The first of a 3-part series on American vs. Japanese game development approaches.
#60: “The Greenlight Process – Part 1”
Published in 2016/06/02 issue
The previous column was written in Canada, and today I’d like to write about why I went to Canada in the first place (it was for work, of course).
Jeff began his career as a background artist for an MMORPG that I used to be hopelessly addicted to, Dark Age of Camelot, and he was a hardcore FFXI player since launch. When I took over FFXIV, he was the producer for Warhammer Online under EA Mythic, and we got to know each other when I went to greet him. (We went on and on about Dark Age of Camelot and FFXI…)
Jeff was also a FFXIV 1.0 legacy player and one of the producers for Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. I keep in touch with him whenever I travel overseas for PR, and it was when we met at GDC 2015 that he extended the aforementioned invitation.
He generously offered for Ubisoft Quebec to cover my travel and lodging expenses, but since I was so busy, I told him that if I were to go, it’d have to be when I’m visiting the east coast for PAX East. And now, a year later, it finally happened as part of my PAX East itinerary.
It sounds easy, but the actual schedule was a nightmare. First, I got on a plane at Narita on the afternoon of May 18th for a 13-hour flight to Chicago. From there, I transferred to a flight to Montreal, Canada, followed by a propeller plane (!?) from there to Quebec City. The entire trip took 20+ hours.
It was past 11 p.m. local time when I arrived in Quebec City. After having a quick meal at a bar with my travel companion, FFXIV Lead Translator Michael, I retired to my hotel room, checked my emails and whatnot, and then finally collapsed into bed at 4 a.m.
The next day, I met up with Jeff and we had lunch at a local restaurant before going to the Ubisoft Quebec studio. There, I discussed game development with the producers and creative directors on each project for about 4 hours. Jeff invited me to his home for dinner, and I helped myself to his wife’s amazing Turkish cooking. By the way, Jeff lives in a majestic mansion, the likes of which Japan can only dream of. I was so surprised that I asked if I could take a photo, and he casually said “You should just move to Canada, Yoshi-P.” Honestly, I felt so dejected when I recalled my own home…
The discussion that day ran deep. We began with the differences between Japan and America in how game development is approached, and from there we went on to project management, different development team management strategies, development scale, and work-life balance. Everyone was really enthusiastic.
Speaking of Ubisoft, those familiar with foreign games may already be aware of the strict “greenlight process” that games go through there. When plans for a product or project are drawn up, a gate is set at each milestone until development is completed. If the project doesn’t pass inspection at each gate, it can’t move on to the next one.
Even in Japan we hear things like “you can’t move on before getting approval”, and in a broad sense, that’s also a form of greenlight. However, Ubisoft’s greenlight process is infamous in the industry for imposing extremely strict inspections.
As I’ve written about many times in my column, modern game development costs a ton of money, especially for HD games. The purpose of this greenlight process is to first determine whether that money should be invested, and if it has been invested, to prevent unnecessary spending. Square Enix has debated many times over whether we should adopt this system (but we still haven’t).
The project proposal itself is one of the gates, as well as whether you’ll be able to get the required staff together. Then, you begin development with a minimal number of staff, and investigate whether or not you’ll be able to actualize the product’s backbone—its breakthrough. After that, you go through the preproduction phase and create a vertical slice. More checks are done, and if it passes inspection, you can finally bring in all of the staff and begin production.
The word breakthrough has several nuances: Will this product have an impact on the market? Will it defeat existing game designs? For Assassin’s Creed, its combination of assassination, parkour, and historical intervention qualifies as a breakthrough in my eyes.
If a red light comes up at any of the gate inspections, the project will be cancelled without mercy (in rare cases, they may redo the phase). In order to get the green light, the producer puts together all of the presentations and goes to the inspection agency, where he will desperately try to pass through the gate. During this time, the development team can do nothing but pray for his success. If they get the red light, they’ll be assigned to a different project next week.
This form of greenlight process is fairly common in North America and Europe. However, it isn’t really used in Japanese game development, or at least, I’ve never heard of it functioning well here. What kind of ideological or cultural differences are causing this? —That topic will have to wait until the next column.
 GDC stands for Game Developers Conference, the largest worldwide gathering of game creators where people share their techniques. It takes place in San Francisco, USA, but there are also smaller sessions held around the world.
 Ubisoft is the French game developer and publisher behind the famed Assassin’s Creed and Splinter Cell series. Most of their development studios are in Canada, and their Montreal studio has 3,000 employees.
 The 9th installment in the series. Ubisoft Quebec led its development—the first time in the series that a non-Montreal studio did. Development post-Assassin’s Creed Unity was apparently extremely stressful.
 A gaming event in North America. Video games only make up a short portion of the history of gaming, and this event was an expansion of a gathering for tabletop games and TRPGs. PAX East is held in Boston in the spring, and PAX West (formerly Prime) is held in Seattle in the summer.
 Preproduction is a preparatory phase that takes place before putting the plan into motion. It involves a small number of people solidifying the core components.
 A vertical slice is a complete part of the final product that can stand on its own (often described as all of the components of a single stage in the game). It is created before any mass production is done, so that you can better estimate future costs and staffing. It also makes it easy to tell if the game will be interesting or not.