up being the perfect combination.
“We approached the game from the standpoint of someone who didn’t know guitar whatsoever,” says Higo. “We would ask Nick (Bonardi) questions like, ‘How would you teach us to play if you could only give us directions over the phone?’ So we built the game that way, and that approach led to the interface we have now.”
Rocksmith launched in 2011, and successfully taught players how to play the guitar, and later bass guitar. Two years later, the studio launched Rocksmith 2014 and has been supporting it ever since with more than a thousand additional songs available as DLC.
“You could look at Rocksmith as the first live game by Ubisoft,” says Detoc. “Rocksmith now has more than 1,500 pieces of DLC. This loop of additions and retention was in Rocksmith before it was in any other game.”
What came next for the studio was unlike anything it, or Ubisoft, had done before. Following the bankruptcy of THQ in 2013, Ubisoft acquired the publishing rights to South Park: The Stick of Truth, a game developed by third-party studio Obsidian Entertainment. With all the other Ubisoft studios busy, and SF’s history of working with third parties, Detoc knew that Ubisoft San Francisco was the right studio to help ship the final game.
“That was a difficult project, because the game switched publishers from THQ to Ubisoft,” says Higo. “In that handover, we took over the project. We thought it’d be ready to ship in a matter of months, but we realized it was going to take a lot longer than expected. It allowed us to build a much stronger relationship with South Park Digital Studios and Obsidian.”
South Park: The Stick of Truth launched in 2014, but despite its positive reception, it initially seemed like the game might be the last venture into videogames for South Park Digital Studios.
“At the end of the project, Matt (Parker) and Trey (Stone) were exhausted, and said they were done making games,” says Higo. “But after the game came out and did really well, they came back around and said that they found the process to be really rewarding, and that they wanted to make another game with us.”
That other game was South Park: The Fractured But Whole, and this time, Ubisoft San Francisco (and sister studio, Ubisoft Osaka) was in charge of developing it from the start. As a studio primarily focused on Rocksmith, building an RPG from the ground up was new territory for Ubisoft San Francisco, and required the team to grow quite a bit. After having launched Rocksmith with a team of around 30 developers, the SF studio expanded to nearly 100 employees (in addition to 60 more in Osaka) during the development of The Fractured But Whole.
The game presented another challenge for Ubisoft, one that San Francisco was also uniquely suited to address: Ubisoft may have been developing the game, but it was first and foremost a South Park game, and required close collaboration with South Park Digital Studios in Los Angeles. It was imperative that the studios have constant communication and being in the same time zone was an important factor. The collaboration even went so far as to embed Ubisoft developers directly in the South Park studio and, thanks to an innovative production pipeline, the studio could incorporate assets and animations from South Park artists directly into the game, a feat that’s extremely uncommon in videogames.
“Our Editorial team’s influence on South Park was unusual,” Says Detoc. “Usually Editorial is used to guide the direction of a game at Ubisoft, they helped with design, production audit, and resources but with The Fractured But Whole, the final call resided with the creatives who owned the brand, Matt and Trey themselves.”
The Fractured But Whole launched in 2017, and now Ubisoft San Francisco looks toward the future with an eye on its innovative past. The team is currently working on two different projects, both of which are aiming to fulfill the studio’s reputation for innovation and changing the expectations of what a Ubisoft game is.
“We need more innovation, and games that break away from videogame formulas,” says Detoc. “Here in SF, that’s what our studio breeds. We need more innovation, and games that bring something new and exciting.”
Games like Rocksmith and South Park have given Ubisoft San Francisco a reputation for being up to the task of creating new types of games for Ubisoft. It’s a reputation – and a challenge – that the studio embraces.
“Ubisoft San Francisco is a relatively small studio,” says Higo. “That comes with its own unique challenges and opportunities. It makes us say, ‘OK, we need to make different kinds of games.’ I’d like us to be the team that surprises people with innovation.”