The game industry spends an awful lot of time building games, but perhaps not enough time building game developers. That's one thing Ubisoft Toronto head Jade Raymond would like to see changed, she told GamesIndustry International last week at the studio's first UbiGallery competition, where recent art graduates from Ontario schools showcased their work in the hopes of earning a three-month apprenticeship with the developer.
"There's not a huge focus on mentoring the young people and making sure they have the support they need to excel at whatever level," Raymond said. "And it's also hard to do the trade-offs where maybe someone knows how to do X, but they really want to learn how to do Y. But you need to ship so you tell them to keep on doing X, and the people lose their enthusiasm because they don't get an opportunity to take a chance and learn the other thing. What we've really been trying to do here is set up mentorship programs and make sure people have the opportunity to learn another skill if that's what they're really passionate about, even if it would be better for the product for them to just keep doing what they need to know how to do."
"Today I feel like people would almost rather not take a job and sleep on their friend's couch than accept a job that doesn't fit with their criteria."
Raymond knows the downside of that dilemma first-hand. Early in her career, her talents as a network programmer set her apart in a field where those capabilities were still rare. She wanted to try her hand at graphics programming, but never got the opportunity because her existing skillset was in too much demand. Had she been given the opportunity to follow her interests, Raymond said she would have stayed a programmer longer instead of changing her career path.
"In successful companies across industries, mentoring is a powerful tool to help motivate individuals, improve performance and ensure retention of employees," Raymond said. "It's clear to me that for our industry to prosper and continue to grow, we must attract and develop young talent. One of the most effective ways to do this is through a well-organized mentoring program."
Of course, it's not just employers that need to consider young developers' career paths. And fortunately for the industry, Raymond said aspiring developers today are giving the shape and progress of their careers a lot more thought than they did when she first broke into the industry.
"I think this generation that's graduating is a lot more thoughtful about their career choices," Raymond said. "When I was graduating, we were like, 'I got a job in the game industry? Drool!' And that was about the extent of it. The people graduating now really want to consider all of the options. They want to know about the company's culture and all kinds of things. Today I feel like people would almost rather not take a job and sleep on their friend's couch than accept a job that doesn't fit with their criteria. So there's a lot more thoughtfulness going into those choices."
One such concern young developers may have is upward mobility in a AAA industry where there the day they join a project, there are hundreds of other developers there who have seniority on them. Despite the ballooning team sizes for top-tier games in the last 20 years, Raymond said talented developers can rise through the ranks in short order.
"A lot of people think, 'I'm not going to do that because it's not my job, but if you give me the salary and title, I'll do it.' But that's not really the way things work."
"We have some people who have risen incredibly quickly," Raymond said, "But to do that--that's a thing people maybe don't realize--it's not by chance. It's because you're exceptional. If you are super passionate and exceptional at what you do, you will rise very quickly, because there's always a shortage of great people. There are always bigger jobs that need to be done. There is a ton of challenges. So if you can rise to the opportunity, there will be that opportunity. A lot of people think, 'I'm not going to do that because it's not my job, but if you give me the salary and title, I'll do it.' But that's not really the way things work. The way things work is you do it, you do an excellent job, and then we're gonna say you should be art director. You get the promotion by already showing that you're able to do it. And that takes an attitude of asking yourself how you can go above and beyond, what is it you want to do and how can you prove you can do it. That's realistically the way things work."
Having an infusion of youth spread throughout a development team helps create a diversity of views that Raymond sees as immensely helpful in game development.
"Even if we could in theory hire all senior people, I don't think that's the best mix to a team," Raymond said. "Seniority has benefits, you can judge things based on your past experience, you've got a bit more maturity. But a really bright person out of school can sometimes be as productive or more productive than someone who has experience. Maybe they learned some new or better programming practices in school that weren't taught so much 20 years ago. And also just the level of passion and enthusiasm, and wanting to prove yourself. It's nice to have people who are fresh into the industry, looking at things with fresh eyes. They also bring a lot to the energy on the team. So no matter what, I think it's good to have some people who are straight out of school in the mix."
That emphasis on diversity extends to other areas as well, even if it sometimes runs afoul of the processes and structure that are so vital to creating a game with the scope of modern AAA titles. Just as Raymond doesn't want a team made up of canny veterans, she also doesn't want a team full of people who will always listen to her and follow the rules set out for them.
"Because what makes a game great in my opinion is people taking their own initiative," Raymond said. "Sometimes it's not what's been directed by the producer or the creative director or the leads. It's, 'I think this game will be better if I do this thing, and I'm going to do it on the side...' Obviously, sometimes managers hate that, but that's when you get the little special touch sometimes that goes a step further, that never would have made it into a schedule but is the magic that makes a game unique or adds spice to it. So you don't want people who are just following the rules and good soldiers. You want people also who are trying to add their own thing and have a passion to make the game great, and have their vision."
"If you ship a great game, it has a great Metacritic, all your friends say it's awesome, you get a bonus, that's how everyone at the end of the day will be happiest."
Of course, seeing the new kid or the loose cannon promoted in a hurry might rub obedient veterans the wrong way. It's a situation that underscores the need for management to manage not just a project but the people who work on it. Raymond understands that as a manager, some of her decisions in development will make people unhappy in the short term. But if they're in the best interests of the project in the long run, she believes they'll likely make her employees happy in the long term as well.
"If you ship a great game, it has a great Metacritic, all your friends say it's awesome, you get a bonus, that's how everyone at the end of the day will be happiest," Raymond said. "It might be rough while you're working through shipping it, the interpersonal things, or maybe you really wanted to do X and Y, but ultimately, if you have those great results and you can be proud of what you did, you're going to forget about the things that were annoying and be super psyched, right?"
On the other hand, she said the inverse is also true. A studio head could expertly manage the team's various goals, desires, and internal politics, but if the game reviews poorly, doesn't sell, and nobody gets a bonus, people aren't likely to be very happy with the experience.
"Obviously, we put a lot of effort into getting great HR teams who put together career plans for people and make sure that's taken care of, but at the end of the day, how you maximize things for people is making sure that what they're working on is a success, because the reason why people are in the game industry is because they want to be part of making a great game," Raymond said. "At the end of the day, all the rest of the stuff is sort of an irritant."