Jade Raymond thinks it would be cool to live in a world in which traffic lights change on her command, one in which she has all the keys to all the locked doors. Nothing would be off limits. That’s kind of how Ubisoft’s star video game producer views the future of the industry—putting gamers in charge. And fittingly, this ability to control the world is the theme of her company’s next likely blockbuster game.
Watch Dogs is the future-set thriller about the surveillance society. The player controls the open world’s transit, communication and security systems. The game will be among the first to take advantage of the graphics and power boost provided by next-gen consoles Xbox One and PlayStation 4, and it’s one of the most anticipated titles of the year. It's also one of the the games in Raymond's portfolio that includes Assassin's Creed—Raymond helped develop the intellectual property for Watch Dogs out of the Montreal office.
Raymond says she has embraced a philosophy of gaming that empowers the gamer. “Players—and people really—want to express themselves, and when I think about it, we’re kind of in an age of self-expression,” she says. “People want to play their way, they want to create their own stories, and they want to share those stories.”
A native of Montreal who studied computer science at McGill University (and whose favorite video game character is Donkey Kong), the 38-year-old manager of Ubisoft’s Toronto office is headed to her first SXSW, and her timing is impeccable. The festival is pushing deeper into gaming, an industry whose tendrils reach into SXSW’s other cores: technology, film and music. This year is the first that SXSW has a gaming awards ceremony.
Raymond will take part in the interactive tech portion of SXSW, but these days she could fit into the film community almost as neatly, given that Ubisoft has been cutting a number of Hollywood deals. New Regency and Ubisoft Motion Pictures are planning to make Assassin’s Creed starring Michael Fassbender, Splinter Cell starring Tom Hardy and a Watch Dogs movie. (“We’re selecting partners and determining brand values,” Raymond says of her company's recent business in Los Angeles. She is consulting on the Splinter Cell movie.)
The history of video games is littered with failed movie spinoffs, but the entertainment industry is changing and so is the type of content that appeals to viewers. Online channels Twitch and eSports generate big audiences by streaming video game play, creating virtual spectator sports—a development few would have predicted in the early days of gaming.
Surely in this environment, video game-based movies and shows stand a better chance than the 1993 Super Mario Bros. flop. Raymond says she understands the challenges when she’s reminded of how often movies based on video games fail. “I agree, that’s why we’re doing it different,” she says. “The problem with a lot of what you’ve seen in the movie adaptation of video game franchises is that often people think that when they’re experts in one type of media, they think they’re experts in everything else.”
Ubisoft isn’t the only game studio with big-screen ambitions. Rovio is looking to translate Angry Birds into a full-length feature by 2016. Ubisoft has its own animated franchise called the Rabbids—cutely deranged rabbits—who currently star in a Nickelodeon cartoon and soon will get the movie treatment.
Perhaps no Ubisoft franchise has the cinematic potential of Assassin’s Creed. With Fassbender signed on, they have a rising Hollywood star (X-Men First Class, Prometheus). In Assassin’s Creed, they have an immediate fan base. The game is one of the highest-selling entertainment properties of the past decade, moving 73 million units, with new installments released yearly—a level of regularity that is hard to match in the industry. Grand Theft Auto released two sequels in the same time it took to make four Assassin’s games, and the fifth AC is in the works.
“What they do with Assassin’s Creed on an annual basis—7 million to 10 million units—that’s pretty impressive,” says analyst Michael Pachter with Wedbush Securities. “And with Watch Dogs, look for something of that magnitude.”
There’s a compelling story propelling Assassin’s Creed, as well, one that came from Raymond’s fascination with conspiracy theories developed from reading books about the Illuminati in her early teens. Assassin’s Creed borrows heavily from that genre, featuring a secret society of warriors who travel back in time (not by time travel because “that’s cheesy,” she offers) using genetic memory (“this idea that the memories of people’s ancestors are encoded in their genes”).
Assassin’s Creed has explored the Crusades, the Renaissance, American Revolution and most recently pirates. The fifth installment will feature her favorite historical era, Raymond says, but she can’t even give a hint of what that is because it would ruin the surprise. She did dispel the rumor that it is set at the end of the samurai age in Japan. That said, she thinks that would be a cool idea.
“When we’re building a franchise, we’re thinking of a whole universe and how we’re developing a meta-story that could live on for many years in games and TV,” explains Raymond. “If the story has nowhere to go, then you end up with the video game equivalent of The Matrix 2 or something where it’s never going to be quite as genius.”
Watch Dogs is the next potential blockbuster, but it’s faced delays. Ubisoft is taking its time rather than risk disaster with the first big crack at creating a fresh franchise on the new consoles. The game is now expected in the spring, Raymond says, but she gets to play Watch Dogs now—one of the perks of working in video games.
At SXSW, Raymond is set to discuss how the video game industry has become an entertainment force on a massive scale. The festival has been getting more into gaming, a tough industry to master for the Austin event that specializes in technology, film and music. One of the challenges is bad timing—SXSW comes at the same time as the Game Developers Conference, one of gaming’s biggest events.
The video game industry has typically been represented at SXSW by indie developers and app makers, but it’s hard to do a technology and entertainment festival that doesn’t embrace the mainstream video game world. “The gaming aspect has been a little more difficult, but it has really grown,” says Hugh Forrest, SXSW’s interactive director. “One of the things we do very well is this concept of convergence—and gaming fits right into that.”