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The industry needs more mentors - Jade Raymond

Ubisoft Toronto head says sacrificing employee growth in order to get a game out the door can squander passion, potential

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."

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Latest comments (14)

Andrzej Wroblewski Localization Generalist, Albion Localisations7 years ago
Ubisoft out of all the companies DARES to yell about more mentors? Let me tell you a story then. I was doing my best to be a mentor for Polish Ubisoft. Pro bono. I've earned enough on MM:H6 localisation for a living. I offered localisation-related community actions, cooperation with fans over the localisation and much more. All this simply because I loved the Might&Magic series and wanted to do some good, offer myself as a said mentor. And then I got ignored and bullied by a marketing fellow (one Rafal Adasiak) -- ignored in terms of everything I've offered and bullied over a handful of author copies of MM:H6 for a couple of translators/editors and 1-2 copies for every voice actor (50 copies or so in total) - so not even for me myself but for the people whose hard work contributed to the success of the project. Even though they were due under Polish copyright laws and logically a good marketing gesture to do. I was told that they would "resent translators learn their ropes on Ubisoft games" after I said it's the only way translators and voice actors can ever see the final effect of their work and gain perspective of their hard work appearing in the final product.

All this company stands for is marketing. You're the LAST company ever to have the slightest right to speak about mentors.

Of course, in the end the loc studio only got 1 author's copy of Might and Magic: Heroes 6, which by the way got stolen (irrelevant). And then I got booted out of cooperation with Ubisoft Int. and the Polish loc company by the said [*****] who claimed that he "sees no option of cooperating with one Andrzej Wroblewski anymore". Merely because I was adamant in defending the most basic rights of creative people engaged in the project. Go figure what are the priorities.

Once again in my professional career I get to say "told you so"... even though it's bitter as heck, because I really hoped this company would make a difference back then.

Edited 10 times. Last edit by a moderator on 4th June 2014 7:31pm

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Ian Witts Game / App Developer 7 years ago
Very interesting. I remember reading that MM:H6 got into all sorts of difficulty financially and that Ubisoft had lots of negative feedback from the original development house (Black Hole - who went into a black hole because of it) and they also said that they had done tons of free work because they were huge fans of the franchise.

Good for you Andrzej - thank you for putting your time into a series that I also love and sorry to hear that you had a rough ride.
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Julian Beck HR Consultant 7 years ago
well, as an HR consultant making a comment here is obvious. As for Jade Raymond making statements for the press, you know, what she says here is all good and right, but if her mentioned views are really treated that way at Ubisoft Toronto - who knows! Only Ubisoft employees could write here about a check "word and deed". And I bet we won't see a bad and disagreeing comment of an Ubisoft employee here - if we see any kind of comment at all.
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Show all comments (14)
as an older guy I learned this.. if you put your job constantly above family, friends, and so forth, your missing out on what is important in life, you'll miss important moments/relationships you'll never get a chance at again, and in the end, you never ever win.

Life goes fast, dont miss it crunching some stupid games.

/mentoring off

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 4th June 2014 5:07pm

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Andrzej Wroblewski Localization Generalist, Albion Localisations7 years ago
Todd you're partially right, but there are some tards like me who idealistically think that the reality can be fixed and won't ever stop trying. Sorry for being a disappointment ;-)
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Andrzej. Oh I too believe balance can be achieved between a life and game making, and I think it can lead to a helluva fun ride and great life, It just takes planning, some luck, some guts, some prioritizing, and the realization that life moves fast.
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Andrzej Wroblewski Localization Generalist, Albion Localisations7 years ago
Putting marketing on pedestal is like trying to survive solely on beer. I think I just hit an intellectual jackpot ;-)
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 7 years ago

It's what the arts and entertainment industry is built on (except for the game industry, which is still pretty much factory-based).

You put on a show in the barn... Have fun doing it. When it's done you wrap it (and a marketing company continues to sell the IP). You take time off. But you always keep your connections with those people you liked working with. (It helps to live close-by, in an industry cluster. That way it's not so difficult to put on another show in the barn.
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 7 years ago
By the way, the whole mentor thing is pretty uniquely Torontonian (and Canadian).

David Mamet wrote something about this idea of focusing on the artist instead of the art. The failure of many artists (writers, he was talking about) is that they focus self-consciously on "being artists" instead of *making art*. He likened it to being a chairmaker. If you make chairs you don't sit around thinking "I'm a chairmaker". You just make chairs! If the chairs get better, then implicitly you're a better chairmaker. But navel-gazing about being an artist is one of those the-road-to-hell-is-paved-with-good-intentions things.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Tim Carter on 4th June 2014 8:52pm

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Tom Keresztes Programmer 7 years ago
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Andrzej Wroblewski Localization Generalist, Albion Localisations7 years ago
Very interesting read, Tom. Thanks for sharing.

@Tim - arts and entertainment industry is built on providing the final audience the art and entertainment they want or even need. What you say would be perfectly true in a world where marketing idiots don't hog project resources away and claim that they're the value-adders here - not the creative people. I've known a bunch of "artistic beings" you mentioned, and I completely agree. But they are only able to exist because of their nerve which often happens to go in line with some preferences, and that's a weapon to stay afloat in the marketing bog this industry's become. An actual artist simply gets less attention from marketoids merely because for them the only argument worth considering is whether a person can sell their talent to them.

Thus a flock of blind (obviously) tails wag the dog.
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Russell Watson Senior Designer, Born Ready Games7 years ago
Regardless of the reality of what happens at Ubisoft, I totally agree with Jade and think she is spot on. Mentoring, from what I have witnesssed in the industry, is completely non-existent and I have my suspicions as to why that is the case ( not hard to figure really ). The majority of what I have learnt I have not learnt from those above me.

Then these wise sages, figure heads of the industry if you like, have the audacity to stand up and complain about brain drain. They put the burden on educational institutions to churn out graduates to fill the void to compensate for their lack of initiative to implement mentoring/training programs.


@Tim Carter
I am impressed how you manage to bring your views of how games should be developed in ways similar to other specific entertainment industries on every article you comment on.
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Simon Tomlinson Programmer 7 years ago
I don't think mentoring is completely unheard of. I have done it in most of the larger companies I have worked at over many years in the UK, and many companies have relationships with Universities to help guide students into the industry. I have also worked with new recruits, and students on placement. But I agreed that the whole idea of career progression does fall by the wayside after a year or two in the industry. There just never seems to be time for it. In fact I now work in mobile, where it is possibly even worse because projects are short and there is no lull between one finishing and the next starting. These days I deal with that by being a contractor, and learn my new tricks between work sessions, but permanent employees will struggle with that. But I don't believe it is just lack of time, but lack of structure - companies that may be keen on mentoring often don't really have the skills to do it very well.
Many years ago I was in the UK Institute of Physics which I thought was a great advocate and provider of career development outside of the workplace. I always thought that might be good for the games industry, and I'm surprised it has never been developed. I guess the IGDA and similar organisations are some of the way there, but never really made it. Well - we live in hope.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Simon Tomlinson on 5th June 2014 8:01pm

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Gary LaRochelle Digital Artist / UI/UX Designer / Game Designer, Flea Ranch Games7 years ago
There are two kinds of studios: the "Old School Studios" and the new "Contract Studios". Old School studios are full of veteran developers who have worked together over many projects. The new Contract Studio is made of a management team that hires contract employees for one project then fires the contractors after they have done their work. The major difference can be explained in these hypothetical conversations...

Two Old School managers talking about a new hirer:
Manager1: How's the new guy Bob doing?
Manager2: He's doing good. Ted showed him the finer points of our engine and what Bob needs to know. He picked it up fairly quickly with Ted's help. He did put in a little extra time, but that was just to make sure he understood everything.
Manager1: Are we on schedule to meet are next milestone?
Manager2: With Bob's help, we should make it with very little overtime.
Manager1: After we get past the milestone, what do you want to do with Bob?
Manager2: Bob has expressed an interest in AI programming. I talked to Casey about it and she said that she would be happy to show Bob the ins and outs of AI programming. I think Bob was a good score for the team and he will make a fine game developer.

Same conversation at a Contract Studio:
Manager1: How's programmer C17A working out?
Manager2: He has had some problems figuring out our engine. He put in some long extra hours to get up to speed. He also screwed up the build because no one told him about the Yellowstone Bug.
Manager1: Are we on schedule to meet our next milestone?
Manager2: It doesn't look good. But if everyone puts in a lot of extra hours we might make it.
Manager1: After the milestone, what are we going to do with C17a?
Manager2: He's one of the 24 people we have on the cut list.
Manager1: Have we found a new AI programmer yet?
Manager2: No. But we have to find a new HR person first. The last one quit because of all of the constant hiring and firing going on around here.

As for "Loose Cannons"...
I'm all for creative thinking and doing the "what if we do..." development. But you should be very careful where it may lead. If you have one loose cannon, the next thing you know you have a couple dozen loose cannons. It could cause everything to start going in different directions. Which may lead to people not doing what they need to do to get the game done. Yes, someone may have a brilliant idea for the game. But at what cost? The simple thing of adding a cool new weapon can end up requiring major coding, new graphics/artwork, new missions to put the cool new weapon to good use and maybe a change to the storyline. Feature Creep can be a great thing if it makes a better game and you can work it in without blowing your scheduling out of the water. But most games in development have a budget and a deadline to meet. At some point you have to say: "it's done, ship it".
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