Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game is a fantastic beat ’em up and since I’m a fan of River City Ransom it’s also one of my favorite downloadable titles. The project started in Ubisoft Montreal, but the newly formed China studio, Ubisoft Chengdu, did most of the heavy lifting. Siliconera sat down with Richard Tsao, Managing Director at Ubisoft Chengdu, to find out the story behind Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game’s development.
Richard Tsao, Managing Director at Ubisoft Chengdu: 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 says, “We 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.
You stepped in to take the challenge? At that time, Ubisoft Chengdu was nascent. You didn’t have as many employees as you have now.
Yes. We were a rookie studio. We’ve never shipped a game before.
When I saw the credits like and it looked like the majority of the work was done in [Ubisoft] Chengdu.
We did the bulk of the work. The funny thing is this, to make it work I had a condition. The core team, the core creative people who thought of this game, who were driving this game have to come to Chengdu, and they did. The lead artist, the lead designer, they all came. I had four expats came, leading a group of about forty Chinese staff who made this game, literally 80% of the game, in five months. Because we didn’t argue about what color blue it was. You know what it was. We just did it.
The only downside to this, when you have an inexperienced team is they do inexperienced problems. You can see some of those rookie mistakes in the game itself today. My biggest pet peeve is, if you look at the coin counter, sometimes you’ll see 70.9 without another zero. Because it’s a rookie mistake not to, you know, add zero, and nobody picked that up. You see what I’m trying to say? But overall, the game is fun. It’s good. We have very good reviews. We were profitable and we did it in this impossible time frame. Because there wasn’t that need to argue back and forth about what color blue. Well, I’m just using blue as an example, of course. It’s about everything. Because the leadership was very strong. These leaders, these expats, really knew what kind of game they wanted. All they need was an army of soldiers who were going to follow them. That’s why I say there are strengths and weaknesses. I would always make games in China because there are going to be very loyal soldiers who will follow things.
Now, on the creativity side, not to bash creativity. It’s not their fault per say, it’s culture and education. As mentioned by some other speakers, one of the key problems in Asia is this, most of the learning is about the rote memorization. The teacher says, I say, you do, and you follow exactly that. Well, when you get into that and you don’t get to play, because you’re always studying twelve hours a day, you don’t have the ability to think out of the box. It’s not a practiced skill. So when I say creativity is lacking in Asia. I’m not saying because the people can’t do it. It’s the culture, the environment, the education system, isn’t encouraging it. Because of that, it’s difficult for creativity to be successful.
Because of that, that’s also why I’d always want to work with Asian people, as well. You don’t need too many creative people to make a good game. I’d say the biggest challenge in the West is that there are too many people who think that they are creative and want to be in the creative process. You need a core team of that, but you need a lot more executors. They are always going to be complimentary workers to have and I will always believe in that model for the rest of my life until you can see in the West that people who want to get into games also like to be followers. But unfortunately, that’s not the case.
I saw that original pitch for Scott Pilgrim with the Mega Man style boss selection and the Sonic logo for Scott. Were you guys part of that? Or was Scott Pilgrim already so far in development…
It was so far in development beyond that. All of the original pitches and all the things that you saw were done in Montreal. And in typical fashion in game development, which I totally agree with, in early phases you iterate on your ideas over and over again. Part of their iteration they have to do was given technology constraint, and timelines, what can and cannot be done by IP holder will or will not allow, and all those things morph.
One of the things that I always tell people is, maybe in early concept, may not ever be what you will see in the game. What I can say is, what you saw in the game as you play it was pretty much what was solidified prior to the core team coming to Chengdu. They knew that they are going to have seven levels. They knew that there are going to be four characters, initially. They knew all the bosses and all the layout, the game plan mechanics, prior to coming to Chengdu in their head worked out to a pretty detailed level of thinking. They also had mock-ups, storyboards, and stuff like that. I’m not going to say everything was in their head, but a lot of that was in their head.
Then it was just execution. Where Chengdu came in was purely to complete six more levels and three more characters and the X number of varieties of blah blah blah, these bosses and everything else. That’s what Chengdu came in to make the game. So a lot of the creativity really came from Montreal, I’m not going to lie. 80% of the execution came from Chengdu.
That’s still pretty impressive that you guys get it done so quickly. What part of Scott Pilgrim didn’t we see?
What part of Scott Pilgrim you didn’t see. Um… we cut a lot. [Laughs.]
It’s a very impressive game, especially the development crunch, but I felt like that you have to cut a lot.
We cut a lot and it’s not something we would normally discuss. I can say the original people who envisioned this game and what they got to finally see was probably maybe 50% of the original vision. I’ll put it that way in context. They had a lot more they want to do. But again, time was running out. Money was running out. All of these things. We had to launch it with the movie, right? So one thing I’d say as a lesson learned. I would have asked for a smaller team, creative team, to spend two years flushing out as many things as they want to do to a very granular level detail and then put Chengdu a little earlier on to execute.
Instead of giving you guys five months?
Yes, If we had twice amount the time, I can tell you, we’d have twice amount of the game for sure. When you think about it, you saw what we could do in five months? What we can do in ten months? But the reality is, even though they had the rest of their thoughts, it wasn’t flushed out enough that we can do it anyway. You do have to do a lot of the iteration per time to flush out your idea. Ideas are always going to be good in your head until you see how it works.
Until you develop, iterate, and try.
Exactly. All the rest of the other 50%, they didn’t have, per say, so it was very difficult. When I say we cut, we cut the least thought out, the least worked out things in the game early on, and we focused on the things are well thought out and in execution stage. We executed everything that could be executed. We’ll say it that way.