You’ve probably heard of Assassin’s Creed, the award-winning video game franchise from Ubisoft that’s sold over 140 million copies worldwide. But did you know that Ubisoft’s team in Singapore has been playing a leading role in the game’s development over the last 12 years, since Assassin’s Creed II?
We spoke with Matthew Thorpe, Director of Operations, Ubisoft Singapore and Ubisoft Philippines about the upcoming launch of Assassin's Creed Valhalla to find out more about the game and more importantly, ask him how the video gaming industry in the region has changed.
1. How has the video gaming industry in Southeast Asia changed?
Over the last decade, video gaming – especially in Southeast Asia – has evolved significantly. With increased connectivity and technology penetration as well as the advancement of digital economies, the region became a hotspot for gaming. In fact, the gaming and esports industry generated more than US$140 billion (S$194 billion) globally in 2018 – and almost half came from the APAC region according to figures from the Ministry of Trade & Industry in Singapore. The development and distribution of video games contributed S$1.95 billion in 2017 to local trade in the country.
At Ubisoft, we saw the potential of the Asian market over two decades ago. We first set up a studio in Shanghai, China, in 1996 and then in Chengdu, China, in 2008. We first opened our doors in Singapore in 2008 with a vision to create a world class game development studio here. We also planned to develop a new IP for the Ubisoft portfolio. At that time, our Managing Director then called it a “crazy bet”. However, 12 years later, the plan has paid off. Singapore offers a growing talent pool and with strong government support, it has proven to be an ideal location for our large-scale development studio.
Today, Ubisoft Singapore is home to over 450 employees made up of talents originating from 35+ different nationalities – a significant growth from the humble beginnings of 22 original employees. The Singapore studio has also been a key contributor to one of Ubisoft’s largest franchises, Assassin’s Creed. The team here pioneered the innovative naval battle gameplay and water technology in Assassin’s Creed III and Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag. Since Assassins’ Creed Origins, the team has also enhanced open world building, game features and narrative expertise, most recently in Assassin's Creed Valhalla.
Also, the Ubisoft Singapore team is currently developing its very own IP: Skull & Bones – the first AAA title to be created locally. We are very proud to be a lead studio for this project and to be able to prove that AAA game development in the region is possible. Of course, Ubisoft has an extremely strong global network of studios and we will make the most of this when it comes to knowledge sharing and the co-development of the final product.
In recent years, we are seeing more brands – from smaller independent developers to the bigger names in the industry – establish game development studios in Singapore. It is also fascinating to see companies built on the culture of esports and gaming, such as companies like Razer and Secret Lab, become successful global brands, elevating Singapore in the global gaming industry map. We are excited to see a healthy and vibrant gaming industry develop here.
2. How has the video gaming culture changed?
It comes as no surprise that people are playing more video games during the current lockdowns as they spend more time at home. Research suggests that globally, there was as much as a 30 per cent jump in ‘casual gamers’ and ‘serious gamers’ during the early months of the health crisis. Casual gamers play up to five hours of video games per week and serious gamers put in more than 20 hours on games in a week. We are seeing similar trends in this region.
Industry experts believe this trend will persist even when we emerge from the pandemic. Globally, the gaming industry was also already growing year on year before lockdowns.
There are many factors to this. Accessibility to connectivity and hardware like computers and consoles, as well as advancements in game design and experiences, all play a catalyst role in driving a new video gaming culture.
Accessibility to games is also widening the market for gaming content. ‘Free to play’ options on mobile games and cloud-based mobile gaming are some of the developments that have not only increased interest from non-gamers but spurred a significant growth in the casual and hyper casual game market.
Today, our AAA games are no longer confined to consoles or PCs, and can be accessed on any screen via cloud-based delivery. Moving forward, new technological advancements such as 5G and streaming services will reduce
barriers to gaming and create new audiences. Ubisoft is already partnering with Google Stadia and Amazon Luna on building our streaming subscriptions and will continue to work with industry partners to make gaming accessible to everyone.
We are passionate about creating meaningful and engaging worlds that can bring people together and connectivity and social aspects are big drivers of this. This means we’ve focused on building strong communities around our games, connecting people and involving our players in deeper and more meaningful engagements with our content and each other.
3. What’s the video game development talent landscape in Singapore and the region?
The video game industry is still relatively young in Singapore, especially in AAA game development. Expertise usually come from more mature markets like Canada, the United States or Europe. However, with more publishers and developers entering the Southeast Asia market, we expect to see this improve in the next five to ten years.
That said, governments in the region, are playing active roles in the development of video gaming talent. The Singapore government has announced plans to strengthen the video gaming industry by building a robust talent pipeline. For starters, video game development courses are already available at most of the local polytechnics — including Singapore Polytechnic, Nanyang Polytechnic, Temasek Polytechnic and Republic Polytechnic. This is in addition to local schools such as DigiPen Institute – who we collaborated with this year to launch a C++ Bootcamp for computer programming students and graduates.
Ubisoft strongly believes in supporting the future generation of game developers in Southeast Asia. Building long term relationships with schools has been a key priority for us since day one. Our strategy remains to help shape and prepare students who aspire to be in the industry by providing input to curriculums, providing internships across a whole range of job functions and by offering structured graduate programs. We also offer our employees the chance to work overseas for a period of time to learn from our other studios and pick up new skills. They will then return to our studio to share their knowledge and build the next generation of developers in Ubisoft Singapore.
In recent years, we have started to work closely with the local tech startup ecosystem through our Ubisoft Entrepreneurs Lab program. The program enables us to work with startups that share their ideas and big bets with us, and we support them by giving them access to our IP. We also provide mentorship and guidance on business as well as technical matters.
We also invest time involving our developers and management teams and may even offer workspace at IM PIXEL Studios through our partnership and collaboration with IMDA. Very importantly, we do not take any equity from these startups, making this program truly for knowledge sharing and development. This enables us to tap into cutting edge technology and developments while giving back to the local ecosystem.
4. Tell us a bit about Valhalla and what users in the region might look forward to.
In Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, players will fully embrace the Viking fantasy by navigating through England’s Dark Ages to establish a new permanent home. This iteration of the Assassin’s Creed franchise immerses players in an action role playing game experience set in a pivotal moment of English History. As Eivor, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla players will live the saga of a Norse hero in quest for glory and to ensure the future of their clan.
A key tenet of the Role-Playing Game (RPG) elements in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla are the meaningful dialogue and gameplay choices. The Assassin’s Creed franchise is a universe where you are reliving the genetic memories of a person. As such, it was important to us that Eivor is a very defined character, who is complex and determined. We wanted to allow our players to have a voice within the framework of a character.
In terms of progression, players can play the game as they prefer, even if there is a specific journey that Eivor embarks on. The progressions system feeds into the different playstyles and allows for the handcrafting of your character towards a specific playstyle you enjoy.
Exploration is a big focus in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. Across the whole world, there are gameplay challenges – some require skills, and others information – but all deliver a rewarding experience. Everywhere the player goes, there is Norse history and culture reflected into these game moments that builds into a bigger narrative. In Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, players can raid promising locations to gain resources for their settlement. Players can choose to start the raid from the longship by sailing to the banks of the location, or dismount and infiltrate the location, then use the horn to summon their fellow raiders.
We are taking a very different approach with the narrative structure in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, with the Settlement. Players’ journeys will offer choices that have consequences for their Settlement and people. In Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, players can grow their settlement by constructing and upgrading buildings, including a barracks and a blacksmith, which will be a huge help to the gameplay experience. What players do in England and in the Settlement plays into each other and influences one another.
Our goal is to deliver on the expectation of what combat would have been like during this time period. Every swing has weight to it, players can feel the power of hitting something (breaking through shields for instance), topped off with cinematic finishing moves. Vikings were versatile fighters, and we embodied that by allowing players to dual-wield a large variety of powerful weapons such as axes, swords, and even shields. In a similar vein, Eivor also learned from the Assassins – their skillset starts off in a very ‘Viking manner’ and expands when she meets the Assassins. People can lean towards their specific preferred playstyle, including plenty of stealth gameplay options.
The Viking longships were an innovation led by our team in Ubisoft Singapore. Viking longships were used mainly for travel, and to carry warriors and supplies. This was a historical aspect that we wanted to respect in our game and had to rethink the way we approached naval gameplay. In Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, players can traverse the rivers of England with their Viking longship and, of course, raid promising locations that they can spot from the waterfront. Since longships are a fundamental part of the Viking experience, we wanted the players to experience the joys of sailing – the crew members, for instance, will start singing, and even share their stories while on the journey.
5. Any interesting trends you are keeping an eye on in the region?
Southeast Asia will continue to be a hub for gaming and Singapore will be a very important part of that. Esports is a key driver of this growth, we’ve seen an increase in regional tournaments and larger prize pools for the winners. As this takes off globally, I’m sure we’ll see more investment in developing professional esports leagues, teams and tournaments within the region, as well as consumer brands taking more of an interest in advertising and sponsorship.
Technologies like Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) are making the gaming world more appealing to new gamers. Casual gaming is increasing in parallel with mobile penetration rates in Southeast Asia. 5G and streaming services are going to boost gaming even further, drawing new audiences and delivering higher quality content and global franchises to new markets. One thing that will remain is the social aspect of gaming, which will continue to bring players together, forming strong communities that can contribute to and shape the games that we are all so passionate about.
As we enter our 12th year of developing games in Singapore, we look forward to a richer gaming ecosystem across Southeast Asia. Our goal is to continue to provide opportunities for talented developers to excel and develop AAA games that are made right here in Singapore.