Jade's Empire: Building Ubisoft's Super-Studio
Jade Raymond on building an 800-person studio from scratch, practical advice for getting into the industry, and embracing multiple formats for Splinter Cell 6
In 2009 Ubisoft, with the help of Candian government, announced plans to build a new studio in Toronto, which would eventually house 800 members of staff and work across multiple devices and media with the Splinter Cell brand.
In this exclusive interview with GamesIndustry International, managing director of Ubisoft Toronto Jade Raymond discusses the early days constructing a super-studio and the progress achieved so far, advice for breaking into the games industry and gender perceptions, and focusing on one brand across multiple devices and media.
Q: So the new Toronto studio launched in 2009?
Jade Raymond: Our official launch was September 2010, but yes is did start up at the end of 2009, and I actually was about to go on maternity leave, so I was 8 months pregnant and about to leave for my first daughter and my boss called me into his office and I didn't know what the reason was. I thought it was maybe 'have a good maternity leave' or whatever and he said 'I have something to tell you and you're going to be surprised, we'd like you to run the Toronto studio."And I was very happy in my executive producer role, I was responsible for Assassin's Creed and new IP at the studio so there was a lot of big projects and I wasn't thinking of the big career move, and you don't expect to get that kind of opportunity so that was really exciting.
So basically instead of taking my normal maternity leave and going back to the same job I ended up working on starting up the studio and moving to Toronto. I've always wanted the opportunity to start something from scratch, build a team from scratch, build a culture in a studio and to have that kind of experience but within not the usual start up experience.
Normally when studios start up they have to start on smaller games or portables or whatever, and we got to do big AAAs from the start
Q: It's quite rare to get to do that without leaving and going indie...
Jade Raymond: Exactly. And I'd been at Ubisoft for six years at that point so I knew everyone already, I knew who to talk to to get things done, I knew I had good support and we also had a great relationship with the Ontario government, which was really interested in bringing games [to the area]. And so it was kind of the ideal mix of getting to do a start up and building a team but also not having the risk that's usually involved in doing a start up, so I had to jump on that.
Q: You mentioned the culture there. What were some of things you wanted to put in place, and what were some of the challenges you faced?
Jade Raymond: There's a few core values. I think one of the really important ones for me personally in my management style, but also in the types of people I like to recruit and that I think are going to make a great studio, is transparency. Just an idea that everyone we have, there's no politics, and you have to take advantage of being at a small studio to have that. Just everyone says what they think and you have to respect what people think, even if you don't like what it is and have that openness.
We tried to build that openness into the studio from the start, so of course in basic things like having an open floor plan and those types of things, but in the way that we involved everyone from the start. Like treating all the new people who came, even if they didn't have a specific title - they weren't VP or director - that they would have a word. So making sure that we have a format and a venue to get people involved as we build out the studio, that people are involved in what are we going to do with that space. And what do people want? So that it really feels like their own. Having a lot of brainstorms on topics that are important to people, like, 'look, we're building this from the start.'
And we also recruited people from everywhere, not just Ubisoft, so everyone's worked in the games industry in different places. So what from their previous places worked well and what didn't, and really leveraging the idea that we're getting all of this brain-trust from everywhere, and senior people who have ideas to make it better. Why don't we make it better from the start? So having that kind of exchange.
The other thing is that there's this tremendous opportunity because Ubisoft Toronto got to work on AAA from the start and also mandated for new IP, and so really a focus on innovation and not wasting that opportunity. I think normally when studios start up they have to start on smaller games or portables or whatever, and we got to do big AAAs from the start. So let's make the most of that opportunity. Let's recruit people who really have drive to continue to grow, who want to do something big, and that opportunity to innovate and take advantage of this situation we're in.
Q: Ubisoft has committed to using IPs across different platforms and media, so did that change the way you had to think about building the studio?
Jade Raymond: That's interesting. We have a unique position because we're also responsible for the Splinter Cell franchise, so we weren't just asked to make the next PS3 and Xbox versions of Splinter Cell; we were asked to make the five year plan for the Splinter Cell franchise, so that's really interesting because from the start we're thinking, 'Okay, books, comics, film, other platforms like the iPad, mobile. What are we going to do on these things? What's our five year plan? When do we see these things coming in? What are the roles within the franchise? What are we going to do internally? Where are we going to work with partners?'
I think there are a lot of really exciting things about Toronto that drew Ubisoft there. One is there's a really, really strong...film scene because of [the Toronto International Film Festival], which is the second largest film festival in the world after Cannes. But there's also tonnes of talent; it's kind of become the hub for film and film talent in Toronto. So that was great and we could leverage that.
One of the other great things about Toronto is there's a great indie scene. If you're into indie games there are a lot of great independent people doing really cool stuff, because that support from the government allows companies to start up. So obviously we're really pushing the production values and all this stuff in our AAA titles, so we can leverage that proximity to film and access to the most amazing film talent.
And then for indie stuff we're looking to partner with local developers instead of doing it ourselves. There's already great people there - why don't we build more of a symbiotic relationship with them?
Q: It also makes you part of the local community, rather than the big corporation that just moved in...
Jade Raymond: We're trying to do all kinds of things like helping with local food drives and being active in the local art community. Actually, talking about the way we set up the building, I built the plan with the architects to build a whole front area where our cafeteria and sort of open area is to be open to the public and also double as an art gallery. Just to have that kind of space, because I think often in game studios it's all barred so you can't even bring your friend in to lunch, or the lunch room is way over here so you have to walk through production.
We also started a Facebook campaign where we document what's going on in the studio. Just to have that openness stretch out beyond as a philosophy; not just within how we're managing the teams but just as a studio.
I thought it was important because I think also you have to realise, from the smaller more independent games developers point-of-view, we could be seen as the big corporate machine coming in. We wanted to make sure we set it up in a way that we're working with those people, we're not just there to plunder their resources.
We were asked to make the five year plan for the Splinter Cell franchise. That's really interesting because from the start we're thinking, 'Okay, books, comics, film, other platforms like the iPad, mobile...'
Q: So as a woman in the games business, have you felt a shift in the industry when it comes to gender?
Jade Raymond: It's definitely getting... we are seeing more and more women coming in to the industry. I personally always had a great experience. I also did computer science at school, so even then I was one of the only girls, so the games industry was maybe a better ratio already than I had at university.
But I definitely think that it's getting better. I think the key is you're not going to think of taking a career in games unless you play games as a kid. And there weren't so many girls playing games a long time ago, but now that's not really the case, and I think that's the step one. For me that's how I realised I wanted to be in the games industry, because I was playing games a lot and I thought 'wait, someone makes these games'. I guess maybe that is changing too, but no one ever came to me and said, 'Jade, there could be a great opportunity in game development.' It's not on the lists: nurse, doctor, bus driver, computer games. But what's cool is we are seeing now with the young people coming into the industry a lot of women who grew up playing games, and that's why they wanted to get in to the industry.
So I think just the fact that games are more mass market, more girls are playing them and then more girls are thinking I want a job in this when I grew up, that's cool to me.
Q: Do you think it's as much about perception? That we just don't see the women that are working in the industry already?
Jade Raymond: That's for sure. A lot of women tend to prefer to be behind-the-scenes. I think I experienced this a little bit myself: doing press for your game is a normal thing when you're a producer, but for some reason it was very odd that I was doing press for the game I was producer on. I think a lot of women do feel a bit scared of that exposure. They don't want to read the comments on the forums or whatever, and so they choose to stay behind-the-scenes and not say anything.
And that's not the industry; it's the internet.
Q: So what advice would you give to someone starting out? Male or female?
Jade Raymond: There are two bits of advice. One is to be honest with yourself about what you actually love doing. If you love art and you're an artist and you're doodling all the time don't go into physics. Don't try and be a bad programmer. But we do have tonnes of jobs for great artists, or music. There are so many different aspects, so many different specialties that are involved in making a game now that almost anything you're interested in you could focus on that and get a job in games.
So it if it's sound, focus on that. If you're a people person you could be more focused on management or whatever. You can't get hired as management straight out of school but you could have that in mind. So I think number one is be honest with yourself about what you actually like and what you're actually good at and try and become that.
And then the second part is to get internships and to really try and get real experience. Even if you're working for free. It's a big risk hiring someone who's never worked anywhere before, so if you can work for them for free while you're still a student and you don't need or you're used to not having much money then do that. When I was young I hounded people, and obviously there's a line between stalking... [laughs]
But build up your contacts, stay in touch, try and find out where you can work for free, where are they willing to take me for a couple of months, get some real experience and then you can put that on your CV. And often, if you do a good job, that company is going to hire you in a real role after.
Q: So when you're hiring you do it across all disciplines?
Jade Raymond: I think the one exception is we rarely hire someone out of school as a manager, because you need a certain level of maturity... You obviously need management competencies and to be good with people, but it's good for you to understand what the people on your team are doing, so ideally it's good if you've done that work yourself and then you can be a better manager to those teams of people.
So I think when people go, 'Oh, I'm in school and I'm taking this management class,' I'm just like, 'No, forget it, that's probably not even going to apply to how we really do games anyway.'
And then the other one that is a bit tougher is game design. As a game designer you're probably not going to get hired straight out of school either, and I know that bursts people's bubbles a lot because that's like the most exciting thing, but learn a technical skill if you want to get into game design. Do level design, learn how to use the engines, learn how to do things with 3D. Learn some of the technical side, how to place ingredients so you're not designing the system but you're using the systems, and then you can move into game design from that path.
Q: How do you continue to build and grow a studio in an industry that is in such flux?
Jade Raymond: One of the great things about Ubisoft Toronto is that we have a mandate to grow to 800 people very quickly. Right now, in just under two years, we're 200. We're building a studio right at this key moment where even consoles are changing, the business models are changing, there's tonnes of new platforms, tonnes of new tech, and we can actually build in the direction that we think is going to make most sense.
So obviously we're thinking a lot about that. I think one of the biggest shifts is we have to stop thinking of just boxes going on shelves. Obviously now people are saying it's more of a service, I think also we have to think about not only the tech and what that enables, but how people's habits have changed and how we adapt to that.
If you think what happened with the internet with Web 2.0. So in the first version of the web all of these professional journalist were hired to write articles - for Conde Nast Traveller, for example - and then if you look at web 2.0, or what the latest thing is, it's that what you want to know really is what the community is saying about this spot, or even more specifically what my friends say. And so it's a lot more about tools for expression and sharing and stuff like that.
And I really think we have to start thinking of games in that sense. Because that's what people want; it's a new type of consumer and they want have an impact, they want to share, they don't want to just sit there in front of a pre-packaged medium and absorb it. And so how do we let people have an imprint and share and have more of that social aspect? Not just in terms of Facebook games and social games, but how do we bring some of those things into our triple-A games? How do we also break up the experience so people can have something compelling to do on their other platforms.
Q: So people staying in that game world, but not on the same device?
Jade Raymond: Yeah, and you know we've gone from a world of undivided attention to one of multi-tasking to now one of continuous partial attention. And even one where consuming media that is meant to be looked at on its own - a HBO TV show, for example - most people also have their laptop there and are doing something else and something else. And I think we do have to adapt the media for that. And I think it's not realistic, let's say, to have someone need to sit in front of their computer or console for that long, because that's not the way people are doing things anymore.
So, either way, you not only have to think about how they're having a bigger impact on it, but how they are consuming it, how do they want to, how to break that up. I think the iPad is... I love split screen co-op games because it's a fun thing to do with your friends where you don't feel like you're just doing the solitary experience but you're also spending time with friends. But I've always hated sharing the screen real-estate. So I'd love my HD experience on my iPad in bed with my husband there, but he's got his own screen and we can both do the same thing.
There are tonnes of great things like that where we just have to start thinking how we do we better use this tech to adapt to how people want to consume games.
We're building a studio right at this key moment where even consoles are changing, the business models are changing... We can actually build in the direction that we think is going to make most sense.
Q: And will that create new roles and whole new departments in studios that no one would have predicted?
Jade Raymond: For sure. Constantly, and we're seeing it at Ubisoft... It used to be that we thought of products on a product-by-product basis. Like Assassin's Creed, we tried to do something different by thinking of the brand from the start, and I kind of took that onus within the team. But now what we're seeing a lot more is that need for a brand team, because it's not just about that one game at a time shipped here. It's more about the brand and the brand experience, and you know that one product is just one dot along the line.
If you look at all of it, there's DLC but there's the other platforms, and they all have to connect in a meaningful way for it to make sense these days. So there's tonnes of roles that you never would have thought of before, and now you need someone to be gathering all this data from all the various things and centralising it and handing it out to all the teams collaborating. You need live producers to be thinking of things. It's no longer, 'Okay, put it in the box and everyone goes on vacation.'
Q: And equally there seems to be a whole new audience for games?
Jade Raymond: I think there's a good opportunity. At Ubisoft we also believe that, you're seeing all of these platforms spring up and its great and you're seeing some of the smaller game companies taking chances and innovating on those platforms. And Facebook games - Zynga kind of came out of nowhere. But I think as those [platforms] mature people are going to expect an HD level of content on all of their stuff, no matter what.
So you're going to want the form factor, you're going to want the connectivity to your friends, but you're also going to want it to look good. And have good acting and not just be bubbles or point-and-click. And I think that expertise that we've developed in AAA and shipping those boxes...that's going to be the next phase of winning the race on these other platforms - bringing them all up to that standard.
Q: And Ubisoft does seem to have a head start on the digital space. Is that because of the culture?
Jade Raymond: Yes, absolutely. Very focused on what's coming up next and how do we innovate on that. A good example is motion gaming, the Kinect. We were working on My Shape, the fitness game using Kinect, before that tech was integrated by Microsoft into the Kinect. So we were already working on how do we use this new tech? And actually our development process always starts with finding what we call "the breakthrough", and that has to do with looking at things like this. Looking at new habits and the way people are consuming games or new tech and trying to find something different or innovative that let's us stand out.
Q: So what's your next big milestone for Toronto?
Jade Raymond: Well we're basically going to announce our first big project, Splinter Cell, soon, so that's going to be a big push for us.
Q: Is that quite nerve-wracking?
Jade Raymond: It always is. It's always nerve-wracking, but I continue to be impressed by what the team has been able to create. I mean, we've only been around for less than two years and the development team has been working for a year and a half, and the quality is pretty amazing. I'd say it's better than what we could have done in most established studios.
Yes, of course it's nerve-wracking because it's going to be the first thing we're showing entirely done out of Toronto, but I also feel like we can be pretty proud of what we've accomplished.