Ubisoft was founded in Rennes, France in 1986 and has grown to be one of the largest publishers and developers of games with 36 subsidiaries around the world. Lesser known in their legacy is that the first union for game developers was born at Ubisoft France.
On December 15, 1998 a group of developers at Ubisoft in France created the anonymous virtual ‘union’ called “Ubifree”. The site has since been archived. The site was created following a September 21, 1998 article in Libération entitled Ascenseur express pour les moins de 26 ans. The article recounted the founding of Ubisoft by the five Guillemot brothers and its meteoric climb to the top of the industry. However, the article also contained extensive quotes from the founders saying that their business was not for the young, that they have no use for the old, the systems made for the old (i.e. 35 hour work weeks), or clunky human resource systems to deal with employee problems. They spoke of recruiting certain types of young workers who they knew would put in the long hours and not complain.
The Ubifree debut was an open letter to Yves Guillemot decrying the statements cited in the article and the subsequent distancing effort management made through internal communications. The Ubifree founders assert that the article makes employees out to be ‘young idiots’ who will do anything for the company, where the truth is that many are dissatisfied but too scared of losing their job to speak out. They also noted the inadequacy of zero human resource systems with a company of 1120 employees, 16 subsidiaries and 30 game projects.
Ces propos sont scandaleux. Ils laissent croire à un état d'esprit unanime, celui d'une collectivité de jeunes imbéciles prêts à tout pour assurer la réussite commerciale de l'entreprise, obsédés par son expansion, n'éprouvant que du mépris envers leurs droits sociaux les plus élémentaires. Et c'est là une représentation fantaisiste, mensongère, une représentation insultante à l'égard des employés de votre société.
Vous ignorez, sans doute, qu'un grand nombre d'entre eux sont très insatisfaits de leurs conditions de travail. D'ailleurs comment pourriez vous en être informé, puisque la précarité de la plupart des emplois rend impossible toute forme d'expression individuelle, et qu'il en va de même à l'échelle collective de par l'absence de représentation du personnel ?
The Ubifree site included a page where Ubisoft employees were invited to share their stories and thoughts anonymously. This was called the La Tribune des Enfants Heureux (in translation: The Happy Children’s Tribune). The site specifically noted that the purpose of these published comments was to inform and not to defame Ubisoft. 883 messages were received and a selection of 165 were posted.
Ubisoft management responded. ‘Dialogue’ meetings were held with employees to discuss issues as early as December, though the Ubifree team refers to these mostly as ‘monologue’ meetings due to the dominance of the management voice. Managerial practices were justified and the negative consequences of social dialogue and unionization were expounded. But some changes were also made:
Excessive overtime and weekend work were ended almost immediately - the studio would close at 8pm each day and no employee would be allowed to access the studio on weekends without express permission
Elections for employee representatives (as mandated by the French Labour Code but hitherto ignored) were scheduled for February and March, 1999.
On February 9, Yves Guillemot sent an email to Ubisoft employees announcing the appointment of human resources managers and the creation of a company intranet on social issues.
The Ubifree team saw these changes as a commitment from management. In a second open letter dated March 16, 1999, they announced that the website would shut down as of March 31, 1999. The group expressed that they had initially hoped that the Ubifree site would not be needed for long and they said they hoped that it would not have to return.
Much of the detail in the account above was gained through a May 25, 1999 article in Libértion which interviewed some of the authors of the Ubifree site. They said that the intent was to scare the Guillemot brothers (founders and managers of Ubisoft) and to make them more aware of the negative working experiences of the game developers at the studio. They acknowledged some success as a result of the action, however they also expressed disappointment with their fellow employees. The Ubifree team recounted that no one stepped forward to serve as an employee representative and no individuals or groups stood up to publicly affirm the positions taken anonymously on the Ubifree site. Though the sentiments were shared by most game devs at the studio, the fear of retaliation and also the desire to succeed in the industry was to great. As one founder noted, this idea of employee representation was very new to people who were young, in their first job and had a passion to continue. The words of the management team also served to reinforce individual rather than collective attitudes.
Though the impact was localized and short-lived, this event was nonetheless one of the first direct collective actions by game developers. A retrospective can be found here:
Papatheodorou Aris for Multitudes: Ubi Free, une histoire de « syndicat virtuel »
Ubifree was reborn briefly in September, 2010 when the website Ubifree 2.0: The Other Side of Ubisoft Montreal was published. The site reads:
A long time ago, a company exploited its employees. The employees tried to organise themselves and used the Internet as tool for their fight, and they created Ubi Free.
A few years later Ubisoft is doing it again and then here comes Ubi Free 2.0.
Freedom has word its Ubi Free 2.0, be free (away) from Ubisoft Montreal.
A few posts were made over a few days, but the site gained no comments or other interest.