Lisa Opie isn’t done learning. She’s almost two years into the day-to-day runnings of Ubisoft Leamington and Reflections, a milestone that might encourage some slight relaxation into the metaphorical armchair of managing director. Instead, Opie is constantly curious about what her teams are up to.
On the day NME arrives in Leamington, all four seasons show up too – switching from cloud to hailstones to beaming sun and back again. Opie is chatting in Ubisoft’s recently refurbed office, in a room with forest green walls and chairs that straddle comfort and designer chic. It’s not a bunker, but if the day after tomorrow blew in, it wouldn’t be a bad place to hole up.
Beyond that intrinsic inquisitiveness, there’s a sense that the managing director is still somewhat surprised to be here. Not that she hasn’t got the credentials, but she was in the right place at the right time. Opie’s career started in commercial television in the early noughties, joining Channel 5 and then Twofour. “Twofour is a big, independent production company that made everything from Hotel Inspector to Splash!,” she says proudly. “Not sure if anybody remembers that, but it’s fabulous.”
“And then, almost by accident, I got approached to go and work for the BBC, for the first time not working in commercial television,” she continues. Opie acted as the Beeb’s controller of business factual between 2012 and 2016. Responsible for both independent and in-house productions, she incorporated these with the factual department, blooming the broadcast company’s presence on the small screen.
Following that, she championed the choice to turn in-house BBC productions into a commercial subsidiary over the course of approximately two and a half years, a subject that lights up the room by several Watts. “So we made about 2,000 hours of programmes every year, everything from The Blue Planet to Countryfile to Antiques Roadshow to documentaries, loads of other things,” Opie elaborates. “I was very fortunate because the year that we launched commercially was the year that The Blue Planet launched too, so there weren’t many broadcasters or streamers around the world who wouldn’t take a call when we rang up!” Five years in the making, the documentary depicting life in the world’s oceans – spotting some animals that had never been caught on film before – was watched by over 12 million people. Its success scored a scattering of Emmy and BAFTA TV awards as well as spawning the Planet Earth franchise.
The role was rewarding. “Not least because I got to sit at the front row of Strictly Come Dancing,” says Opie. What no one had foreseen was how these shows would work if all of the cast and crew couldn’t stand within three metres of each other. COVID-19 had enormous impacts on the broadcast and entertainment industries, not only financially, but also bringing about artistic and cultural changes that are still acting as aftershocks.
“So I spent two, three years doing that, and I suppose to a certain extent, I missed the scale of a smaller company,” Opie admits. In the response to the pandemic, her role became “very, very operational” which, while expected, cleaved Opie from the adventure of bringing a project into being. An adventure game development was ready to provide.
Games felt a comparable pinch as the industry worldwide struggled to adapt, however as Opie has said previously, games had a youthfulness and playfulness that television couldn’t compete with. “At first, I thought it might just be a joke,” says Opie of the moment she was approached about the job at Ubisoft. “But I have a gamer son who immediately went, ‘Mother, you have got to do that! They’re extraordinary!’”
The BBC is, of course, 100 years old. In contrast, the first consumer video game Computer Space was released in 1971. That was still a lot of history for Opie to swot up on before her interviews, however – especially given the many, many, many cultures in the industry and the games that make it up. Ubisoft alone possesses a professional scene with tactical team-based shooter Rainbow Six Siege, caters to casual players and families with sparkly rhythm series Just Dance and slapstick party games in Rabbids, and is balancing new instalments of historical blockbuster Assassin’s Creed across a number of its international studios. Anyone would agree that the easiest option would be to email ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ to the recruiter.
“My son wrote me a glossary of terms which was great,” Opie says. “He explained what PvP was and PvE, and what an engine would be and everything else. I really enjoyed the conversation. It felt that the challenge of working in a very different environment where I would be doing an awful lot of learning was a really exciting one.”
There’s a banal wizardry in game development that appeals to Opie – one that has gradually gone extinct from the methods of television. “I often say I could make a television programme – it will be a really rubbish television programme – but I know every single part, every single process that you need to go through in order to create that,” she explains. “One of the things that’s so fascinating about the games sector is the complexity. Software development is iterative. If it was easy, everybody would do it.”
“I came in asking a lot of the same questions that I would ask in the television world, you know, and soon and rapidly learned that it was very different,” adds Opie. She then rattles off a selection from the roster of Ubisoft’s own studios, such as Massive Entertainment, Red Storm and Ubisoft Pune, citing the thrilling capabilities of collaboration as well as the enormous effort to organise all of these studios towards a common goal.
“I see the magic of what happens,” she says. “I think it’s extraordinary that you start with nothing. You pull all those elements together, and the complexity of working in something that is iterative, that people can control and decide for themselves, is so different from a passive media experience, where of course you’re transported somewhere else, but it’s really different.”
Over the decades, the image of video games and gamers has shifted from bright lights and sharp sounds in arcades, to cosy memories created cross legged on the N64, to CRT monitors reflected in thick glasses lenses, to blowing off an invite to your girlfriend’s birthday drinks because Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II comes out on that day. Only recently has the medium been considered worthy of adaptation into prestige television, as evidenced by the raucous reception of HBO’s The Last of Us.
Not that Ubisoft waited for outside validation before setting up its own film and TV subsidiary. Following on from Assassin’s Creed, Werewolves Within and the continuing Mythic Quest, Ubisoft is cooking up a huge number of live action adaptations with a range of production entities, from Warner Bros. Pictures, Lionsgate, Netflix and more.
Given that Opie had worked for nearly 20 years in television, and with capital-G gamers still fussing over a television world that doesn’t take them seriously, she’s the authority to ask about the similarities as well as the differences between the two. “Fundamentally, it’s about creativity, it’s about innovation, it’s about new ideas, it’s about creating a culture where people feel safe to say the maddest thing, and to fail, and that’s fine. So, culturally, I think that’s very, very similar,” she replies.
“Inclusivity is just as important in TV and just as challenging in TV, to make sure that you have a diverse mix of people working within the creative sectors,” she nods, and asserts that television, like game development, is no doddle from an organisational point of view. “It is quite difficult to run a royal wedding from a delivery perspective. They’re big teams of people that you need to have really clear communication. People constantly need to know where they are in the cycle, and where you’re heading to. Those are just some of the similarities.”
Opie’s leap to Ubisoft pricked the ears of a few of her former colleagues who wanted an insight into how the games industry moves, and this willingness to chat casually is something that she thinks that games could learn from television. “The television sector is very open. Everybody’s worked at 17 different independent production companies, so they share prep practices and best practices,” she says, adding that she’s noticed that the majority of game developers stay within the same studio for some years and remain secretive about the actualities of what it was like to work on, say, Apex Legends or Life is Strange. It’s a sentiment that’s shared with other leaders in games, and while the space is slowly shifting to allow for candid conversations like these, the fact that the television industry is still standing should be a convincing enough case for openness.
However, Opie is swift to show she appreciates that this is a strategic advantage. “What you end up with is games that are highly distinctive and different because of how they’re constructed,” she says. “That’s not surprising. So it has some upsides, and it definitely has downsides.”
Opie inherited Leamington and Reflections towards the “end” of the coronavirus crisis in the United Kingdom in 2021. It was time to resume a “new normal,” but she hadn’t been there to see what “normal” was.
A set of sympathetic leadership principles in the wake of major personal and professional life shakeups for her team was the starting point. “When you are all working in a shared space, and you see everybody – junior, senior, highly experienced – it gives you the ability to have a constant temperature check about where people are and how they’re doing,” explains the managing director. “It also gives you the opportunity to create a living, breathing presence as an employer, the things that demonstrate your own values.”
As an employee, however, it’s difficult to deny the shift to remote working offers a whole lot of advantages. Monetarily, there’s the saving on petrol and train tickets now that the commute is happening less frequently – if at all. Less time travelling means more time with family and friends, and, dodging the rapidly degrading quality of meal deals for lunch. Perhaps the most surprising revelation to managers is that their team is actually more productive at home, able to avoid the early afternoon surge in crucial office chat such as an olive tier list.
Ubisoft was keen to exemplify how office life could serve employees the social side of things. “We have wellbeing benefits but we also worked really hard to make sure that our physical spaces are attractive for people to come into,” Opie says. The kitchen is loud, crackling with conversation, while the spacious areas dedicated to sets of desks and monitors are more muted. Clearly, it’s worked – mandatory office days aren’t a thing here at Leamington.
“There are social events, clubs, lunches, and all of those things to bring people back into that space,” Opie says. “There’s just that sort of serendipity, isn’t there? Meeting people and having an idea, and also the value of learning – you just happen to be sitting next to somebody and you learn something that you may not have known.”
These changes arrive against the less rosy backdrop of Ubisoft’s track record with studio and individual controversies. The collective action lawsuit between French union Solidaires Informatique and Ubisoft is likely to take five or more years to come to a conclusion, and late last year, A Better Ubisoft alleged that those dealing with sexual harassment are still asked to “manage it themselves.” Only in March were the apparent “morally and physically exhausting” conditions of Ubisoft Paris reported, with NME’s sources stating that staff “identified as shy” were spoken to by “intimidating” figures who encouraged overtime on Just Dance 2023.
During Develop:Brighton 2022, Opie shared her insights on how to create an inclusive studio culture, covering Ubisoft Leamington and Reflections’ plan of action to ensure they’re able to retain staff from minority groups. “We’re very careful about how we phrase and position all of our roles,” she says, continuing to state how these changes sidestep the “reliance on experience” that discourages curious and prospective people from outside of games from applying. “I’m a good example – we very much look outside the sector as well as recruiting from within the sector.”
“Somebody emailed me in the early days and said, ‘You know, I went through my whole interview process, I don’t think I met a woman.’ And I thought, ‘Blimey, I need to fix that,’” she reveals. She’s cognisant of the fact that there are wider determinants that decide who feels like they’re the right fit for an Ubisoft role, but Opie is committed to the things that leadership can do in the here and now.
These include the team of volunteers, composed of staff from a range of roles, identities and tenures at the company, that act as sounding boards for the rest of the employees regarding bigger decisions that the management board is making. “The other thing we did was create a team advisor role,” she explains. That’s a six month stint for someone who, if successful at an interview, becomes a part of the management board to represent a particular demographic at that level. They’re invited to debate, offer their own resolutions to issues, and contribute equally to the conclusion of different predicaments throughout the year.
Opie beams when she tells us that this initiative is in its third year at Leamington and Reflections. It’s clear that, in her eyes, compassion and collaboration is the key to remedying the legacy of Ubisoft’s cultures and cleaning the slate for people to join without expectations of what a developer looks or acts like. In spite of a storied career, Opie’s own feelings of not fitting the mould in television have tinged how she felt about her positions at the BBC and at Ubisoft. Imposter syndrome will, she hopes, become more and more infrequent when people who have been sidelined feel supported in initiatives like Ubisoft’s.
“It ensures a degree of transparency and involvement in how we operate that I think is really important, so that people know that voices have been heard at the table in an inclusive way,” she summarises. Leamington and Reflections may sit together in a sentence, but 200 miles separates them geographically. While some things are shared, like these programmes, the two sister studios are “distinctly different” in order to succeed supporting series like Driver, Just Dance, The Division and more.
Reflections started up in 1984, and was best known for Driver before it was bought by Ubisoft in 2006. On the other hand, Leamington was founded by former Codemasters and Rare developers, and was then acquired by Activision in 2008 to develop DJ Hero, Sing Party and Guitar Hero Live, before it joined Ubi in 2017. “It’s very different culturally,” says Opie of Reflections. “But they absolutely work as one. All of our major projects are done across both studios.”
As a result, remote work was already a feature of the way that developers worked together, as well as with Ubisoft’s other global studios, and so the teams are in an excellent position to move into the future of the industry. “We’re working on a new IP, which is really exciting, and we’re also working on a VR project across both of our studios,” Opie says. Most recently, Reflections and Leamington have been used to support the development of Watch Dogs: Legion and Tom Clancy’s The Division 2, but these new ventures seem to suggest that the two will be stepping onto the company’s central stage soon. “And we’re also working on things that are big, big titles, and very exciting ones which I’m sure will be announced quite quickly, which are all really brilliant,” Opie adds.
Ubisoft is one of the most well-known companies in Europe, and lately, there has been some scrutiny levelled at it. Opie’s tenure as a managing director for its Leamington and Newcastle subsidiaries has been a surprising shift from television, however it’s clear that her career has offered her invaluable insight to the processes of game development. An ability to ask how and why and who, putting a magnifying glass over the more unconscious and unquestioned parts of the project, and appreciating the little things. The “magic,” as she says, that might be discovered when looking from the outside.
Curiosity and compassion is a potent mix standing at the vanguard of a new future, and for Opie, those things are second nature. Whatever it is that the sister studios are cooking up, it’ll be the product of the legacy of their acclaimed games, the efforts of their teams, and the open-mindedness that Opie champions in everything that she does.