Jade Raymond: Game changer

Jade Raymond is a 34-year-old video game executive with a rock-star following. Now Ubisoft has handed her the controller.

One Thursday last July, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty smiled for the cameras, looking every bit the cat that got the cream. Before a red backdrop boasting of “New Jobs for Ontario,” he announced that the province was providing $263 million in tax incentives over the next decade to bring the French video-game giant Ubisoft to Toronto. Ubi had negotiated with a host of international cities in choosing a site for its next major development studio, but after a two-year courtship, Hogtown clinched the deal, and a half-billion-dollar investment by the company. McGuinty, on stage with Ubi executive Yannis Mallat, boasted of the 800 jobs the studio would create, and of the value of Ubisoft’s presence in the province. “This isn’t kid’s stuff,” he said. “This isn’t child’s play. This is serious business.”

Two months later, Ubisoft appointed Jade Raymond as the Toronto studio’s managing director. Just 34 years old, Raymond has rocketed up the industry’s ranks, from programmer to game producer and now to studio head, tasked with building from nothing a world-class game studio representing bets deep into the nine figures by both the company and the province. She may also be the only executive in Canadian business with a dedicated online fan community.” If I mention to co-workers that I have Jade Raymond’s personal e-mail, and that she’ll take my calls, I will routinely get people going, ‘You’re lying. No f—ing way,'” says Jeff Lind, under whom Raymond worked in her first real programming job, at Sony Online.

Both within the games industry and among the button-mashing fanboys who still make up a sizable part of its increasingly diverse audience, Raymond has for years been a subject of fascination and speculation. Her appearances on TV and as the face of one of Ubi’s hit games inspired tribute sites and pages of message board discussion (and in the case of one webmaster, a cease-and-desist letter from Ubisoft), and her objectification by “fans” and the diminishment of her professional achievements has become a rallying point for female gamers and designers.

“There’s lots of people who would like to think she’s essentially a spokesmodel for Ubi,” Lind says. “They say, ‘You are an attractive female in an industry that has very, very few of them, and so obviously you don’t know what you’re doing, because you clearly are in this position for other reasons.’ Which is not the case.” Raymond’s career trajectory instead suggests she’s regularly seized the kind of opportunities that only rare talent can provide. “Here’s what I can tell from what she’s achieved,” says Don Mattrick, who effectively pioneered the Canadian gaming industry in the 1980s and who now runs Microsoft’s global interactive entertainment business. “She’s got an understanding of the technical component, the art component, and the business component. And it’s really hard to find people who can bridge-build between those three constituencies.” To succeed in this next phase of her career, she’ll need to do that and more.

Almost one year after her appointment, Jade Raymond presides over a huge, mostly empty office that’s all exposed brick and polished wood floors. A few early arrivals at what’s becoming Ubisoft Toronto sit at their computer terminals and fool around with the Nerf guns that they got as part of their employee welcome packages. Across the hall is a dark, raw space, hollowed out. In the coming months and years, it will be renovated to house a sound studio, a motion capture studio, and a play-testing area, but for now, Ubisoft Toronto has just 40 employees. “Starting a studio from scratch is a pretty tall order, but it’s also an exciting opportunity,” Mallat says. “Not too many people get that chance.”

If Raymond’s a new driver, she’s been handed the keys to a Ferrari. “Normally, when you’re starting at a studio, you want to minimize risks, and so you start with smaller projects,” she says. But two weeks ago, Ubisoft announced the Toronto studio’s first title would be the latest instalment in the Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell series of games, which have sold more than 19 million units worldwide. “I actually think that in order to build a better studio it’s better to start with the bigger projects, because they allow you to attract more senior talent, and getting more senior talent in earlier means that the junior people get a better framework and better training.”

A number of stars from Ubisoft’s enormous Montreal studio have joined Raymond in making the trek down the 401, including creative director Max Beland, multiplayer guru Patrick Redding, and Rima Brek, who’s heading the Toronto studio’s technology development group. From the start, they’ll develop “Triple-A games,” the equivalent of Hollywood blockbuster films. Their development time frames typically run two years, their budgets $20 million to $30 million plus marketing costs (though Rockstar Games claims to have spent nearly $100 million developing the last Grand Theft Auto game). These big titles have become Ubisoft Montreal’s reason for being, and Mallat, who oversees both the Montreal and Toronto studios, expects to transplant that success.

Founded by five brothers in the mid-’80s, Ubisoft has become one of the world’s largest entertainment software developers and publishers. With annual revenues of over a billion euros and 24 studios around the globe, it’s doubled in size in the past five years. The company opened its first Canadian outpost in Montreal in 1997, lured by the language, the universities and colleges, and a sweetheart deal from the Quebec government. Ubisoft Montreal was originally a modest venture, but the company discovered Quebec’s talent pool was deeper than anticipated, and in 2002 the studio released its first Triple-A game, the original Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell. Since then, Ubisoft Montreal has boomed. Its 2,000 employees make it the world’s largest game-development studio, and it will add another thousand chairs by 2013. It produces some of the industry’s biggest-selling titles, including the Prince of Persia and Assassin’s Creed franchises.

Six years ago, it was Assassin’s Creed that lured Raymond back from California, where she had been producing in-game content for a Second Life-style virtual world called There. Ubisoft wanted her to produce the first game in the series for the new generation of consoles that would launch in 2005, the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3. Raymond found herself at the helm of a team of 200, managing a budget in the tens of millions and a host of new technologies, another huge leap forward on a CV that shows little progress that’s incremental.

Raymond was born in Montreal in 1975. Her mother, “a big hippie,” worked with the disabled through arts programs that trained them to make crafts they could sell. When Raymond was six, she and her mother moved with her med school graduate stepfather to a remote community in Jamaica, where he set up a clinic. They lived there for two years, eventually moving back to Nova Scotia, then to Quebec’s Eastern Townships.

In grade school, she got an Apple II hand-me-down from a cousin, and got hooked on the early text-based adventure games. Around the same time, she participated in an extracurricular program exposing kids to computers. “After school, I would go build robots with this guy,” she says. “He’d say, ‘OK, you have four motors and these parts. I want you to build a robot that can do this,’ and then we’d use Logo [an early programming language] to program them.”

At 14 years old, Raymond left home to attend a private high school in Montreal, because her mother was concerned she wasn’t being challenged enough at her rural regional school. She spent one teenaged summer living in San Francisco with her uncle Lenny, who worked in the gaming industry. His Sega Genesis and huge collection of games dominated her attention for months, and fired her competitive nature. “I would play against him and lose, and I was determined that by the time I left I was going to beat him at all his games. While I was doing that, it occurred to me, ‘I love video games, and someone makes video games. Why not me?'”

Raymond enrolled in computer science at McGill, focusing on programming, and taking art courses where she could and filling her summers with internships at the nascent consumer interactive divisions of Microsoft and IBM. In the early days of the web as mass medium, the companies were experimenting with virtual worlds and other game-related ventures, trying to find commercial applications. After graduating in 1998, she joined the New York office of Sony Online as a junior programmer, working on early web-based versions of Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune. “She was an engineer who was clearly interested in things beyond just being an engineer,” says Jeffrey Steefel, for whom Raymond worked at both Sony and There. “We were exploring all kinds of things that were arguably ahead of their time, and she ended up touching a lot of things at Sony, really getting involved with the wireless space, with set-top boxes and with some of the business development stuff.” While a gifted programmer, she decided that her interests lay elsewhere.

“There’s a very long engineering career path that leads up to being a chief technology officer,” Lind says. “She had all the talent to do it, and she decided she wanted to work on the creative side.”

Jason Rubin, a friend and co-founder of the studio Naughty Dog, explains it this way: “There’s programmers, and then there’s lifers, the guys who sat down in front of a computer one morning at the age of six and never got up from it. That was never her. She knows programming, she’s good at it, but that was never her calling. And there’s a need for management that understands what goes into programming.”

In 2000, Raymond left Sony for the Electronic Arts-owned studio Maxis and The Sims Online, making a jump to producer and overseeing one of the game’s features. After two years, she skipped over to There.

Roped by a friend into presenting an award at the 2003 Game Developer’s Conference, Raymond was spotted by Victor Lucas, executive producer and host of the respected gaming television show Electric Playground. Thinking she was a natural onstage, he spent months convincing her to become a correspondent for his program. “I told Victor, ‘I’m like a nerdy programmer,'” Raymond says. “I am not a public speaker. I didn’t even do drama in school. I was not one of these people who was ever thinking I’m going to be in the public eye.” But Lucas was convinced she could offer viewers an insider’s perspective on the industry, and she finally relented. While she found instant stardom among Electric Playground‘s hundreds of thousands of viewers, and though Lucas was eager to keep her on the show, her move from There to Ubisoft, and the increased responsibilities that came with it, forced her to bow out.

But the show established a public profile for Raymond, one that grew when Assassin’s Creed hit shelves in 2007. As producer, Raymond was the promotional face of the game – and for the gaming industry, an unusually female and attractive one. Her every media appearance and interview fuelled a growing, and often leering, interest. “It started out as a funny sort of thing,” she says. “There was a ‘women in games’ or a ‘sexy geek’ list or something, and someone on the team sent it around. Everyone thought it was kind of funny, and I thought it was kind of funny, too. And then there were a few more links that people brought to my attention, and then it got to the level where it was a bit weird. And then people stopped sending me the links.”

If interest in Jade flew over the top – “For God’s sake, gamers, act like you’ve seen a girl before,” pleaded one online games website – so did the backlash suggesting that an attractive woman couldn’t have achieved so much so quickly by talent alone in a predominantly male industry. Raymond shrugged it off. “The Internet has a life of its own,” she says. And when the Assassin’s Creed sequel arrived, Raymond was no longer in front of the cameras; she’d again moved up the ranks, this time to executive producer, leaving the promotional responsibilities to somebody more junior.

Now settled in Toronto with her husband and eight-month-old daughter, the biggest challenge of Raymond’s career to date is underway – the logical next step, if one that came early and suddenly. Her long hours see her hiring key players for the Ubisoft Toronto team, building relationships with area universities and colleges that Ubi hopes will offer a wellspring of game design talent, as well as dealing with the gritty parts of a studio startup: everything from working with the studio’s architect to organizing a recycling program. That’s on top of getting development underway on the new Splinter Cell game (and on another Triple-A project that remains top secret).

“Video games blend all these different crafts into one,” she says. “People who would work in film and music and advertising and programming and animation and art, pretty much all creative fields come together, with the added technical challenge that everything has to look good and react in real time. And you’re reinventing the wheel each time, like if on a film you had to make your own video camera, tape and editing suite from scratch.”

Mallat acknowledges that Ubisoft Toronto has much to prove. The company and the province have together bet three-quarters of a billion dollars on the venture, and the studio has in its care some of the industry’s biggest franchises. “The expectations for the new studio and for Jade are high,” Mallat says. And with the studio’s first product likely two years away, it will be some time before there are any early indications of Ubisoft Toronto’s success or failure. In the meantime, Mattrick says, “it’s a lot of hard work, a lot of hours, a lot of inspiration, and hopefully stumbling across some pixie dust. But at the end of the day, the measure of success is, do you ship hits?” For Raymond, it will surely be a pleasure to be judged only by results.