As the head of Ubisoft Toronto, Canadian gaming queen Jade Raymond has helped create some of the best reasons to hole up in your basement for days at a time. We caught up with Raymond upon her return from SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas, and asked her about tech trends, cheesy videogame tropes, and the enduring appeal of Mario.
Full disclosure here: My gaming career peaked with the original Super Mario Bros.
And Duck Hunt! My sisters and I used to play those games all the time. They don’t really game anymore, either. They’re both in fashion, but they tell me, “Bring back Duck Hunt, Jade, then we’ll play.”
Obviously the graphic quality of games has improved a lot since then. What are the other most significant changes?
Recently, we’re seeing a return to multiplayer games. Mario, Tomb Raider: those focused on a single player. Today you have games like World of Warcraft, League of Legends—you’re sharing the experience with someone who may be playing in Germany. Even with the more casual games on your smartphone, you’re often playing with other people. Another big change is the broadening of the market. When we were teenagers, only certain people were into games. Now, it’s everyone—everyone listens to music, everyone games.
You’ve said that contemporary videogames “empower players.” What does that mean exactly?
Well, games like Lara Croft or Prince of Persia follow a storyline, so you’re living through an experience that’s been crafted by a creative director and a writer. What you’re seeing now is that people want to create their own story. Games create a universe where that can happen. Maybe you have a game where you’re trying to survive in the Arctic. I might say, “I played that game and there was a huge avalanche and I barely escaped. And then I found a hole in the mountain and I had to hide there from the bears that were attacking me.” [But when] you play, it might be something totally different.
You left Ubisoft Montreal to head up the Toronto office a few years ago. How do the cities differ in terms of gaming?
Montreal has that European sensibility, which is definitely reflected in the games. At one point, Toronto was associated with the indie game world—smaller, more niche projects. That’s changing, though. Canada in general is a major gaming hub—some of the biggest games of all time were made here. I think any country where you have long winters and spend so much time where you’re stuck inside, you find a lot of gamers and a lot successful creative people. Look at Björk.
Your first big success was the original Assassin’s Creed, which came out in 2007, and is still one of the best-selling games of all time.
Seventy-six million copies so far!
Why has it been so huge?
I think the key to a popular game is a good core fantasy. In Assassin’s Creed, there is the obvious part: Who doesn’t want to be a badass assassin? But then there is an additional element of getting to relive and play a role in these pivotal moments in history. We work with historians to recreate these societies—ancient Rome, the French Revolution. And because each game is crafted in a new era, players don’t get tired of the it.
In a previous interview, you mentioned that traditional time travel in videogames is “cheesy.” What other gaming tropes make you cringe?
I think it’s all the videogames that treat gamers like idiots. I don’t like the assumption that all people who play games want big chain saws and women in bikinis. It’s like, really? Not all gamers are teenage boys, and even teenage boys want more than that.
It does feel like the lead character in video games always a husky voiced, emotionless asshole.
It’s got to change, right? Look at movies. I really love traditional action movies—I almost don’t care how bad it is if there are big things exploding—but even those films have become more interesting in terms of complex leads. Look at Iron Man. The videogame world is improving, too: We’re seeing some variety. Grand Theft Auto has been doing a good job picking interesting main characters in recent years—like the new-immigrant underdog. There still isn’t a game where you get to play an old lady. That’s my dream.
Speaking of action movies, a number of Ubisoft games are currently in development. Assassin’s Creed with Michael Fassbender, Splinter Cell with Tom Hardy….
It’s really exciting. When we were designing the first Assassin’s Creed it was always kind of a dream of mine that it could be a movie. With Splinter Cell, that’s much more of a gamer brand, so this is an opportunity to bring it to a whole new audience.
Hardy or Fassbender: Who would you rather?
Ha! You know, I’ve never been so into the celebrity crushes. I have polled my girlfriends though. Tom Hardy is very popular. They’re all like, “Oh my god, oh my god!”
In the past, videogames have resulted in some pretty huge cinematic flops. Any thoughts on how to avoid this?
Well just to be clear, I’m not really involved in creating the movies, but I think the problem is that you have people who create intellectual property and they’re really protective of it. Whether it’s a game becoming a movie or the other way around, they want everything to be the exact same—every character, every line. That doesn’t tend to work when you’re going from one medium to a totally different one. One important aspect is a really well-developed universe. Look at Lord of the Rings—great games, great movies, fantastic books. It’s such a rich universe, no one’s worried about any one detail.
Is it true that your favourite character is Donkey Kong?
That’s one of those things that I said once and now people keep quoting it back to me. I do love him, but I think it goes back to nostalgia—memories of when you were young. Why is Mario so iconic? He’s an Italian plumber with a bad accent.
Mario or Luigi?
Fries or onion rings?
Favourite swear word?
David Bowie’s Heroes.
Desert-island video game?
World of Warcraft.
Object you would save in a fire?
A wooden-heart necklace that I made for my mom.