After 18 years of activity French gaming giant Ubisoft has announced it will close its Casablanca studio, leaving 48 developers looking for jobs.
For some in the Moroccan indie gaming scene, the June 9 announcement isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it could herald a new beginning for the gaming sector and the studio had been leaking talent for a number of years.
“I left the studio in 2015 because there was no vision for the future by the top management of the Moroccan studio, and we were starting to feel things weren’t going in the right direction,” Moroccan Game Developers CEO Yassine Arif told Wamda after the news broke, calling the atmosphere there “frustrating”.
According to Wamda sources, the Casablanca-based studio suffered from poor management and a lack of dynamism. “The ‘Moroccan’ management was often questioned and accused,” said Anas Filali, founder of gaming studio Lorem.
An anonymous source went as far as telling Wamda: “Ubisoft became a dump for all those who didn’t want to work hard.”
Founded in 1998, Ubisoft Casablanca was one of the company’s oldest studios and the oldest game development house in North Africa.
Following the success of Ubisoft Casablanca’s first game, the N64 version of Donald Duck: Goin' Quaker, it was chosen to co-develop Prince of Persia: Warrior Within with the Montreal studio. In 2003, the two studios ended their collaboration.
“It went very bad,” former Morocco employee Vincent Monnier told Le Monde in 2015. “[The game] was repatriated to Montreal because of internal fighting between the studios.”
A number of developers left in the aftermath of that fallout, but even if the excitement fell Ubisoft still had plans for the Moroccan studio.
In 2007, Ubisoft said the North African brand would specialize into mobile and recruit 150 people by 2010.
In 2008, they opened an educational campus in Casablanca to teach game development.
“They wanted to create a new generation of Moroccan developers who would be able to make ‘Triple A’ games,” Arif told Wamda back in April.
The campus, which had no official title, organized a free year-long program for students, with an aim to reach 300 graduates. “It was very hard, we had the same standards as American universities,” Arif, who was a student at the time, recalled.
The financial crash in 2008 led Ubisoft to close the campus in 2010. Progressively, Ubisoft focused on the Montreal studio rather than Morocco, until the announcement last week that they would shut down the local office.
“We couldn’t find a good formula on this difficult market of portable consoles,” an Ubisoft spokesperson told Le Monde.
This explanation is only partial though. The other studio specialized in mobile, Ubisoft Mobile Games in Paris, hasn’t been touched. Le Monde reported that the problem was the exodus of the best talent.
Where for Morocco gaming now?
Locals think the future will be bright for the Moroccan industry at large.
“I personally think that this [closure] is positive, because I know some ex-Ubi will use this opportunity to start their studios, and with their experience and their knowledge of the market, this could give interesting production,” Alaa-eddine Kaddouri, founder of gaming studio Ezelia, told Wamda.
They wouldn’t be the first ones.
Following his departure from Ubisoft, Arif created The Wall Games, a studio that launched their first game ‘z7am’ in May. The game targets a Moroccan audience and is sponsored by telecom operator Inwi.
In 2011 Arif and Osama Hussain created the collective Moroccan Game Developers to promote video game development in the country and as a way to preserve the technological heritage of Ubisoft in case it closed.
When Imad Kharijah and Othman El Bahraoui left Ubisoft, they created Rym Games and raised 2.8 million dirhams (US$290,000) from Moroccan VC fund Maroc Numeric Fund to develop their first game ‘The conjuring house’.
Another example is Palm Grove Software, a studio launched by former Ubisoft employee Khalil Arafan in 2011.
“Others will probably follow their footsteps or join existing studios,” Kaddouri said.
This doesn’t sound likely to Lorem founder Filali, who noted that former Ubisoft employees, some coming from indie studios, were looking for nothing more than a “quiet job”.
“This closure won’t change anything on the local side of things. This will put on the market a number of human resources with [high quality skills] but they will mostly be attracted by communication agencies that will distort their competencies,” he said.
But the end of the studio might have another impact on the independent scene.
“It’s good news because this will push the developer community to move and start putting Morocco on the map themselves,” Arif said.