(Image credit: Graham Hughes, National Post)
Last year, two high-profile AAA game developers left their respective companies after a decade in which they each oversaw the creation of one of the most successful new franchises of the last generation. Amy Hennig parted ways with Uncharted developer Naughty Dog in March, and Jade Raymond split from Ubisoft in October. Both are now working together on an original Star Wars title for Electronic Arts. Hennig is creative lead on the game at EA's Visceral development studio, while Raymond is head of the new Montreal-based EA Motive, which is supporting Visceral in development before it moves to focus on original IP.
Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz at the Montreal International Game Summit last week, Hennig and Raymond explained how their parallel paths came to intersect, and whether they considered leaving the AAA corner of the industry after splitting from their old employers.
"I thought about doing something more small, independent. I thought about VR, more of a start-up kind of thing. But then Star Wars, right?"
"Yeah, I was considering it," Hennig acknowledged. "I have been in the industry for 26 years now. So it was about the 25 year mark, and you do start analyzing your life. I was just saying to Warren [Spector] how many years you've got left. There are fewer ahead than there were behind. I know, that sounds so morbid, but it's true! You're more cognizant that you only have so many more at-bats yet, and you want them to count. And 'counting' doesn't necessarily have to mean AAA. I thought about doing something more small, independent. I thought about VR, more of a start-up kind of thing. But then Star Wars, right? When Star Wars comes calling, you say, 'Yes sir.' How do you turn that down, even with all the inherent challenges I knew there were going to be? I wasn't going to be used to working in a giant company. I wasn't going to be used to working on a franchise IP like that, one we weren't creating. But Star Wars is a thing that shaped my whole life. You get invited to join the team? There's only one answer, 'Yes.'"
Where Hennig's decision was ultimately swayed by the exterior force of Star Wars entering the equation, Raymond's path was settled by a bit of introspection.
"I thought about a lot of different things," Raymond said. "I had started talking to VCs, going around talking to indie developers. I was thinking of all kinds of different things. Then this opportunity with EA came up, and I had to think about what's important to me, because depending on what's important to me personally, different opportunities might have seemed better. You could argue that raising VC money and doing my own game start-up with the idea that we were going to do mobile free-to-play would have had a bigger cash-out.
"But thinking about times I was happiest, what I enjoy doing, and what I will ultimately be happy having done five or 10 years from now, what I really love doing is creating these big franchises--getting to work with the team to create Assassin's Creed and how big that's gotten, then working with the team at the beginning of Watch Dogs--creating those new franchises that then become culturally impactful. People know about them all over the place, and having that opportunity to do it again and think about how we make sure we're honoring that opportunity to impact people's lives in a positive way, making something that's moving the medium forward and enriching things. All those objectives are what's most important to me, and they line up well with EA's objectives."
"I think when you're putting a new team together, going a really long time without having a ship date is not necessarily good. You get the team work from shipping together, really."
Considering Raymond's desire to make new franchises, the supporting role on a Star Wars game could be seen as a nuisance. However, she said it's actually a preferable way to start up a studio.
"I think when you're putting a new team together, going a really long time without having a ship date is not necessarily good," Raymond said. "You get the team work from shipping together, really."
When Raymond started Ubisoft Toronto, the publisher already had an agreement with the Ontario government to build a studio of 800 people, which made tackling a large-scale project like Splinter Cell: Blacklist out of the gates a necessity.
"The approach was, 'Let's take a big game so that we have a reason to ramp up and do the whole thing led out of Toronto,'" Raymond said. "Whereas this time, I wanted to make sure we were building the right team, and that we had time to think about what the new IP is, have everyone learning the engine and learning to work together. And obviously, what better opportunity to be able to work with Amy and a fabulous studio to give us that opportunity to get the right chemistry and people in place before jumping straight into the big new IP, which has added risks... So the goal is not building the studio or growing to X amount of people, it's very product-driven. Come up with the right product [first], and then if you need to build a studio, or wherever you think you'll be more successful, you can build the studio there. The objective isn't to build a workforce; it's to make certain types of games."
As for what that new IP will be, Raymond said little about it beyond the general genre.
"If you look at the EA portfolio, obviously they've been number one in sports forever, have been in the top two or three for strategy games, first-person shooters with Battlefield, and Titanfall. So all those categories are doing well, but in terms of portfolio, there's nothing in the action-adventure/action segment of the type of games I've made before, or the type of games Amy has made before," Raymond said. "That's not part of the EA portfolio. So when EA was interested in me coming on board, it was really to build new IP and build out that portfolio."
Hennig said that while she's worked with studios on outsourced tasks before, she's never co-developed a game with another team on the other side of the continent before.
"The days of doing something of this scale entirely in one building are past."
"It's one of those reactions to these games are getting bigger and bigger, requiring larger teams, and we have to be more creative about finding the people to build them who are best equipped, regardless of where they are on the planet," Hennig said. "The days of doing something of this scale entirely in one building are past."
Whatever learning curve has been involved with the distributed development has been helped greatly by video conferencing technology and the fact that Visceral and Motive are "creative soulmates," as Hennig described them.
"It's still early days, but I think it's more about us as leaders making sure that's the ethic we're pushing, that we are one team," Hennig said, adding, "It's more about a cultural identity and the tone of the leadership than it is about distance."
Within Ubisoft's global studio system, Raymond often collaborated with a multitude of teams in different time zones, so only dealing with just the one group and only three hours difference might actually be a less challenging situation than she's accustomed to. But that doesn't mean she can just assume the teams will work together seamlessly.
"You do have to watch for that thing, because it's easy to blame the people who aren't in the same room," Raymond said. "I've been on many co-productions, so I've seen what good can look like, and that can be great. And I've seen how it can be not so great. It takes quite a bit of effort to keep things positive and not fall into that scenario."
One key part of the collaborative process is that there's a vision for the team to rally around, and however much EA Motive might be helping out, Hennig is the steward of this game's vision. And even though the project is a licensed game in a Disney-owned universe, Hennig said there are some parallels she can draw from her history working on original intellectual property.
"You want to fulfill the fantasy of being in a Star Wars film, and that means certain things," Hennig said. "Without saying too much, there was a similar spirit to how we tackled Uncharted, the aspirational fantasy of a pulp action-adventure game, a movie like Indiana Jones. You can deconstruct that and reconstruct it as structure, pacing, mechanics, sequences. And you can do the same thing with Star Wars. This sounds so cynical, but it's not. You can derive the recipe for telling a Star Wars story from really studying the films and then reconstructing it in an interactive context."
Full disclosure: MIGS has a media partnership with GamesIndustry.biz, and paid for our travel and accommodation during the event.