Ubisoft Toronto’s Jade Raymond on transition, PlayStation 4 and playing the platform game

Jade Raymond has been heading up Ubisoft Toronto since 2009, and its latest project, Splinter Cell: Blacklist, will be released worldwide in August. Here, we quiz Raymond on whether PlayStation 4 really is easier to work with, if console platforms are losing their relevance and how Ubisoft’s approach to game development is changing.

What do you think of PS4 so far? Sony is telling everyone that it is easier for developers to work with, is that true?

Yeah, so far from what we’ve seen, it is true. So that’s really exciting and obviously we’ve been talking to them for a while. What’s great is they’ve really made an effort to be close to all the developers and really take their feedback along with the process. Mark Cerny actually came to visit the Ubisoft Montreal studio a couple of times to meet with us in person and have discussions.

I’ve known Mark Cerny from being in the industry a long time so it was cool to see him turn up in this new role. He came to the studio was chatting with everyone, gave a talk about what they were thinking and was open to discussing changes where he got feedback on things, so I think that’s a new approach, something we’ve never seen before – first-parties taking that much feedback from the developers.

How long has the conversation about next-gen with Sony been going on?

It must be at least over a year that we’ve been discussing with them… maybe longer. I signed an NDA a while ago and I don’t remember when that was…

Was it a relief knowing about this stuff all that time and then finally being able to talk about it?

Yeah, and I think it’s a little bit easier for Ubisoft Toronto because we’d talked about Splinter Cell: Blacklist but I think especially if you’d been working on a title that was meant for next gen, and you hadn’t been able to talk about it, you had to talk about the PC version only.

Most high-end games are being built as PC games and then being placed on other platforms. Is that the same process that goes on at Ubisoft?

Well it really depends on the project. I think certainly at this point in the console phase for sure, but I don’t think that’s always the case. There always is one lead SKU, and then when you make other SKUs they kind of fork off and evolve off of that. But yeah you’re right, for the next gen titles, recently it’s been more of a PC SKU.

The business is changing very quickly right now – do you think that which platform you develop a game for, particularly with consoles, is becoming less important?

Well I still think they’re important for the types of games, the big triple-A games that we definitely still focus on, where you need your setup on the big screen. But it’s true, I mean now there are many more platforms that we’re thinking about and taking seriously. The reality is people like to play games on their tablet, people like the mobility of being able to move around and play on their mobile, not always sitting in their living room. You really do have to think about what you’re providing on those platforms.

The holy grail, if you will, is even thinking beyond games and platforms – outside of the console space – it’s thinking: ‘okay, we want to make a graphic novel, a film, maybe episodic, more story-driven content’. And are we able to do that in one engine with super-res assets that we res down or that we output in different ways?

I was really trying to think about this even from the point at which we were doing all this great concept art when we’re starting off a game. Can that feed into stuff that comes out later? It’s great artwork, but it gets done, used and thrown or put away somewhere. I think that’s really exciting, that we are considering all these other platforms.

Where does something like Xbox Smart Glass fit into that approach?

For Blacklist, we’re also doing some of the mobile tie-ins which also fits very well with Splinter Cell. And then we also have this central hub on the airplane that Sam Fisher has, like a mission database, and that’s also a sort of Smart Glass-type surface.

Ubisoft seems to be one of few companies really pushing its companion apps. Are they actually successful?

We have a lot of data from Assassin’s Creed. But the Assassin’s Creed handheld games are usually quite separate from the console experience or they’re their own standalone things. So it’ll be interesting to see what happens with Splinter Cell and Watch Dogs where they’re more integrated.

I think the reality is that there aren’t so many universes that can sustain 24-hour interaction with them. There are MMOs, of course, where people want to stay connected all the time. And then I think, after that, you have to find games that are tied to peoples’ passion for them to want to constantly be in contact with them 24/7. So I think we’re still trying to find the right recipe for each different franchise, where it makes sense.

Another interesting part of Ubisoft’s strategy is how many cross-gen games you’re making. How long to you think you’ll be making games for current-gen consoles?

I think, judging by the last console cycle, it was maybe two years, two and a half years, that we were still seeing two versions of a game co-existing and then afterwards games were coming out only next-gen… but I don’t know… I can’t predict the future.