Religious extremists and heavily armed American ruralists grab plenty of headlines these days, but they didn’t feature quite as prominently when Ubisoft Montreal first began making the video game Far Cry 5 four years ago. The Quebec studio simply wanted to make a compelling game about a doomsday cult in the U.S. heartland.
“We wanted to tell a story about a man who believes the end of the world is coming,” says Drew Holmes, lead writer of the latest instalment in the hit first-person shooter series, famous for its fiercely ideological antagonists. “We kept coming back to the idea of cults. The idea that there are fringe groups that separate themselves from the rest of society. We talked to experts who have spent most of their lives researching destructive cults. And we wanted a cult that we felt could really exist in the U.S.”
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And while the Quebec developer certainly did not plan to take advantage of the paranoia the world is feeling on the topic of violent extremism these days, it might well benefit from it.
Far Cry 5, which launched globally this week, is set to further cement Ubisoft Montreal as one of the most important studios in the industry. With more than 3,400 employees, it’s already the largest game development facility on the planet, churning out one major game after another.
Studios are only as successful as their last hit, and with a development budget of between $80 and $130 million, there’s significant pressure on Far Cry 5. With no entries in its Assassin’s Creed or Tom Clancy series – the publisher’s bread and butter properties – set to launch this year, Ubisoft’s fortunes will depend largely on the latest iteration of this franchise.
But Ubisoft’s chief executive officer for Canada, Yannis Mallat, said the game’s success can’t be measured by sales figures alone. What the company has learned while making the game, which involved hundreds of developers from geographically disparate regions, is just as critical to the long-term success of the company as the revenue it will generate.
“I’m looking at Far Cry 5 in terms of how much expertise it has helped us build and what we’ve learned during the process to make our next games,” Mallat said.
The Quebec game maker is a subsidiary of France-based game giant Ubisoft Entertainment SA, which posted sales of 1.46-billion euro ($2.35-billion Canadian) in 2016-17, making it one of the world’s top five game publishers.
Last month, the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan and China-based Tencent Holdings Ltd. agreed to buy a $400 million stake in Ubisoft from one of its primary shareholders, French mass-media conglomerate Vivendi SA, ending rumours of a possible hostile takeover that had been circulating for years.
With that investment, Ubisoft is now tied to Canada more than ever. Mallat leads 4,500 people that account for more than a fifth of the roughly 22,000 people directly employed by the video game sector in this country, according to the Entertainment Software Association of Canada.
And Ubisoft is still growing.
“There will be another 1,000 staff in Quebec by 2027,” Mallat said, noting that a fourth Quebec studio is in the works.
Mallat says Canada provides fertile ground for farming Ubisoft’s ravenous appetite for highly skilled talent. Industry observers often point to the traditionally low dollar and generous government tax breaks – Ontario in 2009 made a deal with Ubisoft Toronto worth $264 million in subsidies over 10 years to lure Ubisoft to build a $500-million studio with 800 jobs in the province’s capital – as reasons for the rapid growth of the country’s video game industry. But Mallet sees Canada’s deep pool of homegrown professionals as being at least as important.
“When you look back, the reason we’ve stayed and continued to grow here is the talent that we’ve found,” says Mallat. “There are good universities here, which is very important not just for starting up a studio but for fuelling a creative perennial. Over the years we’ve worked hand in hand with these universities to help create a workforce. We’ve mutually nurtured each other.”
Ubisoft’s inventive processes and strategies have typically stood apart from those of other major publishers and studios. The publisher has developed workflows that allow it to spread development of complex games between as many as half a dozen specialized studios across the globe, with teams working efficiently and in tandem despite major differences in time zones.
Founded in 1986 by five French brothers with a passion for making games, the company is still led by one of those siblings, Yves Guillemot. Creativity remains at the core of its ongoing methods for growth.
“Without giving away any trade secrets, we expect a lot from our teams and studios,” Mallat said. “They carry the responsibility to come up with new ideas. For us, new intellectual property is very important. We want them to come up with breakthroughs, new ways to play, and to revolutionize genres.”
The very first Far Cry was developed by German game company Crytek GmbH and published by Ubisoft in 2004. The French publisher saw how the game’s open world and potential for emergent play resonated with players, so it purchased the brand and brought development in house, where it could foster the growth of the game’s innovations.
In the years since, the game has become known internally as an “anecdote factory” because of its ability to generate unanticipated action sequences and scenarios that players feel compelled to share with each other.
But there’s more to it than just compelling game mechanics. Ubisoft’s writers have turned it into a franchise known for its memorable stories and characters. And the fifth numbered entry’s potentially controversial themes, which began generating a spectrum of responses in mainstream media as soon as the story was revealed last May, are likely to draw the franchise even further into the spotlight. Industry watchers instantly drew parallels to the volatile political climate and rise of extreme ideologies in the U.S. and other countries.
And this topicality is bound to translate to increased sales, at least in America.
“It is a pretty timely launch for the U.S.,” says industry analyst Michael Pachter, of Wedbush Securities, referencing current events in the U.S. including Nazi marches and school shootings. “But it’s hard to say how it will perform internationally. Far Cry games typically sell around four to five million units, and account for around 10 per cent of Ubisoft’s annual revenue when released.”
Far Cry 5 landed on shelves last week, so it won’t be long before Ubisoft learns how its topical themes will impact the franchise’s fortunes. But Holmes, the game’s lead writer, thinks they’ll strike a chord.
“There’s this key concept of the world feeling like it’s on a precipice,” he said, referring to both his game and the consciousness of the world at large. “Globally, we feel uneasy every day. We’re not sure what will happen. What are we willing to do to pull ourselves back from the brink?”