Months after leaving Ubisoft Toronto, Jade Raymond still can't help but say "we" when referring to the studio she built.
It's tough to let go, she says in a recent interview with Polygon, because she really loves the team and was there building the studio from scratch, watching it grow alongside her newborn daughter.
"I moved there five years ago," she says. "I actually started working on that two weeks after having my daughter. I was hiring the first people on the phone, finding the building. It was pretty crazy. It was pretty cool.
"We found this huge building that would fit 800 people, because we knew the objective was to grow to 800 and we didn't want to move. We found the building and it was huge. There was me and the three people I'd hired so far in this huge, expansive building. They were like, 'Yeah, Jade, you've got some work to do.'"
Over the next five years or so, Raymond helped ramp the studio up to 330 people.
Then last October, she abruptly announced her departure.
I ask her if it was hard, noticing she is still saying "we" when talking about the studio and wondering at what point she thinks she will stop.
"I don't know," Raymond says. "It's going to have to happen at some point. But you know, it was definitely a tough call because I got to hire everyone from scratch and build the studio and the space how we wanted, built the culture we wanted, handpicked all the directors. It's tough, because the team — I really love the team that we brought together in Toronto. I think I'm always going to say 'we' when we talk about Toronto because I was part of it.
"When you've been somewhere for over 10 years, you feel — especially Ubisoft as a family company — you start to feel like you're part of the family too."
Why leave, then?
"I'm a person who loves change and loves putting myself in crazy, difficult situations," she says. "When I started working on Assassin's Creed, it was, 'OK, we're gonna make a new IP. We're gonna build the engine that Ubisoft is gonna use for next-gen games. We're building this all for — at the time it was Xbox 360 and PS3 — we don't know what the hardware looks like yet, and just do it all.' I kinda love that kind of thing. Then it was the same thing with the Toronto studio. It was like, 'OK, you're gonna go there. There's nothing. You're going to build a studio with 350 people in three years and ship a game at the same time.' It was like, 'Yes, I like that!' No clue how to do it, but that's fun.
"I feel like I got a lot of those great opportunities at Ubisoft, but there weren't really any next big challenges for me then. I don't like feeling comfortable. I feel like there's so much work we need to do in games, and everything is changing so quickly. You need to be sort of on point to keep up with things and do good things, and I just thought it was time for me to go find my next big challenge somewhere else."
Making games, harassment and "no time for bitching"
While Raymond worked at Ubisoft for more than 10 years, her career in video games started at Sony Online Entertainment when she landed a job as a programmer shortly after graduating from McGill University with a Bachelor of Science in computer science in 1998. Prior to that she did industry internships for two years.
"I was in the game industry already for eight years before going to Ubisoft," she says. "I was a programmer at Sony when I started at Sony Online, then I went to EA and that's when I moved into production."
She also spent some time with a game startup funded by Will Harvey, the creator of the Music Construction Set.
When the startup went under, Raymond started an international job hunt. She flew to London and met with Sony. She went to Vancouver to talk to EA. She met with Eidos and Crystal Dynamics. After visiting more than two dozen developers, she received a few job offers, including one from Ubisoft.
"It wasn't on paper necessarily the best offer," she says. "I had another offer that was more money and whatever else, but it just felt like it was the place I was supposed to go. Sort of the stars were aligned a bit. I just felt like that was the right decision."
She joined Ubisoft Montreal in 2004 and became the producer on Assassin's Creed.
It was an experience that made her the face of the game, but also one that exposed her to an uglier side of gaming that she'd never been witness to before. There was a tide of casual and overt misogyny, sexism and harassment directed at Raymond as she continued to talk about the upcoming title. It seemed to culminate with a pornographic comic strip starring a rendition of Raymond.
"Even though I've had a bad end of the stick, I still love the industry."
I ask Raymond about the experience and if the sexism has gotten better for her personally.
"It's weird," she says. "I guess I'd never experienced any issues — working in the game industry is great. I think all of the people in the game industry are great that you get to work with. I've never felt ... I guess, yes, there aren't so many women working, or as many as I would like, working at most game studios, but I've always worked with great people. At the end of the first Assassin's Creed, since I was talking about it so much and then it sort of built to this crazy level, it sort of exploded. That was the first time I was really exposed to the uglier side of things."
What seems to most frustrate Raymond about the entire ordeal was how quickly people either dismissed her experience, or didn't bother to check on it before jumping to conclusions.
"That's the thing that was annoying," she says. "People don't care enough to check that you've actually been in the game industry at that point for more than 10 years. You used to be a programmer, you know. That's obviously frustrating because you're like ... anyway. You want to be at least respected for the job that you're actually doing, and it's very frustrating to think that people assume that you're not doing your job by default and don't bother looking into it.
"I have no time for bitching and complaining."
"But I think ultimately, it's the people who have those kind of opinions or make that noise [who] are a minority. They're sort of living in the anonymity of the internet. I think that side of things exists in every industry. I think with what's happened this year, I kind of feel like, 'Why is everyone picking on video games as being a bad industry?' Because even though I've had a bad end of the stick, I still love the industry. Yes, I think there are some games, you know, yes, whatever, portrayal of women can be improved. Yes, it can be improved in every single frickin' entertainment form. Movies, even the magazines that we buy. Women buy these magazines and on the cover of these magazines, women are wearing sexy outfits. You see cleavage, all this stuff. These are the magazines we choose to buy for ourselves. I feel like as a person who loves the game industry and likes making games, action games, I made Assassin's Creed — it's a game where you assassinate guys and you have a big sword and stuff. I like bad action movies. I like what we do and I don't feel like it all has to be so ... anyway, I wish we weren't picking on the game industry so much."
Nowadays, though, Raymond says she hasn't given a lot of attention to the discussions surrounding the issue; instead, she's working to try to improve things.
"I'm too busy trying to make good games," she says. "I think that's the thing. I do believe in trying to help other women advance their careers in the game industry. I'm on the board of directors of women in film and TV and interactive, and I put together at Ubisoft Toronto a program to help get women from other industries into production, and half of the management team of Ubisoft Toronto is women and it's not just because I'm trying to hire women. Really, the best candidates, half of them were women. In HR, our technical lead is a woman. You can have a positive impact by doing positive things.
"I have no time for bitching and complaining."
No more boxed games
Raymond can't, or maybe won't, talk about Assassin's Creed Unity.
Unity was the lowest-scoring game in the history of the franchise that Raymond helped create. It shipped late with a number of high-profile problems and glitches, came with a suspicious review agreement and included an offer to purchase $99 worth of in-game currency.
It wasn't a game Raymond was connected to, at least not in terms of development.
"I was gone when it came out," she says. "I was there a week after the launch party."
But the process of leaving Assassin's Creed started well before Raymond's departure from Ubisoft.
"I was really focused on Assassin's Creed 1 and 2, and then when I moved to Toronto I was also working on Brotherhood before I left on maternity leave and started the Toronto studio," she says. "After that, I think I just, you know, the franchise took on a life of its own. New teams came in that I'd never worked with on the initial ones and stuff like that."
While the franchise was always owned by the Ubisoft Montreal studio, at some point it sort of took on a life of its own and Raymond knew she couldn't retain the same level of ownership.
"I guess I kind of had this letting-go process," she says. "I think you have to. With the first couple and like what we had in mind for what Assassin's Creed was gonna be, it's sort of like, you know ... Anyways, it's hard.
"It's never going to be you making all the decisions forever on something that size."
Much of what Ubisoft is doing now, in terms of its big, tentpole titles, seems to be in the same boat: Huge enterprises that can no longer be managed by one person.
Doing so creates a lot of risk, the potential for a game to launch the way Unity did. But Raymond says she thinks it's ultimately worth the risk.
"When you create those kinds of systems, it's not only extending the life, but it impacts the types of games you can build on top of that tech once you've made the investment, or how you can keep the brand fresh," she says. "As long as you do it in a way where you're building a good technology base that can continue to live and be iterated on, I think it's a very smart way to invest when you can in your franchises."
Those systems, Raymond says, are the things that can continue to pay off, because developers can tweak them and get a completely new experience instead of having to start from scratch.
They also change the way a game is made. Instead of designing each level by hand, placing things individually, it's more about finding the right mix of game ingredients and seeing how they interact.
"I think the potential of layering stuff on top of that and changing the game or coming out with sequels that are meaningfully different is, in the long run, a lot more economical and also allows for more interesting innovation, not only the player agency, and keeps it fresh and all those things," Raymond says.
Along with this new approach to development comes a shift toward games as service.
"The reality is, there is no more boxed product where I ship a game and now I'm done and I go on vacation, right?" she says. "That's just not the model anymore. It's just not the way things are. It's funny because I spent the first half of my career doing online games, and it's just really tiring because you always push to get the game out, but then that's when it really starts. That's when the shit hits the fan. You have the real customers, you have to watch it, constant updates, then finally you're finding out what they like, what they don't like, you have to iterate, iterate. After doing that for the first eight, nine years of my career, I was like, 'Oh my god, I just want to go work at Ubisoft and ship a game.'
"That doesn't exist anymore."
That's not to say Raymond isn't a fan of where she believes gaming is headed. In particular, she's excited about the ability to give gamers more control of their experiences.
"There's some stuff that I could potentially see happening that I'm sort of excited to see happening. Because I do think that another trend is player agency, and creating games that are more systemic and allow players to create their own experience, rather than living through an experience that's been authored," she says. "I think those are really exciting things that are going to continue to impact the industry. I think things are going to continue to be more about integrating the player."
Constant disruption, pushing innovation
Raymond had two weeks, following the news of her departure from Ubisoft Toronto, to get her things in order and hand off projects to other teams.
No one knew she was leaving before the announcement, and she didn't want to walk out the door the day the news hit.
"It would have been shocking, too, right?" she says. "Because I left on good terms, so it would be weird to announce and I'm gone right away and everyone finds out that day. It would be just not cool."
Raymond being Raymond, she hasn't really given herself a chance yet to think about what's next, or to really take a break.
"I don't do so well with breaks," she says. "It's very hard for me to take a break. It's crazy, too. When the news went up that I was leaving, I got so [many] incoming requests for 'do you want to do this?' or 'I want to work with you' or 'what are you doing next?' or 'hey, can we have a meeting?' Some of it was small things, like 'oh, can you speak at this school for underprivileged children?' or 'can you do this?' and you start to say yes to things, and all of the sudden you're like, 'Oh, my god, I'm busier than I've ever been before. What happened to the time I was going to spend catching up on my huge stack of games that I've been meaning to play?'
"Finally, this month, I said, 'OK, for February I'm going to slow down and take a bit more time to think about things instead of being in the mode of yes, yes ...' So no, I didn't really take a break. Because of my job, I couldn't spend much time thinking about what I was going to do next until I was out of Ubisoft. I haven't really had that time to think. I need to give myself a bit of time for that."
And she still hasn't, as of early February, given herself that time. But she says she's going to, eventually.
"It's so hard to set aside the time," she says. "But you know what's great? I have been meeting with a lot of different people just because I've been getting incoming requests, all kinds of different people that I usually just don't get a chance to talk to. That's really cool too, because it's a different kind of busy. It's a kind of busy where you're learning a bit more instead of just doing."
Part of the problem, it seems, is that Raymond doesn't seem to want to limit her possibilities. And there are so many things she's interested in doing.
"I got into the game industry because it is this undefined thing that has been evolving continuously and constantly changing," she says. "It's funny because every year you go to these events like DICE or wherever, and everybody's talking about, 'Oh my god, disruption in the game industry and it's crazy.' But it's like, 'Haven't you been in the game industry forever, and hasn't there been this crazy disruption every single year?' Either it's social games on Facebook, oh no, now it's mobile, oh no, now it's Early Access, now it's VR and HoloLens.
"That's what the industry is. That's what attracted me to it. I love the fact that we are pushing the medium forward, and what the medium is, is continuously redefining the way people engage. I think games will continue to evolve and I want to be part of that process of pushing things forward."
Raymond doesn't care if the next project is AAA, indie, online-only, as long as it's an opportunity to think about how to make games differently and push on what a game is, doing something innovative.
"That's what's exciting to me," she says. "The other thing is working with great teams. I think that's the really exciting thing about the game industry. You have these amazing people with all kinds of different backgrounds and they all come together to create the product. The idea iterates and evolves as you're creating it and you get to work with all these brilliant people. When you get that magic happening in a team where everyone's building on each other's stuff, that's really amazing. I've been lucky to work with a bunch of great teams. That just makes the fact that you're making games, which is cool in itself, even better because you get to work with these awesome people every day."
While Raymond hasn't taken the time to fully plot out her next step in the game industry, she says really likes creating new franchises with a broad reach.
What intrigued her most about working on Assassin's Creed and Watch Dogs was figuring out where those franchises could go, she says.
"I like the part of thinking what the big new franchise could be," Raymond says. "I'd like to continue to have a chance to do that. I also am pretty excited about all the new tech and platforms coming out. I think games, in some of the new spaces, whether it's purely online with free-to-play or VR or stuff like that, have other opportunities to innovate, which you might do on a smaller scale. It's a different kind of experience where you could also deliver something.
"I guess there's a lot of stuff I'm pretty interested in."
Raymond says she expects to be able to say what's next for her sometime this summer.