Dec 20, 2021 - Technology

Inside Ubisoft's unprecedented "exodus" of developers

Video game screenshot of a Norse warrior running on a rainbow bridge with a giant tree behind him

Assassin's Creed Valhalla. Screenshot: Ubisoft/Axios

Colleagues across Ubisoft have names for the procession of developers who have departed over the past 18 months: "the great exodus" and "the cut artery."

Driving the news: The wave of resignations impacting scores of industries has come for the video game sector this year, and it's been felt acutely at the massive Ubisoft.

  • Across the company's global network of studios, which at 20,000-plus employees is one of gaming's largest workforces, many developers have decided it's time to quit.
  • And many of their colleagues describe a flow of goodbyes that they've never seen before.

Signs of the exits are abundant.

  • Top-name talent is leaving, with at least five of the top 25-credited people from the company's biggest 2021 game, Far Cry 6, already gone. Twelve of the top 50 from last year's biggest Ubisoft release, Assassin's Creed Valhalla, have left too. (A 13th recently returned.)
  • Also out are midlevel and lower-level workers as headcounts drop, particularly in Ubisoft's large and normally growing Canadian studios. LinkedIn shows Ubisoft's Montreal and Toronto studios each down at least 60 total workers in the last six months.
  • Two current developers tell Axios the departures have stalled or slowed projects.
  • One developer recently said a colleague currently at Ubisoft contacted them to solve an issue with a game, because no one was still there who knew the system.

Interviews with a dozen current and former Ubisoft developers cite a range of factors for the departures, including low pay, an abundance of competitive opportunities, frustration at the company's creative direction, and unease at Ubisoft's handling of a workplace misconduct scandal that flared in mid-2020.

  • One developer with more than a decade of experience at Ubisoft before recently leaving said the company is "an easy target for recruiters," given the company's myriad issues.
  • Said another now-former Ubisoft worker who was disappointed by directives from the company's Paris HQ: "There's something about management and creative scraping by with the bare minimum that really turned me away."
  • These game makers, like others who spoke to Axios for this story, asked not to be identified out of concern for jeopardizing their careers or those of colleagues still at Ubisoft.
  • Many spoke fondly of much of their time at the company, and one said they'd even consider returning, but the past year and a half was a breaking point.

Management says it's on top of it, telling Axios that attrition is up but that the company has hired 2,600 workers since April. (In each of the two full years prior, it had hired more than 4,500 people.)

  • "Our attrition today is a few percentage points above where it typically is," Ubisoft's head of people ops, Anika Grant, told Axios in an interview. "But it's still within industry norms."
  • LinkedIn reports Ubisoft's attrition rate is 12%, according to data supplied by Ubisoft.
  • That's indeed lower than the even more embattled Activision Blizzard (16%) but higher than rivals EA (9%), Take-Two (8%) and Epic Games (7%).

Departing employees talk of generous competing offers, particularly in the Montreal area where new studios are proliferating and where attrition at Ubisoft's main studio doubled for a time.

  • One programmer told Axios they were able to triple their take-home pay by leaving.
  • In response, Ubisoft recently offered across-the-board pay raises for workers at its Canadian studios.
  • Grant said those boosts have improved retention by 50%. It's also frustrated developers in other studios who wonder when they're getting raises too.

Ubisoft's handling of misconduct scandals — a wave of #MeToo allegations that led to the departure of several powerful men at the company — have weighed on workers who have left and on many still at the company.

  • Over the summer, 1,000 current and former employees signed a letter saying Ubisoft hadn't done enough to reform its culture, and Grant has said the company recognizes it needs to engender more trust from its workforce that it's committed to reform.
  • "I think abuse and toxicity are contributing factors but not deciding ones for most," a current Ubisoft developer said of why colleagues were bailing. But, they added, "Women and people of color experience them as deciding factors."

One worker who left this year said they'd tried to involve themselves in efforts for the company to reform its culture but were disappointed by what they heard from their bosses.

  • "They constantly emphasized 'moving on' and 'looking forward' while ignoring the complaints, concerns and cries of their employees," the developer said.
  • Also frustrated by their role at Ubisoft, they left: "The company's reputation was too much to bear. It's legitimately embarrassing."

Ubisoft brass argues that, for all its tumult, the company's standing is comparable to its peers.

  • A spokesperson noted that questions in a recent companywide survey, about whether employees are happy at the company and would "recommend Ubisoft as a great place to work," returned a score of 74, which they said was in line with the industry average.

What's next: Last week, Ubisoft announced intentions to revive its Splinter Cell franchise, years before it would normally even hint at a new installment of any of its top series.

  • Come work at Ubisoft Toronto to make a new Splinter Cell, the company beckoned. Along with that entreaty, there are dozens of job listings for programmers and lots of senior staff.

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