I awoke this morning to find out that another video game studio in Vancouver is shutting its doors. Ubisoft announced they will be closing their Vancouver location which was previously an independent studio named Action Pants. Ubisoft bought Action Pants several years ago in what, at the time, seemed like a good move. This closure is just another in a long list of negative developments in the Vancouver video game industry. A few years ago, one could easily argue that Vancouver was the hub of video game development in Canada but that title surely has been passed onto Montreal now.
I know a few people who worked at Ubisoft Vancouver. In fact, less than twelve hours before the news broke, I was speaking with a friend of mine who was a game designer at the studio. He was questioning some odd decisions that Ubisoft made but in light of what happened today, those decisions seem somewhat more understandable now. An ex-coworker of mine was actually laid off from Ubisoft Vancouver about two months ago. In hindsight, that actually might have been the better situation as he was able to find a new job with very little competition. As of today, there are now plenty more people all looking for new jobs. I know Ubisoft is trying to place all the affected people at other jobs. Another person I know who lost his job today is going to Ubisoft’s Toronto studio. He’ll be packing his life up and taking himself and his wife to Toronto at the end of February.
So why did Ubisoft close the Vancouver studio? Well, to be very frank, that studio cost them a lot of money and they didn’t get much out of it. Since the studio was sold to Ubisoft, they produced I believe three games that were far from great hits. Those titles did not have critical acclaim nor the sales that would have lessened the blow of the poor reviews. It was surprising how little buzz was generated by the games that Ubisoft Vancouver made. Even industry people here locally in Vancouver heard very little about those games. I don’t know if Ubisoft just refused to put marketing dollars behind their Vancouver studio or if the games just didn’t garner any attention with gamers. After several games, several years, and probably millions of dollars, Ubisoft decided to cut their losses.
To be clear, I don’t think all the blame should be put on the people who worked at the studio. I know some people who worked there and I even interviewed for a position there. They had some really talented and smart people. The main problem was that Ubisoft made them work on games that really seemed like they were doomed to failure from the start. Ubisoft wanted their Vancouver studio to make sports games, which in my opinion was stupid. They were competing with the sports games giant in the industry, EA Canada which happened to be a 20 minute drive away. People can complain all they want about EA but the truth is, they have a huge market share with sports games, in particular soccer (football for all you Europeans). Of course, Ubisoft wanted their Vancouver studio to make a successful soccer game. This was an incredibly ambitious undertaking but without the authentic FIFA license, they were starting from a difficult position. They had two kicks at the can at this but you can read about the results here and here. Their last game, another sports title, was released this fall and here‘s the review for it.
Ubisoft basically handcuffed everyone in Vancouver into making three games that didn’t really have a chance for success. They really should have just let them be creative and invent new intellectual property or given them a choice of some of the existing Ubisoft IP. The people whom I knew that worked there are incredibly creative and talented, they deserved better than working on sports games. I really wonder if this would have been the same outcome had they been given more freedom to make the games they wanted to and could make. Unfortunately there are now another large group of developers looking for work in Vancouver.