Meet Joan Hsu, the Lead Animator at Ubisoft Singapore
Growing up, Joan was always fascinated with animation, and it naturally became her choice of academic major. But it wasn’t video games that got her interested at first, that influence came mainly from films and TV animations that she was exposed to. It wasn’t until she got into a University that she chanced upon playing Assassin’s Creed and there, she met a lecturer who would eventually set her on a path to Video Games animation.
“It was only when I was in university and learning animations, that’s when I first started playing Assassin’s Creed and that was also where I met a lecturer over there who was at that time also working on games. He was an employee at Ubisoft Singapore as well and that’s when I learned that working in games is an actual avenue and actual opportunity that could be something that I could be open to.
But unfortunately, the animation aspect at University that I was in catered more towards film and TV. So, a lot of what I’ve learned to become a game animator was done through self-learning and also from here (Ubisoft Singapore). As I started my journey here, I learned a lot from my mentors over here at Ubisoft.” – Joan Hsu, Lead Animator at Ubisoft Singapore.
The Singapore studio has been involved in the Assassin’s Creed franchise since the series’ popular Assassin’s Creed II, they are known as the skills and minds behind the naval battles as well as the water technology since Assassin’s Creed 3 that well extended into the latest Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. Their role then expanded with Valhalla’s second expansion – Siege of Paris, when Ubisoft Singapore took the helm as the Lead Studio to deliver this important expansion.
When asked if the folks in the studio felt any added pressure playing the lead cast in the project now, Joan recalled the immense sense of pride and honour to be entrusted with this key project. The team’s expertise had by then expanded well beyond just naval aspect and water psychics, but into world-building, game features, narratives, and other gameplay features as well. Years of accumulated experience and expertise have lead to this moment, and it was a challenge the studio felt ready and eager to take on.
Siege of Paris, Animation, and Pandemic Challenges
We’ve managed to catch Joan away from her busy schedule to entertain some questions we had. Zozi, our other editor was supposed to join me in the virtual meet-up with Joan but had to miss it due to an unexpected wind carrying him away – his loss!
Our conversation was brief but on point. We talked about how it’s like working amidst an ongoing pandemic, the creative process in creating an animation, and more.
The transcript of the interview starts here with BG bearing our question, and naturally Joan Hsu and her answers.
BG – How has Ubisoft Singapore advanced to be able to lead content of this scale for the first time and what were the innovations and new features spearheaded by the studio?
Joan Hsu – We’ve been growing our expertise over these years, and we have developed and grown our team here, with so many of them in the narrative, game design, and animation as well. We are building the expertise that knowledge base here in Ubisoft Singapore.
Many of them have worked on earlier parts of the brands as well. We are growing that expertise here locally and many of them have risen up to take on leadership roles here as well. They are well equipped with the knowledge and the expertise to lead this expansion
One of the innovations and additions that we’ve been working on is the black box missions that we’ve reintroduced in The Siege of Paris. This is a fan favourite that I’m sure a lot of people are really looking forward to. It’s kind of like a modern take of what we’ve been developing in the past for the black box missions to let the player explore and find new ways to complete their mission. This is something that the team was very proud of and was working towards to re-innovate so that the players will enjoy.
BG – How harmonious has it been in the process of moving forward considering the challenges of working with multiple teams, especially now during pandemic times?
Joan Hsu – Before the pandemic, we would go for team bonding sessions often and the team goes out for lunch often enough because communication is very important to the team so that they can work together collaboratively, building up that relationship with each other is important as well.
But now as we go into the pandemic, many of us have to work from home right now so we continue to build upon that relationship that we built throughout the pre-pandemic days. We want to maintain that relationship and communication across the teams. Meetings are definitely a must-have, we meet up with for scrums daily.
We also have to rely on screen sharing more now and use the tools that are available for us to communicate and collaborate as closely as possible. We’re very fortunate in the sense that because we work with studios around the world, we already have an infrastructure in place that allows us to communicate with other team members across the world in different time zones be it using (Microsoft) Teams and some other software that we also use.
Since we are in such a unique situation where the pandemic is felt globally, it is something that we in Ubisoft Singapore can relate to with Ubisoft Montreal and Ubisoft Bordeaux. We do share our experiences with each other on how we are coping in our country and to use that information so that we can grow together, even share the best working from home practices.
BG – I wanted to ask regarding the animations. Were the moves designed with the help of a martial artist, a weapon expert, or a choreographer? How did the team actually come about it or what is the creative process behind it if you don’t mind sharing?
Joan Hsu – Sure, I’ll be happy to share! I’ll start with the creative process, and we will go from there.
So first and foremost, our animators would talk to the game designers and say something like – “Hey, you know, we have this weapon in mind and we want it to be kind of stabby” for example. The animators will then explore the best move sets for that particular type of weapon, including doing research online for videos that best describes the weapon and draw inspiration from these sources. Based on the resources gathered, the team will then record themselves performing those actions, eventually leading to the animation of those actions.
But for more complicated moves, we are very fortunate to have Mo-Cap (Motion Capture) partners in Montreal. There’s a stuntman who would record all these actions under the supervision of a stunt coordinator who’s familiar with martial arts and weaponry to ensure the moves designed are accurate and sensible for the weapon it’s designed for.
BG – On that note, one of the new weapons the Scythe seems like a rather unconventional and uncommon weapon. So what was the decision for the inclusion of the Scythe as a weapon in the expansion?
Joan Hsu – The Scythe is a tool that’s being used by the common man on farms. The reason why we chose it is to highlight the differences and the tension that’s happening between the common person and those with power and with just common tools in hand, they were able to fight back against this power oppressing them. So, that was why we chose the Scythe.
BG – Naval Warfare was one of the most interesting and talked about improvements since Black Flag, so why does it seem like it has taken a step back in Valhalla? It feels like it had a reduced focus.
Joan Hsu – We constantly seek to improve on naval technology as we go along. So, in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla it was the same. We created the longship as a water vehicle as the Viking longship itself was mainly used for travel, as well as to carry warriors and supplies. This is a historical aspect of the longship that we wanted to focus on and to actively respect.
But as players travel deeper into England, they will find that various kingdoms have unique defenses set up against Vikings. So, the player would require some gameplay or problem-solving mechanics to figure out how to get past all these defenses.
The longships are still very much a fundamental part of the Viking experience. You can have the crew start singing or telling stories. This is something that we’ve always included in our Assassin’s Creed brand, that I personally also enjoy.
BG – Will we see a return of the much-celebrated naval action that’s been featured in previous cycles, like on the scale of Black Flag or Odyssey in the next Assassin’s Creed game?
Joan Hsu – I have nothing to share at this moment on the future of the Assassin’s Creed brand.
BG – My final question. What was your favourite part of The Siege of Paris expansion?
Joan Hsu – Wow! Favourite part eh? where do I start? (laughs) Well, so there’s a lot of things that that that is included in the Siege of Paris. We have two new weapons; the one-handed sword as well as the Scythe. I’m really proud of what the team has actually produced for the weapons. They put in a lot of effort to create the attack animations, and I hope that the players will really enjoy wielding it, and the feeling of these two new weapons.
We have a new gameplay feature as well which we are really proud of – The Rebel Missions where the player can play against ‘Charles the Fat’s forces. The objective is to whittle down his forces and to drain his resources. Eivor will be able to bring some Frankish rebels with him as he goes on these missions but he has to ensure their safety. There’s a variety of things to do within the rebel missions as well like gaining intel or assassinating key personnel. I think the team has really done a really great job in putting this together.
There are also new places to explore! I think the maps are really beautiful, really gorgeous, and each place feels different. We’ve got the slums of Paris that bring the feeling of death and destruction, while there are also the flower fields that are really beautiful and feel so open beautiful flowers.
I think it’s really exciting to see where the brand is right now, in fact, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla marks the very first time in the franchise history where the game is offering second-year content. We are already into the first year of post-launch and we have the Wrath of the Druids expansion and now the Siege of Paris as well.
But as for the Year 2 content right now, I don’t have the information, but it will be shared with the public at a later date!
Interviewing Joan was an absolute joy and the enthusiasm expressed by her on working at Ubisoft Singapore on the Assassins Creed series just shone through brightly.
We can’t wait to see what comes next for Joan and her team at Ubisoft Singapore but we are sure it is going to be bigger, better and we can’t wait to report on it!
If you are interested to know what we thought of Assassins Creed Valhalla and the expansions thus far check out the links below;