How Ubisoft Reflections is Helping Newcastle's Games Industry Grow Home

By Alicia Haddick on at

Last summer, the city of Newcastle played host to the very first ‘Great Exhibition of the North’, an event running from June to September designed to showcase the business and cultural acumen of the region. People who live here are immensely proud of the area. They’re proud of their football clubs, they’re proud of the mining and shipbuilding heritage that at one point made the area a world leader, and they're proud of the region's manifold accents, cultures, and rich histories.

But it can still be grim up North. Most of those old industries have long since disappeared, and looking at government statistics shows that this remains a region sorely in need of further regeneration and investment. The North East lags behind most of the rest of the U.K. in terms of poverty levels, life expectancy and more. It's a region that needs an event like this to showcase the good stuff, point to possible futures, and put itself on the map as not just a cultural hotspot, but the kind of place where anyone would want to live and work.

Alongside local councils throwing their support behind the event, an army of volunteers and local businesses got involved, donating materials or money and helping to promote the event in various ways. One such business lending their support was Ubisoft Reflections, a subsidiary of Ubisoft that started life as an independent developer in the city almost 35 years ago. It licensed its Grow Up games and their characters for use on the promotional material and mobile application for the event, an example of a homegrown North East creation that has enchanted and entertained players across the globe.

"It was fun to help integrate the characters from Grow Up in their app and print marketing," says Jack Couvela, senior art director at Ubisoft Reflections. "We even commissioned a local cosplay expert to make a BUD costume for local appearances over the summer!"

Couvela has been with the studio for over 20 years, and is passionate about this event and the company's role in it. That's because this isn't really a new thing for Ubi Reflections, so much as an extension of its many ties to the local community and a collective pride in what the studio does and where it does it.

The games that can be credited to Ubisoft Reflections over the years may surprise you: it's been behind some real hits, and has an extensive back catalogue. Under the name 'Reflections' the studio's first game was Ravenskull for the BBC Micro and the Acorn Electron in 1986. Following this, it released a variety of popular games, including three titles in the Shadow of the Beast series, before finding massive success with Destruction Derby in 1995.

The game put the studio in the spotlight, and its pedigree was cemented with the release of Driver a few years later to huge critical and commercial acclaim. Such success meant that, months later, it was bought out by GT Interactive. After a few years releasing more titles in the Driver series, as well as the entertaining Stuntman in 2002, Ubisoft took ownership of the studio in 2006 and rebranded it as Ubisoft Reflections.

Under Ubisoft the studio underwent a transformation in its output and structure, following the underperformance of Driver: San Francisco. Reflections began to contribute to many of Ubisoft's biggest yearly releases, including Far Cry 5 and the upcoming Tom Clancy's The Division 2, while still retaining its own individual identity through the release of smaller titles like Grow Home, Ode and Atomega. Indeed, Ubisoft Reflections has come to almost seem like the experimental arm of Ubisoft, being trusted to develop smaller and more offbeat styles of game  and take them to market.

As this history implies, the studio has evolved a lot over the years, adapting to the changing demands of the industry over time.

"As things changed from Driver to working in partnership with other studios, we have had to change our outlook and embrace new opportunities," says Richard Blenkinsop, managing director of Ubisoft Reflections. "These new opportunities allow us to work on IP that would not be available to us otherwise... and the ability to show our talents in a new and exciting light."

Couvela, a veteran of the studio, was able to provide more insight into the long-term change the studio has undergone over the years from his own experiences. Back when he joined, things were on a different scale.

"When I joined Reflections’ handful of staff it was very simple: we just had artists and coders. I remember very early on interviewing candidates for an art role, and one of them sold me on the concept of something called a ‘Game Designer’ which I pitched to our founder Martin Edmondson as quite an innovation!

"These days even tiny games like Grow Home involve multiple, dedicated production and quality control staff as well as international collaboration with other Ubisoft studios like Pune in India, who ported the game to PS4."

The ways in which the studio has changed offers some minor parallels to how the North East itself has changed over the same period. The region has had a massive shift from the declining industries of the past towards manufacturing jobs with the likes of Nissan and Hitachi, developing the cars and trains of the future. Let's put the potential impact of Brexit aside for one moment, because no-one knows what's going to happen there, but these giant employers have been a lifeline for certain areas of the North East: they attract a skilled workforce, pay good salaries, and through that give local regions a basis for wider growth and improvement. It's not all about cars, of course, but the principle of success begetting success. The North East's expanding tech sector is another example of that, and the change from the Reflections of the past to the Reflections of today involves not just scaling up, but positively rooting itself in the region.

Reflections is directly involved in the local community, taking part in a variety of initiatives as well as supporting the big-ticket events like the Great Exhibition of the North. Every summer the studio organises and runs the Ubisoft Gaming School, a games development workshop aimed at 14 to 17 year olds, under the mentoring of Ubisoft Reflections employees. The idea is to teach young kids the basics of games development, let them meet developers who work in the region, and help them to create small games of their own under their guidance. It's all about exciting and engaging the next generation, and making these young kids see that a career in game development isn't just possible: it's happening on their figurative doorstep.

"It’s always very inspiring to see what the next generation are capable of creating in a short time and I think it’s very important to demonstrate that both Arts and STEM subjects are essential for any career in the creative industries," says Couvela.

This is just one way the studio tries to get involved in nurturing young talent in the region, with the more organised events accompanied by regular outreach visits to local schools and colleges to meet and talk to students.

"It’s about connecting with the community and perhaps spreading the message about how fun and exciting it can be to work in games", says Blenkinsop. "I think we need to promote the games industry within our local area, build around the ecosystem and encourage young people to consider that the games industry is an option for a career."

It’s a great opportunity for young people in the region to experience what it’s like to develop a game for themselves, and the results speak for themselves. The studio says at least one or two of the roughly 20 people who take part in the event every year go on to take relevant courses at colleges or university, sometimes more, showing the power of outreach and inspiring young folk. Such initiatives deserve every bit of applause going, and last year there was even formal recognition when the TIGA Awards recognised Ubisoft Reflections with the Best Educational Initiative & Talent Development award for this project.

Reflections place a high value on connecting with its community, whether that’s through local events or visiting things like Gamescom or engaging with fans online. One notable example involved a young boy from Australia who loved Grow Home so much he had his own BUD costume which his parents shared on Instagram. Couvela, who was art director on the project, remembers this fondly. "Being able to see the joy that the games and characters we created bring to people all over the world is by far the most rewarding part of the job. I had the best day at work ever when a year or so later we had the opportunity to invite that kid and his family to visit the studio to see how his photos and his love for the game had directly inspired features of the sequel."

Ubisoft Reflections is a positive force within its local community, and the industry at large. Alongside events like the Great Exhibition and work with local educational institutions like the North East Futures UTC, the studio also points towards a more positive future for the area as a whole. The region produces 30% more tech graduates than the national average, and hosts a wide range of gaming, visual effects and tech-based companies that have helped propel it forwards. Of these, Ubisoft Reflections is one of the biggest employers in the games industry in the North East, and one of the leaders driving it forward.

"We would like to see our involvement in the local community grow in the future," says Blenkinsop, "bridging the gap in perception and understanding between games development and the community, which we believe has huge potential for mutual benefit."

Ubisoft Reflections is a studio driven by a passion to develop interesting games, and a drive to be a positive force for the area it resides in. If you ever visit the sunny North East for yourself, and take in Newcastle through a walk along the banks of the River Tyne, you’ll find echoes of the past everywhere. The Baltic Art Centre, housed within a converted flour mill, with the old company name still adorned on the side, is one of the most prominent buildings on the riverbank. Inside, modern art juxtaposes the building’s exterior. This is an area proud of its history. It’s also an area building a future to be proud of. Certain studios are a perfect reflection of that.

All photographs: Alicia Haddick