Jade's Empire: Ubisoft's Raymond looks forward
Ubisoft Toronto managing director Jade Raymond has a lot to do in the next few months.
Her studio is about to formally unveil the latest installment of the Splinter Cell franchise. She's hiring employees for the division at the blistering pace of about 12 per month. And, in just a few months, her second child is due. But the most interesting thing in her sights -- career-wise, anyhow -- is a bit more long term.
Like a lot of people in the video game industry, Raymond is thinking about the next generation of video game consoles – as well as how to keep them relevant to a large audience as player habits shift.
With Splinter Cell debuting soon and Ubi Toronto's work on Rainbow Six: Patriots now wrapped (the studio created multiplayer maps for the game), the Toronto team is getting its next project underway. It's too soon to talk publicly about that, of course. And while Raymond didn't even imply it would be a next-gen game, Ubisoft's history of embracing new platforms makes that a distinct possibility.
Either way, Raymond recognizes the challenges the industry is facing.
"We, for sure, have to get started on the next technologies moving forward," she says. "And that's not just consoles. We have to start experimenting with mobile and social also. The gaming industry is changing rapidly."
Don't count Raymond among the growing number who think that home consoles will become obsolete. While some theorize the next generation of Xbox, PlayStation and Wii could be the last, she points out that there will be an ongoing demand for bleeding edge systems.
"There's always going to be a market for the very high end, whatever that high end is," she says. "If consoles eventually become the holodeck – and I can only have that at home, I'm going to want that. It's going to be something you can't get walking to the bus. … That high-end experience needs to be beefed up with our top hardware – but more and more we're going to have to think about what people's experiences are."
While many console developers are trying to create a chasm between the core console gaming experience and the app-centric mobile world, Raymond says she believes there is a lot to learn from those games that could make today's AAA titles stickier – and more appealing (for a longer period) for players.
Specifically, she notes how effective mobile games have been at getting people to enlist their non-gaming friends to join them.
"I think a lot of things being done on those platforms are smart and can be integrated into our console experience to make them better," she says. "A great example is Zynga's games, which are a very lightweight way to interact with friends. Some people who normally wouldn't play other Zynga games play Words With Friends. It's a very easy way to have an experience - and I think we need to think about those sorts of things in our area of games."
She also notes that level editors – even ones that are more casual friendly, like those in Little Big Planet - still remain out of the reach of most players, which creates another area console games can seek to improve themselves.
"We'll ship this game with a full map editor, but who has time to download that and who has the skills to create a good map?" she says. "I think there's interesting hints of what we can do in Dark Souls. I think there's interest in how we can recreate worlds that let people impact other people's worlds and leave a stamp without having to sit down with an editor. … I think that's the key to hooking the next generation."
While she sees plenty of room for change in the next generation, Raymond isn't a big proponent of free-to-play or cheap episodic games.
"Everyone's experimenting with free-to-play, but a lot of those [games] are expensive to create and unproven," she says. "To me, that's a big business question that I'm struggling with. … It's not clear to me that people will pay or how much they’ll pay.
"When you have that business model of a $60 box, you create a buzz and people buy it and may just play for 5 minutes and still pay $60. But then the minute you start thinking 'we're doing episodic content' – maybe one episode is enough for people. They can spend $5 and say 'ok, I got the experience'."
The goal of future games, she says, is to find a way to straddle the epic experiences of today's AAA titles and the simplicity of so-called 'snacky' portable games.
"Your objective is not to become a big event," says Raymond. "It's to become a pastime that people can share with friends and go back to. Obviously, Call of Duty has a great recipe with that. And that game does appeal to the new generation of gamer, offering a quick in and out [of a major console title]."