For Honor's mastermind: "My greatest fear was that I would die before I could share this with the world"

According to Jason VandenBerghe, creative director on Ubisoft’s For Honor, there are only a handful of lucky developers who get to create the game of their dreams. It took him almost ten years to get the vision he had for For Honor greenlit and the game has since been in development for almost five. We sat down with him to talk about the journey to launch and what is next for him as a creator.

If you never had the chance to wield a two handed sword and split a foe in half, For Honor is probably the closest you’ll get to that experience. With 12 warriors from three factions (Knight, Viking or Samurai) at your disposal, the game provides you with the the tools and equipment to go medieval, or Edo if you prefer the Samurai, on your opponent. The combat system has a lot of depth, but once you get the hang of it, it’s a delightful bloody brawl that will saturate your bloodlust for quite some time. 

The story of For Honor began almost 15 years ago after VandenBerghe was walking home from a German Longsword class. Having felt the weight of the weapon in his hands and practicing the different stances, his game developer’s brain began to automatically connect real life sword techniques to control schemes on a video game controller. Blocks could be tied to the left stick, while attacks would feel natural on the triggers. After visualizing the inputs, the rest of the game kind of fell into place and he knew he was coming up with something exciting and unique. But studios didn’t seem to share his vision. 

For nearly a decade he pitched his idea to several studios, but received no after no. At the time, the unproven concept of For Honor was deemed too much of an uncertainty to invest in. When Jason almost, but not really, had given up hope it was Yannis Mallat, general manager of Ubisoft Montreal who heard him out again, which eventually led to For Honor being made.

"I was having lunch with Yannis and he asked me what kind of game I really wanted to make, which is something he likes to ask his Creative Directors every now and then. I was having a bit of a bad week and was feeling a little frustrated, so instead of giving him my usual corporate pitch, I told him what I really wanted to make. I told him that I wanted to make a game that made me feel like a warrior on a battlefield, knocking someone’s block off. I wanted to make a game that made me experience the thrill of sword combat, but with a controller. I know exactly how to make it and I also know that you are not going to be interested in it, because for some reason, everybody always says no!" Yannis Mallat also said no.

However, he did introduce Jason to Stéphane Cardin, the now producer of For Honor, who was leading a team of talented developers and in search of a new project. Again, Jason pitched from the heart and got the team buy into his vision.

"With the team on board, we still had to pitch the idea to Ubisoft. For that, I brought a wooden sword with me that I made in woodshop while in high school. Of course I didn’t bring it to show off my woodworking skills, but I wanted to show them that I have kept this for my whole life, because I care about this stuff. I think it really helped convey the message that this wasn’t just about making a video game. This is about me wanting to give people to ability to experience the art of combat." And so he finally got to make For Honor.

The next five years of development were the most challenging but also the most rewarding moments in his career. Having carried the concept with him for ten years, Jason always knew it was going to work, but it wasn’t until he saw people understand and have fun with early prototypes that he realized, "This is going to be the best project of my life."

"What you need to understand is that I’ve had this game in my head for over ten years and I now started to see the culmination of my ideas on screen. I remember distinctly a moment when I was overseeing a playtest and we had For Honor on over a 100 screens on the floor. People were kind of leaning back into their chairs, getting comfortable with the game and suddenly I felt this huge sense of relief.

"There it was on the screen. A Knight locked in combat with a Viking. People could experience what I wanted them to experience for so long. I felt relieved because now it didn’t matter what would happen to me anymore. If I would get hit by a bus tomorrow, this game was still going to get made. My greatest fear was that I would die before I could share this with the world. Now I didn’t have to worry about that anymore. It was done."

Now with the beta behind us and For Honor out in the wild, VandenBerghe can step away from the project and just take it all in. People often call this project "his baby" but he disagrees. After walking around with this in his head for so long and seeing the project grow even beyond its original scope, to Jason it feels more like watching his child all grown up and graduating from college with him just applauding in the audience, filled with pride but also with a tad of disbelief.

"Of course I am proud of what we accomplished, but to be completely honest, at the same time I look at this game and just wonder, how did I do that? How did this idea turn into an experience that millions of people are going to get their hands on? I feel like I merely guided this into what is now For Honor but in hindsight it was the game that did this on its own." 

"I feel like I didn’t just complete a game project with this. It feels more like I have completed a purpose. Imagine that you have always wanted to climb Mount Everest. Every day you look out of your window and see it in the distance, but you can’t find anyone who will take you up there. They tell you it’s a bad idea or that it’s too dangerous. Even though you know you can make it if they would just give you the chance. Then finally, you find a crew that agrees to take you there. Everything works out, you prove to everyone that you would make it and you do. You are standing at the summit, feeling fulfilled and literally on top of the world. You take the picture and then you start your way down. As soon as you make it back to base camp, you will only think of one thing. Now what? I am sure I will create again, but if you would ask me right now what I would do with a new team and a bag of money? I have no idea."

After having extended hands-on with both the closed and the open Beta, it appears that Jason VanderBerghe’s initial plans have translated well in the final product. The combat in For Honor feels just right and there is definitely a lot to discover. Knowing this all started with a German Longsword class 15 years ago, perhaps we need to send Jason on another course to spark some fresh ideas. Greek sword short, maybe? We would love to see some Spartans. As long as it doesn’t take another 15 years.

Wouter McDutch
Wouter McDutch is name behind the way more famous The Hashtagonist on Twitter. Often writing from a "gaming Dad" perspective he is an Easy Mode apologist and does not frown upon the occasional microtransaction to get an edge in games he is simply terrible at.