Like all the best ideas, the UbiArt engine was designed to solve one problem but ended up as the solution to several. Influential designer Michel Ancel and a small team at Ubisoft Montpellier conceived the Framework as an engine that would be friendlier to artists – but the result has a number of benefits. From a technical standpoint, it allows the creation of high-definition assets from comparatively little artwork, while lightening the load on artists and animators alike by reducing the amount of time required to make small adjustments. And from its publisher’s perspective, it means it can broaden its portfolio - supplementing its tentpole releases, developed by hundreds of people across multiple studios, with more intimate, personal games crafted by much smaller teams.
The UbiArt Framework was first showcased in 2010, having been in development for some time, though it wasn’t until late 2011 that the first game created in UbiArt was released. The dazzling Rayman Origins wasn’t just a fantastic, inventive platformer, but a bold showpiece for the new engine, which, even in its first incarnation, had already been optimised for HD and was capable of running games at 1080p resolutions at a smooth 60 frames per second.
It looked like a living piece of concept art, and that’s because it actually was. For each UbiArt game, the assets are created by artists working directly with animators, who can cut that art up into pieces and transfer it directly into the engine. Assets are quickly transformed into a number of moveable parts, each of which is assigned a bone – eventually, they form a complete skeleton, with joints that allow for a number of different types of motion. It might sound complex, but in theory the skeleton can be formed in a number of clicks, while the animator merely needs to create a series of poses for each object. The engine, courtesy of a flexible image deformation tool, does the rest – and it’s a process that doesn’t take very long at all. As Brianna Code, lead programmer on Child of Light, explains, “the concept art is the game art – we just cut it up and it’s in the engine that afternoon.”
It’s highly adaptable, too: the tool that handles the animations uses patches to subtly distort sections of the image, varying in complexity depending on the capabilities of the host platform. In other words, it’s able to run on just about any format, with negligible differences – most recently, Valiant Hearts: The Great War debuted on both current and last-gen consoles, while Child of Light was ported to Vita and Wii U also. It’s even found its way onto mobile platforms, courtesy of Android/iOS title Rayman’s Fiesta Run.
"They’re games that don’t really look like games"
That’s no surprise, however, when you consider that the Framework was built to accommodate any kind of image. As showcased in UbiArt’s official trailer, this can range from a child’s felt-tip drawing to a piece of graffiti art sprayed onto a wall, via objects sculpted in modelling clay. The ethos is “freedom and simplicity”, allowing Ubi’s artists to quickly bring their ideas to life in digital form. Naturally, this is a big step forward from a creative perspective, but the process is also cost-effective. Little wonder that the company’s president, Yves Guillemot, says that “many” UbiArt titles are currently in development.
It’s grown more flexible and powerful over the past few years, too. Level designers can track changes in real time, with the ability to edit stages and test the results instantly. A couple of clicks is enough to turn flat terrain into a sheer cliff, thanks to the Framework’s ability to morph environments, and it’s also able to highlight a character’s trajectory, making it ideal for platformers. Play Rayman Origins and 2013 follow-up Legends side by side, and the differences are stark: a dynamic lighting model allows Ubi’s artists to create more visually distinctive stages, which, in combination with the ability to position layers closer to or further from the playable plane, gives the game a pseudo-3D look. Indeed, some elements are entirely three-dimensional – the mechanical dragon boss which features in the 20,000 Lums under the Sea stage, for example, was constructed from a 3D mesh. As it seamlessly weaves between several two-dimensional planes, the effect is so startlingly convincing that you’d hardly believe the stage and boss were constructed entirely separately.
If the Rayman games highlight how far the engine has come in a technical sense, it’s worth examining the two subsequent UbiArt releases to consider what it means from an artistic standpoint. While it’s immediately apparent that both Child of Light and Valiant Hearts: The Great War were built using the UbiArt Framework, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In both games, the human touch of the original artists is tangible: one is a watercolour fantasy brought to life, while the other is akin to flipping through an animated graphic novel, albeit one you have direct control over. They’re games that don’t really look like games; games where the original artistic vision doesn’t feel compromised in any way. They look exactly how their creators envisioned, uninhibited by the limitations of the platform.
Moreover, while all the UbiArt games so far share a similarly hand-crafted feel, each one has its own distinct aesthetic. As long as these games remain profitable, we can expect to see even more striking styles in future titles, and the publisher may even expand its remit to encompass larger-scale projects; indeed, the next Prince of Persia is reported to be in development using the Framework – and if so, it could be the most ambitious UbiArt game to date.
"The Framework can accommodate any kind of image, from a child’s felt-tip drawing to a piece of graffiti art"
The idea of releasing UbiArt Framework as an open source engine was mooted as far back as 2011, though it’s clear the engine serves too important a purpose for the publisher for it to relinquish the reins just yet. UbiArt allows Ubisoft to take more creative risks without investing a triple-A budget, as it supplements blockbusters like Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry with smaller downloadable titles to build a more diverse software library. The prospect of sharing it with the wider community is mouthwatering, but even under lock and key at Montpellier, the UbiArt Framework remains one of the most exciting and inventive developments from a major publisher in the last decade.