When Assassin’s Creed Valhalla launched in 2020, it quickly became one of Ubisoft’s biggest success stories, smashing sales records and earning praise from critics and players. Behind the scenes, the game was a massive collaborative effort, with 17 studios around the world working together to bring it to life – and for the final months of its development, those studios had to quickly adapt to working under the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Julien Laferrière, the game’s producer, gave a talk during the 2021 Game Developers Conference (titled “Through the Storm: Shipping Assassin’s Creed Valhalla During a Global Pandemic”) that detailed what the abrupt switch to working from home meant for a project of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s scope. Based at Ubisoft Montreal, Laferrière had worked on four previous Assassin’s Creed games, beginning with Assassin’s Creed II – but Assassin’s Creed Valhalla was his first time overseeing such a massive project, with or without the added challenge of lockdowns. We spoke with Laferrière to find out more about what he and his team learned, and what steps were taken to protect employees while still ensuring that the game shipped as planned.
What was the team structure of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla like before the pandemic began? About how many people were you in touch with on, say, a weekly basis?
Julien Laferrière: On a weekly basis, a lot of [my focus] was on managing the core team in Montreal. I had a team of directors steering the overall vision for the project and keeping in touch with the production in Montreal, which was leading the charge on [creating] many of our in-game regions and game systems and so on. We also had a very small co-dev team that was in charge of actually liaising with the 16 other studios, so I had a lot of interaction on a weekly basis with them, and also with the producers in the different studios.
I saw my role more as a conductor; you know, making sure that everybody was playing on tune, and everything was balanced, and the harmony was there, and it made sense. There was a lot of coordination and making sure everybody was gathering around the vision for the game. Beforehand, we defined the approach for co-development on this project with very autonomous mandates for co-dev studios. We were synced on the vision and the objectives, but we tried to give them as much freedom as we could within their turf, their parts of the world. It was more steering in the right direction, making sure we were keeping our heading.
For me, the role of a producer is, you have to deliver a project, right? That’s your job. It’s all about the collective brains working together towards this goal, and your goal is to reach as many players as you can and deliver an amazing experience for all of them. So when I talk about the heading, for me it’s the role of the producer to keep that heading, to remind the team who we’re building this game for, and where we’re heading in terms of an audience and targets.
When every studio has autonomous control over its own individual part of the game, how do you make sure those puzzle pieces fit when it all comes together?
JL: I think it’s a lot of alignment first. For example, we onboarded most of our partners in November or October of 2018, and we flew the leaders of each of the studios to Montreal for a week of presentations and dinners, balancing between formal and informal moments to just sync together. I think that was really positive, because they got back to their respective studios with a common vision of the game we were crafting. And they were onboarded fairly early in the project; we were just off conception, so they could come back with, “OK, I understand the game that we’re making.”
We were running the production with seven-week milestones and three-week sprints, and one week of just fixing the build – we call them hardening weeks – and after each of the sprints, we would review the results of every team in Montreal, but we would also review, the same way, every studio. So they had the same sort of processes that we did, and that enabled us to look at the content from the partners the same way we did at the content from Montreal, with the same feedback with the same process with the same approach. So we were pretty much in sync in terms of, we knew what they were making, we could adjust if there were any discrepancies. And that helped us in the long run, because that process was in place.
How much more difficult did it become to keep the project’s heading once the COVID-19 lockdowns began?
JL: We had to close the studio, and everyone was back at their homes. My first reaction was, we were operating with 17 studios; now we have like a thousand studios. It was like every little home was now a studio, and we tried to apply the best practices we had for co-dev in terms of communication and that sort of stuff, to kind of try to scale it up to a team in this context.
Obviously, it took time just to adjust. We needed to have strong technological tools to make sure that we could work remotely. We had to modify our review processes, because when the pandemic hit, we were just starting to close the game. We were just after Alpha [the phase of development when a game is playable, with fully implemented features but incomplete assets, and still subject to change]. The good part is that much of the work left to do was known, and was documented. Everyone knew what their targets were, but we needed to make sure that we were able to keep the communication channels open, so there were a lot of meetings in Microsoft Teams just to make sure we were synced.
The “formal” pretty much stayed the same; we had team meetings and so on, but we had to make sure we were tackling the “informal” as well. What replaces the water-cooler discussions? What replaces that check-in you do in the morning, when you see the faces of the people around you? Are they happy? Are they stressed? That sort of stuff. So we added multiple check-ins like that; the steering managers of the project would meet systematically every morning at 9:30, with cameras open.
What new technological solutions that had to be implemented to keep everyone working smoothly?
JL: We needed to have what I call “remote desktop on steroids.” The way we decided to work was, every PC would stay at the office, and people would connect remotely to their PCs instead of, you know, taking 4,000 PCs outside of the office, which would be a burden on the servers. Simple solutions such as remote desktop would work for people who are not dependent too much on latency and so on, but for animators, or people who work on the fighting system, it’s a blend of code and animation, and a millisecond of difference can make a big difference. So these people had a more powerful version of remote desktop, where they would be able to have a much better connection to their work PC. It was almost seamless, and would support multiple screens.
Some people didn’t have a proper setup at home, so the IT and logistics departments were modern-day superheroes, and just delivered PCs to people who needed them. All of that was within a period of like two to three weeks. I was actually pretty surprised by the response time, by how quickly we managed to become basically a 100% remote project. Not just a remote project, a remote studio.
We shipped Assassin’s Creed Valhalla on November 10, and I don’t think it would have been possible without the dedication of everyone to really want to make this happen, to make this work. The fact that we were in the landing phase of the project helped us in assessing the velocity of the team, and we were already in a problem-solving mindset, so we were able to keep our agility and be smart about the decisions that we would be making.
It sounds like the game was already largely in the polish phase when the pandemic hit, but are there any specific examples of a feature or a scenario that had to come together during the pandemic?
JL: Well, it was polish, but it’s also the point of development where, for the first time, we were getting a full understanding of the game that we were making. I know that sounds kind of weird, but the game was coming together, and we had so many systems that relied on the game to be actually almost done. For example, the quest arcs: With over 20 quest arcs working together, how would that feel for the player? That was the first time we saw that come together. The settlement is another very good example of this; the settlement is kind of the heart of the whole experience, but if you want to have a feeling of that heart, you kind of need to have the experience built around it. So the game was, yes, in its polishing phase, but it was also in the editing phase.
It was a big challenge, actually. Traditionally, you gather a bunch of people in a meeting room, you play the build, you exchange comments, and so on. But how do you do that remotely? We had to be clever. We were fortunate enough to leverage [streaming platforms], so we had a dev infrastructure where, from your PC, you could play our game. Instead of having those big meetings, we encouraged people to play the game and write down their comments [in a shared virtual workspace].
The directors conducting the reviews could focus [on comments relating to their specific areas]. For example, a realization director could focus on a three-hour game session listing all the points regarding realization. Or the cinematic design director, she would be able to play that gameplay build, look only at the cinematic dialogue, and just say “OK, here are my comments.” Because it was remote, it would force them to put their comments in, which becomes documented, which becomes a bit more formal, and the end result was more actionable and more focused.
What feature were you proudest to see your teams complete during a lockdown?
JL: The settlement is something that I’m very proud of, because it was such a central piece. But it started off as almost, I don’t want to say an experiment, but almost as an, “OK, let’s try this.” It could have some potential, making your own village, but it became this centerpiece. And it was really at the end, and actually during the pandemic, that we saw it come together, and it was actually very cool. I was really happy when I saw the response from players and journalists; they really got the feeling that we wanted, which was going back home. And because they got it, they also got the quest arc structure, the game structure. We took a huge bet, and we saw that bet pay off during the last year.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is available now for Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PS5, PS4, PC, Stadia, and Amazon Luna, and is available with a Ubisoft+ subscription. For more on the game, check out our previous Assassin’s Creed Valhalla coverage.