As today is my last day at Ubisoft, here is my final reminiscing about the early years of my employment with the company…
In December 2005, Splinter Cell Double Agent X360 was in a dire situation. It was the first next-gen project undertaken by Ubisoft’s Shanghai studio, and as with all companies, the project ran into some really serious organizational problems. As a result, we didn’t have a game yet. We knew where we wanted to go, but we were stuck. And morale was at an all-time low.
Over the course of the previous year, I had become obsessed with management structures and quality. It felt to me that making a quality game was not the voodoo it usually seemed to be. I felt that quality games would happen if you focused the team on the right things, and showed them how to collaborate to succeed. I felt like I had a pretty good idea how to fix things, and that our current project structure, although successful on the last generation of consoles, was holding us back.
And so I took a deep breath, and I began reorganizing the team. It was a total blind dive for me; I had no experience to back up my claims, only a deep sense of rightness. I began reorganizing teams along features, instead of skill set, and I began laying out a roadmap to creating our game.
Beginning in February, I had a newly-formed crack team of 30 people. We had one single goal: to produce a playable demo for E3 this year. We had exactly two months to accomplish this. Two months.
Thus began the most satisfying part of my career thus far. It took a great lot of effort and coaching, but the team quickly found their way. They understood that the stakes were high, and that this was a fresh start. And gradually over the next two months, the guys turned into the most amazing team I’ve seen to this day.
I worked with some of the best guys in the industry over this short period of time. From Engine to AI to Sound; from Design to Animation; everyone, every single person brought their best to the table during that time. I’ve seen people display such fierce will to win and such determination that to this day, I am humbled by that memory.
We spent nearly 70 hours each week together; so we quickly became each other’s entire universe, moreso than, sadly to say, wives and family. We each apologized to our significant others during this time: we had to do this, we explained, and please don’t hold it against us. We’ll be back after E3. At work, we were becoming a family: we ate all of our meals together; we worked together; we fought one another constantly; but most importantly, we joked together and we became friends.
One example of this bond was Mario Kart DS. Initially, only two or three people on the team had a DS, and we never played together. I had picked up Mario Kart, and we started racing each other from time to time. This soon grew into a steady habit, which drew the attention of the others on the team. A few weeks later, the entire core team owned a DS and a copy of Mario Kart. And we raced and raced.
We raced during lunch, after dinner, and during breaks. We raced while we waited for versions to build. We raced when we felt stressed, and we raced when we wanted to celebrate. I would sometimes pull a guy aside, if I felt he was becoming too frustrated with the project and needed to clear his head, and offer him to race a few races. That usually did the trick of putting a smile back on his face.
By the end of April, we were working 7 days a week; our weekend was Sunday, where we usually “only” worked 8 hours: a positive vacation! I remember being amazed when I started pulling 70 hours weeks, then I lost count past that point. It all went by in a daze, with its share of ups and downs. Home was where we slept. Work was where we did everything else.
And one day… It was done. We had done it. For the first time in a month, the next day was not a workday. I was so exhausted that I fell sick for two days straight. But we had done it… We had turned a project in dire trouble into a huge success. We went on to E3 with a kick-ass demo, which even got us a few nominations for Best of Show.
Not surprisingly, many of the guys I worked with on the Double Agent E3 demo are still dear friends. Some of them I would give my left arm to work with again. As a matter of fact, Chris Smith, the Senior Game Designer for the E3 demo, is my Lead Game Designer on my upcoming BioWare project.
I foresee a few races of Mario Kart in our future. Just, you know, for old times’ sake.
Blog posts from that time
2006-04-08 The Road to E3
2006-04-16 I Thought I Knew Tired
2006-04-19 The Miracle Build
2006-04-26 The Last Stretch
2006-04-29 The Euphoria of Completion
2006-05-07 The Last Hours
2006-05-15 My Life as a Rock Star
(Post-scriptum: The E3 demo played a huge part in making Splinter Cell Double Agent X360 the success it eventually turned into. It had given the team an example of how they could win together. It gave us also two clear levels as benchmarks. The rest of production was not easy, but as a team, we had tasted success and knew how to reach it.)