What’s Jade Raymond best known for? Probably not her greatest, if still unproven, achievement, which is to establish a major new game development studio for Ubisoft in Toronto. Nor for heading its prized Splinter Cell series. No, she’s still best known for her role as the executive producer on Assassin’s Creed, and for being the target of a particularly foul explosion of Internet bile at the idea that a woman could take a leading role on a development team and not simply be some PR stand-in.
“It’s funny, my friends were all like, ‘Your next game, you can’t do any PR. You have to stay quiet for a long time’,” she says. That difficult period led her to take a step back from the spotlight for Assassin’s Creed II, so you’ll be forgiven for not knowing she was also the executive producer of the sequel. In other words, for all her ready familiarity and glittering smiles, Raymond has kept a surprisingly low profile.
Now 36, and heavily pregnant with her second child, she’s in a different position to the one she faced when launching a major new game series in 2007. But she’s been no less active. While working on Assassin’s Creed II, she was also in charge of Ubisoft Montreal’s new IP, overseeing six projects. Then, at eight months pregnant with her first child, Ubisoft Montreal CEO Yannis Mallat called her into his office. “I thought he was just asking me what I was handing over [for maternity leave]; then he asked me to run the Toronto studio!”
Raymond initially said no. The timing was less than convenient, and she’d be giving up working directly on games. “I was having creative input on a bunch of different projects and that was great.” After all, Raymond started out as a programmer, initially working on Jeopardy! for Sony Online Entertainment. She went on to become a producer on The Sims Online for EA, and on virtual world There. But at Mallat’s insistence that she’d said she wanted to run a studio during her job evaluations, she relented. “I realised it wasn’t an opportunity I could turn down, even though it wasn’t the timing I would have necessarily picked,” she says. Her role, however, was to be dual, also being responsible for the Splinter Cell series’ five-year plan, which encompasses a new game under development at her studio, as well as “book publishing, motion pictures and so on. So there is still some creative involvement, so the creative team can’t tell me to piss off as it’s still part of my role.”
Raymond received a lot of flack for her role on Assassin’s Creed because of her gender, but regrets shying away from the limelight for the sequel as a consequence
But as the studio grows – it’s now at 200 people, with the aim of reaching 800 – her mix of roles isn’t really sustainable. Producer Alex Parizeau will be taking Splinter Cell from her once they ship the next game. “I feel as if I’m not doing as much as I’d like to for the studio, or for my daughter, and then, of course, there’s being a wife on the side, too! That’s something I’m definitely not keeping up with. I have to be ruthless with my time. I don’t do a lot of superfluous things, I don’t really hang out and chill.” Indeed, she leaves the office by 6pm so she can spend at least two hours with her daughter, puts her to bed and then works again until 11 or midnight. “It’s a startup, so there aren’t so many support staff here.”
Not only Raymond faces the pressures of balancing work and family life in the studio, of course. “People in the industry are older, they’re growing up and having kids now,” she says, explaining that this maturing generation expects professionalism in the form of proper scheduling and processes so their that time is respected. Her answer to that is transparency in communication at all levels: “Transparency and professionalism go hand in hand. I don’t take the time to sugarcoat or tell people something other than what I’m really thinking. Ultimately, I don’t like to underestimate people’s intelligence; people always really know what you’re really thinking.
“We have a lot of growing up in our industry to do. We became a big business very quickly. I don’t think we’ve had a lot of people traditionally with much management training or understanding of how to run large teams, and throughout the years I’ve heard some strange philosophies within the game industry about how to run things. So we are trying to do things differently.”
Part of this extends to staff diversity. Raymond seems to regret, in a sense, that she withdrew from the public eye following the fallout over Assassin’s Creed: “I think it’s important to continue to be out there, because I have had a lot of young women reach out to me and say it’s important to them in terms of them feeling comfortable getting a position in the industry. I’m also the older sister of three girls, so I’ve always had that role of being big sister, helping them with financial advice and getting their careers on track and kind of encouraging them to do that stuff. I like having that mentor role with other women.”
Not that diversity only extends to gender, although she characterises the bad old days of staffing as, “all guys wearing the same outfits, sitting on the floor”. Stereotypes aside, though, she has a keen point to make. “I do wonder, if you have a completely homogenous team, how are you going to come up with new ideas? How are you going to come up with entertainment that appeals to different types of people?”
It helps that Toronto is one of North America’s most cosmopolitan cities, but she’s also attempting to make the studio itself attract people from outside the normal videogame professional spheres. It features a cafeteria that doubles as a gallery and is located in its entrance area, allowing casual visitors to have lunch there without needing to be signed in with nondisclosure agreements. Shows by both studio and local artists are held there, too, as well as presentations by professionals in other industries, such as film. And not content with plugging the studio into the Toronto creative scene in this way, Raymond is also engineering a closeness between her ever-growing mainstream games-making behemoth and Toronto’s existing and vibrant indie development scene.
It takes someone with drive like Raymond’s to build an 800-strong studio from scratch. And maybe some of her competitiveness, too: she wants Toronto to be Ubisoft’s finest studio. “The best opportunity I got was starting the Assassin’s Creed franchise. With a blank slate, we could create anything out of this character, and now I have it on a different scale. But I want it to include everyone’s vision, I want everyone to have a say in how we do things here, what the ultimate studio should be like.”