When Far Cry 6 launched in October 2021, Narrative Director Navid Khavari reflected on what it meant to work on such a large production, with all of the individual creators that were involved. Khavari enjoyed figuring out how developers on the team could connect to their own creative voices while working on a massive project. This experience led him to a key takeaway from production: Developers in senior positions within the AAA space need to elevate the personal voices of their team in order to make a better product.
During a presentation at the 2022 Game Developers Conference, Khavari discussed the concept of moving from the “voices in the machine” of AAA development to “voices of the machine,” and outlined steps to help elevate personal voices so that creators can become connected to their work, which leads to making a more compelling game.
“Corporate structures in game dev are growing more massive by the day, and that has a knock-on effect to the creatives that work within them,” Khavari says. “Which leads to feeling like a cog in a machine, that you don't have much control over the creative, that you don't have a voice. This will lead to a feeling of alienation, a lack of focus, and disassociation with what you're creating.”
How can this be avoided? How can creators speak through their work? Khavari says it starts from the top. “It really requires investment from management on down, both production and creative management. You have an extra burden of responsibility to protect the voices on your team,” says Khavari. “You have a wealth of knowledge, ability, and vitality on your team, so you need to be an active participant in encouraging their voices, and the game will reap the rewards.”
Say you’re working on a AAA game, and you want to protect your creative voice while also making room for others around you. Where do you start? Khavari recommends applying a methodology that he breaks down into four parts:
"You have a wealth of knowledge, ability, and vitality on your team, so you need to be an active participant in encouraging their voices, and the game will reap the rewards."
Part 1: The Cog Mindset
First, start with a baseline of what to avoid within the AAA framework. The cog mindset is a state of being lost in the scale of your project, where your focus is to deliver what you think is expected, instead of a unique perspective. To recognize the cog mindset, Khavari says to look for the warning signs: these include telling yourself things like “I am lucky to be here,” “I’m just one person,” and “I don’t know where to start.”
Khavari says these thoughts are common when a creative first joins a large team, but, in his case, lasted for years. He also warns against what he calls “the shine” of AAA: watching your ideas turn from paper to fully playable realities on a massive scale. Khavari says he became dependent on the exhilaration of “the shine,” and he noticed he was still stuck in the cog mindset. “I was working with amazing teams, fantastic people, respected games, but my own connection to the work felt strained, as if it was a different person working on them,” says Khavari.
To find your voice, Khavari says, you need to seek out other voices first. “From a management perspective, it's incredibly easy to forget that the creative fuels the machine, and the creative comes from personal voices. And if that's lost in the scale in an expectation you might unknowingly be setting on your team, not only does the game suffer, but so do you.”
Part 2: Spend Their Money
The next step is to recognize that game development is collaborative, and requires exploration and research of the project context from as many angles as possible. It all starts with the question, “What is the game you’re making?” In the case of Far Cry 6, one of the sources of inspiration for the team was the Cuban Revolution during the late 1950s, as well as a global rise of fascism. “The experience we wanted our players to have was of a guerrilla revolution – specifically to become a guerrilla revolutionary, fighting a powerful fascist regime,” says Khavari.
To create the Caribbean-island setting of Yara and bring the revolutionary Dani Rojas to life, the Far Cry 6 team needed to find more voices, and to do that, they needed to spend money. With the support of expert researchers, the team spent several weeks on trips conducting research, gathering photos, doing video interviews, and getting out of their comfort zone.
“Even though it was a massive undertaking, it's important to remember this was a fraction of the budget of a AAA game,” says Khavari. “A fraction, and the benefits were enormous.”
In addition, the narrative team sought out additional voices and consultants. “We actually formed a bond with other departments to do this, specifically our marketing team,” Khavari says. “We work very closely together to find these individuals to look at what we're doing and develop a pipeline of consultation.”
Notes and ideas from consultants improved the game and broadened the team’s perspective, but Khavari says the learning doesn’t need to stop there. “I think we have to break that mold, which means continuously seeking out voices,” Khavari says. “And there's no better place to look than the team itself.”
“The creative fuels the machine, and the creative comes from personal voices. And if that's lost in the scale in an expectation you might unknowingly be setting on your team, not only does the game suffer, but so do you.”
Part 3: Team Voices
Just as an individual can fall into a trap of feeling like a cog in a AAA machine, managers can feel the same thing, which Khavari warns can turn into a vicious cycle. “While the instinct on a project of this scale is to have voices stay within their own disciplines, it's a very, very big missed opportunity,” says Khavari. “There are so many voices surrounding you, looking to speak out, who can give their unique perspectives.”
For Far Cry 6, there were many examples where individual voices from the team helped improve the game. During the creation of the character Paulo de la Vega, one of the heads of Máximas Matanzas who is also a transgender man, the Far Cry 6 team worked with several members of the Toronto chapter of Ubisoft’s LGBTQI+ employee resource group. They held lengthy in-depth discussions with transgender team members and the voice actor himself, Xavier Lopez, to ensure the character of Paulo did not fall into tropes and was being done justice.
Early on in development, a translation group was set up within the Far Cry 6 team, made up of members from multiple perspectives from the Latinx community who are fluent in Spanish and who wanted to help. “What I find even more special is that the characters’ success came from the voices of individuals on teams whose titles range from QC to level design to the actors themselves, which is exactly what you're hoping for when seeking out team voices,” Khavari says.
The Far Cry 6 team wasn’t being asked to seek these voices out, but pushed to create space and learn from these individuals. Khavari also believes it’s important to distinguish that this is not free work, and that in regard to employee resource groups, compensation for their time is critical. “As creators, these voices provide fuel to your process to learn to have a connection to the material. And quite honestly, as you continue to do this, you'll want to fight for them,” says Khavari. “For all this to happen, there needs to be that ask to elevate team voices, and the answer, particularly from management, always needs to be yes. Otherwise, this machine will go on and the game will lose out on beautiful opportunities.”
Part 4: Find Your Connection
Finally, it’s time to find your connection to the work. When you’re looking at making space for your own personal voice, watch out for self-censorship. While doing the research and seeking out voices that you’re looking to represent, Khavari says to recognize that there are universal themes that you might connect to, and give yourself permission to seek your own point of view. Khavari says to start with a bit of self-interrogation: “Map it out. Lay out your connections to the experience. Is there anything that you relate to that could make you empathize with the game world you're creating?”
To find his own voice on Far Cry 6, Khavari mapped out the themes of the game from a zoomed-out level, looking at what the characters would be grappling with. “I began highlighting elements I connected to, such as the immigrant experience, or self-preservation, or the costs of revolution,” Khavari says. “For the immigrant experience, I tapped into thinking about how my family had to flee a revolution, growing up in different countries – that feeling of growing up between two worlds and not belonging to either was very familiar to us. Growing up in a space that might not understand why revolutions are fought, or what the consequences are.”
“It's really necessary to cultivate those direct connections and to honor your inspirations,” Khavari says. “Drawing from the personal is difficult, it can even be scary, but doing so keeps individual creators at the heart of game development, no matter the scale of the project.”
In conclusion, Khavari offers a reminder that for any of this to work, management from the very top on down must invest in making space for creative voices to be heard.
“There will always be a bottom line and a difficulty to shape the creative into a time frame,” says Khavari. “But that space needs to be actively created. And if you can do this effectively, the production becomes less of a machine and more of a community, working to give players an experience they might have never had before.”