Once a year, developers from Ubisoft studios around the world gather in Montreal for the Ubisoft Developers Conference (UDC). Much like the industry-wide Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco, UDC is a place for Ubisoft developers to attend presentations and participate in workshops in order to learn from their peers and share their knowledge. As the conference celebrates its 10th edition by kicking off this week, it is clear that UDC has become an integral component in Ubisoft's ability to create a culture of sharing across its more than 40 studios worldwide.
Chantal Castonguay (left) and Rima Brek (right)
As a series, Empowering the Creators, seeks to shed light on the ways in which individuals at Ubisoft lead, motivate, and empower their teams. UDC is a prime example of how Ubisoft looks to serve its developers on a company-wide level. To learn more about the event and the impact it has, we spoke with Chantal Castonguay, Director of the Montreal's Talent Development team, who helps produce the conference; and Rima Brek, Associate Managing Director at Ubisoft Toronto, and this year's UDC keynote speaker.
What is UDC? What purpose does it serve?
Rima Brek: UDC is an internal sharing opportunity for our teams to get together across different studios and different projects. It's a time to get together for knowledge sharing, to make contact, to make connections with other people on other projects who are going through the same things.
Chantal Castonguay: UDC was created for our developer community to get together to exchange ideas and processes. It's also meant to help build community so that sharing, collaboration, and learning can happen across studios throughout the year. We have hundreds of attendees, but we also livestream the main events, and we make all presentations available for Ubisoft employees to watch the next day.
Where did UDC come from? Was it inspired by GDC?
RB: In 2008, the Technology Group in Montreal organized a small two-day event. There was a very small number of attendees and only one track of presentations to attend, but people from other studios were included. All the presentations were Technology Group products, either middleware or tools. It was an opportunity for the Tech Group to share the tech development that was being done, and it had the same idea of bringing people together to share. The first UDC was really inspired by that event.
I think there are two important elements that make it different from GDC: First, we have teams that do great things, and develop features that allow our games to stand out, and we weren't necessarily exposing the great work our teams were doing as much as we could or should have. UDC is an opportunity to do that, to be proud of our accomplishments. Second, and this is something you can't accomplish at GDC, is the level of transparency we can have because it's an internal conference; this allows us to share more about the failures and screw-ups that are so important to learning.
CC: Whenever we talk about UDC, we say that the advantage of UDC is that you're among family. There are tons of confidential things we can't share externally, but at UDC, we can share those things freely. It really wasn't based on trying to recreate GDC; it was always created to say, "How can we innovate more? How can we avoid having to reinvent the wheel?"
What are your roles when it comes to producing UDC?
CC: Well first, the members of the Montreal Talent Development team are super involved in the logistic of the event and they are also the ones facilitating all the workshops during UDC, so the week of UDC it's all hands on deck!
As for me, my responsibility is to be part of the content committee. We have experts that select the talks, but as a member of the content committee, my role is to make sure that the final agenda answers some of the questions we need to consider: "Is this what developers need? Does it fit our priorities, and does it align with our production team needs?, Is this the best way to share this knowledge? " For example, someone might submit a 45-minute talk, and we might say, "This might be better as a summit, where people can talk back and forth and build a common plan." Personally, I am also hosting the event. I'll be welcoming in the developers, and explaining logistics to everyone.
RB: I've been invited to do the opening keynote for the event. I'm preparing a presentation for the beginning of the conference.
CC: We wanted Rima to open the conference for many reasons, but one of them is that she's been there from the beginning, and this being the 10th UDC, we felt like it was a good fit. She's involved in the tech world in a way that's very relevant to our attendees.
Can you give us a tease of what you'll talk about in your keynote?
RB: I've been at Ubisoft for 21 years now, and I've been around for every UDC, so I want to do a bit of a retrospective on the last 10 years of the conference, and looking at how far we've come in the last decade. At the same time, we're still dealing with a lot of the same challenges when it comes to sharing and reusing tech. I want to show the instances where our teams have been able to come together and collaborate to create some real successes.
I'm hoping to end with a bit of a call to action to all our attendees, because at Ubisoft, some of our best ideas and best innovations come from the bottom up. We're a great company when it comes to giving everyone a voice. If you've got a great idea, and you've got a vision on how you can make that a reality and bring more value to the player, you have an opportunity to push your ideas forward.
How has the event evolved in the past 10 years?
RB: Oh, it's become huge. The first UDC was one track, meaning there was only one presentation happening at a time. Everyone was in the same room, watching the same presentation. Now, there are multiple tracks, so our developers have choices for what presentations they want to attend. I think it allows the event to attract a wider audience; it allows people to come and really dig into certain topics with much more depth.
CC: As Rima said, it all started with one main track and now we have simultaneously, one main track, one side track and usually one to two summits during each of the four days. To give you an idea, the first year, we had about 17 presentations and now if I add all the presentations for this year we are up to 121 presentations! The main track is designed to touch some of the most important topics for that year, but also what could be most interesting for a larger audience.
As for the specialized tracks, they are more specific and go more deeply into an important topic such as the AI track for instance. During the specialized tracks people are learning but they are also usually staying together the whole day and therefore the community around that topic grows even more. Yes, there are the formal learnings going on, but there is also the networking that happens, as well. So even after UDC ends, a developer in Montreal can reach out to a developer in Singapore, because they met at UDC and connected.
These days, we also have summits. Summits are usually full day workshops where a smaller group of people are working together on a certain topic. For example, automated testing is a big topic for us, so developers will get together in a summit and work together, accomplish certain objectives, and when they leave, have a set of actions that they will be doing as a community.
What has working on UDC taught you about Ubisoft?
CC: Personally, there are plenty of things that amaze me. We have incredibly passionate people here at Ubisoft. People that want to share, that want to be transparent, that want to collaborate. So often, I see people that are extremely busy on production, but still chose to prepare a presentation, knowing that the information is important to share and could help another project. UDC also highlights just how important development is for our company. Where else do you see managers tell their teams to leave their studio, spend an entire week in Montreal, and learn? It's such a strong message, as a company, that we're invested in our developers.
RB: I agree with everything Chantal said [laughs]. We have a ton of talented people, so it's amazing when we're able to bring so many of them together. I think one interesting realization for me is that from the start, the focus was that we need to encourage our teams to share more. And what quickly becomes apparent when you get people in a room is that everybody agrees; no one disagrees that sharing is important. Nobody wants to reinvent the wheel; it's just hard. It takes a lot of effort. Everyone agrees fundamentally, so we don't need to convince anybody of the value. It's just, how do we support them in their day-to-day work once they return to their respective studios?
Why do you think managers encourage their teams to attend UDC?
RB: I think it's a really unique opportunity. What you learn in those few days is super valuable, but even more valuable is the impact it has over the rest of the year. The connections and contacts our developers make grow and last throughout the year, and it's one of the few times that developers from different studios can get in-person face time with each other.
CC: Well, because they know how much people get from this event! The thing I often tell Montreal managers is to encourage their developers to actually go in person to the presentations because sometimes people will say, "Oh, I'll watch it on the livestream." But the value of being there in-person is unmatched, because so much of it is networking and meeting your peers.
Do the learnings and takeaways impact current projects, or are they intended to help on the next project that a developer will be working on?
RB: Both, especially when it comes to the workshops. Often, developers will discover that one team is going through a similar struggle or challenge, and if there's two teams trying to solve the same challenge, they can come together at UDC and have an opportunity to find solutions together.
CC: I agree that it's both, for instance some of the presentations this year in the main track are discussing cloud gaming, and they're looking a little at what has been done, but mostly showing the process that's happening right now. The hope is that by sharing, we encourage people to join in that process.
RB: It's interesting, because you end up with a mix of people at different stages of projects. You have some people who just shipped [their game] who are sharing key takeaways from their experience, while others are still in the conception phase. You have a dynamic shift where some people are there to share knowledge and some are there to absorb and learn, and then the year after, it's a reversal of roles.
How does the event grow and evolve?
CC: We have some thorough surveys that we send out to our attendees, and we really do listen to the feedback we get. For example, we used to have roundtables, but this year we replaced them entirely with summits and workshops, because we received feedback that while it was great to talk during roundtables, talking was the only result. We heard that people wanted common next steps, concrete actions that they could execute on afterwards. We switched the format to adapt to what people were telling us. In order to continue throughout the year, we need things to work on after the conference. The goal is for UDC to be this moment that brings people together, and then allows them to continue working together during the entire year.
We also try to see how Ubisoft evolves and make sure that the event represents that evolution. For instance, as Rima explained, the first few editions where really tech oriented, so now, while it is still oriented for developers we understand that developers work less and less in silos, so you see presentations that are bringing together designers and programmers and we even have an operation track that is less focused on tech. So the goal is to have an event that is more wholistic rather than focus on one specific angle.
Ubisoft has studios all over the world, many of which frequently work with one another. Was the desire to share born out of that, or is it intrinsic to Ubisoft's identity?
CC: To me, UDC really reflects the culture of Ubisoft. I think it sends a huge statement that says to our developers, "Your work is important, you should be proud of your work, and we want you to collaborate."
RB: I think it is part of the culture at Ubisoft; we encourage our teams to not work against each other. We all want Ubisoft to be successful, and we all want each other to succeed. I think our teams really embrace the idea that we're all rooting for each other. At times, we call on our teams to help each other out as well. When one project is shipping, and they have a big challenge ahead or are facing an issue, it's not uncommon to turn to another team that may be at an earlier phase of their own project and ask them to lend an expert hand to come consult on the challenge. It's always been in our culture and our way of doing things. It's just smart common sense; we're more than the sum of our parts.