Bing Gordon (EA) interview

27 06 2006

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Electronic Arts co-founder and Chief Creative Officer Bing Gordon (right) recently shared his views on game design programs, the value of an MBA degree, outsourcing, EA’s “biggest risk” and much more.

Controversy over the rising number of game design programs in the U.S. has heated up. Some people claim that academics can’t (or won’t) teach useful skills to aspiring designers. Some claim that, beyond technical training, only commercial project experience is truly useful. How do you feel about this, and what do you think academic institutions should be focusing on?

From first-hand experience, I can say that the best university programs are graduating the best entry-level game-makers. Period. The advantage students have is that they can work on many smaller projects, with teachers as advisers, and they can polish their team and cross-functional skills.

I recommend to game-making students that before they graduate they should: complete 4 team-based interactive projects; complete 4-6 fast prototypes, in many different media, including paper, cards and dice, and lo-res animation; complete basic feature design projects for key game categories that have user tools, such as designing a “smart object” for an object-oriented “living” environment (e.g. The Sims), level design mods (e.g. Unreal Tournament), and mission design mods (e.g. Neverwinter Nights); learn software “architecture” and data structures, if not c++ and java and html; learn basic maya skills; and play as many of the “Best Games of All Time” as possible, just as film students are literate in the most important movies.

The best grads will have “published” at least one project to public acclaim, such as 10,000+ downloads or competition winner; and they will have invented an improvement to at least one “best game of all time.”

If an aspiring game designer (or producer) could take just one class in college, what class would you recommend? Why?
“Building Virtual Worlds” class at Carnegie Mellon’s ETC program. Students complete 5 games in 3 months, working in cross-functional teams. My second favorite class is “Building Sims Objects” at USC’s School of Cinema, TV and Interactive Entertainment.

[ “Our industry’s biggest business challenge is to figure out how to convince consumers to pay ‘fair value’ for the increased quality we are delivering.” ]

You received an MBA from Stanford. How has that been most useful to you in your career? Where within the game industry do you think MBAs are most needed, if anywhere?

I have found that MBA training is great for enhancing students’ “business imagination.” You just see so many business histories and models in 2 hectic years.

Business schools tend to be best at teaching finance and accounting, however, because the basics can be covered in a textbook. But this material that is easiest to cover in curriculum is also easiest to self-learn. Once you find out that the trick to business is making “marginal revenue equal marginal cost”, the rest of financial planning is conceptually easy.

But for me, the most important aspect of attending business school was getting access to projects and internships at real companies, rather than exposure to interesting professors. I would probably have founded an ad agency, rather than joining “Amazin’ Software”, if it weren’t for doing a research project for the Fairchild “Channel F”, the world’s first cartridge video game system.

At EA, an MBA is very useful for people working in finance and business development. We must have 2-3 entry-level job openings per year for MBA-type skills in these areas. But there are many more openings per year for MBA’s who also can lead product development teams through sound business judgment, organizational development and leadership skills, and game-making creativity. We have 200-400 entry-level job openings per year for people like this. In other words, MBA’s who want to be in the game business should try to be Producers, not business specialists.

Despite the maturation of the game industry, many games (across developers and publishers) are still completed over-budget and behind-schedule. Is that an inevitable aspect of the creative process? If not, what can be done to change things?

The trick to finishing any creative project on schedule is to ship whatever is done by a given date. This is what advertising agencies usually do with the commercials they create. Of course, no one remembers that it was on time after it fails miserably.

Once you set minimum creativity standards on your work, predictability flies out the window. The trick here is to make progress through small, user-testable iterations, the way Neil Simon describes in his autobiography, “Rewrites”, and the way David Kelley’s Ideo process is described in “The Art of Innovation.”

The game business has an added wrinkle, that we deliver our creativity in the form of software, which is notoriously hard to schedule.

How do you feel about outsourcing labor to markets such as India, Eastern Europe, and China?

I think innovations happen from small, cross-functional teams of programmers, designers and artists. This kind of team seems impossible to outsource.

Content, some code modules and testing, because they are not cross-functional, and can be scoped in detail, are out-sourceable. For this type of work, cost versus predictable quality and schedule are the primary concern. In some cases, EA is outsourcing, and in some cases we are “in-sourcing” to EA employees in other locations.

Do you think that game developers and publishers should be putting more energy into meeting the needs of consumers in India and China? Or are these markets already being tackled with sufficient dedication?

I hate the word “should.” I have always rebelled against “should.”

Obviously, the capital markets are valuing the current and future potential of consumer markets in India and China. Publishers that cannot meet their long-term goals without success in all markets “should” try to succeed in all markets. It’s not clear whether there are any publishers who must succeed in all markets, however. EA, for example, has chosen not to enter several meaningful videogame markets, such as the gambling games business, and Microsoft has chosen not to enter the PlayStation games business.

In many organizations, marketing and development still treat each other as “necessary evils.” What can be done to improve these relationships?

The best solution is to have a cross-functional company leader. David Ogilvy was a researcher before becoming a copywriter and founding Ogilvy & Mather ad agency. The next best approach is to have leadership with great empathy for the other function. In the games business, that means that marketing leaders should be awesome game-players, and game-makers should be awesome tv-commercial makers.

What are your thoughts on the MMOG market? Do you agree with Brian Farrell’s recent assertion that there’s only room for one big MMOG at any given time? (i.e. World of Warcraft as of now.) **Note to reader: interview took place prior to the announcement of the Mythic acquisition.

Nope. I think that “virtual worlding” will soon be a rite of passage for all teenagers with access to the internet.

What’s the biggest risk EA ever took? And now that EA is a huge, public entity, can you take those kinds of risks anymore? Would you even want to?

EA’s biggest risk was preparing to launch a lineup of games for the Sega Genesis without a license. We reverse-engineered the electronics in a “clean room” environment, because Sega wouldn’t give us licensee terms that we could live with. If this had not worked, and the games hadn’t sold, (Sega agreed to license terms the evening before our public introduction of games), EA would probably have gone the way of early computer game leaders like Broderbund and Sierra. It was truly a “bet the company” decision.

I don’t think that company size or shareholder status affects the kind of risks that a company can “take.” Look at Apple with iPod, for example.

What is the biggest business challenge facing game developers and publishers today? How can they address it?

Sheez, good question.

I think our industry’s greatest challenge is to transition from technology-based to creativity-based experiences. In other words, we should all become like Miyamoto! Easier said than done.

Our industry’s biggest business challenge is to figure out how to convince consumers to pay “fair value” for the increased quality we are delivering. We need to monetize our “excess hours” of satisfied play. Our best games are unbelievably cheap on a per hour basis, compared to, say $1.00 per hour for paperback books, and $5-10 an hour for movies and DVDs.

Games Narratives are about as good as porn

21 06 2006

There’s a new postmortem for Quantic Dream’s console title Indigo Prophecy, as described by creator David Cage, online, and one of the most interesting sections in the 8,000 word postmortem is how the game has tried to reshape storytelling for games away from the basic: “One of the key points in Indigo Prophecy was the idea of getting interactivity and narration to work together. Most games oppose these two concepts or rather, they develop them in turn: a cut scene to advance the narration, then an action scene, then another cut scene for the narration. The structure of this narrative process is very close to that of porn movies.

via Slashdot.

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Rein promises contentious keynote for Develop

18 06 2006

Epic Games VP Mark Rein is to deliver a keynote address at the Develop Conference in Brighton next month which will attack the industry’s thinking on next-generation development

In a speech aggressively titled “Studios need to smarten up or ship out when it comes to next-gen development,” Rein plans to look past the discussion of design over graphics, and address how time and resources are being managed in development. Rein’s keynote will be just one of several high-profile sessions taking place at the conference, with speakers including Rez and Lumines creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi, Halo composer Marty O’Donnell, Lionhead boss Peter Molyneux, Singstar producer Pauline Bozek, Blitz Games founder Andrew Oliver, and top British film producer Andrew MacDonald.

The Develop Conference runs on Wednesday 12th and Thursday 13th July, with a Mobile Day planned for Tuesday 11th – with a keynote to be delivered by Nokia’s Kamar Shah. The GamesEdu event and an ATI-sponsored graphics developer day will run on Friday July 14th.

GAMES:EDU website

Develop In Brighton website.

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SCi-Eidos confirms 10th anniversary Tomb Raider remake

18 06 2006

Game not cancelled as suggested by Core Design

SCi-Eidos has confirmed that a remake of the original Tomb Raider is on the way to celebrate the game’s 10th anniversary – despite suggestions from Core Design that it had been cancelled. News of the remake came to light after a video of the game in action appeared on the Internet.

A statement posted on the Core Design website yesterday reads: “The video of Tomb Raider: 10th Anniversary Edition that appeared on certain sites was an unauthorised release of an internal presentation of a game that was being developed by Core Design until very recently. It was running on PSP and used a Core-developed engine. However, following a recent review this project has been officially cancelled by SCi.”

But that’s not the case, according to SCi-Eidos, which has since issued its own statement confirming that Tomb Raider: 10th Anniversary Edition is currently in development for PC, PSP and PS2. “Our 10th Anniversary Edition of Tomb Raider is a one-off title to celebrate both Lara and Tomb Raider,” said SCi-Eidos brand manager Larry Sparks.

The game is being developed by Crystal Dynamics, the studio behind Lara’s latest adventure, Tomb Raider: Legend. A release date has yet to be announced.

Rebellion acquires Core Design staff and assets

18 06 2006

Rebellion has confirmed the signing of a new agreement with SCi Entertainment to purchase the staff and physical assets of Core Design, the Derby-based studio behind the original series of Tomb Raider games.

Staff will continue to work with SCi on a new project, but the studio will operate under a different name. The Core Design name and intellectual properties will be retained by Eidos. Financial details of the agreement were not disclosed.

Rebellion CEO Jason Kingsley said the company was “delighted” to have completed the deal, adding: “With next-gen development upon us now, and publisher requirements changing, this studio’s deep and experienced talent allows us to continue to compete at a global level… Together with our business plan for 2006, it’s our goal to develop Rebellion further.”

What the Film Industry Could Learn from the Gaming Industry

6 06 2006

The video game industry may just be a baby in comparison to Hollywood, but one thing the gaming sector seems to do better is to create and then sustain buzz for its properties.

In 2004, Halo 2 launched to an eager videogaming audience. It generated $125 million in sales during the first day, an unprecedented amount of money for any entertainment field. This includes Hollywood, which (as is often pointed out) has complete box office results lower than the revenue generated by the interactive entertainment industry.

Comparisons don’t end at the fiscal end of things between games and movies. The labor situation in the gaming industry, with the lack of independent studios, is often described as “Hollywood in the ’30s.” And games themselves are often directly compared to movies as a storytelling medium.

But when it comes to advertising/promoting their respective properties, how much does the gaming industry have to learn from Hollywood? And perhaps even more to the point, how much can Hollywood learn from gaming? We talked to Joshua Kerr, founder and president of Ideal Science and Dan Rogers, senior partner ISM about the subject.

Networking of all sorts
During 2004 Halo 2 developer Bungie decided to revamp its website and forums. With the help of a Web-based bulletin board software solution from Ideal Science, they launched their modified forums with a revamped website. Within the first five days, more than 20,000 new posts were added to the forums and stoked the fires of anticipation even higher.

“Using our software, customers can create online communities to promote products and services,” said Kerr. “Additionally, they can use the forums to generate buzz about future products and services. These communities will establish loyalty and brand recognition. For example, prior to the release of Halo 2, Bungie used Ideal Science forums to generate buzz by releasing screenshots which fans would spends hours having conversations about on the Bungie forums. On the day of the release of Halo 2, over a million people visited their website and sales exceeded 100 million.”

“Video game publishers have a much more important reason to network than anyone,” said Rogers. “Beyond that, most of us still don’t need to be overly concerned with Hollywood. The reason game publishers need to be involved with Hollywood is primarily to strike deals for Hollywood content and to provide avenues for the future exploitation of video game properties. That said, the number of people involved here is minimal. All major publishers have a licensing manager to handle this interaction. For independent developers, there is a ‘slightly’ growing need to be involved in Hollywood. I say ‘slightly’ growing because there are a few larger independent developers who have the ability to purchase top Hollywood properties to integrate into their games.”

“For the rest of us, Hollywood is a great place to visit, but there is little actual work to be done there,” continued Rogers. “Too often video game developers get caught up in the memorizing lights of ‘Hollywood’ and end up spinning their wheels or securing properties that have little value in our industry. Studies and history have shown that generally only the top grossing Hollywood films will even have a chance of breaking even in our business. And for the most part, these properties are licensed to major video game studios for millions of dollars. I suppose someone might get lucky with a ‘Blair Witch’ like video game license down the road, but my advice to independent studios is to stick to what you do best and what Hollywood still hasn’t learned how to do, which is to make incredible video games.”

Out of touch…?

While it is increasingly becoming an issue in the gaming industry how publishers are “out of touch” the subject does not come up as often as it does with Hollywood. A lot of money gets thrown around, and by the time most movies finish their cycle in the theater, DVD rentals/sales etc. the productions are profitable. The question remains, though, whether this success is due to quality, or sheer momentum of the Hollywood industry grinding things out.

“Hollywood elite appear to be making a lot of films that do not resonate with the general public,” commented Rogers. “For example, look at films that surprise the critics and film professionals such as Passion of the Christ. Few in Hollywood thought it had a prayer (pun intended) of breaking even. But if you would have asked the average consumer in the Midwest of the United States, they would have told you something quite differently.”

“Professionally, I don’t think Hollywood has ‘lost touch’ with our industry,” he added. “With due respect, I don’t think they ever had ‘touch’ to lose. Steve Jobs is now one of the top film executives in Hollywood (Buena Vista Animation). Isn’t he the co-founder of Apple Computer? It seems to me that technologists may have a better idea of how to make entertaining Hollywood properties than Hollywood insiders have of making video games. Hollywood still has a lot to learn about the video game industry. On the other hand, there are exceptions. Companies like Vivendi Universal, who for years were struggling in the video game space, have learned through a lot of expense and trials how to make great games. They have learned a lot of valuable lessons and others in Hollywood may take note of their example.”

“Video game producers have not had a drop in sales similar to what Hollywood is experiencing,” said Kerr. “We believe this is attributed to the fact that the video game industry knows exactly what their customers want by listening to them on their online communities.”

Get buzzed

“Buzz” is something of a nebulous term, but generally it signifies the level of talk surrounding a certain product. Buzz before a product launches (or hype) is good, but buzz after a product launches is golden. It’s what the gaming industry seems to do fairly well (see the above Halo 2 example) and is something that, by contrast, only seems to happen by accident with Hollywood movies.

“All game titles use forums as a tool to generate buzz and get feedback from gamers,” said Kerr. “Specific movies that would generate the most from using Ideal BB.Net forums include sequels and those based on comic books. These movies tend to have the most eager and loyal fan base.”

“Buzz is all important,” concurred Rogers. “A decade ago, I was a marketing director in this industry (Sierra On-Line and Virgin) and we believed in a concept I called ‘Heating the Core.’ The general idea was that the purchase decisions made by key influencers (avid game players) had a ripple effect outward to casual gamers. If you ‘heated the core’ hot enough, these influencers could pre-sell to those more difficult and expensive to reach. That was a decade ago, when we were spending very little in television advertising. Today, publishers like Activision report that their ad budgets are equal to their game production budgets. But despite this significant increase in the scope of video game advertising, the ‘buzz’ factor is all important. And with the Internet, viral advertising has a way to touch both groups. Nevertheless, it would be a big mistake to release a game today without addressing the all-important fan base and avid gamers.”

by David Radd

I wish

6 06 2006