Playing Hard (2018)
Director (and writer): Jean-Simon Chartier
Playing Hard is a 2018 documentary that takes a look at the development journey of the core team involved with the 2016 Ubisoft game, For Honor.
Making games is hard. It is a fact. The shiny new AAA game that we pick up (that perhaps at times feels slightly overpriced) on the shelf goes through years upon years of development from the first pitch, finding the right person with the right passion and ideas to build a convincing concept to having a small team that will get them greenlit to get the bigger team for a full development. Then of course, there is the deal of meeting the deadlines and see reactions and the final crunch to the big finish line.
Playing Hard could have taken the route of just looking at the fundamentals and the journey, which it does to a certain extent. It delivers the viable information and follows every step of the journey. However, its main focus is on its core team: Creative Director Jason Vandenberghe, Producer Stéphane Cardin, Brand Director Luc Duchaine and in smaller parts, Ubisoft Montreal CEO Yannis Mallat. This 4 year journey is long and arduous filled with its victories and its hardships. Just like the battles they are building, the development process especially in a big company has its own do or die moments and a lot of the final decisions are not in their hands. As Cardin says in the documentary, “The clients are their bosses.” There are sacrifices and critical decision that they have to be made and it affects each of them personally as they strive to fight for their resources and meeting the deadlines.
One of the first things that makes Playing Hard good is that it aims to educate its audience. It gives us facts on the gaming industry and the market like how the profits are concentrated on only a small percentage of games and how game sequels are the main focus of many AAA markets because of its low risk factor especially with the tens of millions of dollars put into each project. It also combines with some information on Ubisoft as well and its structure. Its this information that places the importance of why putting together For Honor, an original idea from Jason Vandenberghe, which he had pitched numerous times before over ten years and starts very much like many games on the market, particularly independent games developers, to fill a void in the market that they believe should exist but haven’t been made and in this case, a game about warfare that aims to revolutionize the combat system.
On the surface, Playing Hard is about a literal and emotional journey of creating For Honor and the key people involved. However, this gives the audience a look at the inner workings at what goes into a AAA game. Some elements may be specific to Ubisoft but the people involved are artists and businessmen and they have to find a way to balance it all out. It gives an overview of how many of their challenges are the similar to the many indie game developers except a lot of those decisions may gradually be less and less in their hands as the team slowly moves into full development. It is a bittersweet journey for the people involves as disagreements and different degrees of passion and the stress turns each of them into their own worst enemy and breaks them apart. The struggle goes much deeper than just in their work as the four years grows into more stress and intensity as a gaming project the closer it gets to the release date takes over their own personal lives and in some cases, tears them apart mentally.
On a deeper level, this documentary also talks about the negative views behind gaming. It looks at how this idea of goes deeper. It touches on the strength of building these games in a world full of war and violence already. The discussion mildly touches on reversing the assumption that violent games are a bad influence. Perhaps something to think about as Jason Vanderberghe explains “Anyone interested in how the world works will be interested in violence because violence is a natural consequence of conflict. Be fascinated and not need to express it.” This is just an example of some of the lessons of this documentary. It takes gaming into being more than just a simple entertainment but one that can deliver another way to express and fight back against the negativity. As Jason Vanderberghe mentions in the final bits, ending this documentary in a great way, “Entertainment is philosophy in motion.”
There is no doubt that Playing Hard touches on delivering this game development journey effectively. It touches on many topics whether on the creative level and the decisions required as well as the stress of being the creative lead, the administrative and resources management as well as branding and marketing of an original project. The roles and point of views from Vanderberghe, Cardin and Duchaine gives a full picture of this process packed with their struggles and the side that no one ever sees.
The detail of the progress while intricate does sometimes feel like it drags on a little bit too long or lingers too long in one phase at some moments. Regardless of that, Playing Hard delivers quite well on educating about the inner workings of game development and the gaming industry and the behind the scene struggles that no one sees while seeing how nothing is quite as easy as it seems, whether its AAA or not, the creative process only changes in terms of scale but the journey might be more similar than some would imagine. It does leave us with something to think about especially if you are involved in this specific industry.
This review is also posted on That Moment In.