25 October 2016Last updated

Features | People

Yannick Theler: The video game maker

Yannick Theler, MD of Ubisoft Abu Dhabi, on creative office spaces and the endless quest to win over new gamers…

Mike Peake
3 Oct 2016 | 11:17 am
  • Yannick cites the free-to-play CSI Hidden Crimes game launched over two years ago as the best project his team worked on here.


How did you get into this?

I’m Swiss, and I was working in banking when I decided to take a trip to the US in 2001 to improve my English. I then realised I wanted to work in something that was more about a product than a service. I’d studied marketing and luckily for me Ubisoft was opening a subsidiary in Switzerland; I applied because I’d been playing video games since I was a teenager, and I got the job.

After that I worked for Ubisoft in China for five years, where I really tried to understand why the Asian market was so different from the rest of the world and what Ubisoft could do to enter that market. I also got a taste for product development because I wanted to take a game from A-Z. Then they asked me if I’d be interested in setting up a new development studio in Abu Dhabi in 2011, and that’s how I came here.

What’s a typical day for you?

Developing a game is like a puzzle. The first thing we do is have stand-up meetings from 9-10. After that I meet all the department leads in my office to get feedback about any issues that need to be addressed. There are 60 of us here and I’m talking to them all day.

What’s the Ubisoft office like?

There’s a lot of screens, typically two or three per desk: artists, for example, might need to do some research on one screen, drawing on another and on the third see what the game in development looks like. It’s colourful and there are walls you can write on everywhere – really useful when you’re a creative and you suddenly have an idea. We also have a chillax room with games console and TV and there’s a small lounge with a pool table, foosball and dartboard.

What does the Abu Dhabi studio chiefly do?

Mobile development – we develop games for mobile and tablet.

What’s the best project you’ve worked on?

The big project we’ve worked on here is the CSI Hidden Crimes free-to-play game that we launched over two years ago. We created a core team of people from Abu Dhabi, none of whom knew each other when they started.

How long does it typically take between conceiving an idea and launch?

I would say between 10 and 18 months for a good mobile game. It’s a lot of time and a lot of people are involved.

What are the steps needed to get a game from concept to release?

First a core team of maybe an art director, a game designer, a producer and a lead programmer will brainstorm an idea. You also need to get a marketing person involved because they need to analyse the idea to see if people will like it. The conception phase can take a few weeks or a few months, and then you go on to a small prototype, which could even be on paper or Lego, just to give you an idea if it’s something that’d be fun – because that’s the most important thing. Then there’s pre-production, where you put a team in place around the core team, and the moment you get a go-ahead, you move into production. That’s probably the longest part where you create the whole game.

What happens when the game’s completed?

If it’s a free-to-play game we put it out in a couple of markets to test it, to get feedback. That’s what we call a soft-launch and we’ll assess how well people can navigate through the game, see if they’re leaving too quickly and a number of other things. Then there will be a second part of production where we make the amends necessary for the full launch, which can be three-to-six months of work. Then it’s the worldwide launch.

So you can finally move on to the next project?

No, because if it’s an online game, that’s only the beginning of the life cycle. You have to keep your team behind the product to ensure it continues working and add additional content to keep people entertained and loyal to the game. The life cycle of a good game can be as much as five or six years.

To what extent can you compare a major game release to a Hollywood blockbuster?

I don’t know about exact costs but a big game will have a budget of many millions of dollars. A recent blockbuster of Ubisoft’s was released in March called The Division – during the peak of production there were six or seven hundred people working on it.

What should youngsters be studying if they want to get into video games as a career?

There are jobs for artists, programmers, engineers, games designers and project managers. On top of that, as we’re an online business, new jobs like data analyst and data scientist are being created. There are game economy designers – a mix of game designer and an economic person who helps develop the economics of the game, like in-game purchases. There are so many opportunities.

Mike Peake

Mike Peake