Ubisoft Casablanca was set up in 1998 by Ubisoft, a French multinational video game developer and publisher. This was the first gaming studio in North Africa, developing such famous titles as Donald Quack Attack, Beyond Good and Evil, and Prince of Persia: Two Thrones, which was co-developed with Ubisoft Montreal.
In 2008, Ubisoft and the Moroccan government joined to open Campus Ubisoft, a specialised school for Game Development, which I graduated from as a Level designer, but unfortunately, the campus was shut down because of the economic crisis in 2009/10. Fortunately, I was able to join Ubisoft as a Game Designer, and we co-developed Rayman Origins, Legends in consoles, Jungle and Fiesta on mobile.
[Ubisoft Casablanca] is closing down as a result of the evolution of the video game market. We didn't find a sustainable formula for the studio within our broader network. Jean-Michel Detoc, Ubisoft Mobile executive director
I left after working in the studio for 6 years, and there were a couple of warning signs. Things were not looking good, and one year later, Ubisoft Casablanca was closed. I would like to share some of the internal and external issues that contributed to the closure based on my personal view and experience while working there.
Lack of passion
Many of Ubisoft Casablanca's developers weren’t really passionate about making video games. Some were not even aware of about local or global video game events such as the Game Developers Conference. This was a difficult working environment, and the most passionate and talented resources left the company to join other international studios, or do indie work.
Lack of leadership
Ubisoft Casablanca's management was more focused on managing than leadership, meaning that there was very little guidance and impact on the group. Most of the studios of Ubisoft were showing high leadership skills to get the best project, while Ubi Casa was in a passive position, waiting to receive projects and guidance from headquarters than imposing their vision and autonomy.
Lack of vision
Ubisoft vision is to create fun games that enrich the player experience, it is a powerful simple vision that we all share as gamers and game developers. In Casablanca, however, the vision wasn’t even communicated clearly to guide the team. One of the producers even told me once that we don’t need a vision, because the game industry is changing every day, and we should just follow the wave.
Well... the studio was turning around without any goal or vision to follow in order to be competitive in the game industry.
Comfort zone mindset
As Yannick Theler, Manager of Ubisoft Abu Dhabi, once said in a meeting, “We are now in the comfort zone and we have to get out of it in order to innovate”. In Casablanca, the comfort zone mindset was all over the studio, with some of the staff doing the bare minimum in order to earn their paychecks and retire at the end.
Every time the young recruited talents tried something new or wanted to push the creative boundaries, they had a reactionary behavior from the old generation, because change was destructive for their Comfort zone.
Disregard of core values
Ubisoft is a familial oriented company based on core values as Collaboration, Sharing and Transparency, with concrete actions to be executed as yearly transparent evaluations. The company also has internal platforms that allow exchange and sharing between international resources and teams. Projects were mostly developed in collaboration with other team to give them opportunities to evolve. However, these corporate values weren’t even shared or executed in Casablanca.
Lack of career evolution
I joined Ubisoft Casablanca as a level designer, after which I was appointed to a game designer role, which I accepted. Since then, however, my title never changed until I ended my contract 6 years later. Was I bad at game design? Logically as any other company, I should have being fired then, but still I was sent into missions to other studios...
Ubisoft has very clear career evolution criteria. However, Casablanca studio, the career path was erratic, and we didn’t have concrete objectives to follow on each year evaluation. I felt that the criteria to judge was more based on the whims of the management than actual performance, and as a result, many left the studio to other companies because of career stagnation.
Bureaucracy in the creative process
Most of the time in Casablanca studio, protocols and bureaucratic process was more important than the quality of the project. While Ubisoft generally prefers a startup management approach to than corporate to keep flexibility in the process, and player satisfaction is always on the middle of decision making.
Complete Control instead of Participative Management
A producer once told me, "I don’t believe in Participative management, the resources should be managed as in the Military". In the last two years, decisions have been taken without any consultation with the teams, which has discouraged many developers from taking initiatives due to fear and lack of feedback. This is the complete opposite of how things should be as set out by the Ubisoft Group, where the actual success is based on a very strong participative management that includes everyone from the worldwide studios.
Educational weakness, and lack of talented resources
Morocco's educational system is currently under reform. Academic metrics looking at the level of science and engineering show that these are doing poorly compared to international competitive standards, while in game development, a high level of engineering and science is still required to build good games and engines.
Because of this shortcoming, it was hard for Ubisoft Casablanca to recruit new talent, and bringing in resources from abroad was very costly.
No Industrial competition
For the better part of two decades, the only official video game company in Morocco was Ubisoft. Some may think the monopoly would woek well for the developer, but it has led to complacency, as an ex-manager of the studio explained to us. Ubisoft Montreal's success is linked to the high level of competition from other studios such as EA and Warner Bros. Because of this, each studio was obliged to recruit the best talent and make the best games in order to keep in track.
Weak governmental follow up
Inviting a big company such as Ubisoft to open a subsidiary in Morocco in 1998, and starting a specialized school for game development in 2008 were smart pioneering moves for the game development industry in the MEA region. However, starting is not enough. There is a need for evaluation and routine strategic checkups.
The closure of the only official video game studio in a country, is a tragedy, but many initiatives were built during Ubisoft Casablanca period.
In 2012, we started Moroccan Game Developers, a local community which aims to develop a video game industry in Morocco. We built this initiative with the intention to give a new reference for local game developers who are willing to join the game industry, by inspiring them to go indie and to develop their own games, rather than to focus only on joining Ubisoft Casablanca.
Former developers from Ubisoft Casablanca have also started their own indie game studios such as Palm Grove Software and Rym Games, who are developing The Conjuring House, a promising horror game for Steam and console. Other indie game studios from former of Ubisoft are coming soon.
After I left Ubisoft, I co-founded TheWallGames, an indie game studio that aims to build meaningful gaming experience, with other former Ubi Casablanca staff.
We are organizing the Maghreb Game Conference, the first summit for game developers in Morocco, which will take place in Casablanca in October. The conference will bring together communities of game developers from the North African region. We took inspiration from the Nordic Game Conf which focuses on building a strong regional game industry in the Nordic countries.
Ultimately, Ubisoft as a group is a great video game company that focuses on making fantastc video game experience for all the players, and Ubisoft Casablanca was an opportunity for many local developers to get into professional video game development. I am very thankful for everything I have learned while working there, especially in helping to shape the video game industry in Morocco.
Now it is time for us to rise up and to build the future of a bright video game industry in Morocco :)
This post first appeared on Gamasutra