Game Changer: Lead Programmer Brie Code Talks Exciting New Diversity Initiative at Ubisoft Montreal And Making Games More Accessible

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Welcome to the third installment in our new series, Game Changer! Because it’s important to signal boost the work of women in the games industry (especially lately), we’ll be interviewing the awesome, brave, and talented women who bring their voices to indie and mainstream game development. Check out previous entries: Jill Murray and Anna Megill.

This week we sat down with Brie Code (@briecode), Lead Programmer at Ubisoft Montreal, who has also worked at Relic Entertainment and Pandemic Studios on the Assassin’s Creed franchise and games like Child of Light, and is helping to launch an exciting diversity initiative at Ubisoft Montreal.

Emma Fissenden (TMS): Can you tell me a bit about your journey? How did you end up where you are today? What prompted your entry into the gaming industry?

Brie Code: The easiest way to get me to do something is to tell me I’m not allowed, and in the ’80s my parents wouldn’t let me have an 8-bit Nintendo. So, naturally, I got really into video games.

I had always loved to read. I loved escaping into other worlds. I liked crafting worlds too, creating elaborate scenarios and even more elaborate hand-sewn outfits while playing dolls with my friends, or sitting on the floor in my room drafting intricate and extravagant house and garden plans. I was also really into math, and it helped that, since my dad was a programmer, we always had computers around. Video games seemed to bring all of my loves together, being both an imaginative escape and a form of creative expression.

When I went to university, I still loved books and music and fashion and architecture and math, but I chose Computer Science for its intricate problems and the idea of being part of a new field that was still designing and discovering itself. As I rushed through the arts building on my way between math and computer science classes and saw all the cute creatively-dressed punk girls, I wished I knew them. But I loved the course material in computer science. My favourite subjects were AI, graphics, algorithm design and analysis, and numerical analysis.

I graduated from university when I was 20, burnt out and questioning my choices. The dotcom crash happened, and I was terrified of working in a more conservative environment like a bank. I slacked off for a few years, dropped out of grad school on the first day, and went travelling in search of answers instead. What I found, among other things, was maxed out credit cards and the desperate need for a job.

I was so very lucky. At this moment, Relic Entertainment was looking to fill its first two junior programmer positions. I desperately wanted one of those spots. Relic’s first release, Homeworld, was everything I loved in a game—so stylish. After a terribly difficult three-hour interview I went home and cried. But I got the job! And it even turned out I was the first person to ace their programming test.

Working at Relic was a dream first job. There, I learned what a great team is, what a great manager is, and how special it is to work in this creative and technical industry creating entertainment for millions of people. After two great projects at Relic, I worked briefly at Pandemic Studios, but then when I saw the release of Assassin’s Creed with its beautiful colour palette and multicultural message, I knew I had to join that team. I’ve been at Ubisoft MTL for seven years, shipping three Assassin’s Creeds and Child of Light.

TMS: Can you describe what your role as Lead Programmer involves? What’s an average kind of day for you?

Code: The lead programmer is responsible for delivering the tech required for the success of the project, from the programming of the game itself to all the tools and other tech the designers and artists and testers may need. I mentioned above that I like programming, but I don’t like programming all day every day. Lead programmer is a great position for someone like that—I get to do the same kind of problem solving and intricate, detailed thinking involved in programming, but I also get to do team building, mentorship, requirements negotiation, scheduling, reporting, and playing the game and suggesting ideas. The lead programmer has an overview of the whole project and is well positioned to be able to see how possibilities in the game and narrative design and possibilities in the tech can support each other.

An average day starts with checking in with my team and other project leads to build a prioritized list of issues. Then it’s about solving those issues. It’s good to have the list, but I rarely ever do more than the top three. Often, items lower on the list take care of themselves. If I have focused work to do, I usually do that later in the day once everything else is running smoothly.

TMS: How was working on Child of Light different than, say, working on Assassin’s Creed?

Code: The obvious difference between working on Child of Light and working on Assassin’s Creed was one of tone. We never really talked about making Aurora more “badass.” Instead we had whimsical debates about whether she should have short hair or long hair (I voted long), and whether the Capilli women should have beards (I voted yes).

The challenges involved in a small project are also very different. On Assassin’s Creed, there are millions upon millions of fans with high expectations. It’s a big deal. The scope of the game is incredibly ambitious, because recreating real environments means everything has to be handcrafted and the tech needs to be pushed to its most optimized. So, the teams are huge. And huge teams mean huge efficiency challenges. How can the game remain stable and coherent with hundreds of people modifying it in parallel? How can a change in direction be correctly communicated to and enthusiastically adopted by so many people? It’s very complex. Everyone is a specialist and sees only their part. There is a lot of inertia once something starts moving so it has to start in a good direction in the first place. Most of the challenges are about choosing the right direction and then facilitating it.

On Child of Light, we were a small team making a new game in a genre we had never made before. So the set of challenges were completely different. Instead of each person being a specialist, each person had to know how to do almost anything. Instead of carefully choosing a direction and setting the wheels in motion, we had to try many different directions and stay flexible and see what we discovered along the way. Things were changing fast but since the team was so small we were always in close communication with each other. Each individual held a lot more responsibility for the quality of the whole game rather than one slice of the game. We had to constantly question ourselves.

Another thing that was different on Child of Light was that it was also my first role leading the entire programming team and I got to build my team from scratch. Instead of focusing on hiring the best individual candidates, I focused on building the best team, a diverse team of people from various backgrounds and with different personalities. Research shows that diverse teams outperform expert teams. I also heard once that a team should include a Visionary, a Doer, a Skeptic, a Client Advocate, and a Historian. I kept those roles in mind as I built the Child of Light team, as well as building a bilingual team and a mix of Canadians and expats and women and men and gamers and non-gamers. I think it worked out really well. Having a mix of perspectives on the team helped give us some fresh ideas.

TMS: What are your plans for the future (if you can discuss any!)? Is there a subject, story, setting or character you’re aching to tackle?

Code: Right now I’m stuck on one topic and I don’t think I can get past it until it’s solved: diversity in games. I love love love games, but I often find I play games more for what I wish they were than for what they are. There are so many games I want to play that don’t exist yet.

All my life I’ve had friends outside the industry who share my tastes in media except for games. We like the same movies, the same music, etc., but they don’t like games. I just assumed it was a part of me that was different. I was never very aggressive about trying to share games with them. And then something happened in the last few years. My friends started getting tablets, or even second-hand consoles given to them from gamers they knew who were upgrading. They started to ask me what to play, hesitantly, bored with puzzle games but not really wanting to try anything that seemed too masculine for their tastes.

I built trust by recommending Journey, and then at one point I bullied one friend into playing Skyrim. She didn’t think she’d like it. She doesn’t like medieval, she doesn’t like fighting, etc. Well, she loves Skyrim. She called me after her first companion, Lydia, died, surprised that she had an emotional attachment to a character in a game. And in that moment, I realized that this part of my life that I assumed my friends wouldn’t like, these incredibly immersive interactive experiences that have gotten me through hard times and given me perspective: my friends had made it into their thirties without ever getting to have these experiences. Skyrim is fabulous, but what about a game my friend would have picked up on her own in the first place? I think I would love to play that game.

So that’s what I want to do next. I want to make games for my friends, and for myself.

As part of that, I think we need to attract a wider range of people into the industry, with diverse backgrounds and tastes. So one of the things I’m doing right now is working with the fantastic Sabrina Jacques, a filmmaker who stumbled across video games and never looked back, to lead a new initiative to increase diversity at Ubisoft MTL. While keeping in mind that our overall goal is to increase diversity of all kinds, our first mandate will be to increase the percentage of women in the studio. In the long term, we’re focusing on attracting teenage girls and women who work in related industries. In the medium term, we’re looking at supporting, developing, and retaining the promising women who are already here. And in the short term, we’re increasing knowledge and discussion and awareness. When we first sent a call for participation around the studio, we had so many respondents that we had to redesign and expand our plan to include not just the original group with this mandate, but other related groups with other, more specific mandates as well. Ubisoft MTL is one of the largest video game studios in the world, with 2700 employees and growing, and increasing the number of women here could have impacts across the industry, I hope. And I hope you’ll hear a lot more about this from us soon.

TMS: Do you have any advice for people—especially women—who might be considering a career in games? What’s one thing you wished the younger you would have known?

Code: The best advice anyone ever gave to me about my career was to make sure you are one of the least smart and least experienced people on your team. Always work with people that are better than you, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. In this way, you’ll learn faster than if you were the resident expert. This is one reason I like to work at a big studio: I am surrounded by experts whom I can ask for mentorship as needed. It’s amazing.

As well, if you are in an environment where you can’t admit you don’t know something without losing face, get out of that environment. The best programmers admit when they don’t know something. My favourite answer to almost any request at work is: “I don’t know, but I’ll get back to you at such-and-such time with the answer.”

And don’t worry if you don’t fit the stereotype for the job you want. The most interesting innovations come out of the connections between different groups or between different industries. In the ’90s, Marc Jacobs, known then for his dirty grungy American aesthetic, became creative director of the luxury French brand Louis Vuitton and developed artist collaborations that changed the fashion industry. And the software engineers known as the Gang of Four were influenced by an architect’s book about community and livability, A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, to write their book Design Patterns and revolutionize the field of software engineering. If you can find your way in a field where you aren’t the norm, you’ll have something unique and special to contribute.

TMS: Can you talk about anything really difficult you’ve had to overcome both as a programmer and as a woman in the games industry?

Code: I’ve been in the games industry for 12 years. Until I came to Ubi, I was the only woman programmer on each of my projects. During Child of Light I was the only woman lead programmer at Ubi MTL. Throughout my career, I’m often the only woman in the room. This is not comfortable, and at times has been very uncomfortable. There have been very, very good times, and some very bad times. There have been some lonely times also.

However, the last three years have been increasingly inspiring as I see more and more women entering the industry and see more and more discussion about this topic. On Child of Light, the team was 25% women and it was so refreshing and inspiring to work in that slightly more balanced environment.

Overall, when I compare my position to that of the men I have worked with who maybe fit in better, I get frustrated. But when I compare my position to almost any other possible job, I see clearly how lucky I am to be here. I get to work with a variety of lovely, artsy geniuses on meaningful, challenging work, in an industry that is growing fast and absolutely bonkers with opportunity. This is art—or will be, if we keep pushing it in the right direction. And just as I want to make more games for my cohorts, I want to share this work with them too. More women should get to experience this career. I am thoroughly, absolutely, intensely enjoying my job, and I want them to, too.

TMS: Okay, quick fire questions! Favourite game you’ve worked on?

Code: Child of Light.

TMS: Three favourite games of the past year?

Code: Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, 80 Days, Two Dots.

TMS: Of all time?

Code: Morrowind. My heart will always belong to Morrowind.

TMS: Most frustrating sequence you’ve played in a game?

Code: Replaying The Colonel’s Bequest over and over as a child to try to find out everything possible about the characters… And to try to get the flying statue easter egg to happen again, since I wasn’t sure if I had dreamt it or not and this was before we had Google for checking things like that.

TMS: Favourite character?

Code: The character I created in The Sims 4. She’s hilariously grumpy and has a realistic body shape.

TMS: Favourite character of yours from a game you worked on and why?

Code: Aurora, because she’s refreshing.

TMS: First game you played?

Code: Snake on a Zenith terminal.

TMS: Coffee or Tea?

Code: Coffee please.

Emma Fissenden is a writer of all trades. When she’s not pushing through her next rewrite, she’s playing too many games and editing fiction at @noblegasqrtly. You can find her on Twitter @efissenden, or check out her other series for TMS, Bad Gamer.

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