There are few studio bosses that have the reputation of Jade Raymond.
As part of the team that created Assassin's Creed and Watch Dogs, she's gone on to work on huge brands and form numerous studios, including Ubisoft Toronto and EA Motive.
Yet it's been a frustrating few years for the executive. In 2019, she was revealed as leading Google's Games and Entertainment division, tasked with building titles for the firm's ambitious Stadia platform.
Less than two years later, and Google had a strategic change of heart and put an end to its in-house development plans. Yet the team that Raymond was building lives on.
"We started thinking about this when we were still at Google working on Stadia," said Raymond during a keynote fireside chat at GI Live: London.
"It started to become obvious that we weren't going to be able to continue. Luckily [Google] were very supportive of me looking at a spin-out, and I had their okay to put together a high level pitch, and I took that to a couple of funders. And I just feel very lucky that our first pick of people to work with, which was Sony PlayStation, wanted to jump in and supported us."
Haven Studios is a new independent studio based in Montreal, Canada. It already boasts 54 employees, primarily made up of former staff from Google, and was co-founded by many of the original Assassin's Creed team.
"My biggest motivation for doing this was that we had this great talent assembled already, and I wanted to keep that momentum, and create a 'haven' for that team to continue great work," said Raymond.
"And then there's the personal side of things. I've thought about doing a start-up at various points in my career. And really being in quarantine during the pandemic, having the opportunity to spend more time with my family. It's given me the chance to step back, as a lot of people have recently, and think about what's important to me. And the times I've been happiest in my career is when I've been more hands on with the team. There every day, working on new IP. To get a chance to do that independently is really the dream, and it really makes me happy, rather than the removed role of a game executive."
Raymond is referring to the idea of 'the great resignation', where people have spent the pandemic re-evaluating what matters to them in their career.
"A lot of people have been going through the same thing. Yes, we got to spin-out with this amazing team from Google, but we've also recruited a tonne of senior talent. Raphael Lacoste, who has been art director on Assassin's Creed games since the first one, he wants to be more hands on with concept art. And I think a lot of people are going through the same reflection on what really makes me happy day-to-day. Not the RPG of life."
Although the team is made up of people who have worked together for years, Raymond says it was important to establish the studio's new values and culture, so that it is clear from the start for those who are coming in fresh.
"One of the values, and the one probably I haven't seen at a lot of other games studios, is kindness," Raymond said. "We really believe that kindness is going to unlock the creative freedom and innovation. That was something that really came from the team. I wasn't there when they did the brainstorming and did this whole mind map thing. Kindness emerged as the biggest word and was echoed by everyone.
"We had this great talent assembled already, and I wanted to keep that momentum, and create a 'haven' for that team to continue great work"
"When I think about what everyone has gone through, that's a great value to put forward. Not only to unlock creativity at a games studio in general, but for the times in which we live. We all need a little more kindness and remember to be kind to each other."
Raymond says that she wants Haven to be known for having a diverse team of talent, although says it's not there yet.
"We all believe that the way that we are going to get to an original concept that resonates with a wide number of people is by having a diverse team, and by bringing in those diverse perspectives. And not making the same old games and same old decisions.
"Of course, like many game start-ups... we are people who have worked together before shipping at least two games. It's great because it gives you the ability to progress quickly and the synergy is there. But when you build a team with the people have worked with in the past, since the games industry hasn't been very diverse, it is hard to be diverse.
"So we strategically made the decision to hire a recruiter who is focused on diversity and inclusion. Her name is Madina, and she has designed a recruiting framework and process for us that has made to be inclusive from the start.
"We don't have recruiters to go out and get people and hit our numbers. The goal of putting in place this recruiting process is to go and look outside of the talent that we already know. Go to other industries, make sure we're paying attention, and have a diverse and inclusive recruiting process. Obviously then you need to put in place all the things that support inclusion in your company once people get there. But it starts with going to get the talent with different perspectives."
Creating a new team and establishing a culture is a big task anyway, but Haven has had to do this during a pandemic. Raymond says the company has worked hard to develop a culture through regular outings to parks, establishing a co-working space, and also went around delivering equipment personally to the teams.
But Raymond does plan to get people into a studio, and isn't planning on Haven being a remote business.
"We still have a dream of going back to a studio and being there in person," she says. "My best days are when I get to walk around and see what people are working on and sit at a desk and play the thing that is being prototyped, and having a casual conversation at the cafe. We talked to the team about it. We asked if they wanted to say remote and how they feel about it. And everyone said they wanted to be in the office a certain amount of days.
"We will make a few exceptions if people need to move. And there are people like Corey May, who is our world director, who was the original writer on the first Assassin's Creed and then the writer for the brand... He lives in California, and he had to be part of the core team because he is part of the core team, so we had to make an exception. So Corey is on video, but he's travelling and will be here for the key brainstorming. We are making some exceptions, but we're trying to keep the team here in Montreal."
"Kindness is a great value to put forward - not only to unlock creativity at a games studio, but for the times in which we live. We all need a little more kindness"
Raymond references Corey May, but Haven has a number of staff from the original Assassin's Creed team.
"We started in 2004 working together. I was 29 at the time. Now we all have kids and grey hair and it's many years later. But we still love working together. Corey was there, Raphael, Mathieu Leduc, who is our creative director, Pierre-Francois Sapinski [head of production]... the list goes on. We have a lot of people from that original game. And there really was a magical feeling when working on that first game, and I feel like we have that again."
There are also members from the Rainbow Six: Siege team, the Watch Dogs team... Jade says that Haven's CTO Leon O'Reilly has helped her launch three studios. These are people that have constantly launched new concepts, IP and teams.
And as already stated, many are former colleagues from Google Stadia. And Raymond says the team learned a lot from Stadia when building Haven.
"You have to admit what Stadia has managed to pull off in terms of streaming tech is cutting edge," Raymond says. "And getting to work under the hood of that tech has been really interesting. It has allowed us to build a studio in the cloud. Right now, all of our processes, we don't have build machines, it's all in the cloud. Which is cool.
"Everyone [at Haven] got these powerful Alienware laptops that we can game on and develop on. We can bring them to the park when we're meeting, or anywhere else when we're brainstorming. All of the tools and everything are running in the cloud. So a lot of that thought process of how to set up everything in the cloud was inspired by the way we were working at Google.
"And when it comes to really ambitious games and the PS5 and what it can do, and you're trying to achieve this next-level quality visually, and you have an art director like Raphael Lacoste, and you have these ambitions. And you need to think: What does it meant to support the first terabyte game? What does it meant to support this level of data? All of these things that we learnt to make game streaming of this generation possible, are interesting to reach the next level of quality. So there are quite a few things that we have learned that we are applying our tech stack."
The final element of the Haven team is not part of the company at all. Raymond mentioned that PlayStation was the firm's first choice for investor, and it was because of the support they can offer the studio.
"What we're thinking about is creating an IP where it's not just professional teams, but it is designed to be owned by the fans and can evolve through that"
"I have done a lot of talking to different developers about their experience working with different publishers, and Sony does stand-out as a company that really understands the creative process, and developing games and supports the dev teams and gives them the autonomy they need," Raymond says. "So that was a big attractor.
"Also, we are all big fans since we were kids of Sony. There is something really cool in getting to work on a first-party PlayStation game. For a lot of people this is a dream of what they wanted to do."
At the conclusion of Raymond's talk, GamesIndustry.biz asked what it was the games veteran is most looking for from the future of games, and how that relates to Haven. And Raymond gives us a bit of a hint at what to expect from the company's first title.
"There are three things that are really exciting me, which are also pillars for the way that we're thinking about things," she concludes.
"First is games as a social platform. The pandemic has proven that gameplay is the social glue that binds communities. Especially for the younger generation, this is what you do and how you make friends and hang out. That is something that we really want to build and design for.
"The second thing is thinking about the 'remix generation'. It started a little while ago, there is this age of self-expression where we're designing our NikeID shoes, we're reading our friends blogs rather than what our professional journalists are writing. And I think that has continued to go further with things like TikTok. That's another thing that we're thinking about at the heart of this IP. It is beyond user-generated content, it is about taking that self-expression and remix concept to the next level.
"The third thing that has been really inspiring to us is creating a new IP. Creating a new IP that is a world that can last for generations and becomes meaningful for people on a deeper level. But how do we create an IP that has that depth, but it is designed to be owned by the fans from the start? When we created Assassin's Creed, we were really thinking about creating an IP that can be owned by creative teams in the future. We thought if we create a framework of anything that takes place in a moment in history and has the Assassins behind it, [that] will be consistent with the brand so teams can evolve that and own it.
"Now what we're thinking about is creating an IP where it's not just professional teams, but it is designed to be owned by the fans and can evolve through that."
You can watch the full interview below.