Playing Hard - Netflix film about the making of For Honor (Ubisoft UBI.PA)

For Honor is an action video game from Ubisoft (listed on the Paris Stock Exchange) and Playing Hard is a documentary by filmmaker Jean-Simon Chartier about the creation of the game,. It follows 3 key players in the game’s creation, Creative Director Jason VandenBerghe, Producer St├ęphane Cardin, and Brand Manager Luc Duchaine, chronicling their journey from the start of their collaboration, until just after the game launches. It took Ubisoft roughly 4 years from 2013 to 2017.

I will not be doing a review of the documentary, especially since Kotaku has done a much better job here. The film offers a behind-the-scenes look at the development of a successful video game and I’ll list some of the more business relevant points here.

The video game development world is an incredibly “savage industry”, in the words of Cardin. It is a winner-takes-all world where according to him, 3 percent of all games takes 97 percent of total profits. Failure isn’t really an option.

Yet failure may well be the result. Development of a big video game is a complex process and the people running this at Ubisoft are experienced professionals. VandenBerghe has 20 years in the industry and Cardin spent 15 years at Ubisoft in various roles, at the point the documentary was made.

Experience doesn’t guarantee success, however. Cardin himself had a project he was working on for 2 years (and after spending 10 million dollars) cancelled. He hints at a team presentation that he had to convince his bosses that they could come up with a good new game proposal within 6 months, otherwise they would be assigned to work on existing titles.

The development process begins with a directive from Ubisoft, where Cardin’s team is assigned to work with VandenBerghe to pitch his vision to their bosses. The heart of the game lies in the fight mechanics, where instead of memorising a series of combo moves, For Honor tries to mimic a true swordfight, with particular attention to your enemy’s weapon positioning.

One important insight from the show is the risk involved and how the company tries to manage that risk. Yannis Mallet, CEO of UbiSoft Montreal speaks of his awareness that innovation is inherently risky, the greater the innovation, the greater the risk. Risk could be internal because the team has to fight for talent and resources, or external because competitors could be developing a similar and better product.

There is nothing as risky as developing a brand new game from the ground up. 85 percent of successful games are sequels and development of a new original game involves considerable risks for a studio.

There are many hoops the team has to jump through. At the very beginning of development, they had to demonstrate their concept to their marketing folks, and get their help coming up with names for the game. At each stage of the development process, they have to convince their higher ups that it is worthwhile to continue investing in the game.

3 years before launch, they held gaming tournaments in-house on a barebones version of the game to test for bugs or unfair game mechanics. This may sound like fun and games, but different projects have to compete for budget at each stage of development. This helped to keep senior management (local CEO Mallet) engaged and bought-in. Otherwise, their attention may be diverted to fighting fires on other existing products.

It isn’t just the local management at Montreal that needs convincing. Head office in Paris needs to approve all games and they would have to pitch again, with more bells and whistles, to management there. The team leads spoke of a fear that another internal competitor would be coming out with a product that is too similar to their own and be overshadowed. Also on their minds is the fact that very few original games are approved. Their pitch went really well and they were allocated more money than they asked for, much to their delight.

Fast forward to 1 year and 8 months before game release, they held a press conference to announce the game. At this point, the pressure to deliver ramps up. The team now consists of 200 people (soon to grow to 500), working with 5 studios and work is spread out across different offices in the world. Inevitably friction amongst the team begin to occur.

8 months before game release, they attended E3 in Los Angeles and the game release date was officially announced. One of the telling scenes show the 3 main characters of the show arguing over the fine points of the game trailer. For Honor would be highly anticipated, alongside major competitors like Zelda and Call of Duty. Their presentation went well, and opened up discussions with partners around clothing, action figures, animation series and amusement parks. This led to a bigger tour, in Cologne to do more promotion.

As they inch closer to the deadline, the team begins to feel the heat and start making hard decisions . Staffing is a problem and a decision was made to discard split screen functionality, an embarrassing setback, as Ubisoft had emphasized the importance of this feature in their media events

All this stress takes a toll on all 3 main characters. VandenBerghe’s relationship with the rest of the team breaks down. Duchaine speaks of his children missing him, while he is on one of his many trips to promote the game. 2 months before game release, Cardin literally had to escape to a cabin in the woods, to recover from the pressure and stress.

All this paid off when they received Gold Certification from Microsoft and Sony, which allows them to start burning discs for the game. At this point of the show, it is clear that VandenBerghe, despite having a cordial relationship with the team, will no longer continue on future iterations of the project.

Sales of the game went well, selling more than 1 million units on 14 Feb 2017 and 3 million units within 10 days. Customised versions are planned for some countries (less bloody for China market) and promotion work continues for Duchaine. At this point, the show ends as VandenBerghe moves on to other projects.

Playing Hard offers a peek into the journey to create a successful triple A game. By following in the foot steps of the 3 key players, it keeps the interest of the viewer, while allowing audiences who are unfamiliar to video game development a glimpse into how it is made.

I’ll leave you guys with the film trailer: