How Ubisoft’s editorial teams are quietly changing games like Assassin’s Creed, Roller Champions

You are probably familiar with the professions of video game development as a programmer, artist or designer. But one of the most influential roles at Ubisoft is one that isn’t always immediately analyzed for most people: the role of its editorial team.

This advisory group’s job is, on a large scale, to determine the creative direction of Ubisoft and its games, and it has been upended lately. The editorial team had has already been reviewed early 2020, only to need another one later that year after a wave of abuse allegations received from several senior Ubisoft employeesincluding editorial managers.

In the pre-2020 structure, reports suggested that many Ubisoft games ended the same way due to just one or two people dictating the creative direction of the company as a whole. And while the initial team shake-up was well-intentioned enough, it left at least two people with allegations against them dictating the company’s creative pillars. So we still had to change.

That’s where Fawzi Mesmar came in. Mesmar joined Ubisoft as Editorial VP just over a year ago, with nearly two decades of industrial design experience at such as Atlus, Gameloft, King and EA DICE. He took office at a particularly tenuous time, and while his team’s overall directive to shape the creative direction of the company remains intact, the nuances seem to be changing. Speaking to IGN, Mesmar describes the outline of his role as working with senior management to establish a “creative framework” to help lead individual game teams in their creative visions. They set the pillars in place, then help teams achieve them throughout the development process.

“We treat them as guidelines,” says Mesmar. “So that these aren’t things that every project has to have or every project has to adhere to. These are creative guidelines. Think of them as a framework you can use to activate your creativity, but not as a checkbox you need to fix…and a game can’t be everything. We wouldn’t expect [that from] even games that want to follow the guidelines or take some of these criteria into consideration. Games should be about what they are and who they are for.

What is this framework? At Mesmar hinted at it before, and it actually revolves around three pillars. The first, “total focus on quality,” is pretty self-explanatory. The second is to create culturally meaningful games, which Mesmar describes as a drive to create games that form the overall fabric of pop culture as a whole. So, frankly, games that are well made and that a lot of people love – pretty simple.

The third pillar is a bit different – ​​Mesmar wants to “create third spaces”.

“If work is your first space and home is your second, then the third space is this… You can just walk in, out, and connect with like-minded individuals or groups of people where you can express yourself and connect freely.. I’d like to think of it as a skate park. You can introduce yourself [whenever] in a skatepark, even if you don’t want to skate, you just sit down and hang around.

Joining Mesmar in his efforts is Raashi Sikka, another recent recruit who joined Ubisoft in February 2021 following the same storm of allegations that rocked the editorial team. Sikka is Ubisoft’s Vice President for Global Diversity, Accessibility and Inclusion – a role that Ubisoft previously did not have at all. She tells me that while D&I efforts existed in the company before, they hadn’t all been brought together under one banner before.

“Things were happening, they were just happening in different places used by different teams using different words and language,” she says. “And what we’ve really tried to do is come together with a common direction, a common vocabulary and language and a North Star that the whole organization – 20,000 people – can support and help us move forward in this common direction.”

While Sikka’s role spans Ubisoft’s human teams, it also overlaps with Mesmar’s in that they both work with creative teams to ensure game content is more diverse and inclusive. Concretely, this involves having conversations with development teams at various stages of the project to determine where diversity and inclusion topics might have a role in everything they do. Mesmar explains that depending on where they are in the project, these conversations can take different forms, ranging from high-level internal design discussions to asking external consultants for input to dissecting feedback and data from players.

What happens, I ask, if there is a conflict between something the editorial team suggests and what the development team wants?

It’s hard for five or six people to agree on where they want to go for lunch. Imagine hundreds of people working for years on a creative business.

“We provide the team with player feedback, then the team owns their creative vision, and then they decide how they want to continue their game based on the feedback,” Mesmar replies. “It’s hard for five or six people to agree on where they want to go for lunch. Imagine if it’s hundreds of people working for years on a very creative and personal business. There will be disagreements in point of view, of course, and I think that’s an inevitable part of the creative process. But that’s why the assignment of ownership, which is creative ownership, still belongs to the team. »

Sikka adds that conversations like these are rarely binary either and are usually very nuanced. But the value is in being able to talk about it with a group of people who aren’t deep-seated, experts and consultants at your fingertips, and lots of data.

“When it comes to doing a review at the last stage of a game, what we tend to give the team in terms of feedback is high, low, medium risks of that. what we see and what we think needs to change,” she says. “When something is going to be flagged as high [risk] that we think it’s really not in line with our values, we try to make sure it goes beyond a conversation and we take action.

As of now, neither can go into much detail about how this will impact Ubisoft’s games – they’ve only been working on it for about a year so far, much of their work is still under development and not announced.

Sikka, however, wanted to claim a specific victory that the team has already won: the Content Review group.

“This was born out of a need we heard from our development teams; [they wanted] have diverse sounding boards, get feedback from a diverse set of team members not working directly on the project to ensure that [they’re] be inclusive and respectful and celebrate the diversity of [their] Game. So we created this group of volunteers, we have a hundred people who bring their voices and their points of view to these different projects, and we launched it as a pilot. It turned out to be really successful. We have a team of approximately two full-time staff members dedicated to running the process and managing the over 100 volunteers and interacting with development teams around the world.

She adds that the Content Review Group was particularly important to Roller Champions, creating its diverse cast of characters and giving feedback on the different outfits and hairstyles. And for more fruits of their labor, she urges people to look forward to the next Assassin’s Creed: Mirage.

“Apart from content review, the inclusive games and content team has been instrumental in assisting external experts with calligraphy, [Arab] names, Arabic culture. It’s so exciting to see where this is and how our players will receive it in the future.

She then pitches to Mesmar, saying she knows he’s particularly excited about Mirage.

“For me, when the first Assassin’s Creed had the guy on horseback in Damascus and that was one of the first times in the game where I saw my culture represented,” he says. “And now that Mirage is coming to Baghdad in this historic time, I can’t wait for our players to experience it.”

Rebekah Valentine is a reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.

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