As I said in an earlier post, this week is my last with Ubisoft. I’ve been with the company for four years and a half, but it feels like a lifetime. In many ways, it is.
When I joined Ubisoft’s Shanghai studio in 2003, I was starstruck about the videogame industry, and even when things got rough, I just couldn’t believe my luck that I was working in China, and in the videogame industry no less. I distinctly remember one day, after 3 months as a Level Designer on Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, suddenly realizing I was working in videogames, which had been a childhood dream of mine. It somehow hadn’t dawned on me so clearly before.
Corinne Le Roy, the General Manager of Ubisoft’s Shanghai studio, and the person to whom I owe my entry into videogames, had recognized that I had project management experience prior to applying at Ubisoft; however, she felt (rightly so) that I lacked experience inside a videogame project, and so my first job was to be Level Designer. It turned out to be a truly difficult, and humbling experience. Level Design is hard; so are the other jobs at the core of making a game, from AI programming to 3D art. If you just walk unto a production floor and see the guys do their job, it might look to you like it’s easy. It’s not; they’re just that damn good.
But respect for the people on the floor is not the only thing my first job told me. It also showed me, directly, how important are the people around you in a videogame production. You have to depend on so many people around you when you make a game, you’d better have a good time working with them. Friendships that are born of these harsh crunch periods, where you’re stressed out of your mind and you’re going on less than optimal sleeping hours, are deep and meaningful.
I made some very dear friends during that first year at Ubisoft, and because we have since then parted ways, I miss them immensely now. At the time, my closest friends were three other Level Designers on Pandora Tomorrow, all newcomers to Shanghai, and on their first Ubisoft project. We were the four musketeers: Chris K., the cranky tattooed LA guy; Sang, the Korean who had studied games in Florida; Jean-Félix, from France; and me, the Canadian guy. I used to joke that we sounded like the opening of a bad joke: “An American, a Korean, a French and a Canadian walk into a bar…”
Chris and Sang are the guys who made me fall in love with karaoke, for instance. From time to time, the three of us would go to a bar (there goes our bad joke) which Chris and I had dubbed the “shitty karaoke”. There, in a dingy bar filled with shady Chinese people staring at us, we’d belt out karaoke tunes from a particularly crappy karaoke machine (hence the name) and scare half the customers away with our drunken enthusiasm. Sang had a particularly good singing voice, so we’d force him to sing songs he’d never heard, of children’s songs in foreign languages, a task which he accomplished with great effort and with spectacular results. Chris and I would laugh so hard we’d end up with stomach cramps.
After a difficult and stressful project, that’s the only kind of memory that remains. Not the long hours, or the workplace confrontations: just the warm feeling of friendship earned by accomplishing something of value in difficult circumstances. This realization shaped the way I approached team building in my next projects as manager, and I’ll talk about some moments born of that tomorrow and Friday.
And Chris, Sang and JF, if you’re out there and reading this: I miss you guys!