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Interview: Ubisoft's Raymond Talks AAA Toronto Studio, Social Landscape

Interview: Ubisoft's Raymond Talks AAA Toronto Studio, Social Landscape

March 10, 2011 | By Brandon Sheffield

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

Ubisoft's brand-new Toronto studio has the potential to massively shift the development landscape in Canada. The publisher's core Montreal team joined Assassin's Creed producer Jade Raymond at the location, where she'll be general manager.

What's perhaps most interesting about the new studio is that it'll focus only on AAA titles -- Ubisoft will first be developing a new Splinter Cell project in Toronto -- in a climate that's historically been populated by indie and social developers.

Ubisoft itself has begun to pursue initiatives across social media, like its Assassin's Creed Facebook portal, a companion to the franchise's latest console iteration, Brotherhood.

Presiding over the studio, Raymond faces much new territory, and many interesting opportunities. We caught up with her to discuss the studio's goals, where it lies in the publisher's cross-media strategy, and how it stands to affect the development climate in Canada.

How is the studio being built and structured, and where are you drawing talent from?

We've been working now for about a year on building up the studio. A lot of the initial work was really the groundwork, making sure we have payroll in place, construction. When I first got there, there was no water in the building, so that was a big priority, all kinds of things that don't necessarily have to do with games at first.

And then, of course our big focus has been recruiting. We're now a little over a hundred people already within under a year, so it's pretty cool. And we've been getting people from all over the place, a majority from Canada, a lot from Ontario, a few from Montreal, a few from Vancouver. We've actually gotten quite a few people who are ex-pats who were from Ontario -- but there was no AAA game development before, so now they're coming back home.

It happens to be good timing because people are getting to the age where they're having families and they want to be closer to home, too, so we've actually gotten quite a few really great senior people to come to the studio because they want to move back to Toronto. And then we have a mix, like we have some people that we've recruited from South America, a couple from China, some from Europe and the UK.

If you're a hundred people, you must be mostly recruiting existing professionals and things like that, but are you also going to draw from the schools?

Yeah. So far, it's really been focused on the core teams. We actually have two projects going on, so we built up two core teams, and we're just starting to recruit some of the more intermediate roles. We're getting our first three summer interns that we've just are in the process in hiring. So, we're working with the local Ontario schools.

Ontario has some amazing schools. There's University of Waterloo. I don't know if you've heard of them, but they have a worldwide reputation for creating the best programmers. We're going to have one or two interns from there.

The Toronto scene previously was very much about indie stuff, so this will be the region's first major AAA venture. Do you feel like you guys are going to coexist, or exist separately or feed into each other at all?

Hopefully feed into each other -- it's cool. I don't know if you've heard of the Hand Eye Society, but there's this really cool group of indie developers that get together in really interesting events where they kind of show and tell, and exchange ideas. We've been attending those.

Actually, one of the indie developers, Capybara Games, is actually making a game now that Ubisoft was already publishing beforehand, so I'm really excited because I hope that we can collaborate with them.

I had heard before that this studio is going to do multiple projects simultaneously, and you're talking about social stuff, too. Are you going to integrate AAA development and social stuff so these are multiple products within the same IP? What's your drive for that?

Well, what I was talking about today was really my vision of where I see things going. At some point in the Ubisoft Toronto future, we plan to start up a new IP. Those are some of the things that we're already thinking but not working on yet.

We've talked about already starting to work on the next Splinter Cell. We're not sharing too much about that, but obviously there are a lot of those ideas, too, that will hopefully be brought into that brand.

At Ubisoft Gamer's Day in San Francisco, there was a lot of talk about that kind of digital initiative -- cross-platform stuff with Assassin's Creed and all these kinds of things. As far as you can tell, is synergy between social games and their AAA counterparts within the same IP going to continue to be important to the company?

Yeah, I think so. There's this concept of asymmetric co-op that I really like, because it's a way to go and get new people engaged in the same franchises and get them to play with friends who are gamers, but maybe some are not. And I think that's really an interesting thing to explore on the big franchises.

When it comes to social games, do you feel like a strong IP is necessary, original or otherwise? Does it need a strong pre-production core before you launch a social product?

That's a good question. I think when you're thinking about launching a new IP, there are pros and cons of being an established brand or a new brand. I think [with] new IP, there's a lot of pressure on getting out there and getting your name known.

I think the first movers had a big advantage on Facebook -- there weren't other big IP there, so people were like, "Why not try FarmVille instead of the 'Sims Farm'?" or whatever it could have been. But gamers, I think, are always looking for something new, so I don't think it's a disadvantage to be a new IP, but that whole arena of social, obviously since it's a hot topic now, is going to get a lot more crowded.

It seems a really game-oriented IP isn't so necessary.

I agree. And you might end up actually bringing gamers to Facebook games for the first time by having a Halo Facebook. You know, if you're a big Halo fan, you might go try it out, where you might not have normally tried a Facebook game.

So, instead of having the inverse where you're just seeing who's on Facebook and trying to give them a game, it might be just a different way to engage your existing audience.

You were talking about preparing an IP for cross-media stuff, you know, going across film, games, etcetera. Does that require hiring different kinds of people, like non-game people to integrate into the studio?

It always helps to have experts in different fields, for sure. I mean, there's a lot we can learn from people from film and TV and stuff. With Assassin's Creed, we didn't bring in so many people from outside the game industry, but our main writer Cory May has also worked in films and TV, and so I guess he had a bit more of an understanding on that angle. But really for us, we weren't thinking transmedia then.

I don't even think transmedia as a term existed then. For us, it was really more 'how do we create some kind of backbone to the franchise where there's the story arc and the material there that can become an engine for different stories later?'

The meta-layer of Assassin's Creed where the player takes the role of someone taking the role of a person in history was a particularly interesting one for me because I feel like as kind of core-oriented game players would already understand that. How do you think that was received?

I think that whole layer in the present is really the hub for the franchise, and that's what allows us to continue to expand. So that explains why we're in a different period, and it explains why some things aren't consistent, like why are they speaking American English... maybe gamers don't mind so much and they're used to those things, or when you die and you get to retry.

But I think the most important part of having the animus and the part in the present is really just because it gave that kind of breadth, and it expanded the universe of the franchise so that it wasn't just a franchise about the Third Crusade when we came out. You know, there was already the idea that it could expand from the Third Crusade to wherever the present is taking place.

What about the marketing decision on that game? I remember the picture of the team had you in the foreground and everybody else in the background.

That wasn't a marketing decision [laughs]. That was just some photographer who wanted a shot like that.

I see. But it did cause people to discuss marketing, about a studio having a face -- right now, when people think of Ubisoft Toronto, they're going to think of you, because you're the person who is recognizable. How do you feel about that, being a media thing you can't really control?

Well I don't think that's the case that probably now Ubisoft Toronto is mostly associated with me. You know, there's a really amazing core team who are also pretty well known. Alex Parizeau and Max Beland did a lot of press for their last game, Splinter Cell: Conviction. They're really well known to fans, and we have a lot of other great people who are maybe a little less known than Max and Alex but who are also kind of rising stars and starting to make a name.

So, I think it's not going to be me the face of Ubisoft Toronto; it's going to be the whole core team that's helping me shape that core studio.

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