Things at Ubisoft Toronto would be quite different without Lesley Phord-Toy. As the fifth employee of a studio of more than 700 people today, Phord-Toy was hired as a producer when the studio opened in 2010. Since then, she has worked on multiple games, including Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Blacklist, Assassin's Creed Unity, and Watch Dogs 2.
An engineering graduate from the University of Waterloo, Phord-Toy originally worked as a programmer focusing on animation and special effects in Los Angeles before moving to Montreal and transitioning to games in 2003. Recognizing her talent for communication and team management while working as a lead programmer, she transitioned her career towards production before joining Ubisoft in 2010.
As a producer, Phord-Toy works with just about every team involved in the development of a game. Effective communication and coordination with team members across multiple disciplines is a crucial part of her job, and requires her to have a thorough understanding of nearly every aspect of the game development process.
"To succeed as a leader, you have to come up with creative ways to connect with people in order to motivate them. You need to be aware of how to empathize with individuals and relate to them in a meaningful way."
Did you always know you wanted to work in games?
LPT: No, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do (laughs). Even when I started university, I had no idea; I just knew I liked tech. I went to a university program with six mandatory work terms, and completed lots of internships, including one with EA, so I quickly realized that I really liked tech when I was working with creative people and content. That's why I initially started in animation and visual effects after graduation. I eventually wanted to focus more on creating content and had fallen in love with Montreal. Fortunately, there are a lot of game companies there, so I saw that as my opportunity to get into a more creative field.
I was always interested in games having played them my entire life. My first console was an Intellivision. My father bought it for the family when I was four years old, and my older siblings taught me how to play. We played so much Blackjack and Poker on it, my sister was teaching me to count cards before I could even read (laughs). Games were always normal to me, it was just like reading a book, or watching movies and TV. It wasn't anything out of the ordinary.
If games were such a large part of your childhood, why do you think you never considered it as a profession?
LPT: I think it was never immediately obvious that it was a career path, but mostly I think it was because it was such a part of my normal day-to-day. It would be the same as asking, "Why didn't I become an author, or make movies or TV?" I never had the thought, "No, I can't make games," it just never occurred to me. I also just didn't know what to do with what I liked; I liked math, I liked science, and I liked art, and I didn't know that making games could combine all those things.
What do you think prepared you to be a producer?
LPT: Starting my career as a programmer meant that I was involved in implementing content and features directly into the game. This allowed me to learn how everything comes together: how the art gets implemented, how the animations are hooked up, how the AI works. I didn't necessarily know the micro-details of all the other crafts, but I got to understand and support the entire process. I use that knowledge today to help me evaluate what's happening with the project and the team, and to work with the experts to prioritize. A lot of time, they already have the answers, but they are having trouble positioning the information in the right way to move forward; sometimes it just requires someone else who can help put things into perspective.
As a producer at Ubisoft, you are also for responsible for leading a team of people. Strangely, I think one of the reasons I'm good at this is due to the fact that I'm the youngest person in my family, which means I'm used to having people not listen to me (laughs). To succeed as a leader, you have to come up with creative ways to connect with people in order to motivate them. You need to be aware of how to empathize with individuals and relate to them in a meaningful way, and that definitely came from being the youngest in my family.
Are there any accomplishments that you're particularly proud of?
LPT: I'd say working on Assassin's Creed Unity. We created a co-development team in Toronto to support Ubisoft Montreal who was leading the project. I built a team in Toronto that gelled very quickly. We worked really well together because we complemented each other really well. I was very happy about this as it was the first time a lot of us had worked on an open-world game, and the first time most of us had worked on an Assassin's Creed game so we had a lot of challenges to overcome. It was also the biggest team I had ever managed. Previously, I had never led a team bigger than 40-50 people, and here I was in charge of a team of 120! It really helped me gauge my own growth in terms of being able to successfully lead a team that large.
I think the other thing that was really rewarding is that we provided a lot of value to Montreal. We built half of the city of Paris, which was a surprisingly large mandate for a first-time development partner. I was also particularly proud of E3 2014. There were two big demos made for the show that year. Montreal did the demo for single-player, and Toronto made the demo for co-op. Toronto's demo was the one that was selected to be shown on the Microsoft stage at E3. It was really cool, because we were being picked to be the world premiere of Assassin's Creed Unity! We did this together with Montreal –and it felt great to be an important part of the process.
Based on your experience, why do you think the gender equality gap in game development is so large?
LPT: It's a complex question; there's a few big factors. I don't think there are a lot of visible role models for women in games. From the outside, it's perceived as a male-dominated industry. However, I don't perceive it as an industry where women aren't welcome, but when you're faced with a situation where you're the only woman in the room, it can be a barrier for entry if you're not comfortable with that.
I was a little desensitized to gender imbalances early on. When I was a child, I grew up in classrooms that had more boys than girls. When I chose engineering, I never thought about it being a male-dominated field, because I've always been a minority. Not just as a woman, but because I'm Chinese as well, and never grew up around many other Chinese people. Throughout my engineering degree, there were very few women, so it's an environment I was very accustomed to by the time I joined the game industry.
Also, from my personal experience in STEM Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, you're more evaluated by what you can do. There's a stereotype that programmers can be a little nerdy, and it's kind of true. You're surrounded by people who never really felt like they fit in to begin with, so my experience is that they can be more accepting. When you're good at what you do, it doesn't matter who you are.
"These kinds of stories will be acknowledged and told with even more authenticity as we have more diversity within our teams."
You mentioned that many public role models in games are men, have you ever had any female role models?
LPT: It's funny. When I was graduating from university, I went on a job interview and I was asked who my role models were. I was stumped trying to think of an appropriate answer, like could I say Madonna?!, and ultimately came up blank. Eventually, I answered "my sister" – the same one who taught me how to play poker when I was 4. The interviewer was visibly disappointed in my answer (laughs).
My fellow engineering students – who were men, all had the same interview, and I asked how they answered that question. They started peppering me with answers: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Jordan. I remember thinking, "Wow, you guys have so many role models, I don't have any role models."
Today, while there are more high-profile women in tech like Marissa Mayer or Sheryl Sandberg, they're few and far between, and not nearly as celebrated. At this stage in my career, I tend to look closer to home for guidance, like my manager, Rima Brek, the Associate Managing Director of Ubisoft Toronto. There's a lot to learn from Rima. I respect her a lot and look up to her.
Speaking of a lack of relatable role models in tech, Watch Dogs 2 has a really powerful moment where M**arcus and Horatio are walking around the Nudle campus talking about how they feel uncomfortable because no one looks like them. Did you have anything to do with that? **
LPT: The Toronto team was responsible for making and populating the Nudle campus, however the story was crafted by the lead team in Montreal. We always wondered how they would address Marcus, a black programmer in a city not really known for that - it was kind of like the elephant in the room: were we just going to ignore that he is a black guy walking around Silicon Valley? I have to say it was a very nice surprise to experience that part of the story in a location that we knew so well. It was really well-considered to make that observation and call out that moment. I really appreciate the Montreal team for making that happen.
I think it speaks to why we need diversity in our teams as well. Not just gender, but all sorts of different backgrounds, cultures, and life experiences. These kinds of stories will be acknowledged and told with even more authenticity as we have more diversity within our teams.
What advice would you give to a woman who wants to do what you do?
LPT: If you want to successfully break into the games industry, you need to start by developing some concrete skills first. That said, it's such a diverse industry in terms of craft or discipline, you can pretty much invest in any kind of skill, like art, animation, writing, or coding, and probably figure out a way to get into games. From there, however, the hard work really starts as you need to develop an expert understanding of the entire process before becoming a producer, and this only comes from applying those concrete skills to shipping games. Because of that, with today's size and complexity of AAA games, the role of producer is one that is really more realized at mid-career. That said, as you go through each game development cycle, you will have lots of opportunities to develop your skills, and learn what you like and don't like. You know you are ready to lead your own team and project only once you're be able to have a solid understanding of your leadership style and production strategy.
How have you seen diversity affect your office?
LPT: Here in Toronto, we've been able to build a very diverse studio. We have people from all over the world, and when you walk around the office you hear all these different languages and accents. It gives you a true appreciation for the wide range of cultures and backgrounds represented and it's really valuable, because you can learn so much from each other. It forces us to have an awareness that everyone has their own experiences and through diversity, we have a wealth of knowledge to strengthen our teams and make better games.
The other thing I'm really proud about in the Toronto studio is that there are a lot of women in leadership positions. We're important, and our fellow teammates value what we bring to the table.