Develop's interview with Jade Raymond was published in Develop issue 108. For the basic-format Q&A transcript of the interview, go here.
Ubisoft’s bold new Toronto studio is both buzzing and bleak. It is bright, dark, warm, cold, cosy, empty, vibrant and derelict. It is near-guaranteed to become one of the most influential development hubs in the world. But today it is a skimpy enterprise.
Ubisoft has invested ₤312 million – along with a generous ₤164 million bonus from the Ontario government – to ensure Toronto becomes one of the largest studios in the world.
Yet today the multistorey complex inhabits about fifty staff – seven per cent of the building’s estimated capacity.
As a testament to the sheer size of the Toronto complex, some areas are littered with enough developers to remind that the studio has already started work on two separate projects.
The red-bricked ex-factory, with its grand windows and skylights, is dotted with motley arrangements of colourful desk furniture, multi-monitor PC rigs, trendy artwork and developers at their battle stations. Other rooms are more like office chasms, vast and empty aside from the stripped walls and load-bearing pillars.
“We have a lot of space at the moment,” says the studio’s new managing director Jade Raymond. “We want to hold 800 developers in Toronto within ten years’ time, but right now we have 45 staff [laughs], so it’s a proper start-up at the moment.”
Raymond’s insistence on calling Toronto a start-up is another of the studio’s many peculiarities. This isn’t a studio that dreams of becoming huge, this is a development house already lined and bankrolled to do so.
To a point, Raymond agrees that Toronto isn’t quite like the traditional start-up. “We have all that great stuff but much less of the risk, because we’re fully backed by Ubisoft and already have veteran staff,” she says.
“The biggest draw we have is all the great things about a start-up; we want to grow to 800 staff in ten years, we’re on two major projects now, eventually we’ll be working on five.”
Raymond had previously raised eyebrows when declaring Toronto will be a studio with the exclusive purpose of making triple-A games. But five at the same time?
“Well I can’t say specifics now, we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves in our first year. But yeah, that’s the plan,” she says.
“If developers have ambition to make triple-A projects, and want to have their place in what is a thriving start-up, the Ubisoft Toronto is the place for them.”
‘Start-up’ or not, Toronto appears to be the definitive, final solution in Ubisoft’s fearsome expansion into Canada.
With studios also in Quebec and Vancouver, Ubisoft is aiming to employ some 3,000 game developers within a single country – surely a national and global record.
And though the ambition here is of a bizarre enormity, perhaps Ubisoft’s plan to plunder Canada’s workforce is a inevitability. Perhaps it is foretoken to how the dev sector will naturally adapt to a mushroomed market and its impossibly escalating demands for quality.
“The bottom line is the way we are developing games today is changing.” Raymond says.
“Games are growing into huge-scale triple-A projects. If you look at any big brand like GTA, the games are being done across multiple studios and multiple teams,” adds the studio managing director.
Raymond is snappish, yet confident. She has a fierce, commanding presence that is often forgotten in the face of her unavoidably renowned good looks. Naturally, she has great belief in the new Toronto studio – particularly when Develop suggests it could capture all the local talent and effectively create a vacuum within the region’s thriving indie scene.
“Obviously there are people [within Toronto] who want to work on bigger triple-A projects, and now that we’re in the area they’re going to be sending in their CVs. I can’t say to you that’s not going to happen, and I can’t say that hasn’t happened a little bit already.
“[But] developers have the choice, but if they want to work on triple-A titles they’ll probably want to come to us. In the long term though, once a city is known for its masses of game developers, it attracts more and more developers, because it makes moving there a great deal more interesting.
“It allows developers to say ‘Oh well if it doesn’t work out with that studio I have options to join nearby studios’. So ultimately I think we’re helping the whole game development population there.”
Perhaps the local indie bosses can relax for now; Ubisoft Toronto is certainly in no hurry to expand. The plan, as Raymond explains, is to carefully construct foundations for long-term future growth.
“We’re setting up a three-prong strategy,” she says. “First, we want Toronto to become the best place to fast-track your career, and secondly, we want to ship great triple-A projects from the get-go.”
Those 50 staff that inhabit Ubisoft Toronto already – many of them the core Montreal team – will be mentoring hundreds of young, aspiring apprentices that join the company.
The plan is that when those apprentices become masters of their craft, they in turn will mentor the next breed. All the studio needs to do is attract masses of developers, which Raymond is confident will happen.
“I was lucky enough to have a great team of superstars come across from Ubisoft Montreal,” she says. “So there is this excellent core team here, which is working on the next Splinter Cell.
“Because we are going to be working on triple-A products from the start, we’ve been able to attract a lot of senior talent as well, and that means we have a good base of people who can be mentors and coach the other people working at the studio.”
The chess pieces are in place. Ubisoft Toronto is ready to become a self-sustaining academy that creates some of the biggest games in the world. That’s the two most vital elements to the three-prong strategy.
As Develop’s interview with Raymond comes to its conclusion, the famed Ubisoft staffer is asked about that unknown third element. Her answer encapsulates both the ambition and sense of mystery that still surrounds almost every facet of the new Canadian studio.
“There is a third part to our plan which is looking out to the future,” she says. “Toronto is in an interesting strategic position. I can’t talk too much about this, but I will say that we have a technology group, and we are building central tech for Ubisoft.
“That’s going to be the team that starts looking to the future. Real cutting edge stuff.”