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Jade Raymond Talks About Her Work On Star Wars, Her New Studio, And Hardline's Future

by Mike Futter on Aug 13, 2015 at 04:32 AM

A month ago, EA announced that it was giving former Assassin's Creed producer Jade Raymond a new home in Montréal. Co-located with the BioWare team working on Mass Effect Andromeda, a new studio named Motive was founded to work on its own new IP and play a major role with Visceral's Star Wars project.

Now that Raymond has had some time to settle in, we had the chance to catch up with her. The Game Informer team put together its burning questions about Star Wars, EA's Frostbite engine, Raymond's perspective on the industry, and what we can expect from Motive.

You had been at Ubisoft for a decade, what prompted your decision to take a break last year?
I am really someone who enjoys challenges. I don’t want to ever feel that I’m too comfortable, because I don’t think you can be comfortable in the game industry. It evolves so quickly. There’s constant disruption.

There’s new tech all the time, new expectations from players. You really have to be on point in order to deliver the best games. I had so many great opportunities at Ubisoft, but after being there for 10 years, I felt like I had a chance to explore all of the things that were super exciting and interesting and challenging. I was in a good place, and that it was almost too easy for me to pick up the phone and talk to Yannis [Mallat, Ubisoft Montréal CEO] or Yves [Guillemot, Ubisoft CEO] and get something done.

I was lucky enough to build an amazing team in Toronto. I always try to hire the best people, who are experts in their area and better than me. Alex Parizeau, who took over in the role, I had purposely set it up as a succession plan. There are great people running communications, marketing, and finance. Everyone was just fantastic. I was like, “Gee. Alex was ready to step up. The studio was running great. We moved on from one project to five."

I felt like I had great opportunities at Ubisoft to create big IP, and I felt within the context of Ubisoft, there weren’t so many new challenges. Even if we might be creating a new IP again, and that’s always a challenge, I think there’s some sense of security in knowing how Ubisoft does it and working with the same people. I felt like I wanted a new challenge for myself and put myself out of my comfort zone.

You spoke with us earlier in the year and mentioned you were investigating a number of opportunities. What led you to choose EA?
It took me a while to figure out what I was really excited about. I’m really interested in games, and I think there are a lot of place and ways you can have an impact on what games are. There is a ton of exciting stuff going on in the indie scene. I think there are a lot of interesting ideas you can explore as an indie game developer that you can’t when you’re doing big budget.

There are a lot of exciting opportunities in terms of VR and creating new entertainment for that platform, since we don’t know what it’s going to be yet. There are a lot of opportunities in terms of exploring and getting to know audiences. As an example, I’ve never made a game for Chinese audiences or the Indian audience. I think there are so many things that could be cool, so I met with different [venture capitalists] and helped friends who have indie studios. That gave me a chance to see what their day-to-day issues are and what they are hitting up against.

Ultimately, it was a bit of soul searching. I had to ask myself, “As a human, if I look down the road 10 years from now, what am I going to be happiest having accomplished?” For me, my personal gratification doesn’t come from doing something all myself. It doesn’t come from selling my startup for X amount of money. I’m not really motivated by those things. I like being part of a team. I will ultimately be happiest if I get to be a part of a team that creates another big IP that has an impact culturally. A game that’s a big enough mass-market hit that it has impact and enriches people’s lives or makes a statement.

I think when I looked at different options, it was clear to me that EA’s focus, its desire to fill out an action portfolio with the leadership there and my conversations with Patrick [Söderlund, EA executive vice president], what I really love doing fit into what EA is trying to do strategically. Obviously, wherever you go, you want to feel like you’re filling a real need. It ended up by far the most exciting thing for me.

You mention creating a significant IP. It’s obviously too early to talk specifics, but is your new IP going to be a large project on the scale of Assassin’s Creed or Star Wars: Battlefront, or will it be on the smaller side like Child of Light or Unravel? When we spoke with Patrick at E3, he mentioned that smaller projects like Unravel would play a bigger role in EA’s future.
It is a little bit too early to say right now. That’s another thing that’s exciting to me. I’ve known Amy [Hennig] for a while, and a big focus now is on Star Wars. That’s going to be a big game, and we’re doing a big portion at Visceral and a big portion at Motive. That’s a huge opportunity. I have a ton of great, talented people who are huge Star Wars fans who really want to work on that. We’re going to be focusing on that first. In terms of the new IP, I think it’s a bit early to see. We’re getting some of the key people in place. I think it’s more about getting the right team that together will figure out the right thing to make than the idea itself. I think games are more driven by the talent.

Would you say that the work split between Visceral and Motive on Star Wars is 50-50, or is it less than that for Motive?
It’s going to be a significant portion, so the team at Motive has creative ownership over a significant portion of the game. Amy’s going to spend quite a bit of time in Montréal. But it’s probably not quite 50 percent.

In addition to Star Wars, that team is working on Hardline. Talking about interesting opportunities to learn and evolve for me, I think that’s a franchise that has interesting potential. They’ve been doing some cool things to keep up with the community. We’re seeing a different kind of player than with the other Battlefield games. They’re doing a new 5v5 mode, and those guys are really passionate about it. There’s a strong community of people still playing that game. That’s another thing that I’m excited about. EA is investing in that community and putting out significant changes to that game quite a way out from when Hardline shipped. 

You mention that there’s a vibrant community and investment. Are you seeing potential that Hardline will continue with future titles?
I’m not allowed to say anything. [laughs] I’m not allowed to say anything, but I have my own perspective. There is a team of people down there still making content for that game. They are really passionate. They play every day. They have a lot of ideas and passion and there’s still a really big community of people playing that game. There are really interesting opportunities. 

Given that you’re playing a significant role with Star Wars and developing your own IP, how big is the studio going to be?
I’d hate to give numbers, because it’s sort of early. It’s hard to say. I think the main point to make is that it’s not a situation of being driven by the number of people we want to hire, but by the kind of product we want to make. 

Is it going to be a more sequential process in getting to the new IP? Will you be waiting to get Star Wars where it needs to be or even shipped before you start working on it, or are you working on those projects concurrently?
There’s going to be a small team working on the concept in parallel. The focus for the first year is primarily on Star Wars. There might a couple of key people, but the senior people working on the concept for the new IP should also be contributing to Star Wars in some capacity.

Was there an idea of what the new IP might be before you signed on, or were you given creative freedom to define that after you started?
It’s pretty amazing, because we already have a great relationship with Patrick. It’s one of the reasons I was so happy to come here. He hasn’t even asked me what the idea is, to be perfectly honest. I’ve seen that his approach is to hire people who he feels are competent and are good at what they do, and give them the trust and what they need to execute on that. I think that’s one of the things that makes me happy to be here. As a game developer, I have quite a few ideas that I would love to make. How those ideas specifically take shape has a lot to do with the team.

I think great games are made by the combined vision of the right creative director, writer, and the magic of those different talented people. They sort of improv off of each other to develop a great concept. I would hate to come in and have a set idea and have people execute it. I don’t think that’s how you get the magic of games.

Every publisher works differently, and every studio works differently. What are some of the differences working at EA now compared to Ubisoft, Sony, or even EA back when you were working on The Sims Online.
It’s a very different experience. Ubisoft and EA are organized differently, and they focus on different things. I think Ubisoft is ultimately a family business. It was started by Yves, and he’s still there. There’s a lot of the culture there that still feels like a family business, even though it’s a big company. I think that was a great culture that I was part of for 10 years.

EA has a different culture, but there are some similarities. The focus on the creative side of things that I’ve seen, I wasn’t necessarily expecting. The last time at EA, I was only working within one studio and didn’t have the same kind of overview. Obviously, Patrick is here now, with his own approach to managing the EA studios portfolio. There’s his focus on the creative approach and making quality games and thinking of the player first. That’s something Andrew [Wilson, EA CEO] has been talking about, too.

I see it’s had a big impact in EA and how people are approaching things and the questions they ask in meetings. That’s been really great for me to see. It’s a company that has a lot of different departments that you speak to. That’s been interesting for me, because I instantaneously had this worldwide network that are part of the HR structure, for instance. It’s great for me ramping up a studio, because I instantly had a team of 35 people working on it around the world. The same thing with the marketing structure and the publishing structure. I guess it’s really focused on one team across the worldwide studios, rather than the separate business unit approach that Ubisoft has.

We spoke with Patrick at E3 about how EA is using Frostbite across genres, which is very different than Ubisoft’s approach. Yves told us that Ubisoft studios are free to use or develop the engine that best fits their game. How does that change the way you approach development?
Having the approach of Frostbite is a huge advantage. It’s just so exciting to me, and it was one of the big things that was attractive to me about EA. If you look at the industry, there are so many different kinds of platforms.

There are so many different kinds of games: online, competitive multiplayer, mobile, VR. I think in terms of having a big, successful game company, if you focus your technological development on a combined engine that can give tools to game developers so they don’t need to reinvent the wheel, it’s great. It allows you to take more risks and be more innovative. It allows you to create interesting synergy and opportunities for collaboration.

If Mass Effect is working on something and we’re working on something, why not collaborate on it? If one game is coming out first and has space in it, and your game has space, why are you re-writing it? You can build on what that team has done, and they can then build on what you’ve done for the next game. The player is getting a better experience. They’re getting an innovative approach instead of the time spent re-writing that same experience.

It’s something I’m extremely excited about. I had a meeting with Aaryn Flynn, who runs BioWare. He’s great, we’re talking about how we’re going to collaborate across Motive, Visceral, and the BioWare studios. We’re talking about the things that we want to see in Frostbite. There’s also the stuff that’s happening at DICE with Battlefront. I kind of feel like a kid in a toy store. I can get all these things and build on them, instead of starting from scratch to figure out how to get characters to walk.

Montréal has been such a huge locale for game development. What is it about that city that has made it such a hot spot?
I’ve been joking that we have really bad winters, and people spend their childhood indoors. It means that you end up doing things like learning how to program or developing a good imagination. You can’t go outside and play easily, so you have to entertain yourself by being creative. I think there is some of that.

DICE is also a successful studio, and it’s also somewhere where there’s long winters. If you look at tech companies and mobile, there are companies in that part of the world in the Northern regions. It creates nerdy kids, reading fantasy novels and playing Dungeons & Dragons, because those are the things we can do indoors.

I think the other thing is that Montréal is an interesting city, because it’s a melting pot of cultures. Everyone that comes to visit gives me feedback that they are surprised at how diverse it is. There are people in Montréal from all different countries, wearing clothing from their countries and filled with their own culture and unique identities. It has a very European feel. It doesn’t feel like a North American city so much, because of the big French influence and the different language, and how the people of Quebec have wanted to hang onto that unique identity.

I think it’s this mix of different approaches and different cultures that creates creative synergies. I’m originally from Montréal, but until going to work at Ubisoft, I’d never worked in Montréal. I had done my internships at IBM, Microsoft, and Sony and always worked in the States. Even though I was from Montréal, I hadn’t worked there and didn’t realize the culture and the work environment was different. When I moved back to Montréal to work at Ubisoft, I was shocked that it was quite different.

I’ll tell you a story. I booked a meeting with the team on Assassin’s Creed at lunch time. I had a bunch of guys at my desk telling me, “Uh, Jade, you know we don’t have meetings at lunch time.” So I moved the meeting to 1 p.m., but they came back to my desk. “Well, if you want people to come to your meeting, we suggest you don’t book it between 12 and 2 p.m. Lunch might take a while and we might need to have a coffee after.” But it was interesting to me that when you’re working in a creative field, there’s a lot of valuable stuff that gets done when you’re talking with your team members and not at the desk. Exchanging ideas in a different setting leads to creative ideas you wouldn’t have had if you were alone.

There are exchanges that happen when people have lunch with each other, they talk about other things, but they talk about work, too. It comes from a different angle. That approach where you might think that it’s a province full of unproductive people, I think creative productivity isn’t necessarily the same as an assembly line version of productivity. It’s not measured by raw output or keystrokes that you type into your computer. It happens through communication.

As you look at the industry, there’s been a lot of change over the past decade. We’ve had the growth of mobile, free-to-play and all its expressions, talk of PC dying, then talk of consoles dying. As you are starting a new studio and looking at this different, changing landscape, what do you think the biggest challenges are in building something brand new?
Every year there’s huge disruption. People are buying stuff digitally. Huge disruption. Free-to-play, Facebook games, mobile, VR. Disruption. I think that’s what the game industry is all about. If you look at what games were 20 years ago and what they are now, there’s been a huge evolution, and it’s not only one thing either.

There are a bunch of different kind of game experiences. There are different people playing games. That’s what’s exciting. To me, the key is paying attention to what players want and figuring out how you can deliver new, exciting entertainment experiences to satisfy those needs. Creating great entertainment, I don’t think it matters what platform you’re on. But I think tech innovations can inspire new ideas to come to life that will satisfy player needs more, so they create new opportunities to think of things differently.

In terms of starting a new studio, that gives you the ability to be nimble. It gives you the ability to put a focus on the right kind of creative culture from the start, where we all agree that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to innovate and pay attention to what players want and move the ball down the field in action games and how we deliver something that’s going to be even more exciting and fits with the new way they’re consuming entertainment.