Behind the scenes, parts of AAA video games and in the case of Alice: Madness Returns and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World are fully made in China. Since this topic hasn’t been discussed Siliconera decided to explore it similar to how we spoke to a company that localized Korean games for North America. We picked Richard Tsao from to tackle the subject since he is the Managing Director of Ubisoft Chengdu and has a cross cultural background. Prior to joining Ubisoft, Tsao worked on Far Cry at Crytek and worked with Microsoft on the original Xbox.
China is a big country. Out of all the regions, why did you want to set up a studio in Chengdu?
Richard Tsao, Managing Director of Ubisoft Chengdu: Prior to going to Chengdu, I worked at Ubisoft Shanghai as a high level manager. I got to learn a lot about China then. Probably a little surprising, most people don’t know, I didn’t speak a word of Chinese before going to Ubisoft Shanghai. I was basically an American born Chinese, who never spoke Chinese ever.
Did the Chinese government help Ubisoft Chengdu at all?
We definitely get government subsidies as one of our fortes when we negotiate for new studios. I can’t say what they are. But they were very supportive, probably not as supportive as the Singaporean Government. Singapore is a place that I would love to open up a studio. Singapore has one of the best support structures for (game development).
Really? You know, I was just talking to some of the Singaporean developers who said the exact opposite. I guess it’s different because you have Ubisoft as a brand compared to being a pure start up. I tend to think Korea is the most supportive country when it comes to game studios.
If you’re a start-up, it’s probably different. I don’t know. As a big name player right now, the two countries that are the most supportive is UAE and Singapore. As a large brand, recognized group. As a start-up, I have no clue. I’ve never done it. I can’t tell you. It’s probably true that China is more supportive of start-ups.
What I like about China is this, if you are a very successful person, and you have a good resume credentials, Chinese government people recognize that almost as equal as a big company name. If I ever wanted to do something, which I’m not I’m just talking freely, I will do it in China for sure because I have the connections, and I have the brand name power that it would be a lot easier. I don’t know Singapore is as into that. They would be looking for the company brand name, not an individual brand name. I think China still recognizes the individual start up power more, so therefore you can get better. I could see that.
Korea, I agree with you, they are the most supportive all around, but you got to be Korean. [Laughs] What I mean by Korean is, you can be American Korean. That doesn’t matter, but you’d better speak very well Korean. I can be an illiterate Chinese and get very good subsidies, which I do. To be very clear, Korea is great if you are Korean. But globally speaking, I think Singapore and UAE is great for big name companies, and China is good for individual development. I will say it that way.
How is your Mandarin now?
It’s OK. It’s passable. [Laughs] I can have a lunch conversation, but I probably won’t do business deals. When I went to Ubisoft Shanghai, I really got to learn a lot about not only the Ubisoft culture, but also the Chinese culture and working with Chinese people. I guess because my parents kind of raised me Chinese, I didn’t know that I got raised Chinese because you don’t know until you compare, that a lot of the Chinese friends I made said that I’m very traditional Chinese, what they called the “old Chinese.” Because my parents left China a very long time ago, they have their view of what China was, and they instilled those values into me. I’m coming back with the same values although I looked old-fashioned now. [Laughs] Because those values haven’t been adapted for the new generation of China with the whole the fast growth, fast pace, and everything.
How did you move from Ubisoft Shanghai to start Ubisoft Chengdu?
After two years working at Ubi[soft] Shanghai, they asked me if I want to start up a studio in China. But, they said the criteria was we did not want to open up a studio in China that would compete with the same resources as Ubi Shanghai. If you know a little bit about China, most people who live in coastal cities have no problem relocating to another coastal city. So, we knew off the bat that we couldn’t open up another coastal city studio. I would just be competing with the same type of resources and that was not a nice thing to do. Also, because our goal was to open an independent studio and as an independent studio, you basically have to have an independent pool of resources that you can acquire, we had to go westward anyways.
Chengdu became the best place for our selection for a few reasons. One is, game development does not require only engineers. It needs artists, designers, a whole swath of different personality types and skill sets. Chengdu was the only city I found that had very strong art and technical backgrounds from universities all in one place. That was one big reason; the labor pool itself was very conducive to game development. The second thing was the fact that infrastructure-wise in China, not every city is created equal. Shanghai and Beijing are quite up there on Western capabilities. In western China, there’re very few cities that have high-level western tech capabilities as Chengdu. They have the right infrastructure to support IT companies. They have dual hub power systems. They have dual hub major internet connectivity.
A good example of how good this infrastructure was, I’m not sure if you remember, but there was a huge, huge earthquake in China, about four years ago. That epicenter was basically about thirty miles from Chengdu. Our telephones were down. Our mobile phones were down. But, our internet and power was running. So I could send, via voice IP, call in to my head office to tell them that everything’s OK, which is a good test that the infrastructure was working well. Those were the two primary reasons. Well, the third one, which I have mentioned, don’t compete the recruitment with Ubisoft Shanghai. That’s how the Chengdu was selected and also I like the city.
There is a good amount of programming talent in China and the cost is less than perhaps Ubisoft Montreal or some of Ubisoft’s other studios. China faces many unique problems. Especially how consoles are “banned” from direct sales, there are cultural differences in the workplace, and working within the government quirks. What was the biggest challenge you’ve ever faced and how did you overcome those when setting up?
Government quirks are one thing, but, believe it or not, the government is very supportive in creating companies that do things like game development. I actually didn’t have any problems with the government, per se. If you want to operate games and make money in China, it’s a different story. When you want to make games, they love international companies making games in China. I had a lot of support there. I think the main challenge is probably something that you didn’t mention, but alluded to. The reality is game development is a creative process. Creative thinking is not necessary a strong point in Asia.
Yeah, I can see that could be an issue.
I’ll put it in a different way. I would still make games in China for the rest of my life, but I know that there are strengths and weaknesses in every culture. The strength in China that I love and why I will always make games or partially make games in China is – Chinese people when they have a very strong or Asian people in general, when they have a very strong direction and good leadership they trust in that leadership so wholeheartedly that they will execute and create better quality, faster than any Western game studio that I’ve ever seen. That includes Blizzard and Valve.
What I mean by this is, if you have very good creative leadership and you say this is the direction I want to go – we want this color blue. I’m just using blue as an example. Nobody is going to question if that blue is going to be the right blue. What I find the biggest challenge in Western companies is every single person, down to the individual artist, will feel that blue is not the right blue. So, more than half the energy, when creating game in the West is corralling cats, trying to convince them why this blue is the right blue. Don’t question the blue, please. Make everything that blue. Democracy is a killer, sometimes, in making games. What I meant by that is in terms of time spent, convincing everybody why that blue should be blue. While in China, I don’t have this problem at all. When we say it’s this kind of blue, they all believe you are the guy, you must know. That’s the blue and they will do that blue.
So I’ll give you a good example time back to Scott Pilgrim. Scott Pilgrim was originated started in Montreal and it was supposed to be completed in Ubisoft Montreal. What happened was, Ubisoft Montreal wanted to reprioritize some of their resources on some next generation products and they didn’t have enough resources at hand to be able to complete the project. Also, they felt that physically the time was too short left. We had about six months left to launch window and they only have one level completed at that time with one set of characters. But, all pre-production was done. The whole plan was done, but they felt that in five months, because one month you need for certification, to create everything – the other six levels, the other three characters – was almost impossible by their studio to do.
Weighing out all those things they said we got to find another studio that can do this No other studio around Ubisoft would pick this up. They wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole. Why? It’s like five months to make 80% of the game. You know? Who in the right mind will sign up for that? But it was a great opportunity for us. I’m like, no problem.
Going back to creativity. You are Asian-American. I’m Asian-American. Sometimes I feel like because we’re kind of outsiders, but understand Asian values it helps people trust in us that we’re creative and at the same time understand where they are coming from, culturally speaking.
I would say it does help. I gained automatic credentials for two reasons. I’m American Chinese and also I shipped the very big game that they respect, Far Cry. Because of that, it’s like, "Oh, you’re from Crytek, Microsoft, and worked on Far Cry, OK, you must know what you’re doing." That’s a nice thing about Asia. If you have the credentials, right off you get this respect that – even if I walk in the door of let’s say Valve or Blizzard it’s like I don’t care, but then you’ll have to prove yourself to me, again. In that sense, yes, I get that.
We do have a negative and I’m sure you’ve seen this. They also expect that you act very Chinese and when you don’t it’s very insulting. Whenever you hear a white guy speaks Chinese, “Oh, that’s really good, you speak Chinese!” But, then when we speak Chinese, it’s like “What the hell is wrong with your Chinese?” It’s a double edged sword, I should say. They really respect you that you knowing Western friends. But, they really dig into you when you don’t act Chinese, or you don’t know culture well or you don’t speak the language well.