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Ubi Uncensored: The History Of Ubisoft By The People Who Wrote It

Over the course of the last two and a half decades, Ubisoft has grown from a meager distributor finding its footing in the gray market to a publishing powerhouse responsible for some of the most popular franchises in video games. In celebration of its 25th anniversary, we spoke with its key power brokers about the triumphs and challenges it has encountered along the way to becoming the third biggest interactive entertainment publisher in the world.

[This article originally appeared in Game Informer #223]

Growing up in a small village in the northwestern French province of Brittany, the five Guillemot brothers are exposed to business at an early age by their parents, who own a farming company. Each year, the brothers are expected to pitch in with the family business, rotating between various jobs like delivery, shipping, and accounting. After attending university and getting the entrepreneurial bug, the brothers decide to rejoin the family business and diversify its approach.

Yves Guillemot: We were working with farmers so the margins were very tight. The business my parents had was actually declining and so we had to find new businesses, so my older brother Claude started with CD audio. That was a new revolution. Then they started to sell computers to farmers. After that they created a shop that sold all sorts of things for farmers on top of normal chemicals and parts. In this shop we started to sell video games because they were part of the things that could be supplied. We had 20 machines in stock and probably 100 copies of software. 

When he went to the U.K., my brother Claude realized that he was buying from his [French] supplier at two times the cost it was sold in the U.K. to the public. So that’s where he said, “Maybe there’s a business here.” It was just at the beginning of the Amstrad [a popular European gaming PC – ed.], and so in 1984 we started a mail-order company. 

Cecile Cornet: I know that when they started to think about the business their mother was helping with the accounts and she said to her sons, “Do your business, but there is one condition – do it together and with equal shares.” I think her advice was very important for them.

Christine Burgess-Quémard: It was really the beginning. The quality of the games was so different than what we can see now. I’m not sure people can imagine if they haven’t lived through that – what a game looked like in those days. It was being led by the U.K., but there were starting to be a few publishers in France, as well. That was the time of Infogrames and a few more.

THE ORAL HISTORIANS

Yves Guillemot – Founder, CEO

Christine Burgess-Quémard – Executive Director of Worldwide Studios

Serge Hascoet – Editorial Executive Director

Michel Ancel – Creator of Rayman and Beyond Good & Evil

Alain Corre – Executive Director of EMEA Territories

Xavier Poix – Managing Director of French Studios

Cecile Cornet – Director of International HR & Communications

Yannis Mallat – CEO, Ubisoft Montreal and Ubisoft Toronto

YG: There was a specific business – you had to have the right game. As the mail orders started to grow fast, we went from mail order to selling to retailers that were anxious to get product at a reasonable price. When my brother discovered the difference in price, he started to import the games so we were selling them at 50 percent of the price the other suppliers were selling it to customers. So that’s how Ubisoft was created in 1986. We said, “Okay, we really have to see how we can create those games, because we know how to buy them. We know what is working, as we love to create and play those games, so we should organize ourselves to create them.”

CBQ: We had a few bunches of kids who came along who were working at their desk or their bedroom or in their garage on some game ideas. They came and presented the games to us, and we decided to take the risk and see where it would lead us.

Rather than recruit developers to their Paris office with the rest of the operations, the Guillemot brothers decided to lure them with the promise of working in a unique environment – a gorgeous chateau in Brittany. Led by brothers Gérard and Michel Guillemot, here a small group of developers started working on the first internal Ubisoft projects. 

CBQ: This was very much a marketing thing really, and we also thought it would be great to have a place where we could actually lock all of our developers together so that they could develop games and finish them. It was not always easy when you have a bunch of 18- or 19-year olds to realize that when you start a game and you start talking to the press about it and you start investing into it, you have to deliver. So the first aim was to make sure that everybody was under the same roof so we could have everybody contained in a way.

Michel Ancel: I was around 14 or 15 when I started to program. It was 1987 or '88, and a lot of people were talking about the ozone layer problem in the stratosphere, so I did a funny animation with the molecules of the ozone and the oxygen, and you had the bad CFC bullying and breaking the oxygen. It was like a short animated movie. I sent this project to Ubisoft because they were doing a contest in a magazine that would let you win a computer. I won nothing, but I got a phone call from Ubisoft. I was surprised because the magazine was not directly connected to Ubisoft. They asked me to come to Paris. I was quite young. I took the train alone from Montpellier to Paris. Their office was in a suburb of Paris – a lot of graffiti tagging and dirt – I got lost in the subway. It was horrible. I don’t understand how my parents let me go alone [Laughs]. Since I was eight or nine my parents let me do whatever I wanted. This is good and bad [Laughs].

I found the Ubisoft office after hours and hours of looking. It was a small apartment with a lot of people speaking different languages. I was really impressed. I arrived, and spoke with Christine. It was about 6 o’clock in the afternoon and the amazing thing was after a while she received a phone call from someone in Brittany, which is like 300 or 400 kilometers to the west, and they asked me to go there. I took the train and arrived in the total countryside with cows and farmers, and there was a nice taxi – a kind of limousine – waiting for me at the train station. It was like in a movie. Then, after an hour in the countryside, we arrived at a castle. I didn’t really know what they wanted me to do because all I did was send my ozone project. Here I met one of the Guillemot brothers – Gérard.

While I was doing that ozone animation I was making games too – programming, doing the animation, the graphics, the music. I was really making games for my friends. The game I showed them [Brain Blaster] is now on the Internet – I found it because there are guys trying to preserve old games with emulators. So Gérard wanted me to finish that game for them. It took me about six months to finish the game, which I did at home, and they did a surprising thing and sent me the first Game Boy in France. Before it was released officially, they sent me the console. Because the game was a mix of action and puzzle genres, they wanted me to think about something for the Game Boy. I then had to figure out how the console worked, which was very interesting because it was like being introduced to the Japanese culture of making games really early – 60 frames per second, looking at Mario, etc. But I didn’t have the development kit, so I moved to Brittany with my family and that’s when I started to work on the Game Boy. I did some work on the Star Wars adaptation. We also had the Super Nintendo development kit and tried to think about game concepts. 

It was really the beginning of Ubisoft as a developer. They were trying to be really close to Nintendo and Sega. In some ways it was quite surprising because most of the developers were developing for the Amiga or Apple. 

YG: We couldn’t keep the castle for more than 18 months or two years because it was too complex. It was difficult to heat during the winter. We had one guy whose cost to heat his room was $1,000 per month. So we said okay, maybe we should come back to something more conventional.

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