Jade Raymond has been thinking a lot about the way games and the games industry are changing, and the former Ubisoft and EA executive used the stage at Bilbao's Fun & Serious Festival to examine her conclusions.
The fact that Raymond was in a reflective mood is perhaps no great surprise. After helping to found Ubisoft's Toronto campus, she left in October 2014 for what turned out to be a position at EA, at the head of the publisher's Motive Studios. One of Motive's early projects was to collaborate on Star Wars with Visceral Games - which didn't go according to plan - with a more long-term goal of working closely with Bioware.
Exactly what comes out of Motive remains to be seen, but whether Raymond achieved all she wanted when she first joined is certainly open to question. Indeed, she departed EA in October this year with the studio yet to release a project of its own.
Despite three years with no game launches, however, it was clear from Raymond's appearance at Fun & Serious that she has been thinking hard about the way the industry has changed since she first rose to prominence as part of the team that made Assassin's Creed.
"We've seen the ecosystem change and all these new roles appear, but we haven't yet seen a game that integrates all of those different roles"
"In the traditional action-adventure game there was the developer thinking, 'What story do we want to tell? What is the maze or the puzzle that we want to create in each level?' As a player your job was to enjoy the story, but as a rat in the maze find your way to the cheese," she said, focusing on the genre that Assassin's Creed helped push forward.
"The open world is different. It's about creating your own story, where you decide how to do it. You're not the rat in the maze. There's more player engagement.
"I think the big question now, and the exciting question for me, is how does that experience become social? How do players not only get to create their own story, but how do you have those stories be social, and how do you share them in the meaningful way? I don't think we've answered that yet, and I think that's the exciting stuff to look into."
Raymond expressed particular interest in the social uses of games, beyond any specific gameplay experience intended by the designers. Many games, she said, are "a way for people to hang out" as much as they are, for example, a shooter or an adventure game. They are used as "social platforms" in ways that have nothing to do with social features or tools in the games themselves.
This is an example of how the medium has changed as a whole, Raymond said. For a long time, games adhered to the same "broadcast model" as other media, such as cinema, television and journalism. There was an author and an audience, with little or no opportunity for them to communicate. Games have moved to an "engagement model", largely thanks to the seamless, direct communication afforded by internet technology.
"Now when I look at what's happening, when I see the exciting things going on in games, I'm seeing a different model emerge, which I think of as a 'network engagement' model. What that means is you're not just considering the player and the creator, but many different roles, and all of the roles in-between."
This includes the growing influence of mod-makers, highly productive in-game creators in the spaces provided by Minecraft and Roblox, streamers on services like Twitch and YouTube, and the people who watch games on those same platforms.
"There's an idea, an opportunity that I've been thinking about for a long time that we're finally on the verge of making possible"
"We've seen the ecosystem change and all these new roles appear, but we haven't yet seen a game that integrates all of those different roles," Raymond said. "What does it mean to have a role as a viewer within a game, and not just through YouTube or commenting on a stream? I think that's something really exciting to think about if you design games."
Given the mystery surrounding her next move, exactly what Raymond is thinking about in those terms is a point of great interest. When asked about it she declined to offer specifics, but she did suggest that there is a link between what she had discussed and her new project.
"I can't yet say what I'm doing," she said. "We'll have to call it a top secret project for now. But I think if you listen to some of the things I've been excited about, there's an idea, an opportunity that I've been thinking about for a long time that we're finally on the verge of making possible."
Fielding questions from the Fun & Serious audience, Raymond was asked again about her plans now that she has departed EA Motive. In response to the crowd's persistence, she gave a "hint" that was light on details, but clearly indicated a high level of ambition.
"It has been very interesting to me to see a lot of ideas that existed in science fiction books slowly become a reality, and then just become normal," she said. "A classic example is the Metaverse. And I'm not trying to build the Metaverse, but it was once a very far-fetched idea and now it's just commonplace. Everyone knows what it is.
"There are some other ideas like that, which were very inspiring to me when I was younger, and now I see the ingredients are in place to make them a reality. That's the hint."
All images courtesy of the Fun & Serious Games Festival, which we attended as a guest of the event organiser.