Aymar Azaïzia : Transmedia and business development Director

The world of video games is rich in professions. When we think of this industry, we usually think of developers, scriptwriters or character designers. However, the professional possibilities within the sector are extremely varied. It’s with a view to showcasing all that’s possible within the studios that we strive to give a voice, in podcast or written form, to the people who bring our little virtual world to life. Today, it’s Aymar Azaïzia, transmedia and business development director at Ubisoft, who has given us the pleasure of talking to us.

Aymar Azaïzia Transmedia

To begin with, could you tell us a bit about yourself? Your background in the industry and what you’re doing now?

So, I started a long time ago in the industry. If we’re talking just about video games, I started in mobile when I was in France some twenty years ago, then I joined Ubisoft in Montreal 15 years ago, and I’ve held all kinds of positions from marketing to production to more creative positions, and for a very long time only on Assassin’s Creed (it was when I saw the first one that I wanted to join the team that created it). For a few years now, I’ve been Director of Transmedia and Business Development at Ubisoft, and my main mandate is to help and support the development of our brands, particularly in different formats (comics, manga, series, film, museum experience, live action, boardgame…) but also products (figurines, clothing…). Of course, you can’t do anything on your own. I’ve got a great team and exceptional partners, both internal and external!

When your name circulates on the Internet, it’s always associated with the Assassin’s Creed license, but have you contributed to other Ubisoft sagas that you’re just as proud of?

I loved my experiences with Far Cry, Watch Dogs or what the Siege (Rainbow Six episodes, editor’s note) teams achieved in a few years, but if I’m honest, my greatest pride is to have been able to create this department and this team. The fact that Ubisoft put their trust in me, and seeing my colleagues deliver projects, is what I appreciate most!

Speaking of Assassin’s Creed, you were involved in the film adaptation of the license, directed by Justin Kurzel. Could you tell us more about such a titanic project as transposing a work of art into a completely different format?

Indeed, it’s a titanic project, which also served as the foundation for the creation of the Los Angeles-based Ubisoft Film and Television entity. So we literally learned by throwing ourselves into the deep end all at once. The greatest complexity lies in finding the right partners, finding a common grammar and successfully transposing the DNA of a license into another format. It’s something I’ve been lucky enough to do on a number of formats, and it’s always a challenge, especially as our desires and ambitions are never in check!

For Ubisoft, and for me, it’s been an incredible experience, a constant learning curve, and it’s helped us to determine the way forward, the formats we’ll be focusing on in the years to come. I’m proud of this project, and for me it’s a good start, and we’re only at the beginning!

Aymar Azaïzia Transmedia

Assassin’s Creed is a series that’s been the subject of a lot of talk, both good and bad, despite its constant success. It’s gone through several different game types, but how do you react to critics who deplore the light-RPG turn of the latest opuses? Does it annoy you, or do you understand why the old recipe is so much regretted?

I talked about this recently in one of my Twitter threads, and it’s a phenomenon that’s not specific to Assassin’s Creed, but to the change that affects successful series that last over time. I gave Star Wars or Final Fantasy as examples, and you can’t reach such a large mass of fans around the world and manage to satisfy everyone and every expectation. We make choices that keep us relevant and up to date, and few franchises can boast of having accumulated so many sales and episodes with such a solid quality and critical reception. So, to answer you clearly, I fully understand that, like all series that change and try to go in other directions to evolve, some people don’t find their way back, while others, on the contrary, enter and appreciate the new formula. What I take away from this is that it says a lot about Ubisoft’s willingness and ability to take risks by accepting to shake up an established formula, and this is obviously not a fixed process. The brand will continue to evolve – that’s the point of the video we released to mark the 15th anniversary of Assassin’s Creed.

It’s as if the turnaround came after the poor reception of Assassin’s Creed Unity, which we consider to be one of the license’s best opuses. The city was magnificent and its parkour system still unrivalled in the series, not to mention the fact that it marked the return of free assassinations. Was its poor reception unpopular with you?

To give you a clear answer, there are several points to bear in mind. The first is that the games are developed in parallel. The Assassin’s Creed Unity team is not the same as the Assassin’s Creed Origins team, so when Unity was finishing its development, the Origins team was already starting its own. The Creative Director of Origins is also the Creative Director of AC IV Black Flag, and now that the technology made it possible, he really wanted to launch into an Assassin’s game that would put Adventure back in the limelight. As the architecture of the cities of the ancient world was less conducive to urban Parkour, the idea was to recreate a world, a country, rather than focusing on a single city.

Even more technically, Unity had been a pivotal moment in the evolution of the machine, which had completely taken over the navigation and combat systems, added co-op, buildings in 1:1 scale for the first time, and a level system, but the heart of the combat remained animation-driven. While Origins benefited from some of these elements, it served as the foundation for what has been a second phase in the franchise, known as light-RPG elements, even though these have long been present in the franchise, but one of the big changes is that combat is now hit-based, which means that ranged weapons and battles against multiple opponents can be handled in a completely different way. Parkour has evolved to meet the specific needs of different worlds, and now you can climb any set element…

So the feedback we receive is obviously taken into account, and we iterate on each opus, but there’s a form of inertia in development that we can’t ignore, not to mention the context of reception. Today, we’re seeing many players rediscover the game in a different light, and the feedback is really positive for a truly solid episode in the series!

If you could name one game you’ve worked on that you’re most proud of, which would it be?

The horrible question in pick one of your kids mode!!! I’m going to go with Assassin’s Creed II because it’s my first Assassin’s game, it’s the meeting with the whole team, many of whom are friends today. I learned a lot about development, and was surrounded by people who trusted me and understood that I wasn’t the type to turn down an assignment because it didn’t fit my job description. We got things moving and I had some great moments, spending a whole summer thinking, this is crazy, it’s impossible to do this much and put everything into the game, and every day, every version got better and better, then I experienced my first E3 and met Spielberg, Jon Landau, Pelé… That was the start of the crazy adventure!

For a creative team, isn’t the hardest part constantly having to juggle between precise artistic desires and the expectations of the public that you can see everywhere on social networks? Do social networks now have an impact on the decisions that can be made during development?

Social medias have a psychological impact, that’s for sure, and a lot of developers have deserted them, but in terms of development, we don’t do “design by commitee”.It’s an internal exercise, an expression of a creative vision that must take into account the market, the players and their expectations, but we have to make choices and give a direction that isn’t dictated by whoever is loudest. We look at the competition, trends, technology, our desires, we feed off culture, we look at what players are saying on RS, but also in studies, we have access to tons of figures that enable us to understand how players play, we watch videos, we test our games. So that’s one of the components we look at, but the decisions made during game development are based on many factors.

With the evolution of technologies and their ease of access, do you think that AA and independent games have a huge card to play in the coming years to shake up the industry?

You know, a lot of movement comes from the indies and the modding scene. DOTA like, the explosion of CS, Battle Royale, many genres were born this way, and the big publishers used their expertise and strike force to offer their versions, which in many cases were a big success, and it’s normal in a market like this to see indies and AA take more risks. It Takes Two was crowned GOTY, and we’ve got some great titles on the rise, but it’s hard to keep up, because many of the titles that make their mark or do well fall through the cracks.

What do you think of services like Game Pass or Playstation Plus? A lot of people talk about them as the death of quality, often using Netflix as an example of the gravedigger of television production, but forget to point to catalogs like Apple’s or Canal’s to show that this model can also rhyme with quality.

I can’t answer for all creatives, but I do have a small opinion on the matter. People often go with trends, but the reality is quite different. Netflix has literally just released one of the best series of recent years with Beef from A24, we could talk about proposed series like Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, or Marvel adaptations, Black Mirror, or JV like Cyberpunk, Castlevania, Witcher, documentary series…

All of which is to say that their objective is entertainment time. This translates into an extremely wide range, and it can’t be said that the overall quality of series has diminished over the last 10 years. 

In this sense, the strategy of Pass or PSN+ is also to offer a wide range of games, and not just a concentration of AAA with ultra-realistic graphics. You only have to look at the quality, ratings and variety of the games to understand that these fears are not borne out in reality. At some point, if this had been the case, we’d have seen a standardization of genres, critical reception, game types and art direction, but this is anything but the case.

Do you understand that many independents see these as wonderful opportunities, because they take the pressure off sales to at least break even? Not to mention the fact that games are promoted when they are available on the various artistic subscription catalogs, but this is anything but the case.

Of course, I have lots of friends and colleagues who are delighted to have funding and guaranteed exposure. I’ve experienced the stress of gates in independent studios, where paychecks don’t fall on the same date every month. I promise you we would have loved it, but that doesn’t make it a universal solution or suitable for all games and studios.

What do you think of Game As A Service? Many of them work with a connection to a server that is inevitably disconnected when the game is no longer profitable. This means that games that have been purchased (and are therefore goods in the consumer’s possession) can become inaccessible by decision of the publisher, and the player has no possible recourse. From an ethical point of view, and also from the point of view of heritage conservation, doesn’t this pose a real problem?

This is indeed a complex question, which didn’t arise with GaaS, but with online gaming, and which doesn’t always have an answer. Many games and MMOs have completely disappeared, and the solution of private servers can sometimes meet the connection needs of these games, but there is no ideal solution. I’d like to see a legislative move to force, in the event of a shutdown, provisions to emulate authentication, to go through P2P servers or clients, but it’s really complex, when a game’s architecture isn’t designed around it. There’s also the question of versions: some games are popular, or appeal to us at specific moments in their lifecycle, and if we’re not present at that moment or with that version, we can miss out on the experience, but I imagine that’s also what makes these moments that we share collectively so tasty and important. They’re not meant to last, and maybe that’s interesting too.

Do you have any role models in the industry? People who made you want to do this job?

Frankly, no, I don’t work that way too much, but there are inspiring careers, and I can easily say that Sir Ian Linvingstone puts what you’ve achieved into perspective. We’re talking about a guy who helped distribute Dungeons and Dragons in Europe, then co-founded Games Workshop, created the books you’re the hero of, co-founded Eidos with Tomb Raider and Hitman under his elbow… Well, when you’re a geek like me, that’s cool!

To give us a clearer idea of your aspirations, can you tell us about two or three games that have had a profound impact on you and shaped you as a player and developer?

I’m such a gamer that it’s always a Cornelian choice for me, but it’s impossible not to mention FFVII and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past in the top two. They showed me what ambition and excellence could do when they came together in a game. Of course, I’ve had many powerful experiences, but few as memorable. Of course, I couldn’t fail to mention the Civilization series, in terms of the clear shock of the first or second opus, but my love of history, the depth and richness of the title, the power of the fantasy offered, I’ll remain an eternal fan of this saga! Of course, one could make shortcuts between history, adventure, exploration and living worlds, and these are clearly elements that inspire and make all devs dream.

Since you play so much, can you tell us about the games that made the biggest impression on you this year?

With the year 2023 upon us, I have to admit that it’s becoming a bit of a sport to talk about my favorite games, because there are so many of them… I’ll try not to make it too long, but I loved Hi-Fi Rush, which took me back to the great hours of the Dreamcast, then Metroid Prime remaster, which clearly hasn’t aged a bit, Like a Dragon Ishin, which, without touching the mastery of the more canonical episodes, gave me an excellent time, RE4 remake is one of the best games of the year, one of the best remakes of all time, it’s a really solid entry for newcomers and pure joy for old-timers! Octopath Traveller II is fantastic and easily in my top 3 at the moment.

Among the big titles, I really liked Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, minus the dispensable open-world hub aspect, but the title is packed with quality. Speaking of quality, Zelda TotK is also super generous, and extremely efficient.

Hogwarts Legacy is a fine entry into the field, the magic quickly ran out of steam for me, and we returned to some rather dated design clichés, but the realization, mechanics and combat are solid for a first game, and I really want to see a sequel! Otherwise, Dordogne, Pikmin 4 and Sea of Stars are good stuff. I haven’t yet played Armored Core VI and Diablo IV, but that’s coming, and I’m looking forward to getting back into Cyberpunk with its expansion.

To conclude this partial list, it’s impossible not to mention MY favorite game of 2023, Baldur’s Gate III, which does everything we’ve come to expect from Larian Studio, i.e. to once again deliver an incredible CRPG, endlessly rich, with gargantuan character embodiment options, solid writing, AAA realization that puts huge and expected games to shame, just talking about it makes me want to go back!

What do you think of the current state of the video-game press in France? Do the emergence of projects like Origami, Sumimasen Turbo or even Point’n Think make you think a change is underway?

I take a deep breath, blow hard, and send myself another sip of hot coffee before daring to take the plunge…

So, if I had to take stock, it’s hard for me to be satisfied with the current state of the videogame press. On the one hand, the paper press has been reduced to nothing, and the institutional sites of the 2000s have mostly been reduced to glorified direct mail or sensationalism. That’s not to condemn everything that’s done or written, or the people who work on these sites, but we’re a long way from having a proportion of quality articles or interesting content, especially at the level of what video games represent. We’re talking about the richest and most prosperous entertainment industry, well ahead of cinema, music, board games, theater… And if you take a look at the specialized sites, works and newspapers, you’ll see that we’re well below these sectors.

Last but not least, we’ve seen a shift in the concentration of communication through the specialized press towards influencers, streamers and youtubers, who attract far more attention, leading the medium to reinforce what I’d venture to call the opinion press, rather than the specialized press. Opinions are glorified, we rejoice in the knowledge that it’s everyone’s tastes that count, and we set opinion above analysis.

In the end, between dependence on advertisers and dependence on a community whose patronage and donations keep us going, and to whom we must please, we end up creating new forms of dependence and obligation, and I can only salute the courage of all the independent video makers, from Sumimasen Turbo, Origami, Point’n Think or the irreplaceable Canard PC… I really support these projects to the best of my ability, I get involved as soon as I can, and even if, as always, we don’t agree on everything, we clearly share a philosophy and desires for the sector. It’s so precious that we have to underline it and encourage these initiatives.

I do hope that we won’t be left with epiphenomena, but with an awareness, a realization that many players are waiting for a different kind of press, one that is ethical, honest, rigorous and that doesn’t always tell us what we want to hear, but always tells us what we need to hear.

Just to put the controller down, what do you like outside of video games? What do you like in terms of music, film, TV series or literature?

So, when it comes to music, I realized that I’d become a daron when jazz became my staple music for work, often played in the background during the day. But when I’m on the move or don’t need to concentrate, I mostly listen to US rap or old French rap, or even artists with polished lyrics (nothing popular), always indie rock, and sometimes metal classics to get me pumped up and remember the years of my youth when I used to go to gigs! 
When it comes to movies, you have to understand that I grew up with an uncle who owned a video store, so my tastes are eclectic but I don’t compromise on quality. At the moment, I’m redoing some classic US films from the 70s and 80s (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, The Godfather trilogy, King of Comedy, Taxi Driver… And I’m talking about the films I have in 4K or BR at home…). I also like genre films (western, Hong Kong, horror), I work in phases, and there’s good and genius in all styles for me.

As for series, I’m at the end of Better Call Saul, after having done a second run of The Expanse and Beef, which I really liked, very fresh and different.

Literature, in fiction I’ve started Star Splitter by my friend Matt Kirby, and just before that I’d read Dave Grohl’s storyteller biography. In manga, I’m continuing with Jojo and the reprint of Hokuto no Ken, and in comics, I’m working on Hickman’s X Men run, I finished the indie one-shot Do a Power Bomb and I’m continuing with a number of series like Monstress, Once and Future and Saga… I know that’s a lot, but it’s important to understand that all developers are passionate about their work. You can’t properly feed a passion by doing nothing else and staying in a vacuum. It’s essential to look at and feed off what’s being done elsewhere. It opens up perspectives, it inspires, and for me, who also has the chance to work on different types of projects, it’s fundamental.

 But I’m not neglecting sport and my love of martial arts and combat sports, miniature games and boardgames, role-playing games on paper and above, and above all my most important job, that of dad, which essentially consists of passing on all these passions to mini-me!

Aymar Azaïzia Transmedia

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