This year the Develop Awards will present its inaugural Vanguard Award. The criteria were for someone who has ‘blazed a trail in games development that will inspire others to follow them’. All of which perfectly describes industry veteran Jade Raymond.
Raymond started out making online games during the early days of the internet, she worked at Maxis alongside Will Wright, survived the closure of a $100m start-up and was instrumental in the development of early Assassin’s Creed titles at Ubisoft. Now, she heads up EA’s Motive studio in Montreal, creating a new IP and working on Star Wars games. An impressive career, albeit one with humble beginnings.
“I realised I wanted to be in video games when I was about twelve,” Raymond tells us. “As a kid you get asked a lot what you want to be when you grow up and I was trying to think of something that mixed math and art. I was playing a bunch of Tekken one summer and then it dawned on me that someone gets to make these games and that would probably be a good mix of maths and art. After that, I set my mind on it.”
From there Raymond focused on programming, studying for a degree in computer science at McGill University. She emerged into a job at Sony Online Entertainment, where she specialised as an online programmer at a time when monitors were still the size of carry-on luggage and modems still needed to sing to each other to connect to the Internet. That online expertise led her to Maxis and then to a start-up company which was attempting to create the Metaverse, similar to Ready Player One’s OASIS.
“Neal Stephenson came up with the Metaverse, but before him Vernor Vinge came up with it in a short story called True Names,” Raymond says. “He wrote it in the 80s and that was the first description of the Metaverse, it’s pretty cool. Anyway, I went to a start-up that had a dream of building that. It raised $100m during the first dot-com bubble to do that. So that was super exciting... And then we spent all the money and the start-up went under. That part was less fun.”
After this, having to choose between several different opportunities, Raymond packed her bags for Ubisoft.
“I interviewed everywhere after my start-up went under and I ended up going to Ubisoft because that was the most exciting opportunity,” she explains. “That was when we had heard that the PS3 and Xbox 360 were going to come out. Several times the power of the previous consoles. I thought ‘Wow, if I get to go here and work on a new IP, that’s the best opportunity’. At the time it was to create a next-gen version of Prince of Persia, and we ended up making a new IP instead, which became Assassin’s Creed. After shipping the first one, I shipped the second one and then they put me in charge of new IP at the studio. So I started up Watch Dogs and The Mighty Quest for Epic Loot. I was overseeing that and the Assassin’s Creed brand. I was responsible for the pitch process and new IP getting validated within Ubisoft Montreal. That was awesome.”
Raymond then took charge of a new Ubisoft studio in Toronto before finally moving on from the publisher after a decade of working there. More recently, she’s headed up EA Motive (which opened a second studio in Vancouver last week).
“I thought it would be nice to try working somewhere else,” Raymond says. “Learn, expand my horizons and challenge myself. I got this opportunity at EA, building a studio, which is something I love doing. Working on a new IP as well as working on Star Wars, with more than just one studio... It was obviously a great opportunity to stretch myself again.”
At EA Motive, Raymond has been focused on reinvigorating the creativity of the games industry. After all, where else to fight against the inevitable monotony of triple-A than within the belly of the beast?
“What I really want to build is a different kind of creatively-led studio,” Raymond explains. “One of the things that I feel has happened recently is games have got so big in scope and triple-A development teams have got so big, that some of the creativity of the people making the games has been diminished. Think of how big Assassin’s Creed’s got, with ten different studios working together and thousands of different people. You have to have a lot of process to get all that to come together and keep all of those teams coordinated.
“I think when you have that sort of process, ultimately you lose spontaneity in how people contribute their own ideas. That’s why we came up with the name ‘Motive’. It’s really about tapping into people’s passion and motivation, because I do believe that whenever you get something really special in a game, something that’s truly great, it’s because people are passionate enough to add their special touch and really make the game great. It’s not usually the thing they’re doing that’s in the super-prescribed design doc that adds the special touch. It’s usually the things they’re passionate and nuts about, that they poured their own ideas into.
“To truly have creativity and original ideas, you also need a diverse group of people coming together with a culture that lets people contribute their ideas. Good ideas come from everywhere. The team should be made up of people with different experiences, different backgrounds, different ages... I really think that’s the opportunity for the games industry now. We’re mass market. We’re everywhere. More and more people are playing games from different parts of the world. I just feel like now that we have this opportunity to create a new IP, it would be a shame to just use the same formulas that we’ve used before. So those are the two objectives. How do we create new process or new culture that’s more creative-led, and more aligned with the philosophy that good ideas come from everywhere, and also how do we build teams that are truly diverse?”
But it turns out, creating a truly diverse development team isn’t an easy thing. It takes a lot of effort to put people with differing opinions and backgrounds together in a building and expect them to instantly work in harmony.
“It’s a lot harder than I expected!” Raymond says with a laugh. “I think there are so many good benefits to having diverse teams and I do truly believe that. But the thing I am realising that’s way harder is that when you get people with different backgrounds who maybe make games in different ways, make games at different publishers. Have different points of view, have a different way that they call things... Two people may be using the same word, but it might mean different things. It’s a lot more work. People have to all come in with an understanding of what they’re going to get out of it in the end. Even the open people who want to be part of a diverse team and see the benefits of it, it does require more effort. For example, maybe I shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that this person doesn’t know what they’re talking about because they’re saying something that doesn’t make sense to me. I need to assume they do know what they’re talking about and take time to question that maybe I don’t have the full picture. Maybe there’s something better about the way they’ve done this. That’s tiring and it’s a different frame of mind – Everyone has to be in that frame of mind.
“I’ve gone to really great lengths... Kim Swift has joined us and she has the experience of Portal and Left 4 Dead and working with indies. We have people from Ubisoft who worked in the big productions. We have people from Warner Bros, we have people from outside the games industry. And what I’ve found is it’s a lot harder to get everyone speaking the same language so we can leverage all the goodness of that. That’s the big learning for me is that ultimately you’ll find out that some people just aren’t up for that effort, because making games is hard enough as it is.”
Raymond winning the 2018 Develop Awards Vanguard Award essentially means we see her as a major role-model for people in the industry. Not just her amazing experience, but what she stands for as she strives for creative diversity and diverse creativity.
“It’s a huge honour. I was really touched that Develop reached out to me about this,” Raymond tells us. “I’ve always tried to be a positive force in the industry. I think there are so many great things about the industry. There have been times in my career where it’s been harder to be in the public eye. I had to deal with some things around launch of the first Assassin’s Creed that were not fun, but ultimately I still try to be visible in a way that can inspire young women getting into the games industry. Showing them that the games industry is great and shining a light on all the positive things because I do strongly believe in more diverse teams. Not just women being part of the team, though we do need more women!
“I want to show young women that they can have good careers in the games industry and shine a light on how great the industry is. All the people with different backgrounds. Artists and programmers and musicians and writers. All the types of talent that you get to work with.
“The other thing that’s important to me is I’ve loved creating original IP because I think it’s an opportunity to create games and brands in the games industry that have meaning. And it’s even more so now. How are we making sure that we are impacting people’s lives and enriching them, rather than just being fun? Fun is great! But how do we have a positive impact?
“I try to be visible in a way that can inspire young women getting into the industry.”
“I really believe that it’s time for us to be taking that seriously as game developers. And I think a new brand is a really good way to do that, because it’s not only in terms of the context you choose and what the brand is about, but what you choose to reinforce in the game mechanics. I’ve always loved science fiction because I feel like it’s a great highlighter of the human condition. It makes people think about where we’re going, why we do things, what are the things that are fundamentally true about humanity. I think we can and should make some points within gaming and they can be made even more meaningfully because game mechanics reinforce them and the story. So I’m really passionate about that.
“With Assassin’s Creed, we were trying to enrich people’s lives and have a message. Being able to inspire people to think a little more about history and maybe get excited about that and look into different countries and maybe get some enrichment there. There were some messages also about the original assassins and their different beliefs and ‘nothing is true, everything is permitted’. We touched on different ideologies there. With Watch Dogs we spent some time thinking about that too, but with this new brand I really want to create a positive story about humanity. That’s really important to me.”