Lesley Phord-Toy is a producer and founding team member at Ubisoft Toronto. Most recently, Lesley led the Toronto collaboration on the best-selling Assassin’s Creed Unity shipped by Ubisoft Montreal in November 2014 and is now hard at work on an unannounced project.
An engineering graduate from the University of Waterloo, Lesley started her career as a programmer in Los Angeles developing software for visual effects at Sony Electronics. During that time, she was exposed to the film and broadcast industry, and decided to explore opportunities in production.
By 2002, the game industry in Montreal was blossoming, and Lesley moved back to Canada to pursue a new career path in games. Since then, she has helped to create a wide variety of titles ranging from family-friendly games, to hard-core military shooters.
In 2010, Lesley returned to Ontario to help start up the Ubisoft Toronto studio as a producer on Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Blacklist and the studio’s first production employee. Lesley is thrilled to be a part of the talented team at Ubisoft, and enjoys being an active member of the local game community through her involvement with the IGDA Toronto chapter.
Jillian Mood, IGDA: Working at Ubisoft Toronto must be a great experience! Can you tell us a little more detail about your role and what project you’re working on now?
Producer – Ubisoft Toronto
Chair – IGDA Toronto
Lesley Phord-Toy: I was fortunate to be one of the first team members to join the studio back in 2010, working to grow our team in Toronto I’ve been at Ubisoft now for almost six years working as a producer, leading teams and collaborations on AAA projects including game franchises such as Rainbow 6, Splinter Cell, and Assassin’s Creed. I would love to talk about my current team and project, but currently it’s unannounced so I can’t share any details...yet!
JM: Would you say technical background help you be a better producer in the video game industry?
LPT: One of the things I appreciate the most about working in the games industry is the diversity of skills and crafts required to make games. For positions of leadership, I truly believe that any hard skills, regardless of discipline, can be a great advantage as it helps to better appreciate and understand the day-to-day challenges of the team members you manage. I use my background in engineering and programming every day when I communicate with my teams to discuss, guide, and challenge them when working towards innovative and creative solutions.
JM: I noticed you have worked on teams as large as 120 people! Can you tell us the biggest differences from producing on small teams to huge ones?
LPT: While it’s true that I have worked with very large teams, I have also shipped games with less than 30 people. I’d say the biggest difference is the amount of conscious effort required to build strong relationships and ensure good communication. On smaller teams, regular face-to-face interaction reduces the possibility of interpersonal problems and communications breakdowns. On larger teams, where people may not even necessarily know each other, it can quickly turn into a downward spiral when people lose motivation because they don’t have clear, shared goals or vision for the project. Therefore, we spend a lot of time and energy to constantly assess and improve our communications on all our projects. We also invest in creating conditions that strengthen relationships across the team. These relationships, in turn, give larger teams an enormous momentum and spirit that feels electric as everyone works towards delivering on common goals and a shared vision together.
JM: Do you use the same tools for both or do you have to tailor your approach based on the scope and size of the team?
LPT: I believe that every team and every project is unique and it’s important to maintain a mindset of constantly trying to do things better. Making games rarely has a one-size-fits-all solution, and in every case where I’ve seen this mentality applied, it’s always resulted in frustration, wasted work, or a lack of creativity or innovation. Of course you want to take advantage of existing tools, processes, and experiences, but mostly in the sense that it helps to provide a context and a baseline to work from. If you end up using the exact same tools, it’s because you’ve specifically determined that they are the right solutions for your current situation, and not simply because they worked before.
JM: You are also the Chair of IGDA Toronto and have been for 5 years! Thank you for that! Can you tell us why you decided to run a chapter?
LPT: It all really just coincided with me moving to Toronto from Montreal. I was a part of the advisory committee for IGDA Montreal, and it was really valuable in helping me to develop my career. When I moved to Toronto, it seemed like a no-brainer to get involved in the chapter there as well. As it turned out, they were also looking for new leadership, so I figured that it was a good way to get involved, get to meet people in the local community, and also give back to other game developers.
JM: What was one of the most memorable chapter events you ran and what advice would you give to other chapter leaders on making sure they run interesting/relevant events and sessions?
LPT: One of our best events was when we were able to convince Neil Druckmann to do a talk about making The Last of Us. Since Toronto is such a diverse community, we specifically wanted to invite someone that could appeal to our entire community which includes developers from indie to AAA. With The Last of Us being one of the most universally celebrated games of 2013, it was a great honour to host him in Toronto. As of today we have almost 70k hits on YouTube for this session!
Another great session to note, which constantly gets mentioned even years after the fact, is a talk that was presented by Adam Bromell (who is currently an Assistant Art Director at Ubisoft, as well as working on Astroneer as an alternate project). Adam and I worked together to customize his presentation so that it would be valuable to a variety of developers that were both early in their career, as well as industry veterans. The intent was to help reinforce one of the Toronto chapter’s goals: building bridges between all developers in Toronto’s diverse game dev community.
JM: It seems the industry in Toronto is growing with more studios and events popping up, have you noticed a lot of growth in the past 5 years?
LPT: It always seems like there are new developers, new projects, new games, and new companies in Toronto. I feel extremely fortunate for being part of such an engaged and thriving community, and ultimately, my hope is that we can all become better developers by helping each other grow and evolve by sharing our experiences.