Jade Raymond interview: We talk Assassin’s Creed and women in the games industry with EA’s newest studio head
Jade Raymond’s CV speaks for itself – after a short stint at EA in the early 2000s, she moved to Ubisoft, and set about creating one of the biggest game series in the world: Assassin’s Creed. After heading up her own studio in Toronto, she left Ubisoft, and a few weeks before she embarked on her new adventure at EA, we sat down with her for a good old chat…
How did you first get into the games industry?
I knew I wanted to be in the games industry since I was about 14 and so I pretty much focused on that. I was a very determined young person, so I took a lot of computer science classes and I learnt to program. I was doing robotics also in my spare time. I got some internships in the games industry and was actually sending myself to game developers’ conferences from when I was 16 just to see people and get out there and chat. I started as a programmer at Sony and then moved on to EA and a game startup and Ubisoft.
Could you tell us a little about the early days of working on Assassin’s Creed?
I was hired at Ubisoft to be a producer of what was going to be the next-gen Prince Of Persia. It was a small team in place that had just shipped Prince Of Persia, so the core team was there, but it was under 20 people. We didn’t even really know what next-gen was but we knew there was this myth of next-gen and eventually we were going to get the dev kits. We just wanted to set the bar high and think about what would be really different in terms of experience. The more we worked on the concept of what we wanted to create the more we agreed that it needed to be a new IP, so I did an internal sales pitch to convince upper management that we needed to make a new IP. I managed to convince the right people and then we were off and making Assassin’s Creed.
There was a great energy behind the game. What was it like riding that wave?
It was amazing. We had such high ambitions. That was over ten years ago now and it was a pretty young team. We were all convinced that we were going to do something remarkable. That was the point. So, it was great to finally get to talk to people about it and it was great that people thought what we were doing was pushing boundaries, because that was definitely our intention.
It feels like a long time since we’ve had a game that captured people’s imaginations that way.
It did mean that I didn’t sleep much for the last few months, though. It was like, ‘Oh my god, everyone’s expecting this to be great and we have to ship!’ All the things that we wanted to put into the game… I’m happy we got a chance to make the second one and put a lot of those things in.
It seems almost as if history repeated itself for Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs and Unity. Why can it be such a struggle to get across that finishing line?
I think it’s important to set the bar high and it does push the team and that’s how you do good things. And if you set it really high and you only manage to do 80 per cent, you still manage to do something that’s interesting or different. But it also means that there’s a lot more pressure and you don’t want to be letting gamers down. I still remember when the reviews came out for the first Assassin’s Creed, even though the sales totally destroyed any Ubisoft record before (I heard Yves [Guillemot, Ubisoft CEO] was having champagne and stuff) I was sitting there with the core team and we were reading the reviews and we were just so devastated, because even though it still got a decent Metacritic (I think it was about 81 or 82) all we could see were the things that we knew were wrong and that we wanted to fix, but we couldn’t. ‘Oh yes, they’re right. Why are you rubbing it in?’. We felt like on one level it was just a failure because we aimed so high.
How did things change for you after the release of Assassin’s Creed?
It was definitely a little bit difficult towards the end of the Assassin’s Creed press run, because it sort of blew up out of control and there were all those sexist things, so I purposely took a step out of the spotlight on the second one even though I had a similarly big role. The funny thing is that now that I’ve had great opportunities to work on other things; I was part of the initial team on Watch Dogs, worked on other new IPs and started the studio in Toronto, but I was still associated with [Assassin’s Creed], because it was the time I was most in the spotlight talking about it.
Do you feel as if Unity hit a lot of the same stumbling blocks as you originally did with the first Assassin’s Creed?
Yeah, there are a lot of very talented people who worked on that project and I know that a lot of them are personally disappointed with the end product. I think it was just one of those things that didn’t quite turn out the way they’d hoped.
You team on the first Assassin’s Creed was very large and took people by surprise at the time, but now it’s even bigger, across continents with 24 hour development. How much harder is that to manage?
It’s pretty crazy when you think about it. The last Assassin’s Creed was four years, eight studios working together, I think just a little under 1,000 people, but to find the type of manager that can keep that kind of thing running… That’s larger than many companies. 1,000 people, it’s almost impossible. And things move really quickly and there are all these moving parts and I think you need to have a bottom-up approach to management to get something successful.
What sort of goals did you have for yourself going into Ubisoft Toronto?
Well, I really wanted to create a studio that could be known for innovation and also have a really good culture of transparency where people felt that they could be candid, contribute and also develop their career longterm. At any company or at any job there are always some people that you’re kind of not happy to be working with, but you don’t really have the choice because they’re there. You sort of wonder why they’re there, but that’s the way it goes, right? But I was also kind of wondering, when you build a studio from scratch and you recruit all of the people from scratch, can you create an atmosphere where everyone is passionate and positive and feels like they can speak their mind and that there’s open communication? Can you actually create that culture when you’re building it from scratch? And it was really great for me to see that you really can actually. That was a really difficult thing about making the decision to leave Ubisoft and Ubisoft Toronto in particular, is that I really loved that team and I think we assembled a really great team of talented individuals who are positive and had a great approach to working together. That was great. I feel really good about the team that we built.
What would you say was your proudest achievement working at Ubisoft?
That’s a tough one. I’m very happy that I’ve gotten to the position where I’m able to work with very talented teams and people who I consider to be the best of the best. Games are quite expensive to make these days and that I’ve been trusted several times to spend quite a bit of money and come up with something new…
Everyone’s always talking about disruption. Now it’s social games on Facebook. No, wait, now it’s mobile games. Now there’s VR. Twitch; what’s going on with Twitch? Okay, there’s MOBAs, these huge leagues, eSports and all these things that are new and changing. That’s what I love about it and I’m very happy that I’ve been able to get to the position in my career where I’m trusted enough to take some of those chances and try and bring some new IPs to life.
We understand you’re on the board of Women In Film & Television. What does that role entail?
Well, I am a feminist and I believe in helping women in their careers and making sure that there’s more diversity in general. I do like what the Women In Film & Television organisation is doing in helping women at many different stages of their career and what’s nice is that there is more and more in common, like what we were just talking about, with games ad TV and there are a lot of similar jobs and there is crossover between. So it was a good way for me to contribute and to exchange with other professional women, not just within the games industry, but other industry and hopefully help women in different kinds of creative industries. So I was helping with programming, what kind of programs could we put in place for different cohorts of women. The statistics these days show that while there are more women getting into film, TV and games at the more junior levels, there’s quite a bit of attrition at the senior levels, the numbers are just as bad as they have always been, unfortunately. It’s not just a matter of targeting schools and stem programs, helping women find a job or even letting them know that the opportunities exist, it’s also about helping women get to the next stage of their career and build up the management skills or the other types of skills that they need to get to the more senior levels.
Unfortunately we’re still seeing today that when a woman does get to that position, much as you found yourself, that they meet with criticism and friction because of their gender. Do you think it’s getting any better?
There will be no reason for me to be on boards like the WIFT board or anything else when the question of being a woman in games doesn’t come up in an interview and it becomes a normal thing of me talking about the games I’m working on or being at the head of a studio. I know then that there won’t be any work to be done. But it’s still quite a rare thing and it’s a topic that everyone wants to talk about and so we still have work to do.