An Interview with Ubisoft’s Patrick Plourde

Many people still do funny things when they’re asked to think about video games.  Whether you’re a painter, a musician, a writer – or not – nobody is confused about how paintings, albums, or books are produced.  But everyone shrugs when it comes to video games.  All of those disciplines are involved – games need artists, musicians, and writers – but there’s also something more.  Games have gameplay.  Games are about systems, about inter-connectivity and interactivity.  Games are about fun.  Games are about a lot of things that are still just being understood.

Enter the Vancouver Game Design Expo, an annual event that attempts to inform how designing a game works by showcasing various presentations by accomplished game designers as they share their thoughts and ambitions with a crowd of aspiring designers, students, and anyone who’s interested in learning about the process.  The expo is held at the Vancouver International Film Centre.

Stand-out presentations included talks by Chris Haluke, lead designer on Halo 4’s Spartan Ops mode who spoke about creating the episodic content; Richard Rouse III, a design lead at Microsoft who talked about how meaning can be expressed through game design; and Patrick Plourde, creative director at Ubisoft who spoke about how to innovate with game design.

The long day of presentations was broken up by a few excellent panels on topics like journalism and sound design.  A small area in the lobby contained booths showing off locally developed games, and, most importantly – catered food.  If nothing else, the event proved once again that video games and a steady diet of turkey sandwiches still makes just as good of a day as it did when you were 8.

My experience at the expo was fascinating on its own, but the event itself was slightly overshadowed by my having the pleasure to interview some of the biggest speakers at the event.  Shortly after lunch I was able to sit down with Patrick Plourde of Ubisoft and elaborate on some of the things he’d be talking about at the event.

Patrick Plourde has had a long history working on some of Ubisoft’s biggest franchises, from the first three Assassin’s Creed games to Far Cry 3.  He quickly made it clear the kind of thought process it takes to create four of the biggest games in the last decade.

“So the game I’m imagining is one that involves beaten-wife syndrome,” he says, though it’s anyone’s guess whether he means he’s imagined this game before, or if he’s putting it together in his head right now.

Patrick Plourde

He’s hard to understand – not due to his thick French accent – but because of the manic speed that he throws out ideas.

“The thing is, ideas sometimes seem good in print, but the problem is the execution,” he continues.  “It’s about trying to search for new things and new input methods.  Trying to push the barriers.”

Patrick’s talking about innovation in an industry where the newest games that come out are almost invariably about space marines or gangsters.  In that regard, his hypothetical game about beaten wives seems more a thought experiment at this point.

“When I was young my parents knew a woman, and my family was trying to help her but she always went back to this [abusive] man, and I didn’t understand why.  But maybe in a game we could communicate how leaving that guy might mean that you now have to live on the street, or your children won’t have a father,” he says.  “If we can start using game mechanics to express those feelings, people might go ‘ah.  I understand now.’”

Patrick is convinced that games are able to communicate serious ideas, but he thinks that we just haven’t figured out how to translate those ideas into a game.  “The problem is if you have a pretty story, but you can’t make it playable,” Patrick says.  “Mechanics come first.”

Patrick has been a AAA developer for most of his professional game design career, so I asked him what he thinks of the ultra-creative indie scene.  “It’s a wild west,” he says, but he thinks there’s a potential problem in the abstract way many indie games present their gameplay.  “My mother’s not going to understand a lot of abstraction.  For a game to break mainstream it’s going to need a wrapper, like character performance, or voice acting, or good graphics.”

However, he admits his belief that innovation is going to come from indies.  “With big studios, you have to show them money, so that’s an added challenge.  But I think it can be done.  I’m trying to do that with my next project.”

Throughout Patrick’s presentation he talked about the rut AAA design is in, and that for things to change, something needs to come along and not only shake up the industry, but also make millions.

“So let’s go completely bonkers,” he muses.  “My most crazy idea is to make a drama game, like Precious, the game.”

I ask him if he means the movie about rape, incest, abuse, and teen pregnancy.  I am not corrected.

“Everybody’s going to say ‘no fucking way we’re making that game, it’s impossible.’  If you pitch a Conan game, everybody would go ‘fuck yeah let’s make it!  It’s a no-brainer.’  But Precious generated like $60 million in the States, twice as much as the last Conan.

“So there’s people willing to have that serious experience, but there’s no serious content in games that deals with traumatic experience.  And seriously, I think there’s no reason why games can’t do it while movies and books can.”

Talking with Patrick, it’s impossible not get excited by his passion, and he tells me that it’s this passion for innovation and creativity that he wants students of game design to take away from his presentation.

“I hope this is inspirational,” he says in a brief moment of pause.  “I just want somebody to say ‘You know what, I don’t have to do a 2D platformer as an indie.’  I want games to make you believe you can live someone else’s story.”