Ubisoft plans move to Windows Vista following beta testing

Game developer Ubisoft Divertissments Inc. is in an almost constant state of upgrade and will figure prominently in the next major software era as one of the beta testers for Windows Vista.

Ubisoft is headquartered in Paris, but its main development centre is in Montreal. The Quebecois facility standardized on Windows XP last year and will introduce Microsoft’s next generation OS, Vista, this summer.

Ubisoft is best known for games like Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell series and the last three iterations of Prince of Persia. The rigours of games development demand constant attention to IT performance, said the firm’s vice-president of communications and corporate affairs, Martin Carrier. Where most businesses would consider a reasonable PC refresh cycle to be on the order of two to three years (some would go as high as five), Ubisoft looks to upgrade roughly every 18 months, said Carrier.

“One of the things about our industry is that turnover for our machines is pretty high. We have to keep with the latest equipment pretty much at all times,” he said.

Ubisoft has standardized on Dell equipment for its Montreal facility. Its current IT roster includes 1,100 Optiplex desktops, 200 Latitude laptops, 1,200 Precision workstations and several hundred Poweredge servers.

Most of that equipment was introduced to Ubisoft within the last year, said Carrier. The company has doubled in size in the last two years and its IT requirements have grown similarly.

“That’s mainly due to the success of the games that we’ve created here,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of growth. In the past year we’ve decided to start working with Dell to sustain our growth. We needed a very strong IT and equipment partner and Dell turned out to be that partner.”

The company uses Dell equipment for its day-to-day operations and as a games development platform. A number of Ubisoft staff are Dell-certified, allowing them to troubleshoot and deal with any problems that may arise without consulting outside help.

“One of the things that Dell provides for Ubisoft is the ability for them to standardize the core elements of their operation in a framework that allows them to deliver consistency,” said Debora Jensen, vice-president of the advanced systems group for Dell Canada.

“We’re sort of a very PC-oriented development studio. Out of the few thousand machines that we have here, three or four are Macs,” Carrier said.

As a beta tester, Ubisoft will introduce Vista to a few hundred desktops at first, said Carrier, but that number will increase as soon as the company is satisfied it can roll out the OS across the development facility.

“We’re developing (games) through Windows and eventually we’ll be developing through Vista. That’s the plan,” said Carrier. “Eventually that’s going to be common to all of our machines here.”

Microsoft Canada wouldn’t say how many Canadian firms will be beta testing Vista, or even confirm that Ubisoft is among them, but Windows Client product manager Elliot Katz said this the test period for this product is unusually lengthy.

The first pre-beta code for Vista was available in September 2003, when the product was still code-named Longhorn. The first official beta was released in July 2005. The code has been updated at intervals leading to a Beta 2 release in the coming months.

“Beta programs start very gradually and over time get broader and broader. This beta program we started quite a while ago because of the significance and the size of this undertaking,” said Katz, adding that Microsoft plans to release the final product for the holiday period at the end of this year.

Will a new, more powerful OS have a direct impact on the future Ubisoft’s game development? “We’ll hopefully know that this summer,” said Carrier. “That’s why we’re going through a pilot project with that.”

Carrier said that standardizing on Microsoft tools may give the developer a slight edge when it comes to building games for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 platform. “That’s not to say that PlayStation (and) GameCube are totally different in their approach but Xbox and Windows provide for some easier ports.”

Most recently, Ubisoft released Peter Jackson’s King Kong for the Xbox 360 with three other titles slated for the spring.

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