My interview with Jade Raymond

Just before the release of ‘Assassin’s Creed’, I got the opportunity to visit Ubisoft’s Dutch office in De Meern and chat with producer Jade Raymond, who was there to promote the game. She was mainly talking to mainstream publications, but the games mag ‘GMR’, which I write for, was given an interview slot, too. Maybe because market leader Power Unlimited had already been flown to Canada a couple of times to do the same.

Three things you should probably take note of:

I didn’t ask about the whole ‘Jade, beautiful woman’ thing, even though I find the phenomenon quite interesting – not the fact that Jade is pretty, but the fact that everyone is (or was, a while ago) talking about this. Just before the interview, the Dutch product manager had sort of warned me about this, because apparently she’d been a bit grumpy that morning, after people had kept asking her about it. I complied.

Another factor here is that the internet hype, in which a big thing was made of Jade’s looks (culminating in that one comic), came after my interview. After that happened, I probably wouldn’t have had a choice but to ask, and Jade would probably have been even grumpier. As in: another word and I’ll kick you in the nuts. (I love how she admits, near the end of the chat, that she was a bit ‘grouchy’ that day.)

Secondly, when I did the interview, I’d played Assassin’s Creed for only about thirty minutes and was very much impressed by the feeling of freely climbing and running through the city. The internet backlash, punishing the game for its repetitive and uninspired missions, hadn’t come yet. So maybe I’m a bit too nice about the whole thing.

Finally, a few of the questions are tied specifically to the magazine – such as the opening question and the question about The Netherlands. Please bear with these!

Anyway, with that all said, on to the full transcription – of which excerpts appeared in GMR issue 2007/6.

Who is Jade Raymond? What drives her?
Jade: “What drives me is new experiences. I’m always trying to learn and to put myself in the situation where I’m discovering new things. I get really motivated by being around talented people who are interested in diverse things, because that gets me going on different subjects. So I think that’s why I really love being in games – you work with this team of young, dynamic people with all kinds of backgrounds. You know, musicians who are working on the score, fantastic artists who are doing great illustrations and concept art, great writers, voice actors who you cast for the game, programmers… So that’s really motivating for me. The other thing is the fact that games are always changing. So I’ll always be on a project where I can think about new problems.”

So what is the skill you bring to the team?
“I have a background in programming. I started out as a programmer in the games industry. But I also paint a lot and I’ve [taken some fine arts classes]. However, I think my skill is knowing what the best is.”

That’s your super power.
“It’s kind of a pretentious thing to say, ‘knowing what the best is’, but I’ve had quite a few people tell me that’s my skill. Whether it’s food, or music, or art, I’m just like, this is the best. If I say ‘this is the best restaurant’ and recommend people to go there, everyone’s like, ‘you were right, that really is the best restaurant!’ Maybe that’s the producer’s job, being able to know which idea is good and which direction we should go in.”

Tell me how you began working in this industry. You are originally a programmer, right?
“I started out at Sony. I was a programmer for almost three years there. They worked on a lot of little games like ‘Jeopardy’. It took me a long time to work up to cool projects like Assassin’s Creed. I started with a lot of smaller things and after I was a programmer for a few years, I moved into a management role. Then I went to Electronic Arts and was the producer of ‘The Sims Online’.”

How did your interest in computer science start?
“I think that the main point where I started getting interested in computers is when my school started a special experimental after school programme. It was a test to see how they could integrate more computers into the curriculum and stuff like that. They chose two kids from the region to do it and I was one of them. And it was building robots and then programming them. However, we were using Logo, which was very simple, it’s barely even a programming language. Basically, after school I would go and get different assignments, like: build a robot that can do this and scoop up these things and dump them in these four containers and so on. Then you had two motors and these parts and you’d try to combine them and write a little programma. After that, the guy who was teaching the programme took me around to the different school board directors to present my different robots and, you know, make it work and do things and stuff. That was super fun.”

So what did you like best? Building the robots or showing them around?
“Building the robots! Actually, my favorite part about it was getting the problem and then figuring out how to build a robot that would solve the problem.”

Because I like creating stuff, too, but I wouldn’t create stuff if I didn’t have an audience for it.
“Well, if you apply this to games – you don’t want to make a game that no one is going to play. Especially not for four years.”

What do you prefer, working with people or with code?
“People are much more interesting, though also much trickier. Code sometimes won’t do what you wanted it to do, but you can eventually make it work exactly the way you wanted it to. But with people… people are people, right? So they have their own unique quirks and there is no formula. It’s not like two times two equals four when you work with people.”

Another question. What’s it’s like to be a producer in crunch mode? Are you as busy as the programmers and artists?
“It’s really stressful. In crunch mode your brain seems to stop working. It’s because you aren’t getting enough sleep and you’re only in the office and you don’t see anything else, so you can’t really think of anything else. In crunch mode at the end of a project, what’s really dictating things is the bug database. So you spend a lot of time looking through the bug database, making sure that the important bugs are being focused on, going to the top people, asking, ‘is this one getting fixed?’, and then playing the game a lot. Like, okay, what level are we at here, are the real issues surfacing in the bug database?”

You basically decide what the best bugs are.
“You want to make sure those are fixed straight away. Make sure someone is not fixing the one down there, because who cares about that one?”

On to Assassin’s Creed. The subject matter seems quite ‘adult’ to me. A game about the Third Crusade could be offensive for some people.
“It’s a work of fiction, and it’s about the Assassins. The Assassins did come to be during the Crusades. And the Crusades are set with a religious backdrop. We did think about this, the fact that it’s a touchy subject. You can’t make this game without realising that there is some controversy in it. So we asked ourselves things like: do we change the names of all of the cities, do we take off the crosses on the Templars’ outfits, do we move the crosses from the churches, do we change everything? And we decided not to. It’s not because… the game is based on history, and you can walk down the street anywhere and see churches and it’s not offending anyone. So why can’t we make these cities and put churches in the game?

“My point is our story is fictional. It has the Third Crusade as its backdrop and it’s based on the Assassins, but this guy Altaïr never lived, and that gave us a lot of flexibility. We also worked with cultural experts and historians, making sure we were getting all things accurate, not taking one person’s perspective. But we also took a lot of the myths surrounding the Assassins and a lot of the facts that people are arguing over, and we used that to create our own story. So we really tried not to make this about religion and we didn’t want to say, ‘this is what happened in the Third Crusades’, or, ‘this is a documentary.’ This is a game. It’s not fantasy, there are no dragons or ogres. It’s very much on the human scale, it does happen in real cities, but Altaïr didn’t exist, and this is his personal story. We made him up to be a hero in the sense that he’s trying to end the war, bring peace to the land by getting rid of the key guys.

“And then we even added another layer, which is: he still questions what he’s doing, even though the guys are set up to be really evil. You’re going to see when you play that there’s a moment of exchange between Altaïr and his targets, where he finds out that there’s something else, and where he starts asking himself why he’s really doing this. And even if he is really evil, what’s the perspective and who decides that, and what’s you point of view? So there are different layers of questioning for people who are looking for a little bit more.

“We didn’t want it to be about religion or just about killing a bunch of guys. Actually we were inspired by the Assassins’ motto, which is ‘nothing is true and everything is permitted’. An interesting motto.”

Not many games have religious things in them at all. Why do you think this is?
“There are a lot of subjects that are still off limit for games. I don’t know why, I think it’s partially because games aren’t considered an art form. And there’s still a lot of controversy: kids are spending too much time, and it’s evil, maybe because of the interactivity, because you’re participating in the action. Whatever the reasons, many subjects are taboo for video games. I think that this is a difficult subject. We decided to put our game there [in the Third Crusade] because it’s an interesting time in history, it’s an interesting thing to explore. But we still had to be really, really careful, working with a lot of experts to double check everything.”

Are you interested in pushing games forward as an art form?
“I’m interesting in games telling more rich and meaningful stories. I’m interesting in games having a meaning. I like the idea that games should have different layers. If you’re looking for something more than action-packed adrenaline, it should be there. But it’s not really a quest of mine to get taboo subjects into games. Because ultimately, as a gamer, I want new kinds of gameplay and I want the game to be fun. I’d be more interested in finding a new type of gameplay that wasn’t focused on having a gun or something and that had an equal amount of adrenaline and an equal amount of action-packed fun, that didn’t necessarily involve the gameplay that we often fall back onto.”

Why aren’t more people working on that?
“Games are expensive to make these days. So people think, if we are going to invest in a big game, it’s got to be a blockbuster, it’s got to be huge.”

In Hollywood, there are smaller studios coming up with more original movies.
“I think to get that kind of indie industry, we’ve got to find a cheap way for people to make interesting games. And I think you’re starting to see some interesting things coming out of mods, right? I think that’s the key. It there are free tools out there, an easy way to mod, there’s going to be some creative people who are going to figure out how to do something different without driving the cost up. And I think that’s interesting. There already is an indie games movement, they have an Independant Games Award and stuff like that, but it’s very small.”

Back to your game. Playing it for a bit, I thought it felt like ‘Tony Hawk’ taken to the next level. I wondered why it took so long for an open world type game to get the Tony Hawk kind of freedom of movement. Where you can hang on to every single ledge.
“Nice. We’ve had quite a few people saying that running around and free running in Assassin’s Creed feels like Tony Hawk and I think that’s kind of cool. As to the why, it takes a lot of work to create cities where everything is interactive. We had to build tools from scratch for this. Usually, level designers have to place by hand all of the stuff that is interactive, and if you have to do that, there is no way you can have these big cities where everything is interactive. You can image that you would forget some, and then it would seem broken… it’s just not possible. So we had to create tools that can detect this and autogenerate all the interactive ledges. Also, you just need bigger computers.”

What about keeping the science fiction plot of the game a secret? Why?
“At first the team just wanted to talk about it because its part of our game. We spent a lot of time thinking about it. So it’s very hard to talk about a part of your game without talking about another part of it, because then things don’t make sense. We got a lot of questions, like, ‘why is the guard glowing’, and we couldn’t talk about it.”

I think I saw a video interview in which you said it was just a stylistic choice.
“We ran out of answers. We wanted to talk about it, but we weren’t able to, we were told, ‘no, we don’t talk about it’, so we didn’t talk about it. And now we realise that it was probably good for gamers, because for me personally, when I go see a movie for example, I get really annoyed if I see a trailer of a movie that I want to see and it has all the jokes in it, or it tells too much of the story. I’m like, ‘why would I go see that movie now, I feel like I’ve seen all the best parts in this trailer.’ So I think it’s going to be cool for players. Although – it’s not that big of a surprise anymore, as obviously some stuff has been leaked. I mean if you really want to look it up, you can find some hints. Still I think it’s going to be fun for gamers to buy the game, get home and be surprised. And not feel like they already know everything.”

A question I have to ask for the magazine: have you been to The Netherlands before?
“I’ve been to Amsterdam before, but I haven’t been anywhere else in Holland. I came once as a backpacker, when I was like 18, and then I came back as a tourist a second time, but to do more adulty kind of things. And then I came back for work once.”

What do you think of it?
“I love it, I actually have quite a few friends, architects, who moved to Amsterdam. It seems like a great city for cultural things. I love the Van Gogh Museum. Also, the design museum is amazing. All the canals everywhere and everyone with their bicycles. It’s really, really great, I definitely want to come back and spend more time here. Unfortunately tonight is the only night I’m going to be here. Last night we arrived at 11pm, so we couldn’t do anything, but tonight I get a chance to walk around a little bit.”

How has the press tour been so far?
“I’ve been travelling for almost two weeks now, so we’ve done a lot of countries already. Tomorrow we’re off to Moscow and after that it’s LA for a week, to do North American stuff, then Toronto, and then home, to Montreal. It gets a little bit tiring. I think I was a little bit grouchy today.”

[After the interview, Jade told me that after all the press stuff, she was going to go visit a couple of countries in South-East Asia. Even more travelling, then.]

Finally, do you have something surprising to tell our readers? Something they don’t know yet? Any weird hobbies?
“Let me think. When I was living in San Francisco, I had a hang glider. I loved it! I’ve had a lot of flying dreams throughout my life, and I think that having a hang glider is the closest you can get to flying. It’s super fun.”

Do you have an explanation for why so many people dream about flying?
“I think if I try to answer that, I may end up sounding crazy. I don’t know, I mean, do you have flying dreams?”

Sure. Especially when I was a kid.
“Flying dreams are so great. It’s amazing. That’s why the coolest super hero is Superman. He has got the coolest colors. He’s a bit harder to relate to than some other super heroes, but I’d really like to have his super power.”

If you could trade ‘knowing what the best is’ for flying, you wouldn’t doubt a minute.
“You bet!”