Develop speaks to Ubisoft Toronto boss Jade Raymond about parenting, work and diversity in games
“I am ruthlessly efficient.”
It’s not exactly the first thing Develop expected Jade Raymond to say in our interview with her.
But then again, we’re talking about something that Develop rarely talks about: being a parent and a developer.
Raymond is the head of Ubisoft’s new Toronto studio.
But she’s best known as one of the creative forces behind the early days of Ubisoft Montreal’s Assassin’s Creed.
As producer on that game, she was both the front-of-house ring-master and the behind-closed-doors organiser, expected to talk endlessly to journalists and promote the game, then return to the studio in Montreal and stay late to get it finished.
Today, however, with a young family and another child on the way – Raymond is six months pregnant when we meet at GDC, where she is to deliver one of the event’s heated ‘rant’ talks – it’s clear different things are expected of her.
“Being a parent makes you much more efficient in your job. You simply have no choice,” she explains.
“I love games and I never thought of work as work, especially when I was given the chance to create a franchise like AC. So I didn’t think twice about working until 11pm or whatever. But once you have a kid the reality is that your priorities change.
“And I always want to do everything 100 per cent, so the only thing that goes is the slack time.”
Like many other working parents, Raymond leaves work dead on clocking-off time to relish the two-and-a-half or so hours she has before her daughter goes to bed – and confesses to dipping back into emails and the like afterwards.
“You have to rejuggle your life – it doesn’t go so well with the way you make triple-A big budget games, but it’s doable.”
Raymond has mouths to feed, then. And not just from a parental perspective when you take into account her duties as head of Ubisoft’s newest Canadian studio.
Raymond fondly talks about the business she is building at Ubisoft Toronto like, yes, a proud parent.
And certainly, the symmetry of starting two families simultaneously isn’t lost on her.
“I was eight months pregnant. I wasn’t planning to move. I was just about to go on maternity leave from Ubisoft Montreal.
“But my boss called up and said ‘I think you’d be good at this’. I had always wanted to try starting my own studio. “What attracts me to it is bringing a team together from scratch, and building a great culture and atmosphere, and having the people on the team create that.
“So when I was starting up the new studio it was just as I had had my daughter. I was hiring people as I began my maternity leave.
“It was like I had two babies.”
Raymond’s the first to admit Ubisoft’s studios come with certain child-proofing.
“We had all the benefits of being a start-up but none of the risks,” she says, referring to things like Ubisoft Toronto’s unique support from the Ontario government, the fact the team have been given the Splinter Cell IP to rebuild from scratch and also have a generous mandate to look into new IP for the studio’s long-term future.
Although getting hold of Splinter Cell was something Raymond had to get a Ubi exec to buy-in for: “The studio has a mandate to grow to 800 in ten years. So effectively it’s like we have to build a really tall building. And we need strong foundations, strong IP, and need strong talent.”
When Raymond discusses how she argued for that head-start in the studio’s life, talk turns to issues like mentorship and nursing talent, the way one might worry about your kid’s first school placement.
“To produce that kind of enthusiasm straight way you need a big IP to inspire that, so we’re lucky to have that big combo.”
Ubisoft Toronto has certainly got off to a strong start, hiring in a clutch of newcomers and some people “who elsewhere might already be at the top of their career”.
She quickly reels off the senior support group, including mentions for art director Scott Lee (Prototype, Max Payne and Scarface), film and video FX pro David Footman (iRobot, Need For Speed), plus creative director Max Beland and senior producer Alex Parizeau, two of the core team of 20 from Ubisoft Montreal Raymond took with her to Toronto.
The team also includes people that have worked on the likes of GTA and Bully, plus other prominent triple-A games.
Adds Raymond: “What’s been interesting is that they have a lot of views on what works and what doesn’t – not just from a coding perspective but a studio management one. It’s very useful to bring in that mix.”
A GOOD UPBRINGING
But Ubisoft Toronto does eschew some market trends with a total emphasis on triple-A games.
“Triple-A isn’t the easiest thing to do, but I do really love playing those games. I have this dream of what the bleeding edge is – and it’s those big budget games which push tech, gameplay and narrative forward,” explains Raymond.
It’s actually the latter where she wants to make the biggest difference now.
Hours after our chat, Raymond took to the stage at GDC to deliver her ‘parent rant’, dissecting her contemporaries’ lack of imagination, and demanding that the games development profession “grow up”.
Games are “stuck in their smelly teen years” she said and are still a “lanky teenage industry”, which has meant lots of topics are off limits for games or feel taboo, when ultimately you’d even find some of them in movies by Hollywood’s king of the mindless popcorn blockbuster, Michael Bay.
“The Arab Spring, class divide, internet freedoms… why aren’t there triple-A games about these topics? We can actually use the interactive power of our medium to talk about these subjects in a way that can provoke discussion about them.”
She added: “But I am a realist – at $60m per triple-A game it’s not likely we can make a subject like this the core of a brand new IP. Games may be stuck in this narrow genre of action shooters – but that shouldn’t mean we are stuck.
“So why not weave more meaning into existing blockbusters? Maybe GTA could make a statement about the penal system? Or maybe games like Call of Duty could make a statement about sexism?
“Maybe Splinter Cell could make a statement about the ethics of interrogation?”
A DECENT EDUCATION
When Develop picks up this thread in conversation, Raymond’s reply is resolute.
“There are so many aspects of being human that I wish games were trying to capture, but they just aren’t right now.”
Raymond’s not really interested in making the next big social or mobile hit – that push for better triple-A games is something she advocates, not just what Yves Guillemot or Ubisoft Montreal boss Yannis Mallat has told her to do. But she does envy what the New World of more connected games can do, and is clearly taking notes.
“What I appreciate about those games is that you can take risks. There is scope to touch on themes that you may not want to in a triple-A game. PSN and XBLA games can approach a difficult subject matter that is not wrapped up in a $60m budget.”
Her blue sky game design examples show she’s had the topic on her mind.
“What about a game where you play a child who becomes older, their skills grow, and then have to take care of their parents?
“What about the experiences about being an elderly person – maybe not as a full game, but as a smaller game. Your skillset would contract, the opposite of all other games. Even walking to the bus stop is a challenge.
“Games could be great to explore how stacked up against the poor the system is – once jobless, in debt and without healthcare life becomes hopeless.”
Thoughtful ideas ripe for the next hip indie game, but Raymond wants to see that stuff in a games blockbuster.
COURAGE OF CONVICTION
But to play devil’s advocate. Can Raymond really instil that kind of thinking into a brand like Splinter Cell, which is fixated on silent takedowns and choking guards to death?
“Yes. Everyone in the studio wants to do something new and innovative. And Ubisoft supports that. Our chief creative officer is always asking us ‘What is the meaning here? What are you trying to say?’”
Raymond says that she’d love to see each new game provoke its players, but that won’t happen immediately. It’s baby steps for the rest of the medium: “The first step is to add that into existing blockbusters, it’s easier to do it this way than introduce a new IP and be riskier with your content and your message.
"And in the new Splinter Cell, there is a concept at the core of the franchise that can be given more meaning.”
A key part to Raymond’s argument is how her extended family at Ubisoft Toronto are all kindred spirits collectively hoping to add these more socially responsible elements to what they create.
“There are a lot more people who are looking for more out of their games. The new generation of gamers does want to learn, and think beyond learning new button combos.
“It is easy for us, as the Gen X’ers who are having kids, thinking that we want a bit more content. But when I hire these Gen Y and Gen C kids, or whatever you call them, it’s clear they care even more.
"I think the industry is grossly underestimating what our audience wants from games. Players want to know more about social causes.
“And developers want more, too. I had someone come to my office recently and he said he wanted to leave the games industry because it’s all about shooting people – he wanted more meaning in his life and in his job. It’s actually common for the younger generation to say that. Us older developers have to give it to them.
“Older developers are just used to what the industry does. When we were young, it was just a cool achievement to get something to explode on screen. The new guys, they want that to count for something. And so do I.”
WIDENING THE GENE POOL
And this can happen even quicker with a more diverse game development workforce, says Raymond.
“When I have a team and it’s all guys wearing the same baseball cap and t-shirt I think that is a risk,” she says.
“They can create games for other people like them, which is fine, but it’s harder to have fresh ideas when you and your colleagues fit the same profile.
“What can a bunch identical, white, 32-year-old males who shop at Gap or wear the same free games T-shirt offer that’s new?"
Slowly, she says, that is starting to change.
But her tone suggests it needs to happen sooner. Raymond experienced first hand how the industry needs to embrace diversity.
Some quarters of the media and the industry became disproportionately fixated on her gender and looks when she was out and about demoing the first Assassin’s Creed.
Plus, as a female games developer, a female studio boss no less, she is still in a minority. She flips that topic into a broader one about the ageing games workforce to prove how there is some change afoot.
Says Raymond: “When I started at Ubisoft I had just turned 29. The average age of the studio was younger than me. As time has gone on, the average age of employees has gone up to older than me. But it took less people to make games back then – the older developers are still there, they are just outnumbered by all these kids.”
All roads lead back to the new generation Raymond wants to see inspired towards making better, more relevant games. This is a barrier she wants the industry to collectively smash through.
“The industry is still really cagey about featuring touchy subjects, and the industry gets touchy if you consider its products are interactive. When you’re not just watching something and are a participant it creates uneasy questions. The industry hasn’t answered yet. It has to, though.
“We may no longer be the audience of our games now, but we mustn’t underestimate the next generation.
"Responsibility falls on the seniors in the industry – and we need to give it a kick in the pants. Because games will grow up to become the mature industry we all thought it could be.”