The world of video games has grown to be a vastly popular and successful medium globally. Of the thousands of entities working within the industry, Ubisoft is one of its biggest players. Over the last decade or so, the French company has risen in prominence and has had a hand in producing several notable franchises.
Far Cry, Watch Dogs, the numerous Tom Clancy offshoots, and of course, Assassin’s Creed — all of them household names in the AAA gaming sphere. They’ve even expanded beyond the digital space into film and television. 2016 saw the debut of an Assassin’s Creed film, while more recently, they’ve produced the Apple TV+ exclusive Mythic Quest. And they are not yet done, with a film adaptation of the game The Division just one of many currently being planned.
Of course, the company’s primary focus is still the games and with the likes of Far Cry 6 to come in a few months, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora scheduled for next year, and a yet unknown Star Wars game in development, the production factory looks to be busy for the foreseeable future. But while we know much about the Ubisoft machine, the same can’t be said about one of their cogs; Ubisoft Singapore.
There’s an inherent shroud of mystery that surrounds the studio; we know a little about what projects the studio has worked on, but that is the extent of it. What exactly is Ubisoft Singapore? I hope to lift some of that fog, but before we delve into the studio itself, we should start with the country in its namesake.
Setting Off to Ubisoft Singapore
Measuring a total area of 728.6 km², the island city-state of Singapore is one of the smallest countries in the world. Despite that, the country has prospered to become a global financial hub that many countries have flocked to for business due in no small part to contributions from its maritime industry. But that success has not necessarily translated into Singapore’s game development scene, which remains small compared to other Southeast Asian countries.
That’s not to say that it hasn’t produced anything. The likes of Songbird Symphony and the Cat Quest games are made by Singapore-based studios and have seen a wider release on systems such as the PlayStation console and the popular Nintendo Switch. However, much of the development landscape in the country is primarily focused on developing games for mobile devices instead of the traditional platforms that most in the west are used to. This is partly due to the massive popularity of mobile games in the Southeast Asian region and its lower-cost nature — it all contributes to being a big moneymaker for studios. With an average of nearly half of every game made in Singapore going to mobile, it looks set to continue this way and risks stagnating the industry creatively.
Ubisoft Singapore, however, stands in stark contrast to Singapore’s current game development climate. This is a studio that mainly works to create big-budget AAA games that sell millions to the global masses. And alongside Bandai Namco, Koei Tecmo and the more recent Riot Games, is just one of the few big-name companies to do so while operating within the country. They are big fish in a small pond.
Established in 2008, the studio currently resides within the walls of the garden-like Solaris building, which is part of the bigger Fusionopolis business complex that also houses other tech companies like Autodesk. As the first in-house studio in South-East Asia by Ubisoft, their initial role was to serve as a support studio to help with the development of the company’s big titles.
Paul Fu, who works as Ubisoft Singapore’s Content Director, joined the studio early on when it was established and has since seen its growth over the years — a growth which was sparked when the studio started with work on some of the missions in 2009’s Assassin’s Creed II.
“We started with a very small amount of content in Assassin’s Creed II (and) that led to creating our first big feature, which you might know as naval combat in Assassin’s Creed III in 2012. I remember being super excited to be part of the naval team back then and also a little nervous, but it was honestly a great privilege and an excellent adventure when I think back on it,” Fu said
As the successor to the popular Ezio trilogy, Assassin’s Creed III received an underwhelming response from the fans when it was released. Still, one success that could be taken from the game was the naval combat feature that Ubisoft Singapore helped craft. It has since become a staple of the franchise, appearing in all but three of the series’ subsequent releases.
Their work on the Assassin’s Creed franchise continued after AC III. In fact, the studio has been involved in every major Assassin’s Creed title that followed. There is no doubt that the DNA of Ubisoft Singapore is entrenched in the AC franchise. Indeed, at the entrance to one of their offices, a giant statue of Bayek from Assassin’s Creed Origins is there to greet visitors at the reception area. At the same time, smaller figures of the other main characters from the series are proudly positioned at a nearby display area as a showcase.
Each new title represented a new challenge for the studio. Fu was quick to emphasise that they were all vastly different from one another, requiring a massive amount of groundwork. This included historical research to maintain the historical accuracy that the series prided itself on, and that also meant that anyone wanting to work on Assassin’s Creed had to do a decent amount of research for each project before they could even begin. Still, the team would always seek to create more extensive features or content for each title.
From Paris with Love
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s The Siege of Paris’ expansion is the culmination of those efforts. The studio was excited to reveal that this expansion (based on the very real Siege of Paris in the years 885 to 886) is the first that they’ve been able to lead content development. They personally chose the event because of its setting and the significance it had on Viking history. The team were granted the lead for the expansion after their work on the various AC titles and producing the gameplay demos for Ubisoft in major events like E3, gamescom and the more recent Ubisoft Forward. Aiding them with the expansion were Ubisoft Chengdu, Ubisoft Montreal and Ubisoft Bordeaux.
Fu remembers the beginnings of that journey well. “We knew that there was an opportunity to create an expansion all by ourselves, and we put together a pitch to make it happen. I remember carrying Singapore’s pitches for ‘The Siege of Paris’ on a laptop and travelling halfway across the globe to Ubisoft Sofia to present the pitch. There, multiple studios convened to discuss the future of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, and it was a very memorable experience for me,” Fu reminisces.
It was undoubtedly a momentous occasion for the studio, but the subsequent development for the expansion did not prove to go exactly as planned. Early in 2020, the COVID-19 coronavirus quickly spread worldwide, forcing countries and cities to be locked down, and multiple industries were interrupted. Game development too, became a victim of the situation.
For Ubisoft Singapore, that meant working from home; the studio was not willing to compromise on the safety of the team’s health. Critical development processes also had to be conducted online. Fu noted a specific period where the team brainstormed for the expansion that lasted for over a month — and it all was done 100% online. Overall, developing The Siege of Paris in such a way had what Fu described as ‘teething issues’, but he also said that the team were able to ease into the process quite well eventually.
The little things also boosted morale during development. The team regularly checked on each others’ well-being and sent over silly memes to cheer members up.
“There was one point during the circuit breaker where we really missed each other’s physical presence, so I met up with the quest designers, and we had to pick a restaurant — of course we picked a French restaurant because you know, ‘The Siege of Paris’ is what we were making, so that was very nice,” Fu told me.
Joan Hsu, a Lead Animator on the expansion, also pointed out that the bond was tight with Ubisoft Chengdu as the two studios worked closely together for The Siege of Paris, sharing meetings and chat groups during development. “As with any Asian studio, we always bond over food!” she gushed.
Available now, The Siege of Paris expansion brings players to the all-new region of the Kingdom of Francia, where the Frankish king Charles the Fat is causing much trouble for his fellow Vikings; Eivor is requested to come to help deal with the messy situation.
Alongside the new setting, fresh gameplay elements and features have been added by Ubisoft Singapore. Players can experience new abilities like Ghoule Breath, which poisons and scares off enemies and two new weapon types, the Scythe and the Shortsword. Enemies from Francia include a new archetype called the Frankish Knight, a mounted foe that uses hit-and-run tactics against Eivor. Rat Swarms are also another occurrence that players are forced to deal with before moving on, with several locations in the world featuring a vast amount of them.
There are also infiltration zones within the main story — these are a modernised version of the previous game’s black box missions. Now targets are not explicitly highlighted at the start and require players to explore the area to gather clues and shortcuts to reach and kill your target. Beyond the main story, Rebel Missions are one activity that players can get involved in. By completing these semi-procedural missions in the open world with Frankish rebels, you’ll be able to earn special currency, which can then be used to purchase items.
A Storm Brewing
Releasing The Siege of Paris would seem like a triumph if you consider the pandemic’s situation. Still, it is significantly more so when you know about what is happening behind the scenes. Ubisoft has been besieged by allegations of sexual harassment and impropriety from members of the company’s top ranks. The subsequent inaction provided by the HR department has also been derided.
Ubisoft Singapore has not been immune to the situation, with further allegations of toxic work culture and French favouritism within the 500-employee strong studio — resulting in an environment of bullying, promotions being passed over, and wage disparity between the local and foreign employees, in addition to disturbing sexual abuse. The bias against local employees is appalling, considering the already small game development scene in Singapore. Should they wish to leave, there are very few options available locally if they want to continue in the industry, and if they decide to stay, there is seemingly no pathway to progression; they are stuck between a rock and a hard place.
One man’s name is at the centre of all this: Hugues Ricour, the former managing director of the studio. Under his stewardship, not only were these issues allowed to permeate, he himself is a contributor. Among his charges were harassment against female workers and intimidating and threatening employees to get his way. He has since left the studio and is replaced by Darryl Long, formerly of Ubisoft Winnipeg.
Long himself spoke at length during a session with the media to address the concerns behind Ubisoft Singapore. He was keen to emphasise that changes have been made internally at the studio to prevent these issues from happening again.
“My goal is to build a workplace culture that is based on caring, innovation and leading the industry — we need to be an exemplary place to work (for), and then (also) provide an environment where the team can express themselves and feel safe to express themselves creatively so that they can make incredible games for all of our players,” Long passionately responded.
He outlined the measures they have undertaken, including using an external party to investigate allegations of misconduct within the studio while providing employees with an outlet to report such matters anonymously. Ubisoft Singapore has also pledged towards the SGWIT (SG Women In Tech) initiative, which comes with its own set of obligations to improve upon the diversity within the studio. Long also promised that initiatives like special learning paths are being provided to women to help them grow into leadership roles and ensure that locals can move up the ranks more quickly.
The seeds seem to be planted for a better working culture at Ubisoft Singapore. Whether they take root, we’ll only know in the future, but there is some comfort in knowing that the studio has acknowledged these issues and are taking action — especially given the team’s close-knit vibes I felt from listening to Fu’s stories.
Searching for Skull & Bones
However, another problem at the studio is less clear: the situation with Skull & Bones. While The Siege of Paris is the first piece of Assassin’s Creed content that the studio is heading, Skull & Bones is their first standalone game as lead developers, building upon the naval combat tech that they’ve pioneered. It is a monumental title for Ubisoft Singapore, considering their history of mostly being in a support studio role — this game was their ticket to be in the spotlight.
E3 2017 was the game’s big reveal, and it garnered a lot of attention and praise from both the media and public alike for its impressive showing. Since 2018 though, there has been barely a whisper from it. Years passed, and with it came more and more announcements of delays for the title. The real stinger has come more recently; a report which detailed the game’s troubles with development.
Much was revealed about what happened to Skull & Bones that I can’t go in-depth with. In summary, a mixture of creative clashes and a lack of direction contributed to the game’s production problems — the work culture issues also didn’t help.
So, where exactly is Skull & Bones with development now? The official word from the studio is that it has passed Alpha and is currently set to come out before March 2023. It remains to be seen whether or not the game’s issues have been resolved to ensure that its current release window will be on target, but there is optimism from the studio that good things will come.
“What we can say is that we had a super-strong alpha and the team is very proud. We just had a mini celebration online last week if I recall, and things are going very, very well, and more details will come when the time is right,” Fu said on Skull & Bones.
Growing Beyond the Games
Ubisoft Singapore is on the pathway to healing the studio. While they will continue as developers on some of the biggest games available, they are also looking to further develop and grow the local game development industry in Singapore as well.
The studio is currently aligned with the Singapore Games Association (SGGA), which has support from government entities such as the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) and Singapore Tourism Board (STB). Under this partnership, Ubisoft Singapore will aid the growth of the game industry in Singapore through various opportunities, including knowledge exchanges with other developers.
Ubisoft Singapore is also very focused on the local talent in Singapore, and have gotten involved with the local institutions to foster them within the country. Other than providing internships and mentorships to students for a first-hand experience in developing AAA games, Ubisoft Singapore is also working with the schools on their curriculum to ensure that students are up-to-date with developmental practices when they graduate; Fu himself says that he occasionally teaches the cohort at DigiPen and also Ngee Ann Polytechnic, his alma mater.
“We do know that us, as a AAA studio (and) one of the bigger names around the region, we have a big role to play as part of this ecosystem,” Hsu says of Ubisoft Singapore’s initiatives in the local game development community.
Like the country it is based in, Ubisoft Singapore has built up its reputation through the high seas. The last few years have seen the studio go through a challenging period — one that any workplace shouldn’t have to experience, let alone one that is working among one of the most demanding industries.
The word is that changes have been made to steady the ship at Ubisoft Singapore, and we certainly hope that that is the case. Not just for the studio itself, but the industry as a whole. With what I’ve seen, Ubisoft Singapore deserves the right to sail to success.
Visuals courtesy of Ubisoft and Ubisoft Singapore.