Deborah Papiernik: how Ubisoft’s digital worlds grew beyond gaming

For companies like Ubisoft, the Metaverse has existed for 20 years. Deborah Papernik explains how digital worlds are more than just play in our latest episode of the NEXT show.

Deborah Papiernik is Ubisoft’s Senior VP New Business Development, Technology and Strategic Alliances. In the fourth episode of the NEXT – SHOW series 3, she explored how 20 years of virtual worlds for gaming point towards the potential of the Metaverse. 

Watch the complete episode

If you want to get a glimpse of the potential the Metaverse offers, you need to look backwards, and into the digital worlds created by the game companies. Deborah Papiernik has seen two decades’ worth of evolution of digital worlds, at Ubisoft, creators of such titles as Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and the Tom Clancy series of games, including Rainbow 6.

She explains that games often evolve beyond their play roots — they become brands. Ubisoft’s brands have made their way into books, comics, TV shows and even theme parks. These are an opportunity for fans to encounter their beloved brands in other contexts. But they’re also a marketing opportunity for Ubisoft to show those brands to people who might not have interacted with them as games, due to age, interest, or lack of experience. 

Building digital history

The Assassin’s Creed games in particular are noted for their historical detail. Ubisoft actually has historians within the team — and they help determine which periods of history they want to explore in their games. Is there enough richness of context and historical impact?

“We have a research team at headquarters that helps with that — historians, geographers, sociologists, any type of science that is not video game design,” Papiernik says. “They dig into the topics, but also find experts. For example, they found an expert in weapons of the American Civil War for one Assassin’s Creed game.”

They also work with other communities, including re-enactors who are experts in the costumes of various eras. 

“We talk to the indigenous communities in our games, to make sure we represent them correctly,” she says. They actually send the team out on field trips to understand the context and feel of the locations they’re going to recreate digitally. 

“It’s important that the people who do the game live the experience,” she says. “Reality can be more rich and diverse than anything you can imagine. Why not use those stories? Science fiction can never have as many details as real history.”

Enriching lives through digital worlds

Ubisoft aims to enrich people’s lives through gaming — and we know that all creatures, including humans, learn by playing. 

“In gaming, you can learn by failing, and you can fail in front of your friends,” she says. “There aren’t many places where we’re prepared to fail in front of our friends. You improve by trying, and you socialise at the same time.”

In fact, the World Health Organisation encouraged online gaming during the pandemic, to ease loneliness and isolation. 

Assassin’s Creed is for mature audiences — it’s not ideal for schools. But teachers captured videos of the environment within the game to use as teaching aids, because of the accuracy of the representation. And that led to the creation of the Discovery tours, which are time-unrestricted, combat-free versions of the game. Ubisoft created guided tours with the assistance of teachers and historians that allow you to learn about, for example, mummification in Ancient Egypt. 

Preserving reality in digital worlds

The same techniques can be applied to capture digital recreations of European cities, in partnerships with academics and historians. 

“It’s great for us because we’re confronted with historians and their work. In video games we’re using history for entertainment, so we take inspiration from it but can tweak it.”

“Think about a painter: you can have a photograph of a place or a painting of it. The photograph will be an accurate record, the painting will give you more, some emotion, some drama. It’s the same with games and history.”

And nothing made this more clear than the fire at Paris’ Notre Dame.

“When Notre Dame was burning, people all over the world started sharing memories of it; photos and videos of their visit. And gamers started sharing videos of gameplay in the virtual version from Assassin’s Creed Unity, a game about the French Revolution. That was their memory of Notre Dame.”

Experiencing Notre Dame in a digital world

Ubisoft’s model of the cathedral is only 90% accurate, so can’t be used for reconstruction, despite press reports to the contrary. Instead, Ubisoft has donated money — and made Unity free for people who want to play that version of the game, and experience their recreation of the cathedral. 

But the game is for adults. Why couldn’t everyone experience that recreation? And so, Papiernik asked her team to pull the model out of the game and use it as the heart of a VR recreation of the experience. You can don a VR helmet and explore the cathedral as it was. 

“So, a couple of months after the fire, we had a five-minute experience ready,” she says. However, it’s the Notre Dame of 70 years after the French Revolution — they used artistic licence in the game to use a more familiar version of the cathedral. They even licensed organ music played in the cathedral not long before the fire for use in it.

Using games to enrich experience

Soon after, the film director Jean-Jacques Annaud, who is making a film about the fire, approached them. He asked if they could make a game to accompany the film. But a game takes several years, up to a thousand people and tens of millions of Euros. 

“We could do something, but it wouldn’t be great, and we wouldn’t be proud of it,“ she says. “But I had another idea — we have a network of escape games. We can add another one — one using the 3D model of Notre Dame, and developing quickly the extra elements we needed. We created a game where you had to save the relics from the fire before it was too late.”

And this is not their only experience of giving digital world assets new life. A documentary producer who had already done some work on the neanderthals wanted to explore similar prehistoric territory that hadn’t been well explored before. 

“There was no documentary about prehistoric women — was there anything interesting to say?” says Papiernik.

Filming in digital worlds

There was — the researchers found that people’s roles in that era emerged out of capability. For example, the grandmothers tended to look after the children, while the mother went foraging. A French TV station bought it, and so the question became: how do we illustrate a documentary about this era?

“One of the producers was actually a consultant on one of our games, a Far Cry game,” she says. “We’d already done the work with historians to ensure that the trees were right, the animals were right.” The consultant set up a meeting, and Ubisoft agreed to let them use the game’s assets for footage in the creation of Lady Sapiens

Inside their games, they have a debug mode that allows internal users to navigate through the game world as if they were flying a drone. The director worked with the Ubisoft technician, capturing all the footage capture that illustrated the documentary’s scientific points. 

“In a 90-minute documentary, you had 17 minutes of Far Cry footage,” she says. “This documentary is great, very immersive, but can we go further with that immersion? Well, the best tool for immersion today is VR, so we decided to build a VR experience that puts you in the very shoes of Lady Sapiens.”

Ubisoft built it from reused assets from Far Cry, so they could develop it quickly with a small team. In a similar way, animal assets became an essential resource in creating a documentary during lockdown, when real-world filming was all but impossible. “We ended up with a 12-minute CGI film that no museum would have been able to pay for in traditional CGI. Because it was only a capture of what we had, it was possible.”

They slit the documentary into seven capsules on the broadcaster’s website, specifically targeting children. 

The Metaverse has its roots in games

What does this experience suggest to her about the future of the Metaverse?

“If you look at it, people outside the video games industry talk about the Metaverse more than we do — because it’s normal for us,” says Papiernik. “A world that’s still alive even when you’re not connected, that has existed for 20 years. Having an avatar, we know how it works. Having a virtual economy, we know how it works.”

She’s interested in some innovations from outside gaming, though. For example, NFTs are a way of validating the digital economy, and rewarding players for time spent or creations. 

“People are spending time crafting things in games,” she says. “Maybe that value can go outside the game, too.”

Enriching human experiences

And she’s certainly open to the idea of improving our online experience through using virtual worlds:

“Look at how the world has turned. For two years, we’ve spent so much time working on our screens. I’m working in Zoom, I’m working in Teams — I will have no problem working in the Metaverse.”

“You’re never looking at people you meet online in the eye, because of where webcams are. In the Metaverse, I can look them in the eyes — even if it’s an avatar’s eyes.” 

Digital worlds making experiences more human? Oh, yes. 

“It’s not necessarily that we’ll spend more time online, but better time online,” says Papiernik. 

Now, that’s an attractive vision of the Metaverse future.

This is a summary of an interview with Deborah Papiernik conducted by Monique van Dusseldorp and broadcast on the NEXT Show on 7th April. You can catch up with Deborah and her work on LinkedIn.