June 7, 2019

14 Min Read

inside ubisoft

Balancing Player Freedom with Politics – Q&A with Tommy Francois, VP of Editorial

Ubisoft open-world games are often based on or inspired by real-world people, places, politics, and issues affecting society. While our primary goal is always to entertain, Ubisoft development teams around the world also understand that our games are in a position to enrich the lives of our players, giving them the freedom to make their own choices and form their own opinions based on in-game experiences and themes. We spoke with Tommy Francois, Vice President of Editorial at Ubisoft, to learn more about what goes into creating these worlds, and how our teams weigh the responsibility of real-world influences against creating immersive interactive entertainment.

We've previously said our games aren't political. Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot clarified our stance by saying that we want players to form their own opinions based on what we present to them in our games. But let's circle back for a moment; why is this an issue in our industry to begin with?

Tommy Francois: Yves has told us that our goal is to give players all the information we can, and then let them choose which sides of our game worlds they want to explore. We want them to decide what they like, what they don't like, and if and how to change their minds or the way they play based on that information. It's about more freedom for the players.

But that is incredibly difficult to do. We make simulations that are fueled by systems. Those systems can range from physics, fauna, and flora, to others created by humans, such as companies, politics, and religion. The idea for us is that you are not a spectator. You are an actor. Usually, when you're a spectator and you watch a movie, you will see one point of view per movie – maybe a few. We believe that games should offer a 360-degree view of life, should let people interact with all points of view.

If my game was set during the Vietnam conflict, for example, we would want the Viet Minh, the Viet Cong ... basically everyone's point of view. And that relates back to people making up their own opinions and our ability to create more mature games that are nuanced, versus being black or white.

This is also linked to the strong belief that we are giving the opportunity for people to play with systems that reflect real life. When you manipulate them, you're drawing on knowledge or understanding of how these things function in the real world. We believe there's an opportunity there

Because we make systemic open worlds, and because player agency is at the center of all of this, we also had to rethink and try to reinvent narrative. And that comes with a bunch of really big challenges. The teams are working hard at getting this formula right. It's not easy. I believe that we're helping the medium move along, but it takes time to grow.

With movies and books, you have a very strong, authorial intent where the message, political or otherwise, is often quite clear. Is that just inherently different here? Because games are interactive, do we want players to create their own message, or at least become aware of one on their own?

TF: I couldn't say that of all games. Some games are heavily authored. Some games are linear. Some games will take a stance. But the type of games we make, which are open-world, systemic games, yes, it's inherent to the form of games we make.

That also implies that we have to suppose that every entity in an open-world game can be a gameplay element. It can be a character. It can be a location. It can be text. It can be UI [user interface]. It can be UX [user experience]. It's almost infinite. That's extremely challenging, but that's why we look at immersive theater. That's why we look at Secret Cinema, Sleep No More, and others to improve all forms of art where there is agency to have the experience you want and for you to pull your own point of view from that.

Do we have a line internally that we wouldn't ever cross in terms of presenting a side that we know is dicey? One where we know that there's not a really an experience worth exploring there?

TF: Generally, no. As we are building the game, in most instances, there tends to be self-censorship that we actually fight. My boss, Serge Hascoet, the CCO [Chief Creative Officer] for Ubisoft, has often told teams, "I have never had to censor you guys. You censor yourselves. Please push me and make us consider whether we should censor you, because it would be proof that you're saying things. And I'd rather have this problem."

We have had discussions on how do we deal with this. We are scared sometimes as we are world-building. That was the case for Far Cry 5. It is a great game, but it just wasn't possible to present all points of view and perspectives. We believe that ultimately, in the future, players should be able to go in the game world, have as many different experiences as they want, experience as many different political views as they want, as many religions as they want ... as many different fantasies as they want.

There's an avid intent to make these games as rich as real life. But we don't want to narrow it down to just political systems or views. We'd like everything life has, the systems from real life that create the immersion that makes every day different, because we want each player to have a different experience and ultimately share and grow from it.

By doing things this way, we hope we can help people's perspectives on real life. We hope we can help people accept differences because they will have experienced other points of view.

In essence then, we're creating these real-world-influenced sandboxes, and we're trying to fill them with things that will create these rich experiences. Then is the real question, or the danger, that we could be creating sympathy towards things we know aren't necessarily the best things about society and the real world within these sandboxes?

TF: Yes, we could. And some people will be scared by that. We build worlds that are grounded in reality. We do take liberties because we need to make things different and fun. Maybe it's harder to see, but it still applies to fantasy and sci-fi. Those still are reflecting themes from society. Star Wars is touching on fascism. Harry Potter is touching on education, puberty, and other moments in life. I'm extremely adamant about not simply accepting preconceived ideas. Instead of being scared, know your enemy, or learn more about something that you think you don't like. I think that video games can help with that. They can talk to things in real life. They can make us better people.

How much extra pressure does that put on us in presenting these other real-world ideologies accurately? Does that put a huge weight on our teams?

TF: Of course it does. It puts a humongous weight on our teams, because the closer you are to the reality, the easier it is to see the uncanny valley that can come across as a poor portrayal or disrespect to any type of people and beliefs. When we feel that it tends to be too stereotypical or disrespectful of certain things, we will pull back. It makes me sad, actually, when I see some of the stuff that has been cut. We cut for production issues, obviously, because we have great ambitions, but also need to finish games. But there also are other reasons for cutting. Sometimes, the team doesn't feel comfortable with how something is being portrayed. We don't think we're doing it justice. So, yes, there is a humongous pressure.

Video games are young. We compare ourselves to movies. We compare ourselves to books. Some of these things have been around for centuries, or nearly a century. I think we're still learning. We're like young adults. We've learned from all these forms of entertainment. And we're currently building our own tropes. Just like young adults, you refute a lot of what you were told by your parents. And with age, you keep some of the values, and you create your own.

It's a slow climb, but the reason I believe in Ubisoft is because it gives creative teams the means to establish their values and their vision. I think that collectively, because Ubisoft has some of what I believe are the smartest and most talented people around, they will achieve that collectively.

I don't know how long that will take. It may be in small increments due to change of habits, due to technology evolving, due to our ability to improve on design, due to our ability to shift from linear narrative to emergent drama, or our ability to shift from reactive AI to deliberative AI that has its own agendas – maybe even political agendas that respond to stimulus. We're not there yet, but by no means should it be a reason not to give our teams the means to do that, or achieve that in the mid-to-long term versus short-term.

This is a healthy conversation to have in an industry that's still quite young, as you said. But where do you see this all leading to? Where is this all going? How is this going to affect games in the future?

TF: I wish I knew. It's probably one of the toughest questions. I look at videogames, and I have a lot of respect for people that make videogames differently than we do. I love Naughty Dog games that are linear. I believe there should be very different games and that, collectively, the industry will mature thanks to many different genres. In our case, we have this image of videogames potentially being like a matrix. What I mean by a matrix is a representation of real life where I have 1,000 lives, and I can learn from 1,000 mistakes, and become a better person, as a result. In what world that is, and what simulation that is, with what means, and on what tech? I don't have a clue. But this is where we are trying to push this. We do believe that.

"There's an avid intent to make these games as rich as real life. But we don't want to narrow it down to just political systems or views."

To clarify, what we want players to get out of these games is an education, or at least an experience of different ideologies, different worlds, different environments, different experiences, so that they can then formulate their own ideas, and then bring those with them, and interact with real world people with those ideas and those experiences. Would you say that's correct?

TF: That's correct. We don't want them to be apolitical. We want them to be include multiple political themes so players can experience multiple points of view, learn from them, educate, and share.

What would you say to people who are, in some ways, defending us from a different perspective by saying, "Look, we just want to play games that are fun?"

TF: That's fine. If people want to have fun and don't want to engage with some of these systems, I'm cool with it, too. People who just want to have fun, and not be exposed to these points of view, or experience it on a deeper level should be able to do what they want.

I want games that give players full autonomy. If someone just wants to have fun, let them have fun. If someone wants to have fun and interact with some of these things, that's fine, too.

What if we have someone who plays one of our games, like Far Cry 5, and they see the cult and say "Wow, I really like the idea of a cult," so they go and they join a cult. Do we have any sort of moral responsibility or any moral obligation in making sure that people understand that maybe that's not a good decision?

TF: That is a difficult subject to discuss, because we know entertainment often gets blamed. Movies have been blamed. Certain types music used to be called the devil's music because of all these kinds of fears.

I seriously hope we never have this impact, and that we don't make someone think a cult is a great place to go. But that's why I would love for people to see more granularity in points of views and see the pros and cons of any type of situation. It's a very difficult question to answer. I would hate for someone to suffer that way. Then again, people have agency over their life. But no, I would be very sad.

Sensationalism is not why we are creating games. It should be the same thing for any book, or any forms of art or entertainment that reflect themes in life. They are supposed to help us think and hopefully not make us lose our sense of perspective.

There's the parable of the elephant that comes into a village with a group of blind men. They all touch the elephant. One touches the leg and thinks it's a tree trunk. Another one touches the elephant's trunk and thinks it's a snake. The other one touches one of the elephant's tusks, and thinks it's a spear. They all think they're right. And they're fighting over it, deeply. But some dude walks in the village and tells them, "You're all right. None of you have the larger picture." I think videogames can give people the larger picture. I think we need to bring a larger perspective on this.

We need to be about problem solving. We need to be about taking a step back, and making people understand that nothing is simple in life. But that's cool. That's why it's interesting. And that's why games can be more interesting.

For Ubisoft as a company, how do you balance what you put out and what is able to be sold against this vision?

TF: It's sometimes difficult to see, but we try not to make any tradeoffs. We push. We push. And in the end, we ship what we can. But, you know, I don't think there's a single team inside or outside of Ubisoft that ever tries to make an average game. We always think we're going to make the game of our lives, so every time we start a game, even though we have all these constraints, we still have the belief that we are going to make the best piece of entertainment out there. Then, real life happens. But I do believe that in the process, even if it's just inches, we are moving along. And we're helping the industry as a whole.

Ultimately, yes, there is a disconnect between where we are setting the bar for the vision and what we are capable of doing today. But if it takes inch by inch, we will get there.

This is why I've been at Ubisoft for 12 years. And this is why I love working specifically for Serge, because this is not my message. This is something that I think is a core value at Ubisoft. Yes, it's taken time. Yes, it's a difficult road. But the talent, the people, the framework we're given is giving us the best chance to succeed.

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