Ubisoft talks about the secret development of Just Dance
Developed by a team of 20 out of a minigame from Raving Rabbids and pitched to Ubisoft's top brass just six months before release, Just Dance's success was far from guaranteed.
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It's easy to forget just how important Just Dance is to Ubisoft. While the likes of Assassin's Creed, Splinter Cell, and Far Cry get the lion's share of attention from fans and the media alike, Just Dance happily chugs along, spitting out a new release each year. But with lifetime sales of 42 million, Just Dance is second only to the Assassin's Creed series (57 million) in Ubisoft's lineup, even besting the likes of Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell (27 million).
Regardless of what you might think about Just Dance's kooky routines and unashamedly cheesy style, those are some mighty impressive figures for a series that sprung up from nowhere at the tail end of 2009. But as we learned when spoke with Ubisoft's Xavier Poix--the managing director of Ubisoft France and part of the team behind the game--about the series, there's far more to the story of Just Dance than just a set of impressive sales numbers.
GameSpot: When did you start work on the Just Dance series and where did the idea come from?
Xavier Poix: We started working on the Wii very early in the process in Paris. We had a contract with Nintendo on Red Steel, but at the time--since I was already directing the Montpellier Studio--I just organized some hardware very early on, and we started working on Rayman on the Wii, one year prior to the launch.
So we invented the Rabbids, and since the hardware was so new, and there were so many creative things we could do with it, we decided to turn Rayman into a crazy mini-party game. We thought the Wiimote and Nunchuck would be really great for making rhythm games, so we started working on a musical game where you shot the Rabbids in the face at the right moments, and it was played along to music.
Then, I did the second Rabbids game in Paris, and we started iterating on this music minigame, which turned into more of a note-dense game that was in between a rhythm game and the game where you posed alongside the music. By the third game we told the team to get rid of the technical stuff, saying "we don't care about the limitations of the hardware in terms of what you can record and track, let's do more of a dancing game, so just get rid of the tracking system.", which was a bit limited due to the hardware.
That dancing game made it into the third Rabbids, and by the end of it we saw a huge success at exhibitions where we showed it off. There was this real crazy moment where everyone was jumping at the TV--especially the girls at the time--so we decided to turn it into a real proper game, which is why we created Just Dance straight after.
GS: How was the idea behind Just Dance propagated through Ubisoft? What was the reaction to it?
XP: We were used to doing more of a 'gamer's game' in the studios at Ubisoft level. When the Wii arrived we created the Rabbids first, which was still very much a gamer's game. When we decided to do Just Dance, the only fear I had was that people wouldn't accept that it wasn't based on skill. Our main goal was to make sure that people were getting off the couch and having fun together. Even if there were some technical limitations, I was worried that we could be asked to turn it into a rhythm game, where it's based on really skilled gameplay. We wanted a control system that everybody would love, and everybody would enjoy.
So we pitched Just Dance, but we pitched it very late in process compared to what we do usually. We pitched it, I think, six months prior to the launch when it was actually already developed. It was somehow already in the Rabbids, even if it was different, but in that game there was no tongue-in-cheek aspect, no artistic direction or anything.
But the feeling of Just Dance already existed in people's minds at Ubisoft, so half of the job was done. We really waited to have a clear artistic direction. One of the goals of the game was to fight inhibitions, because we want everybody to be able to dance. Actually, the feedback we had was more concerned with people not wanting to get up and dance, 'they won't dare, they won't dare!' they said.
We were sure, based on the play tests we did, that we had somehow found the recipe to make people dance. It's a videogame, so people are less shy than during a party. We really fought against those inhibitions, and every decision we made--it was a very small team, around 20 people I think--was to fight inhibition.
GS: Even if you were under the radar, a team of 20 still seems small for a studio like Ubisoft.
XP: I was, let's say obliged, to keep a small team in terms of costs. Even it was a small risk it was a risk, because the game was not officially pitched. The idea was to keep it very low profile until we were sure about what we had. In videogames when you want to have a small team, you really need very talented senior people that can really manage everything on their own. That was the kind of team we had in the beginning, and since it was about dancing we discovered new people and new positions that we are now managing quite well, like choreographers that are now level designers on Just Dance.
People were passionate. It was quite interesting, we were creating more gamer's games and the image of this team… I think it's OK to say now that people within the Paris studio never thought it would be a success. We were working on Ghost Recon at the time and the discrepancy was huge.
I think that [Ubisoft CEO] Guillemot knows that in France we have the authority, and we have a good mix of doing innovation in a creative way. We have a huge history of working on new systems--it was the Wii, the Xbox 360 with Ghost Recon--then the Wii U with Zombie U in Montpellier and Rabbids in Paris. We are known to do that, so the process of having a small team work on a small project that can turn into a bigger one is something that we do. It doesn't happen too often, because we have a lot of games to make, but this process is something--especially with the Rabbids and Just Dance--that can turn into a way of changing the way that we play.
GS: Were there arguments within the team about the direction of the game? Or any features that just didn't make the cut?
XP: Overall, we knew what we wanted to do. It was to create this game that appealed to a large audience--a female audience first--but making sure boys could join in. Everything that went into the content was because of that. In terms of features, one funny thing for instance was the use of the Wii Remote and Nunchuck. It was interesting, because the Rabbids game used the Wii Remote and Nunchuck. You have this system in your hands, so we wanted to fully utilise all the technical aspects of it. We started with the two hands, but you're limited with the moves you can make, because the wire is very short.
It's funny to talk about that now, because it seems obvious, but at the time it was the start of the Wii and a new device that could track what you were doing. This idea to get rid of the nunchuck was like, "you know, I'm only going use half of the system, which will be less precise". It was a huge argument, and we decided that we wanted to do a dance game where it was more important people felt they were dancing rather than making sure what they were doing was really precisely scored. The decision that we took to get rid of the nunchuck was thought of like using the Xbox pad and cutting it half and only using the right part of it!
But within the team, we felt our direction was good. It was more internally that people thought it would never work, because people don't dance, or that it wasn't precise enough for people to actually learn to dance and they needed to be challenged, which is true and untrue at the same time. But it was more about having fun and making sure that we could create a competitive aspect.
GS: Did you honestly ever think that Just Dance would go on to be Ubisoft's second-biggest title?
XP: Sincerely, we couldn't have imagined such a success or such a phenomenon--I'd be lying if I said so. But since early on we knew we had something that could turn into something big. We knew it worked, but also knew that it had to come with marketing, the help of other subsidiaries, and we didn't know if it would happen or not, or at what speed.
But the 42 million in sale in four years? I think no. But that it could become a huge success that would last, yes. Within Ubisoft it became such a phenomenon and everyone liked the game, but it's the audience that turned just Dance into a success. We performed quite well at launch, but month after month sales were increasing, especially in the UK before and after Christmas, and after that it was unstoppable.
GS: Given that success, I imagine there's quite a bit of pressure on you to keep Just Dance going, regardless of whether there's anything you can truly add to it or not.
XP: Yes, there's a pressure within Ubisoft to keep Just Dance enormous, and we think we can make it enormous. But it wasn't like that initially, because at the end of the first one, people--even us--had our doubts that it would last. After the first one we thought maybe there would be a second one, and then it would be over.
The question came after the second game, when it was massive and there were massive sales. I mean, Just Dance one, I think in the second year, sold more than in the first. The phenomenon was there. But it's not like a massive open world game where you need your next installment to be so much bigger than the previous one. We didn't want to lose Just Dance, so the best way for us was to keep the values of simplicity and fun within the game and not go too far. When we looked at our competitors, they went the other way with more technique, but we wanted to keep the simple feel of Just Dance.
Internally we knew we had many things we could improve, and so many ideas we could push. And because it's based on music, we could change the choreographies each year. We thought for the second one it could be more massive, because we could get rid of all the issues from the first one. Plus, on the scoring system, we hadn't quite got the right recipe, because if you play Just Dance the way we really want you to play, you really felt the score reflected what you were doing. But if you stay on your couch just moving your right hand, of course it won't play as well.
That wasn't the case on the second game, and since then we've done a lot of research, and we've gotten good at it. Now we have cameras and stuff, and we knew we could bring a lot of innovation to the franchise.
GS: Surely you're reaching you're reaching saturation point with Just Dance, though? Where else can you possibly go outside of releasing song packs each year?
I really don't think so, because we're driven by innovation. We have many ideas for the future and we are entering a period where our historical system--the Wii--isn't performing very well. So there is a risk on the Wii. The Wii U is not launching at the speed we would appreciate for Just Dance, so it's a transition year that we're facing. But we did a good introduction to the Kinect system. On PS3, there's no internal camera, and the Move was not with the machine, so the install base was less, but we still had good success on the platform.
We're really hoping the next-gen platforms really gel with what we want to develop with Just Dance in terms of online features. We've got the world dance floor, which enables everybody to play online together on the same song and it's something we're really pushing for in the future. And the next-gen has everything to bring Just Dance to the next level.
Of course, it's a transition year, and we're hoping that the Wii will perform again. Even around me people are getting the Wii, and there are people that don't know about Just Dance and are buying it for the Wii. We are not there in terms of saturation, not at all. We have many systems now, and it's about passing the Just Dance spirit onto them.'