Aleissia Laidacker – Lead Gameplay & AI
“I should have been born in the 50s, but then again, I’m not sure how I could have programmed games on punch cards.”
Aleissia, thank you for joining up to talk today!
“Hi Marcus! Thank so much for having me!”
Can you tell me what your current job title is?
“I’m Lead Gameplay & AI at Ubisoft Montreal. I’m currently working on an unannounced project. I lead the Gameplay team which is a mix of programmers, designers and animators.”
Can you give me a list of a few of the titles you’ve shipped in your career?
“Sure! I’ve been working at Ubisoft for 10 years now. My first title I worked on, when I was a Programmer Intern, was LOST (I was a huge fan of the show at the time 🙂 ).
I then worked on Shaun White Snowboarding and then many of the Assassin’s Creed games as a programmer for gameplay and AI:
Assassin’s Creed 2
Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood
Assassin’s Creed 3
Assassin’s Creed Unity”
Oh wow…. All things Assassin’s Creed. I guess it’s fair to say you know that game inside and out by now.
“Yup pretty well. [Smiles] I was really happy to join the team, and to this day Assassin’s Creed 2 is still one of my favorite games. I worked on the ‘Behavior Team’, which is basically a small group of Programmers, Animators and Designers who develop all the moves that the Assassin does. So I helped program the free running, the climbing, the navigation, all the gadgets, fight systems, etc.”
I remember when Patrice Désilets and Jade Raymond gave their first GDC talk about Assassin’s Creed before it was known as Assassin’s Creed. I was blown away with the way the crowd worked and the climbing of the main character. I can only imagine how you guys improved the systems since.
“The crowd has always been a fav system of mine. And when I joined AC2 I really wanted to give life to the crowds. I remember we had all these big ideas we wanted to do with the AI, but the reality was, AI costs a lot in terms of performance and processing, and we couldn’t go crazy with the behaviors on the previous generation of consoles. I developed the first Crowd Life system to have station AIs where characters would interact with each other or props. Basically acting points. When I got to work on AC:U though, that was really when we could start going crazy with the crowds. For example, the previous AC games could render maybe 20-30 crowds on screen at a given time, but when we got the new generation of consoles, we developed this new AI system to have 10K characters on screen. [Smiles] It was a lot of fun because we could really start diving into creating believable behaviors now that we could have tons of characters with full AI on screen.”
It’s amazing because even with the constraints of the previous consoles you were able to give the feel of a crowd as well. Let’s talk more about your current role. Can you describe your responsibilities as Lead Gameplay & AI and what your typical workday is like?
“So my role has kind of become this hybrid of Programmer, Designer and Producer. Which I love. I’m lead for the Gameplay team, which is primarily built of programmers and designers. And we work together to basically, design, develop, and iterate on the gameplay in the game. My day for one, starts with coffee… lots of it. [Smiles] And then our team usually gets together in the morning to discuss the goals for the day and if we have any blockers. My role is to see if any dependencies or blockers need to be fixed, and to work with the team to come up with priorities, roadmaps and next steps. But it really depends at what point I’m at in my project. Somedays I’ll be in a room with post-its everywhere, working with the team to come up with ideas for our next system we are working on. Sometimes I’m working on design docs. Sometimes I have my headphones on coding all day while listening to my metal music mix.”
This sounds like “the dream”. A group of capable people collaborating everyday to make “the fun” happen. I really like that code and design are integrated and talking. It doesn’t seem like there is just one way communication from design to code or vice versa.
“Yup exactly. I’ve worked with Waterfall processes in the past. And it works in some cases, but I try my best to lead in a very collaborative environment. We are all working in games, because we love games and we have great ideas of what games can be. That includes everyone on the team, from programmers, artists, dev testers, etc. We all are game designers to some extent, and it’s by having a collaborative environment that we can come up with great ideas for the game together. Often, it’s also a way to weed out the bad ideas early on as well.”
Where did you grow up?
When did you decide games was going to be a career for you? Montreal seems to be a hub of game development. I’m sure you were exposed early in your childhood.
“So, growing up, I actually had no idea what I wanted to become. I kept changing my mind from one year to the next, but I had a great teacher that told me ‘Aleissia, the most interesting people I’ve known, have done dozens of things in their lives and had different careers’. When I was graduating, a lot of my friends wanted to get into more traditional fields. Computers was a ‘new thing’ for me, and I didn’t even own a computer when I was growing up. My school had maybe 5 computers to share for the whole school. [Smiles] And to be honest, it was around my final years of high school that I saw the movie Hackers and went, ‘Yup, I want to be a computer programmer like Angelina Jolie.’ [Laughs] So I signed up for computer science, because nobody else was doing it. I actually had no intention of getting into games, because it wasn’t really a career option 20 years ago. I worked my first 6 years doing low level software development. But luckily 6 years in, Ubisoft approached me, and I remember being so happy because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue to be a programmer, I felt it wasn’t tapping into my creative side. But working in games is exactly that. I get to be a programmer, but I’m also an artist, a designer, an animator. So it ties in perfectly to both my logical and creative side.”
Angelina Jolie is the perfect role model. It’s kinda funny, but since she was in that role, she became the spark to seed your journey. That’s awesome. Tell me more about how you got that first game job? It’s not often you hear about a game company reaching out to someone outside of the industry to recruit talent.
“Yup, and especially since I was recruited as a junior. I find recruiters tend to look for seniors, but I was really lucky that they were looking outside of the box. Basically, I had a few years of programming experience but never in games. But, at the time I was also studying part-time at night, and doing my bachelor of comp sci but with a major in fine arts. It’s this amazing program at Concordia University, where you can get your comp sci core, but all your electives are in computer arts classes. So I studied 3D animation, I did interactive installations with artists. I developed my own crappy version of the kinect before the kinect existed. And Ubi saw my profile and basically approached me saying, we think you would be a great Gameplay Programmer. I was ecstatic!”
WOW. At this time you had a day job and you were taking night classes? Your portfolio caught Ubisoft’s attention? Where was this profile? Did you have a website or something?
“Hmm good question, I did at the time, but it was a university student page where you could put your projects up.”
You had to put yourself out there and show your work. Otherwise no one would see it. I would love to have seen this “kinect prototype” you created.
“If I remember correctly, I used MAX/MSP, with a webcam to detect movement. And then developed a simple pattern recognition algorithm. I basically wanted to make my own b-battle simulator that analysed the dancer’s movements. Now there’s so many softwares that could do all of this, but at the time it felt really special.”
You are a rockstar. How do you stay up on the latest trends in programming and the industry? How do you stay relevant?
“GDC is the best reference for seeing what other people are doing, and just to get inspired by what other people would like to do in games. As a programmer, I actually try to attend as many non-programming talks as possible, to get inspired about what other people are doing, and how we could maybe make AI systems to provide new opportunities in games, whether it be for Narrative, Level Design, Sound, I feel AI can do a lot to create new possibilities for all different aspects in games. Also Twitter, getting to connect with experts online and sharing ideas is great!”
What are some current trends that peak your interest?
“VR. I haven’t worked with VR at all yet. And to be honest I’m kind of skeptical. But I’m really intrigued to see what kind of Entertainment we’ll be able to make with VR. I feel the types of games we’ll end up making will have nothing to do with the traditional games that we play today.”
What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?
“Working on Assassin’s Creed 3 was the first time I was lead programmer. I remember being so scared and really wanted to make something great. Our team developed so many things in that game. Including a bunch of procedural animation tech, that is still used today in the other AC games. We also developed the Animal System, which was new to the brand. And the team had so much fun working on this, we even shared some designs with Far Cry, and, in my opinion, FC now has one of the best animal AI systems in games today. So AC3 is probably the game where I’m most proud of the tech that we developed and the awesome team that we had.”
What is the one thing that got cut during production that you wish you could have saved? We all have that one idea that “would have been cool” but just couldn’t be done at the time.
“That’s a tough one. And what comes to mind isn’t exactly something that was cut, but a prototype I worked on that I’d really love the chance to build upon one day. Basically, I really like the idea of having an AI System that learns about its players and that helps the player learn more about themselves. I had started working on this AI prototype a few years ago, that included personality and game preference testing. I love taking personality tests like Myers-Briggs and The Big Five. And wanted to find a way to take that data testing, so we could have AI Systems that would offer new ways to play, to the player, based on the AI findings. I’d love to push this prototype more, and find a game where this would fit into it.”
I love the idea of systems learning. As long as we don’t have Skynet, I think it’s cool.
“Totally agree. We’re starting to see AI learning systems emerge, and we’ve seen some horrible fails, like the Tay AI bot last week. There’s a lot to learn, but I’m looking forward to seeing what we could do with it one day.”
Do you have an favorite tools or plugins you like to use? Think of something you have to install on your computer when you are first setting it up.
“As a programmer, not really, I use Visual Studio for C++ coding. Unity 3D for prototyping and my own personal projects. Slack is great for project communication. I’m ashamed to admit but I’m a total JIRA master. And have really wanted to try out Trello for project management.”
What advice would you give to someone pursuing your career? What skills or traits are important in your experience?
“Make your own game. With Unity3D it’s so accessible to anybody, and Game Jams are a great way to spend 48 hours of your time to come out with a game prototype. I tend to favor applicants with personal projects, game jam experience, hackathons, etc, rather than someone with just good grades. Passion for wanting to get into games and showing that you’ve spent some time working on your own projects is what I look for most. Also, showing an interest in things outside of games is great. I believe, if we really want to push for innovation in play, we need to find people that have very different interests and very different views of what games could be. So finding people with different skills & interests is super important.”
Many people respond the same way when I ask that question. You should really be making your own projects. There are so many tools out there now, the only thing stopping you from making a game is yourself. If you could go back and restart your career, would you do anything differently?
“My first 6 years, working in software development, did teach me a lot of the technical skills that I needed to become a good programmer. But I do wish I had spent more time working on more creative developments. Then again, it was because of that experience that I decided to study fine arts and find a more creative avenue. So, though I wish my job back then had been different, it was still the path that lead me here.”
“I saw the movie Hackers and went, ‘Yup, I want to be a computer programmer like Angelina Jolie.”
We are the sum of our experiences. What one game influenced you the most?
“My fav game is Mass Effect 2. It was really that game that got me interested in game narrative and having meaningful conversations and relationships with the NPCs in our games. Though my earliest memory of gaming, is playing Oregon Trail on the PCs in elementary school. [Smiles]”
Yes! Oregon Trail! Classic. Loved shooting deer. “They don’t make games like that anymore.” How do you like to spend your free time nowadays?
“I always try and find new hobbies every year or so. Right now, I’m taking classes in Burlesque. I feel it’s my way of gaining more confidence in myself. Also I love 50s fashion, so I have a blog about pin up style and such.”
If people wanted to find you, how can they reach you? Website, twitter, instagram…?
“Best way to reach me to chat about games is by Twitter: @Aleissia
I keep Facebook for close friends.
And Instagram for all my personal hobbies and interests.”
If you had to describe yourself in one sentence, what would you say? What is your tagline?
“I should have been born in the 50s, but then again, I’m not sure how I could have programmed games on punch cards.”
Aleissia, you are my new role model. You are my hero. I find your story and journey extremely inspiring.
“[Laughs] You’re crazy. Thanks Marcus, it was a pleasure!! Thank you so much for having me!”
This is probably a stupid question, but what do you mean by “dependencies or blockers”?
This is not a stupid question. It is one those not in tech fields would have confusion around the jargon.
Dependencies are tasks that cannot be complete until someone else finishes theirs.
For example, if you are a house painter, you are dependent on the contractors finishing the house before you can do your part. That is a dependency.
Blockers are similar in that you are unable to do your work because of some other issue. For example, if I need to change the color of a button in a game but the game keeps crashing, I am blocked from checking my work.
I hope that adds clarity.