You’ve probably familiar with video game development jobs like programmer, artist, or designer. But one of the most influential roles at Ubisoft is one that doesn’t always immediately parse for most people: the role of its editorial team.
This advisory group’s job is, on a large scale, to determine the creative direction for Ubisoft and its games, and it’s been in a state of upheaval lately. The editorial team had previously gotten an overhaul in early 2020, only to need another later that year after a wave of abuse allegations levied at multiple senior Ubisoft employees, including editorial leads.
In the pre-2020 structure, reports suggested that many of Ubisoft’s games ended up very same-y due to just one or two people dictating the creative direction of the company as a whole. And while the initial team shake-up may have been well-intentioned enough, it left at least two individuals with allegations against them dictating the company’s creative pillars. So it had to change again.
Which is where Fawzi Mesmar came in. Mesmar joined Ubisoft as VP of editorial just over a year ago, coming with almost two decades of industry design experience at companies including Atlus, Gameloft, King, and EA DICE. He stepped into the role at a particularly tenuous moment, and while his team’s overall directive of shaping the company’s creative direction remains intact, the nuances appear to be changing. Speaking to IGN, Mesmar describes the broad strokes of his role as working with senior leadership to put together a “creative framework” to help direct individual game teams in their creative visions. They put the pillars in place, then help teams reach them throughout the development process.
“We treat these as guidelines,” Mesmar says. “So that these are not things that every single project needs to have or that every single project needs to abide by. They are creative guidelines. Think of them as a framework that you can use to activate your creativity, but not a checkbox that you need to address…and one game can’t be everything. We wouldn’t expect [that from] even the games that want to follow through with the guidelines or take some of those criteria into consideration. Games need to be focused on what they are and who they’re for.”
So what is this framework? Mesmar’s alluded to it before, and it effectively centers around three pillars. The first, “complete focus on quality,” is fairly self-explanatory. The second is to make games that are culturally significant, which Mesmar describes as a drive to make games that form the overall fabric of pop culture at large. So, quite bluntly, games that are made well and that a lot of people like – fairly straightforward.
The third pillar is a bit different – Mesmar wants to “create third spaces.”
“If work is your first space and home is your second, then the third space is this…You can just pop in, pop out, and connect with like-minded individuals or groups of people in which you can express yourself and connect with freely. I’d like to think about it as similar to a skate park. You can show up [whenever] at 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 of 2021 on the heels of the same storm of allegations that shook up the editorial team. Sikka is Ubisoft’s VP of global diversity, accessibility, and inclusion – a role that Ubisoft previously didn’t have at all. She tells me that while D&I efforts had previously existed at the company, they hadn’t all been united under one banner before.
“Things were happening, they were just happening in different places used by different teams using different words and language,” she says. “And what we’ve tried to do really is come together with a common direction, 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 covers 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. Practically, this involves having conversations with development teams at multiple project stages to determine where diversity and inclusion topics might have a role in whatever they’re making. Mesmar explains that depending on where they are in the project, these conversations can take different forms, ranging from high-level internal design discussions to asking outside consultants for their thoughts to dissecting player feedback and data.
What happens, I ask, if there’s a conflict between something the editorial team suggests and what the development team wants?
It’s difficult for five or six people to agree where they want to go for lunch. Imagine hundreds of people working for years on a creative endeavor.
“We provide the team with the player feedback, and then the team are the owners of their creative vision and then they make the decision on how they want to proceed with their game considering the feedback,” Mesmar replies. “It’s difficult for five or six people to agree where they want to go for lunch. Imagine if it’s hundreds of people working for years on a very highly creative and personal endeavor. There will be disagreements in point of view, of course, and I think that’s an inevitable part of the creative process. But this is why assigning ownership, which is creative ownership, is always with the team.”
Sikka adds that conversations like these are rarely binary, either, and are usually very nuanced. But the value lies in being able to talk about it with a group of people who aren’t deeply embedded in it, experts and consultants on hand, and a lot of data.
“When it comes to when we’re doing a review at the later stage of a game, what we tend to give the team back in terms of feedback is high, low, medium risks of what we’re seeing and what we think needs to be changed,” she says. “When something is going to be flagged as high [risk] that we think that this is really not in support of our values, we try and make sure that it goes beyond a conversation and we take action.”
For now, neither can get into a lot of particulars on how this has impacted Ubisoft’s games – they’ve only been at it for about a year so far, so much of their work is still under development and unannounced.
Sikka did, however, want to shout out one specific win the team has had already: the Content Review group.
“This came out of a need that we heard from our dev teams; [they wanted] to have diverse sounding boards, get feedback from a diverse set of team members who aren’t working directly on the project to ensure that [they’re] being inclusive and respectful and celebrating the diversity of [their] game. So we set up this group of volunteers, we have about a hundred odd people who are contributing their voices and their perspectives to these various projects, and we kicked it off as a pilot. It proved to be really successful. We have a team of about two full-time staff members dedicated to running the process and managing the hundred odd volunteers and interacting with dev teams across the world.”
She adds that the Content Review Group was specifically instrumental for Roller Champions, in creating its diverse cast of characters and giving feedback on the different outfits and hairstyles. And for more fruits of their labors, she urges people to look forward to the upcoming Assassin’s Creed: Mirage.
“Outside of the content review, actually the inclusive games and content team has been instrumental in helping with external experts with the calligraphy, the [Arab] names, Arab culture. So very exciting to see where that and how our players receive that in the future.”
She then throws to Mesmar, saying she knows he’s especially excited about Mirage.
“For me, when the first Assassin’s Creed had the dude on a horse riding to Damascus and it was one of the first times in gaming where I saw my culture being represented,” he says. “And now with Mirage coming to Baghdad in that historical era, I can’t wait for our players to be able to experience that.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.