25 years of video game success for Ubisoft Montreal
The Montreal studio has given birth to legendary game series, such as Assassin's Creed, Prince of Persia, Far Cry, Watch Dogs , Rainbow Six and Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell.
Christophe Derennes, CEO of Ubisoft Montreal, has left France to settle in the metropolis in 1997 with his wife and two young children.
When Christophe Derennes, now general manager of Ubisoft Montreal, moved with his family to the Quebec metropolis in 1997, he had no idea that, 25 years later, the studio in the Mile-End district would become the largest in the world, with 4,000 employees.
Initially, the small team of some 50 members cherished the dream of quadrupling its size in five years. The growth turned out to be well beyond expectations. After two years, the studio had 400 [people], recalls Christophe Derennes, who was at the forefront of this meteoric rise.
Ubisoft Montreal has occupied the offices of the Peck building since its beginnings in the Quebec metropolis.
At the end of the 90s, Derennes was responsible for setting up the French studio in Montreal, with his colleague Sabine Hamelin, now back in Europe. The duo made several round trips between France and Quebec, looking for the perfect offices to settle in. The choice fell on a booming district, the Mile-End, more precisely in the former John W. Peck textile factory, which still hosts the premises of Ubisoft.
It all started on the fifth floor of the historic building, where spaces were already rented to technology companies. Success after success, the team quickly felt cramped in the premises, pushing Ubisoft to also settle on other floors, to finally occupy the entire building.
Ubisoft Montreal is behind several successful video game series. The Mile-End studio displays them on a wall.
The studio's successes were customary from its beginnings, starting with the game Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell, released in 2002, then Prince of Persia: Sands of Time the following year. In 2007, it was the consecration with the launch of the triumphant Assassin's Creed series. Far Cry, Watch Dogs and Rainbow Six are also among the great list of successes that bear the signature of the Montreal studio.
In 1997, Montreal was a wise choice for Ubisoft's first breakthrough in North America.
There were certainly financial incentives, such as grants awarded by Bernard Landry, who dreamed to make Quebec a global hub for the video game industry – mission accomplished 25 years later, the province ranking third in the world in this area.
< p>“In Montreal, there was this particular energy, […] a rich diversity […] and this insatiable desire [to make its mark] in the video game industry. »
— Christophe Derennes, General Manager of Ubisoft Montreal
The city of 100 steeples was also a strategic choice for Ubisoft: its proximity to the United States, a flourishing, makes the competition blush, and that's without taking into account the fact that the same language is spoken there as in France. It was the best of both worlds, believes the DG.
Christophe Derennes has worked for Ubisoft for over 30 years. He started out in Montreuil, France, where he was responsible, among other things, for the computerization of the company.
The province of Quebec could also count on several engineering schools, including the University of Sherbrooke, Polytechnique Montreal and the École de technologie supérieure (ÉTS).
“There was an academic hub here, a pool of students with a solid foundation, and not just in development, also in art and design. We wanted to emphasize that [in our games]. »
Remember that at the end of the 90s, the Internet was making its way into Quebec homes and 3D was on the rise, especially with the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation consoles. Video game design was not yet taught in schools.
Even though it's been around since Ubisoft's Montreal infancy – with the exception of a stint from two years at the turn of the millennium at the helm of Gameloft Montreal — Christophe Derennes only took over as head of the studio in 2020.
It was he who had the daunting task of taking over the reins of the company after allegations of a toxic climate and sexism caused heads to roll in the office, including that of Yannis Mallat, the studio's former director. .
“It should never have happened, and we are doing everything to prevent it from happening again. »
When I arrived at the job, I asked to meet all the teams, in order to understand what could be done to improve the [work climate], he says.
Among recent initiatives, the director hired an ombudsman, established an independent whistleblower process, established a code of conduct and created a training package for managers to take.
“I think we have succeeded [in recovering from the crisis], and [these measures] are here to stay. »
The director also admits to having turned to his children – now aged 26 and 29 – to better understand issues around diversity and inclusion.
I understood that diversity, for example, is not just a subject, it is them. It's part of people, of who they are as a person, he admits.
The efforts of the DG translate into the video games themselves. For example, the shooter Rainbow Six Siegehas integrated agents from marginalized communities for the past two years, an idea that comes from the team.
Agent Osa is part of the attackers' camp in “Rainbow Six Siege”.
The first Indigenous character, doctor Thunderbird, entered the battlefield in 2021, followed by Florès, the first gay agent. The character of Osa, for her part, broke a glass ceiling by being the first transgender operator in a AAA video game (a blockbuster). The latest recruit, Sens, is non-binary.
And it goes on. We cannot rest on our laurels, insists Christophe Derennes.
Ubisoft Montreal also wants to attract more female developers to its ranks, a long-term task that is done from early school age by introducing young people to video game careers. In the context of a pandemic and a labor shortage, the challenge is all the greater.
Overnight, we went from 4,000 to office at 0, Pointe Derennes.
Although the studio believes that it has adapted well to this new work reality, video game releases have nevertheless had to be postponed, including that of Rainbow Six Extraction, finally launched in January 2022. This is in addition to the juggling of recruitment, which is particularly difficult in the context of a staff shortage.
Ubisoft Montreal has some 4000 members of staff, making it the largest video game studio.
The company still did well, according to Christophe Derennes, who says he recruited 700 people last year, a record number.
Now that the pandemic is waning and the return to the office has begun, it's time to adapt to hybrid work. In addition, the famous fifth floor where it all started for Ubisoft Montreal has been renovated in this sense, in order to recall the atmosphere of the house. Among other things, you can find a giant television, a sofa and video game consoles, and desks that are not assigned to specific team members.
The 5th floor of the Peck Building was recently renovated to accommodate the new reality of hybrid working. The space has been designed to look like home, with a living room and game consoles, for example.
Ubisoft has also worked on numerous incentives to increase staff retention, including the addition of weeks off and a better work-family balance with telecommuting. Ultimately, it's the employees who will decide how things turn out, he says.
What next for a video game studio that is already crowned the most big in the world? The CEO believes that the future of Ubisoft rests among other things on AAA mobile games, but also big budget gigaproductions, known as AAAA.
The leader always keeps in mind spirit of remaining attentive to the players, a demanding public, he admits, but that he likes. After all, the community of video game enthusiasts has the final say on whether or not a title succeeds.
I'm very optimistic about the future of studio. I wish him another 25 years of success, but at this point, I hope I will have retired, says Christophe Derennes, laughing.