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DICE 2011: Ubisoft's Raymond Says Games Are 'Becoming The Water Cooler'
DICE 2011: Ubisoft's Raymond Says Games Are 'Becoming The Water Cooler'
February 10, 2011 | By Brandon Sheffield

February 10, 2011 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Console/PC

Jade Raymond, onetime producer on the Assassin’s Creed franchise, is now leading Ubisoft Toronto as managing director, guiding the studio to its new take on Splinter Cell IP. But this won’t just be another rote follow-up, as the studio is also looking into the social space.

Social game elements don’t have to be scary to developers, she said in her brief Gamasutra-attended talk at the DICE Summit in Las Vegas. Though things may appear to have changed about the industry, she feels they’re ultimately similar to the experiences developers have already been making. You just have to think about them in a somewhat different light.

Two of the biggest things to focus on have been “social proof” and “social permission.” Social proof represents things like achievements, badges, and things you can show off to your friends that let them know of your success.

Social permission is about the permission to talk to your friends in this space – keeping friendships going through small interactions. Sometimes, she says, “we need games as a way or excuse to talk to each other. Obviously the massively multiplayer games have gotten this for a while.”

She reminded the audience that these concepts aren’t coming from nowhere. “It might seem new,” she said, “but it’s been around for a while.”

Raymond was very much a proponent of the idea that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Fans are still important, for instance. “Star Trek got nearly canceled a lot of times, and got brought back from the brink by the fans,” she said.

When Raymond was working on the Sims franchise, she noted that “Will [Wright] would spend hours and hours looking at the fan stories, and what fans were doing,” and he would choose what to make an expansion about based on that, she said.

So how does all this stuff impact building a new studio? While triple-A games are having a bit of a bleed in terms of gamer retention and interest, “I like idea of our industry being able to correct course,” said Raymond. Even though times are tough, “it’s a great time to start with a blank slate,” she said, “and think about how you’re going to adapt to these new changes.”

“On Assassin’s Creed, we spent a year of pre-production thinking not just about how to make a great game,” but also how to build that franchise’s metastory and meta arch, she said. “I also realized how rare it is to get the opportunity to create a new property from scratch.” So this is why she’s making sure the studio’s new games can expand naturally into the social space.

With Assassin’s, the team spent quite a bit of time thinking about how to potentially build the franchise out further - “How to create sandboxes so each future team and future media [working on the series] would be able to experiment and come up with new ideas,” in her words.

“The best way to maintain your franchise is to make sure that people have their own area to develop and explore,” she said, asserting that stagnation does no franchise any good. And in order to successfully have a lot of story arcs, you have to rely on fans, she says.

Raymond says that when fans really love the franchise they’ll create great content. On top of that, “if they really want a franchise for themselves, and they really want to own it, they will share it with their friends.”

With Assassin’s Creed, the company was trying to create a franchise that could be handed over to other professionals. With the new IP they’re making in Toronto, “I really hope we’re creating something that we can hand over to the fans,” she says.

Back in the Ubi Montreal days, Raymond says she dedicated a lot of time to thinking about the communication strategy. “A launch of a game, in order to be a hit, has to be an entertainment event, like a film or other new IP.”

Players will buy games if they feel they need to buy them to stay relevant, she feels. “You don’t want to be that guy that doesn’t know the newest game, or new indie band.”

But Ubisoft Toronto wants to take that cooler, as she says that “games aren’t just what you talk about around the water color, they’re becoming the water cooler itself … I would hope our next new IP would become the neighborhood bar.”

Raymond says the sweet spot is if the game is not just the topic of discussion, but also the venue for it. To conclude, she summed up by saying, “instead of a game just being the next entertainment event, I’d like our next IP to be the next widely-shared pastime.”

[UPDATE: Story updated to make it clear that Ubisoft Toronto's new IP iteration is based on the already-announced Splinter Cell update, and is not brand new IP.]

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Dave Long
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Good article, great read :). That Raymond lass definitely knows what she's on about. This new IP sounds quite interesting indeed.

Ryan Dormanesh
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Great article I'm looking forward to see what they were working on next, it sounds like the next franchise is going to be a real timesinker like an MMO.

Looking back now at the famous AC1 preview with the at the time mysterious futuristic hud they weren't talking about, it all makes sense.

Ken Williamson
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Guys, I don't understand how you can approve of this. It's complete and utter spin. We need games as an excuse to talk to one another? What the? Players will buy games if they feel they need to buy them to stay relevant? Are you kidding me?

Clueless executives spinning authorative nonsense on things they don't fully understand is what is wrong with this industry. Seriously.

Dragos Inoan
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Not really. While some gamers play just for the sake of the game, there are people (and by that I am talking about the hipsters and consumers) which ARE doing what she's saying. Look at the call of duties. How many people bought Black Ops because it was a better balanced game and how many people bought it because MW2 was soo last year ?

Ken Williamson
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People play games because they are fun. They don't play them to be cool, or fit in, or be fashionable. That's absurd, and is an idea that could only be proposed by someone who doesn't actually play many games.

David Hottal
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Not true... That may be the way it used to be, but it's changing. Look at CoD. More kids are playing Call of Duty because more kids are playing CoD. There's a peer pressure to fit in and if everyone's playing it, I should too.

This obviously doesn't apply to older gamers as much, but teens and pre-teens are influenced by fitting in.

The opposite example is Magic the Gathering and other games like that. There's a reason it's not hugely popular. Because most people think it's just for dorks and wouldn't play it. Those kids that say it's stupid have most likely never played it.

Dragos Inoan
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Yea. Basically gaming is the next smoking. You need to do it to be cool. Luckily gaming gives you motor skills, more synapses, instead of cancer and lost money.

Justin LeGrande
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I would TEND to agree with Mr. Williamson here. Meaning, not absolutely, but he's made some good points.

On the surface, what Mr. Williamson is saying SEEMS conservative and hard-headed, but look closer. He said "an idea proposed by someone who doesn't play MANY games". Ms. Raymond has, as reported, the pedigree of having worked on different designs of games. These range from the "online society game" called There, to the intellectual socializing found in Jeopardy! and Trivial Pursuit, to the social manipulation in The Sims, to the social commentary of Assassin's Creed...

Oh, wait...see a trend here? The franchises her career has focused on are HIGHLY socially oriented. As a producer, she must be adept at communication. By choosing to primarily work on the types of games that fit her "personality adaptation role" like a custom-tailored glove, her point of view is inevitably going to be skewed towards the social aspects of games, hence, her water cooler reference.

This doesn't mean she has "personality tunnel vision"- her Programmer role during the Jeopardy! and Trivial Pursuit video game editions has demonstrated otherwise! Nor am I saying that one's personality dooms one to particular job types. Rather, one's personality creates an innate aptitude for certain job types. For example, a social person would innately make for an apt Producer, yet could also be adept at communicating in a comparatively "communally barren" position such as Programmer.

I doubt Ms. Raymond is "clueless", but she probably best understands the video game industry as a whole from a social aspect, and cannot fully comprehend anything from a realistic perspective. Just like I am an investigative person, and cannot fully comprehend anything from an enterprising perspective.

She would have a tough time describing the practical benefits of working as a Producer for a game where the player warps through time to stab people, just as I am having a tough time trying to make this mini-essay seem at least mildly persuasive!

Finally, I think the idea of video game-exclusive peer pressure and social dominance is stupid. I have experienced it in online games, but those people were acting as if they were communicating in person- their actions were NOT mutually exclusive to their behavior in a game world!

I had one friend years ago who actually did play certain games to "be cool, fit in, and be fashionable", but he didn't only play the most popular and well-known games like Halo! Despite his social assertiveness, he didn't simply follow trends as an excuse to "stay relevant". His favorite games fell into the Fighting and "X-Games Sports" genres. Almost no Fighting genre game (other than Street Fighter) garners the popularity of trendy games like Rock Band. He practiced "trick-BMX" as a hobby, and did not simply play the "X-Games Sports" genre games such as Tony Hawk's Pro Skater because they were popular when they first came out- he did so to gauge their implementation into video game form.

Perhaps it's difficult for one's opinions to stay rooted in the real world when your profession relies on working with virtual worlds?

Jed Hubic
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Seems like she definitely knows what she's talking about.

However it furthers how the major game industry is almost becoming like Hollywood. You need large amounts of cash and marketing spin from certain people in the industry to get any exposure now adays, or even just to be able to play ball in the first place.

It's not even that it's only smaller indie games that don't get exposure, there's tons of awesome games from all over with substantial studios, that if they don't have people working on doing everything but making a game fun or have inspiring content, it's almost like their potential is stifled out of the gate.

This may be a bad thing to say, but a part of me deep down hopes these bigger studios that churn out games in a formulaic fashion start taking a bit of hit and let some of the smaller developers, or the large studios that seem to be self-contained and self-aware (ie BioWare, Relic, etc.) be the ones that succeed if only to buck the current trend.

Assasin's Creed Brotherhood was merely meh to me, and I think what Jade Raymond says about getting the hype going to be very true (who am I to disagree with a professional of the field?), however it seems many of the most talked about games that were game-changers (pun?), didn't focus on tapping into culture and making people wanting to play them to be relevant, but rather got people talking due to innovation alone.

I'm more than likely wrong on about all of this and I'm sure I'm poor at formulating a thought, but that is my $.00002.

Fernando Restituto
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we need to forget what we now know about how ppl relate to games.. open participation will change everything! keep in mind we have the ability to update games online now.... if a prosumer creates something uber then we can patch it in... if a person is a creator then creating more of what they enjoy is a natural part of entertainment/joy... I run an open participation drop box for portfolio artwork to be featured in my game (Grid Legion)

and let me tell you, it's really shown me alot!

our culture was a read only culture. it now possesses the potential to become a read-write culture.