Google wants to change the way the world plays video games, and a Canadian woman is in charge of unlocking this next-level tech revolution. Jade Raymond – who co-created the mega-blockbuster Assassin’s Creed franchise, who built Toronto’s Ubisoft studio from scratch when she had a newborn, and who has executive-produced successes such as Watch Dogs and Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist – is now launching Google Stadia. Often referred to as “Netflix for video games,” Stadia is a project that Google hopes will become the universal go-to streaming platform for gaming.
The free tier was set to launch this spring, but on Wednesday, Google made a surprise announcement: It would make its previously launched Stadia Pro tier free for two months.
“We’re facing some of the most challenging times in recent memory. Keeping social distance is vital, but staying home for long periods can be difficult and feel isolating. Video games can be a valuable way to socialize with friends and family when you’re stuck at home,” the announcement said.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic forced much of the world indoors indefinitely, Google had been working to iron out Stadia’s well-reported bugs. And Raymond, Google vice-president and head of Stadia Games and Entertainment, was meeting with game developers in order to build Stadia’s catalogue, including exclusives.
It was the last Monday of February when she wheeled her large suitcase into the boardroom named Chatter at Google’s offices in Bellevue, Wash. She was in Seattle to meet with developers at Bungie, makers of Destiny 2, the first game in the Stadia subscription.
It was days before the announcement of a deadly COVID-19 outbreak in neighbouring Kirkland, Wash., and she was in the middle of a four-week trip. If she was at all concerned or even tired, she didn’t show it. She was upbeat and enthusiastic, calling Google’s move into cloud gaming “super exciting,” – and saying it reminded her of Assassin’s Creed, her earlier pioneering project.
“I just think the potential of what you can do is really going to be the biggest revolution in games that we’ve seen in a long, long time,” said Raymond, who sits on the board of directors for the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences, and has been named to the Variety 500 list for her impact on the video game and entertainment industries. She also won last year’s Andrew Yoon Legend Award from the New York video game Critics Circle.
Stadia’s launch last fall was not, to put it mildly, entirely successful, prompting a fair bit of criticism.
“Hang in there,” Raymond says to the Stadia skeptics. “This is part of a long strategic path.”
Raymond, 44, was born in Montreal to a mother she describes as a hippie. She was going to be either Jade or Amber, she says, depending on whether she looked like her blonde mother or her father, who was half-Chinese. Grown-up Raymond has long dark hair that she wears with bangs these days.
She had a peripatetic childhood, growing up in places that included Jamaica and New York; her stepfather is an emergency doctor who was constantly moving to help underserved populations.
The family landed for a time in tiny Knowlton, Que., east of Montreal, where young Jade had some of her formative experiences. In Grade 3, she was one of two students at her rural French school chosen for an after-school robotics program developed by a forward-thinking math teacher. “We’d build the robot and then program it to do the tasks,” said Raymond. “And that’s how I got introduced to programming in Grade 3, which was totally by fluke. But really lucky.”
She was a big reader, and volunteered at the local library. It was there, when she decided to check out a book she was reshelving, The Adventures of Marco Polo, that she would first come across the assassins that would play such an important role in her own journey.
Television was frowned upon in her household; videogames, not so. She first started playing with older cousins on the Apple II in upstate New York. From one of them, she received a hand-me-down Apple computer with a couple of games on floppy disks – an adventure game and a typing-tutor game. Both would come in handy.
For Christmas one year, she and her half-sisters received a Super Nintendo. They would turn Duck Hunt and Super Mario into competitive pseudo-multiplayer experiences by comparing scores on their individual rounds.
Then, when she was about 14, Raymond visited an uncle in San Francisco. He had a Sega Genesis and it became Raymond’s goal to beat him by the end of the week. She practised all day while he was at work. By the end of that week, she beat him at Tekken.
But there was a much longer-term win. It was during that trip that Raymond, who had figured because of her love of art and math that she might be an architect when she grew up, put two and two together about videogames.
“I was like: ‘Wait a second... someone gets to make these and it [involves] art’ and it just dawned on me. ... I’m playing these, but someone makes these. Because no one told you this was a job when I was younger.”
Back in Montreal at a CEGEP, Marianopolis College, she took applied science, and, at McGill University, computer science. She was one of three women in her McGill cohort of about 100, she says, and the only one of the three to continue on in the field. It was at university where she first used the internet, at a computer lab filled with NeXT computers (Steve Jobs’ failed non-Apple computer experiment).
Organized and persistent, during her last six months at McGill, Raymond created a spreadsheet of potential employers and applied for jobs. With 10 offers, she took a programming job at Sony in New York in 1998. After a year, Sony doubled her salary. She also started a small online Research and Development division there and created her own game, a version of Jeopardy for the Palm Pilot.
Her team also helped integrate EverQuest, one of the first massively multiplayer games, into the Sony Station service. The internet was young, and Raymond began specializing in that area.
She was hired by Electronic Arts in California as a sort of expert in the online world, and managed the tech team for The Sims Online – which allowed players of the popular game to interact with others online. For a while, she worked as a correspondent on the gaming industry TV show The Electric Playground.
But the pivotal moment for Raymond’s career came in her late 20s, when she co-created the adventure game that has spawned a world of its own, Assassin’s Creed.
“We were still too young to know how hard all the stuff we were trying to do was. We just did it,” she said.
Assassin’s Creed, created at Ubisoft in Montreal, is an action-adventure game set during the Crusades. Initially hired to create the next-generation version of Prince of Persia, Raymond and her colleagues took it far beyond.
“We were like, we don’t want to squander the opportunity of creating a new IP; we want to create something that has a meta-story arc and a framework where we can continue expanding it,” she says. It was always conceived to be bigger than just one game. “We [wanted] to create a sandbox that can live for a long time.”
In the original, present-day New York bartender Desmond Miles, the descendant of assassins, is able to time-travel back hundreds of years and relive this history that remains in his DNA.
The creative process was collaborative and dynamic. Raymond reached back to her Grade 3 discovery of Marco Polo. The team read about the history of the Crusades. The animation director showed them footage of parkour, which inspired Desmond’s movements.
Assassin’s Creed launched in 2007 and has spawned a long list of games as well as comics, books, and even a feature film starring Michael Fassbender (a critical and commercial flop; “it took itself too seriously,” Fassbender later said). While the first game was set primarily in 12th-century Jerusalem, during the Third Crusade, other franchise stories since have tackled different locations and different historical eras.
The spawning continues. In February, the audiobook subscription service Audible.ca released an Audible original drama series. Assassin’s Creed: Gold – written by Canadian Anthony Del Col, who has also written or co-written several Assassin’s Creed comic books – features Isaac Newton, and his history as Warden of the Royal Mint.
“This is what [the Assassin’s Creed franchise] has done amazingly well in the videogames and all the other spinoffs.... some of the most entertaining and captivating historical fiction stories being told today,” said Del Col, who was born and raised in Porcupine, Ont., and now lives in New York.
“It’s made billions of dollars, but more important, it has millions of users and ... it’s a die-hard, very loyal fanbase.”
Raymond still has moments where she’s shocked at the franchise’s success and continued influence. Like last Halloween. She was picking up her children from school and saw that one of their classmates was dressed up as the assassin. “That hit me way more than even the Assassin’s movie starring Fassbender,” Raymond says. “I was like no, the cool thing was that they make a costume of this now.”
Raymond was two weeks away from delivering her first child when she was called into her boss’s office at Ubisoft in Montreal. She figured they would be going over the handover plan. Instead, he had a proposal: that she move to Toronto and start a studio there from the ground up. After turning it down once, she agreed, started hiring people on the phone, and she, her husband and their daughter moved to Toronto when their baby was three months old.
The studio went from zero to 350 people in three years, she says, and shipped Splinter Cell: Blacklist, another hit that she executive-produced.
After that, she went back to EA to form Motive Studios in Montreal and head up the Star Wars brand.
Then Google came calling with the offer to set up a studio and launch the new streaming platform.
“The opportunity is huge,” she says. “It’s that same thing that attracted me to the opportunity to be able to build the first Assassin’s Creed.”
Stadia is Google’s big move into game streaming – a platform that, the idea is, allows you to play on any screen (mobile, tablet, PC, TV) without needing a console, and to seamlessly switch from one device or screen to another. The games are not downloaded to your device; they are streamed from the cloud – so, no time-consuming downloads, no updates.
There is a non-mandatory controller available for about $90 and you need to own the games you play. For a monthly subscription fee, the Pro tier offers better graphics and access to a free roster of games.
“I think just the convenience factor alone of no downloads, instant play on any screen that I have, is a huge seller,” said Raymond.
But when the Premiere edition (which comes with the controller) launched in November, pre-Christmas, it was called out for everything from lagging to poor resolution to the limited game library to a confusing set-up to a lack of players to game with. What’s the point of a convenient multiplayer experience when there is no one to play with? The launch was described in reviews as immensely disappointing, not ready for prime time, half-baked, even a catastrophe.
Raymond said some of the feedback is valid. “Did the launch go as planned? No, obviously not. We didn’t hit some of the things we wanted to hit. But the good news is we’re out there, we’re learning, we’re listening to the feedback. Every week new stuff gets added and more games are coming and we’re going to continue growing this and it’s going to end up creating something amazing; it’s just a road to get there.”
The work is continuing and Google is committed to this, with a huge investment and a very long-term view, she said.
“We see this as being the future of the way people are going to consume games.”
Free access to Google Stadia is rolling out over two days, across 14 countries. Customers get two free months and access to nine games. Google is also working on a feature to adjust bandwidth in order to reduce internet load.
Google is building Stadia Games and Entertainment from Montreal, where Raymond has been spending the last year putting together her team, finding independent developers to work with and setting up the new studio. A second studio was announced March 4 for the Los Angeles area.
She is also raising two children, now 7 and 10, with her husband, who is head of marketing for an industrial engineering firm.
A pre-pandemic discussion about screen-time rules at home revealed that no, her children do not generally get unlimited access to technology. The kids earn screen time – whether videogames or television – with a point system. But mostly the family plays a lot of board games. Dragonwood is a favourite these days.
After the kids go to bed, she has time to try out games she needs to check out. “Because most of the games I want to play or brush up on for work, the latest and greatest stuff, the stuff winning awards, is not necessarily kid-friendly or at the right level for them,” she said.
The challenges of being a woman in the gaming world transcend work-life balance. Raymond has been trolled to the max, during her EP correspondent days and especially around the initial Assassin’s Creed release. Among the headlines I found with a quick Google search was this one from a “freelance video game journalist” in 2007: “Jade Raymond has big ol’ breasts. Oh, and something about Assassin’s Creed.” Another online article focused on how her hair smelled. There were rumours about Raymond posing in a bikini for a magazine (untrue) and offensive cartoons as a result.
Maybe worse were the baseless accusations that Raymond was just the pretty face of the project, put forward by Ubisoft as a marketing strategy. She must just have been the one fetching coffee, that sort of thing.
Ridiculous, right? But it hurt. And Raymond shunned the spotlight for a while after what she calls the “Assassin’s Creed debacle.”
But Raymond is an important role model for young women and girls with game-industry aspirations.
“She’s one of the faces, I would say, of the video game industry, especially in Canada,” said Leah Jewer, co-founder of Montreal-based Girls on Games, and host of the Girls on Games podcast.
"Often the video game industry is a bit of a boys’ club, especially at the higher ranks. When she was nominated to be VP for Google Studios for Stadia, that was like, wow, okay, now we’re cooking here.”
What motivated Raymond to start going public again was hearing from young women: Female university students telling her that they wanted to work in gaming because they saw Raymond doing it and realized that yes, women can do this job.
“That’s what gave me kind of the kick to ... get back out there,” said Raymond, pointing out that she comes from a family of three girls.
“And knowing that I could impact that, even just a little bit, by being an example that a woman can do well in this industry," she said, "and a positive example, talking about the positive side of this industry to make this more accessible. I was like okay, it’s worth it. I’m going to go do that as much as I can.”
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