How Ubisoft’s editorial teams are quietly changing games like Assassin’s Creed and Roller Champions

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You’re probably familiar with game development jobs as a programmer, artist, or designer. But one of the most influential features at Ubisoft is one that isn’t always obvious to most people: the role of your editorial team.

The job of this advisory group is, on a large scale, to determine the creative direction of Ubisoft and its games, and lately he’s been in a state of turmoil. The editorial team had already been reformed at the beginning of 2020, but had to be reformed that same year after a wave of accusations of abuse against several senior Ubisoft officials, including editorial managers.

In the pre-2020 framework, reports suggested that many of Ubisoft’s games ended up looking very similar due to the fact that only one or two people dictated the creative direction of the company as a whole. And while the team’s initial shakeup may have been well-intentioned, it left at least two people with allegations against them dictating the company’s creative pillars. So I had to change back.

After a period of upheaval, Ubisoft's editorial division is on a mission to ensure its upcoming games are well-made, relevant, and diverse.

That’s where Fawzi Mesmar comes in.. Mesmar joined Ubisoft as Vice President Editorial a little over a year ago, with nearly two decades of design industry experience at companies including Atlus, Gameloft, King and EA DICE. He took over at an especially sensitive time, and while his team’s overall directive to shape the company’s creative direction remains intact, the nuances of his seem to be changing. Speaking to IGN, Mesmar describes the outline of his role as collaborating with senior management to create a “creative framework” to help game teams direct their creative visions. They establish the pillars and then help teams achieve them throughout the development process.

“We treat them as guidelines,” says Mesmar. “These are not things that every project must have or that every project must adhere to. They are creative guidelines. Think of them as a framework that you can use to activate your creativity, but not as a box that you have to check… and a “Game can’t be everything. We wouldn’t expect that even from games that wanted to follow the guidelines or take into account some of those criteria. Games have to focus on who they are and who they are.”

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What is this framework? Mesmar has already referred to it on other occasions and is based on three pillars. The first, “totally focus on quality,” is self-explanatory. The second is to create games that are culturally significant, which Mesmar describes as a drive to create games that form the general fabric of pop culture as a whole. In short, games well made and that many people like.

The third pillar is a little different: Mesmar wants to “create third spaces”.

“If work is the first space and home is the second, the third space is this… You can come in, go out and connect with like-minded people or groups of people where you can freely express yourself and connect. I like to think of it as a skate park. You can appear [cuando quieras] on a skate park, even if you don’t want to skate, you just sit there and hang out.”

Joining Mesmar in his efforts is Raashi Sikka, another recent hire who joined Ubisoft in February 2021 following the same storm of accusations that rocked the editorial team. Sikka is Ubisoft’s Vice President of Global Diversity, Accessibility and Inclusion., a feature that Ubisoft did not previously have. He tells me that, although diversity and inclusion initiatives already existed in the company, until now they had not been unified under the same banner.

“Things were done, but in different places, by different teams, with different words and languages,” he says. “And what we’ve really tried to do is come together with a common direction, a common vocabulary and language and a north star that the entire organization (20,000 people) can get behind and help us move in that common direction.”

While Sikka’s role spans Ubisoft’s people teams, it also intersects with Mesmar’s in that they both work with creative teams to ensure game content is more diverse and inclusive. In practice, this means having conversations with development teams at various stages of the project to determine where aspects of diversity and inclusion might play a role in what they’re doing. Mesmar explains that depending on what stage of the project they’re in, these conversations can take a variety of forms, from high-level internal discussions about design to asking for input from outside consultants to analyzing player feedback and data.

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What’s going on, I ask? if there is a conflict between what the editorial team suggests and what the development team wants?

It is difficult for five or six people to agree on where they want to go to eat. Imagine hundreds of people working for years in a creative company.

“We provide the team with player feedback, and then the team owns their creative vision and then makes a decision about how they want to proceed with their game based on the feedback,” Mesmar responds. “It’s hard for five or six people to agree on where they want to go to eat. Imagine if there are hundreds of people working for years on a very creative and personal project. There will be disagreements in point of view, of course, and I think it’s an inevitable part of the creative process. But that’s why assigning ownership, which is creative ownership, is always up to the team.”

Sikka adds that conversations of this type are rarely binary, and they usually have many nuances. But the value is in being able to talk about it with a group of people who aren’t really into it, experts and consultants on hand, and lots of data.

“When we do a late-game review, what we usually give the team in response are high, low, and medium risks of what we see and what we think needs to be changed,” he says. “When something is going to be marked as high [riesgo] it’s because we think it doesn’t support our values, we try to make sure it goes beyond a conversation and we take action.”

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For now, neither can go into much detail about how this has affected Ubisoft games. They’ve only been at it for about a year, so much of their work is still in development and unannounced.

However, Sikka did want to highlight a concrete victory that the team has already achieved: the content review group.

“This arose from a need we heard from our development teams; [querían] having diverse sounding boards, getting feedback from a diverse set of team members who aren’t directly working on the project to make sure they’re being inclusive and respectful and celebrating the diversity of their game. So we created this group of volunteers, with a hundred people who contribute their voices and points of view to these projects, and we launched it as a pilot project. It was very successful. We have a team of about two full-time employees dedicated to driving the process and managing the 100 volunteers and interacting with the development teams around the world.”

It adds that the Content Review Group was especially decisive for Roller Champions, when it comes to creating his diverse cast of characters and giving his opinion on the different costumes and hairstyles. And to see more fruits of his labor, encourages people to look forward to the next Assassin’s Creed: Mirage.

“Aside from content review, the games and inclusive content team have been instrumental in helping outside experts with calligraphy, names [árabes] and Arab culture. So it’s very exciting to see where that is and how it’s received by our players in the future.”

He then turns to Mesmar, saying that he knows that is especially excited about Mirage.

“For me, when the first Assassin’s Creed featured the guy on horseback riding into Damascus, it was one of the first times I’d seen my culture represented in a game,” he says. “And now that Mirage is coming to Baghdad at that historic time, I’m looking forward to that experience for our players.”