Neil Young, VP and GM of EA, Los Angeles, on working with Spielberg and the gaming industry's duty to tell compelling stories
So first of all, since we literally just came from Phil Harrison's keynote, what did you think of what Sony presented?
Neil Young: I was very, very impressed with the whole sort of Game 3.0 initiative. There are a lot of Sony haters out there right now and you just should never underestimate what that company is capable of doing. They've got a great platform and they showed some pretty cool and compelling software today. I think Home can change the way you feel about the platform and the way you feel about interface as the sort of default interface for the platform, so that's interesting. I've personally been a huge fan of SingStar, predominantly because I'm British and all British people strangely love karaoke. ... And LittleBigPlanet is amazing. I mean, amazing. That might be the first application that you could only do on the PS3. It's very physics intensive... it's just wonderful. And it makes me happy about the business; it makes me happy for Sony and Phil.
I think there's huge marketing potential within Home because you can have these dedicated spaces. I mean, you could have your own EALA space dedicated to all your upcoming titles, constantly streaming trailers like a virtual E3 booth, or whatever...
Oh yeah, definitely. Having a space that is sort of advertiser/partner/developer/customer—friendly is a brilliant creative move. At the end of the day Sony is going to do very well with the PS3 platform and that will probably be one of the largest economies in the world, outside of the web.
So what are your objectives for EALA this year?
Well, we have two titles shipping in March. Command & Conquer 3, which is a very important game for us; it's the first Command & Conquer since five years ago. That was C&C Generals, which you could argue was not really a true Command & Conquer. C&C 3: Tiberium Wars sort of hearkens back to the original fiction of the world, GDI vs. NOD. And the focus for the team has been around trying to deliver that flavor that you fell in love with when you fell in love with C&C. So it's very fast and fluid gameplay, it sort of has a sense of fun about it, but at the same time it's really a very serious RTS. It has 38 missions and if you compare and contrast that with Battle for Middle-earth II, which was the last RTS game we released, that had 18 missions, so it's double the size in terms of the single-player campaign.
The multiplayer game, like all of our RTS games, is very robust, but we've also introduced a new feature called BattleCast, which inside our studio we call "RTS as a sport." We're strong believers that there are the same sort of dynamics that drive people to compete on the sports field as there are that drive people to compete in an RTS game. So this "RTS as a sport initiative" starts with the BattleCast feature—basically every online multiplayer game you play is streamed to the network (you can turn it off if you want), so people can tune into your games and watch them. People can commentate, telestrate, and an archive of all the games is stored on the network. You can rate and rank games, and schedule games against others, as sort of a program guide type scenario. It's a very rich online feature set that is going to shift things in the RTS space.
We have Medal of Honor Vanguard, which is shipping on PS2 and Wii. That's really a throwback to kind of classic Medal of Honor. You can think of it sort of as Frontline 2.0. It's very focused on that and of course the Wii implementation. ... Later this year, we'll also have C&C 3 on the 360. We brought RTS to the console with Battle for Middle-earth II, and that really surprised us in terms of how well it did both commercially and it was sort of experimental so we were delighted in how it was reviewed. C&C refines that [console RTS gameplay] and takes it to the next level. ... Medal of Honor: Airborne is sort of the rebirth of that franchise. You can think of 2007 as sort of the year of rebirth for the [EALA] studio; we took it over about 2+ years ago and we've reset the studio, we've been rebuilding its creative capability, and now this year we're refreshing the franchises that made it great with a set of new innovations like "RTS as a sport," or in MoH: Airborne, the fact that you sort of jump into every level and it's an open and highly procedural space.
And next year, we've got Steven Spielberg projects we've been working on and we've got two of those underway right now, and some new things that we haven't really talked about but are broad appeal in nature.
When we spoke with you at E3 last year, you didn't have much new to share regarding EA's collaboration with Steven Spielberg. What's the latest on how that's progressing and what kinds of experiences should we be expecting to come out of this partnership?
I can't really share game details, but if you recall the original announcement we agreed to build three things with Steven, three original projects. We have two of those underway at the studio right now. I can tell you one of them is what you might expect, in that Steven's stories are often intimate stories set against an Earth or world changing event. And if you think about Steven Spielberg's movies, those big stories are sort of shown through the eyes of a small number of people that are intimately connected. The first product that Doug Church is producing is very much in that vein. The second product is really not in that vein, and Lou Castle is producing that game. Lou's one of the great game makers in our business, just like Doug, and that's a product that we're building for the Wii. So it's very different and very interesting and we're excited about that.
Steven's in the studio about once a week, anywhere from 1 to 4 hours; he swings by and he's in the office by about 8:30 and usually leaves like 11:00 or midday. And it's a very close collaborative relationship. It's everything you'd hoped the relationship would be but were nervous to ask upfront. It's really wonderful spending time with him... he's incredibly creative and just has such a great sense of what entertains people. It's a learning experience I think for us, and I hope it is for him too. He seems very excited.
Some analysts have said that EA might actually have benefited from supporting the Wii even more during the launch window. How does EA and specifically EALA change its mindset when developing for Wii? How do you breed innovation?
Well, if you look at the launch titles from us and from a lot of people, they were essentially other franchise properties brought across to the platform and converted for that platform. I think you really need to build for the controller out. There's two things that are unique about the Wii and wonderful about it... and one is the Wii remote and the innovation it provides, and the other is the social context. The Wii has the potential to be the "new board game." When I was growing up, on Sunday afternoons or evenings we would sit around the table with my parents and we would play a board game, and it was a great social time. Throughout my life we moved away from board games and towards television, which really doesn't require you to engage that much; you sort of almost sit silently around the TV. And what the Wii has the potential to do is to bring families back together again. So the things that I'm doing in Los Angeles for 2007 and 2008 kind of start at the core idea of, "How does the controller change things?" and "How does the social context change things?" And, "How should we build games that specifically take advantage of what this platform has to offer?" We've got a number of things going on... and you'll see that at the EA Wii event tonight.
Last time we chatted you talked a bit about Affordance AI in Medal of Honor: Airborne. And while input methods/controls are hugely important as Nintendo has shown, I think AI leaves a lot of room for improvement and highly advanced AI in a game could have a profound effect on the gaming experience. Do you think AI is sort of the next frontier for developers?
I think it is. I think you have to take very careful measured steps. The Affordance engine is really based around giving people that experience they've come to love in WWII shooters, but doing it entirely procedurally. If you play Call of Duty, or previous Medal of Honors for that matter, you're moving down a line. And if you turned around or went backgrounds there basically wouldn't be anything there. You're basically hitting these invisible trigger volumes, and as you cross the trigger things pop up, you shoot them and move forward. It's a great model for a game and delivers a fun experience, but it's a one-time experience. Once you've consumed it, you're like, "Why would I consume this again?" What Affordance enables us to do is deliver that same sense of pacing and progression and do it entirely procedurally, so there's not a single piece of scripting. There's no trigger volumes that I step into... the game basically reacts to me in the world as if I was a pebble being dropped in a pond, creating ripples, and the game sort of reacts to those ripples.
The project that Doug [Church] is working on with Steven [Spielberg], we have a very focused effort on AI there because one of the objectives for us with that relationship is to try to move the medium forward and build a much closer relationship between the player and the characters inside the game world. So Doug is sort of taking a slice at that problem. Doug's work on Ultima Underworld, System Shock, those classic games, then his working with Warren [Spector] on Deus Ex and beyond has given him a very unique perspective on how to do that. We have a lot of effort going into AI, but I think you've got to break it down piece by piece by piece. What we learned with Affordance is that we're going to get the broad brushstrokes of AI in a WWII setting working, and then the first Spielberg project at its core is an AI driven relationship that the player has with another character.
Why do you think innovations in AI have taken so long to come about though? Was it limitations in processing power? Or have developers just not been as focused on it?
You haven't needed to do it. What users perceive as AI often isn't. It's often just animation. So when they see something that kind of looks like a dumb AI, it was probably a dumb designer doing a poor script with sh***y animation. The game designs that we've built haven't really required interesting AI, so as new power unlocks new game designs, new game designs require new AI. So that's really what's pushing things.
What did you think of Doug Lowenstein's farewell speech? Did you agree with the things he said?
Yeah, absolutely. I think that one of the biggest challenges for us in this business is the potential of government regulation. That will stymie our business and damage the industry's potential to be everything it has to be. And politicians getting on bandwagons and targeting the games business versus what they really should be addressing is parents and how parents are building their relationships with children. Video games are just the next scapegoat along with rock and roll, television and movies. It's like "F**k that sh**," that's what I say. Do not mess with my art form, because video games are like an art form. The sooner politicians figure that out, the better honestly. So my sense is that's an issue that I'm personally anxious about for the future of the business and I think Doug's message was, "You know what, you guys are being apathetic. If you do not take action, you will not change the course of this business and you need to." Doug is a wonderful and very smart guy and the industry will miss him. Private equity companies will be happy to have him—his new lobbying game for private equity [chuckles].
With Spielberg, Peter Jackson and others in Hollywood getting involved in the games space, isn't there somewhat of a danger that this convergence of gaming and Hollywood could somewhat dilute the experiences the two industries provide, particularly if the industries are mimicking one another? Do you see that at all?
No, I don't. I mean, I think if we poorly execute you would. I think the goal at the end of the day is to not copy Hollywood but collaborate with great artists in that medium and sort of bring to bear their knowledge. We [at EA] have had this goal for a long time, "Can a computer game make you cry? Can it move you in the way that great art moves you?" And in order to be able to answer that question, we think that partnerships with people like Steven are going to be interesting steps along the way. One of the reasons that we collaborated with Steven versus any other director is that Steven was very converse and passionate about the medium [of video games] and one of the things that Steven talks about all the time is no cut-scenes. He's like, "As a gamer for me, I want to button through it, I'm done and I don't want to see that rubbish." It's at best very bad cinematography is his point, and at worst it's just dross that doesn't really inspire me or motivate me.
His thought is always, "How can we tell a story through the surface that this medium provides us with." And whether Steven has been expressing himself in film or television or his other works, at the core of what he knows how to do very well is connect with an audience and tell a story. So what he brings to the table is that sort of instinctive skill around how to connect with people and tell a story. I think that's very important if we want to answer that question that EA was founded on. So I think it would be dangerous for us or any company in our industry to just go partner with a director and expect them to be able to deliver something that was a compelling experience. Our sense is, let's collaborate and let's collaborate with people that respect our medium, and we respect them and their medium, and sort of figure out how to make 1 + 1 = 11, not two or worst case zero.