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From 17 Studios to 1,000 – How Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Crossed the Finish Line During the Pandemic

When Assassin’s Creed Valhalla launched in 2020, it quickly became one of Ubisoft’s biggest success stories, smashing sales records and earning praise from critics and players. Behind the scenes, the game was a massive collaborative effort, with 17 studios around the world working together to bring it to life – and for the final months of its development, those studios had to quickly adapt to working under the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Julien Laferrière, the game’s producer, gave a talk during the 2021 Game Developers Conference (titled “Through the Storm: Shipping Assassin’s Creed Valhalla During a Global Pandemic”) that detailed what the abrupt switch to working from home meant for a project of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s scope.

What was the team structure of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla like before the pandemic began? About how many people were you in touch with on, say, a weekly basis? Julien Laferrière: On a weekly basis, a lot of [my focus] was on managing the core team in Montreal. I had a team of directors steering the overall vision for the project and keeping in touch with the production in Montreal, which was leading the charge on [creating] many of our in-game regions and game systems and so on. We also had a very small co-dev team that was in charge of actually liaising with the 16 other studios, so I had a lot of interaction on a weekly basis with them, and also with the producers in the different studios.

There was a lot of coordination and making sure everybody was gathering around the vision for the game. It was more steering in the right direction, making sure we were keeping our heading.

When every studio has autonomous control over its own individual part of the game, how do you make sure those puzzle pieces fit when it all comes together? For example, we onboarded most of our partners in November or October of 2018, and we flew the leaders of each of the studios to Montreal for a week of presentations and dinners, balancing between formal and informal moments to just sync together. I think that was really positive, because they got back to their respective studios with a common vision of the game we were crafting. And they were onboarded fairly early in the project; we were just off conception, so they could come back with, “OK, I understand the game that we're making.”

We were running the production with seven-week milestones and three-week sprints, and one week of just fixing the build – we call them hardening weeks – and after each of the sprints, we would review the results of every team in Montreal, but we would also review, the same way, every studio. So they had the same sort of processes that we did, and that enabled us to look at the content from the partners the same way we did at the content from Montreal, with the same feedback with the same process with the same approach.

How much more difficult did it become to keep the project’s heading once the COVID-19 lockdowns began?

JL: We had to close the studio, and everyone was back at their homes. It was like every little home was now a studio, and we tried to apply the best practices we had for co-dev in terms of communication and that sort of stuff, to kind of try to scale it up to a team in this context.

What new technological solutions that had to be implemented to keep everyone working smoothly?

JL: We needed to have what I call “remote desktop on steroids.” The way we decided to work was, every PC would stay at the office, and people would connect remotely to their PCs instead of, you know, taking 4,000 PCs outside of the office, which would be a burden on the servers. Simple solutions such as remote desktop would work for people who are not dependent too much on latency and so on, but for animators, or people who work on the fighting system, it's a blend of code and animation, and a millisecond of difference can make a big difference. So these people had a more powerful version of remote desktop, where they would be able to have a much better connection to their work PC.

I was actually pretty surprised by the response time, by how quickly we managed to become basically a 100% remote project. Not just a remote project, a remote studio.

It sounds like the game was already largely in the polish phase when the pandemic hit, but are there any specific examples of a feature or a scenario that had to come together during the pandemic?

JL: Well, it was polish, but it's also the point of development where, for the first time, we were getting a full understanding of the game that we were making. I know that sounds kind of weird, but the game was coming together, and we had so many systems that relied on the game to be actually almost done. The settlement is another very good example of this; the settlement is kind of the heart of the whole experience, but if you want to have a feeling of that heart, you kind of need to have the experience built around it. So the game was, yes, in its polishing phase, but it was also in the editing phase.

Traditionally, you gather a bunch of people in a meeting room, you play the build, you exchange comments, and so on. We were fortunate enough to leverage [streaming platforms], so we had a dev infrastructure where, from your PC, you could play our game. Instead of having those big meetings, we encouraged people to play the game and write down their comments [in a shared virtual workspace].

What feature were you proudest to see your teams complete during lockdown?

And it was really at the end, and actually during the pandemic, that we saw it come together, and it was actually very cool. I was really happy when I saw the response from players and journalists; they really got the feeling that we wanted, which was going back home. We took a huge bet, and we saw that bet pay off during the last year.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is available now for Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PS5, PS4, PC, Stadia, and Amazon Luna, and is available with a Ubisoft+ subscription. For more on the game, check out our previous Assassin’s Creed Valhalla coverage.

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Jul 24, 2021 at 09:31

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