Academy of Champions
Academy of Champions: Football shipped in 2009.
Platform: Wii
Published by: Ubisoft
Developed by: Ubisoft Vancouver
Format: DVD
Academy of Champions: Soccer was a pretty unique snowflake for the time: a hybrid soccer game / RPG with a kid-friendly aesthetic and a rare “all-star” mix of Ubisoft franchise characters. The game was developed by Ubisoft Vancouver (formerly Action Pants, inc.) Originally considered a companion title to the studio’s first project PURE FOOTBALL, it developed its own sense of personality as a kids soccer game and shipped months before its predecessor.

There was a sort of logic to this game, too. At the time, Harry Potter was raging over the entertainment world, the world cup was around the corner, and the company somehow managed to get the likeness to soccer superstar Mia Hamm and the legend himself, Pelé. The Wii itself was a hit-or-miss factory too, with plenty of unlikely successes standing over a pit of hardcore gaming failures.

Development

Academy of Champions could really be split up into two halves: the soccer (football) half and the campaign (RPG) half. I was the design lead for the latter. Building a campaign really means three major pieces:

  1. Game Flow: How many worlds (pitches)? How many football matches? Characters? How long is the game? Coming up with a campaign means figuring out this basic, long-term structure. Structure informs your design in terms of how complex it should be, how expensive, and so on.
  2. Interface (UI): Campaign systems are almost entirely interface. There are talk bubbles for dialogue, menu screens to jump between story and gameplay, reward screens for XP and money…the list goes on and on.
  3. Script: Somebody has to write the story and everything each character has to say, and since we didn’t have a staff writer, the final word went to my team and I. The vast majority of the script was written in two weeks in order to satisfy scheduling for localization (the game was pre-localized for EFIGS.)

Considering how quickly the game was built (I recall it being maybe a year and half?) this was an enormous amount of work. Even after a variety of steps were taken to cut down scope and ensure the launch date, there was plenty of crunch work to go around. But the scope was very understandable and we had a really motivated team.

Guest Characters

Like I said, in a very unusual twist this game had five Ubisoft guest characters: Rayman, Altair, Sam Fisher, Rabbid, and the Prince. They’re not only playable on the pitch, but worked into the campaign story as recruitables. They each have their own unique (and very powerful) special abilities. I really have no idea how we got these characters greenlit except to say that perhaps the intended age group and power of the Wii platform overrode any concerns about using other internal IP.

Aftermath

Shipping Academy of Champions was important, not just for our careers, but for the studio. The progress of the game ensured our purchase by Ubisoft, and proved that we could ship something despite all of the troubles by its big brother project. But inevitably, it all came down to sales, and as a soccer game released in the brutally crowded Black Friday season, the game inevitably was forgotten. Ubisoft Vancouver went on to ship three other games, but eventually the financial reality of working in Vancouver was too much. The studio finally closed in 2012.