Bonuses should be tied to innovation, not profit - Raymond

The former Ubisoft exec speaks out on the problems and pressures of AAA development, will announce new plans in July

As the former managing director of Ubisoft Toronto, Jade Raymond has experienced the world of AAA publishing first-hand. While she would never disparage her former employer or team, Raymond does acknowledge some of the problems that the AAA space encounters on a regular basis in a recent interview with Forbes.

Perhaps one of the more disheartening facts for many developers working at a big AAA studio is that metacritic scores and sales figures get in the way of genuine creativity. It's why we see so many sequels in big franchises rather than risky attempts at new and different IP.

"I don't think you can have an inspired game without an inspired team. Magic in a game happens when everyone cares enough to add their special touch... if people want collaboration across teams in a studio, why would bonuses only be based on the success of your game? The way award systems are set up in games is designed with a specific purpose in mind. And yet we don't seem to align things like that in the way we structure our policies or our companies," she noted.

"Innovation is important; if the bonus is based 100 percent on profitability and sales, you aren't as likely to take creative risks or innovate, because every time you try to innovate or focus on things that are new, some of them might not work out," she continued. "You try something new, and sometimes it's fun and sometimes it's not. So, you can run out of time trying to come up with a new solution. And if your bonus is 100% based on profitability you are more likely to stay with the tried and true route - if Game X is a sequel and the previous game hit that bar, you're going to do a similar thing but polish a little more.

"Suddenly every monster game is like all the other one[s], and cost a lot to make...The AAA industry definitely has to pause and question the current recipe"

"So I think that if companies really do care about quality, or risk-taking and innovation in the long term, they also have to tie their merit-based bonuses to metrics that align with that."

When developers are forced by suits to ultimately take fewer risks, it can unfortunately lead to stagnation in some genres. As Raymond told back in February, she'd dearly like to see a new take on the fighting game, for example. "I think there are a lot of different opportunities in action games that haven't been explored," Raymond said. "For example, the fighting game has been pretty narrowly defined and has stayed relatively stagnant for the last few years. Even though the tech keeps on getting better and the consoles keep getting better, you're still sort of stuck in this arena, and it's the same thing with slightly better graphics. To me, there are so many opportunities to push that genre in new directions and integrate that kind of gameplay into a broader experience. And that's just one example."

Putting limits on creativity in an industry that's fueled by creative people is the exact opposite of what you'd want, and Raymond believes that the AAA space could do a better job in controlling costs without having to sacrifice innovation.

"I do think we need to make some adjustments. I think there are quite a few inefficiencies currently - you could invest in tools that make people more productive, and where you can get the same results with fewer people. I don't think those monster teams necessarily need to balloon out of control to make the monster games," she commented to Forbes.

"I think the other thing is that we do have to find different revenue models and different ways to give players what they are looking for, without getting stuck in the model of having to add all the features - so one of these monster games has to have stealth and shooting and melee combat and hand-to hand combat and driving and flying. And suddenly every monster game is like all the other one[s], and cost a lot to make. I certainly don't think that's the right approach. The AAA industry definitely has to pause and question the current recipe."

Indies often produce more innovative projects because they're working with smaller budgets and aren't risking as much. And of course, there are no shareholders to appease. That being said, it's not fair to put everything on the shoulders of indies, Raymond remarked. "I think there's an opportunity there for [indies], but I think there is a greater responsiblity to take risks on the larger companies' side, because they have the means to do so," she said.

Since leaving Ubisoft last October, Raymond hasn't given many clues about what she's going to pursue next. Now, however, she's stated that she's going to announce something in the next couple of months, and she's looking forward to a chance to help out the indie community.

"I've been working with some of my friends helping to get their indie projects up and running, and they were curious to know what kind of things my friends needed help with, and what questions they were asking... I think especially with indies the main thing they need help with is business and legal - structuring things, what kind of deals are out there, funding - and basic communication between teams. Those are things I'm happy to be able to help them with. It's pretty cool to know that it applies to them, and it's nice to have the chance to help them. I'm going to be announcing my next thing in July some time, so this is an opportunity to give back a little," she said.

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Latest comments (10)

Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development7 years ago
I thought most "bonuses" these days involved a P45. The best way to get good, innovative work out of people is to genuinely assure them they'll keep their jobs and can find some space to achieve their max potential across different projects, growing into their roles.
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Terry Lee Producer, Square Enix Europe7 years ago
I agree, I've been in the industry 8 years now and not even heard of a bonus scheme at any of the companies I have worked at.If people crave to make original games then they have to be very picky about the companies they would be happy working in. I'm not sure how many people are in a position to afford that kind of luxury.
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Dan Wood Visual Effects Artist 7 years ago
As outwardly forward-thinking as this might sound, I still think this is a very production-oriented view of "innovation". The driving force here is still intrinsically "How can we most effectively throw money at a problem so that it reliably makes us even larger sums of money?"
The problem with "innovation", or indeed just about anything creative, is that it's fundamentally at odds with big-business's primary goal - consistency. It's the job of producers to ensure that creativity doesn't just happen, but happens in a predictable fashion, week after week.

My personal experience of creativity and innovation is that it simply doesn't work that way. There isn't an artist in existence that will produce their best work consistently year-in-year-out, on a daily basis. If you want consistency over that kind of timeframe, the only way to get it is for the artist to reduce their output to the lowest-common-denominator... the level that they feel confident they *can* drum out endlessly on demand.

The ONLY way you can ensure a consistent stream of true innovation and creativity is to take the VERY long view. You take on the most promising staff, pay them well, and let them get on with it, without demanding or even monitoring results on a daily basis. If you give them a year, they'll produce something amazing, if you give them 260 days, with the need to display a consistent progression to allay the fears of production teams/clients/investors, you'll just get a consistent stream of whatever they perceive as the bare minimum required to keep their wage rolling in.

If you want to foster true "innovation", from my experience I'd say all you need to do is to just let skilled, innovative people get on with their jobs, and insulate them from the scheduling and day-to-day business side as much as possible. Offering "bonuses" of any kind just shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what the problem is, and isn't going to achieve a damned thing. Creative people might well appreciate the extra money, but it sure as hell isn't going to make them any more creative. The least it will do is nothing, and the most it will do is poison the well. Just pay them well in the first place, and let them work.
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Show all comments (10)
Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrend7 years ago
Well said Dan, it is strange how many people in a creative industry don't understand the true nature of innovation.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Darren Adams on 28th May 2015 4:45pm

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Marty Howe Director, Figurehead Studios7 years ago
Everyone on the team should get a bonus for a job well done, don't single it out for the few who bring innovation. After you've brought your innovation, you still need the whole team to realize it (artists, animators, programmers etc)

CEO''s and managers can take a salary cut, and put that money aside for team bonuses. Easy.
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 7 years ago
There is the concept of the "prestige project" in film.

Doesn't exist in games. That's a sad thing.
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Richard Browne Head of External Projects, Digital Extremes7 years ago
Valiant Hearts and some of Ubisofts smaller productions seem to fit that mold. As for bonus's its a big ask to reward unprofitable productions that happen to be innovative. There's a lack of innovation in AAA becuase of the risks involved, period. That's not going away in fact it will just get worse as it has for the past ten years - the risks are bigger than ever.
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Elphège Kolingba Brand Manager 7 years ago
As usual, Jade is coming along with sound thoughts. It's great to read someone with this mindset in this industry.
By the way @Tim Carter, what did you mean by "prestige project" in film? :)
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Julian Williams Founder, WIZDISH Ltd.7 years ago
Isn't it a case of the consumer getting what they deserve?
This is a bit devil's advocate but if they wanted innovation they would pay for it and give good reviews. Is the games media at fault for not promoting it or is it appreciated but only when it delivers a great result?
Fine tuning is a form of innovation too.
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Michael Bennett Jack of all trades, master of some. 7 years ago
I might be overstepping here, but game development seems unsuited to the current "employ everyone" structure. Look at finance / consulting. Look at film.

Maybe even look at Valve.

Game companies might benefit from a partnership structure with outsourcing satellite operations for production line items like art assets. It's easy as all hell to lure away great people from great game companies because, most of the time, they don't have any real stake. Just a salary. Give them a real stake in your company's future, give them a fair holding and a vote, and you'll get loyalty and quality work in return.
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