EA Los Angeles' Neil Young Tells All

In this exclusive interview, the VP and general manager of EA talks about Wii, PS3, and creating intellectual property

GameDaily BIZ: So first of all, coming off the big three press conferences (Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft), how did you feel about what you saw?

Neil Young: Excited. Excited about where the Xbox 360 is in the marketplace, the potential of the PlayStation 3 and the [Wii], so it's a pretty exciting time I think, and although it doesn't have a press conference, I don't want to discount the PC. There's some pretty exciting things out there for the PC.

BIZ: Well, Microsoft had the PC partially covered in their press conference... Anyway, so what did you first think when you heard the name Wii and what are your thoughts now?

NY: I think it's fine. I mean, honestly, I've always thought it was fine. I read a lot of the conjecture on the Internet, but at the end of the day the name is one thing; the product is the thing. The system is the thing at the end of the day and it's pretty revolutionary and it's got a unique name and ultimately I think that's going to feel like a benefit, so I thought it was good.

BIZ: Do you believe the PS3's motion sensing controller was in some ways a reaction to the Wii's functionality?

NY: I don't know; gyroscopic controllers have been around and that technology has been around for a while. Nintendo's application of it is fairly unique, so I don't know if that's the case. It's kind of hard for me to comment, but certainly when you think about what you do when you are playing a game, your primary connection to the game is through the interface and so the interface is an important place to evolve.

Nintendo in particular, if you sort of look at the history of Nintendo, really led the way in terms of controller innovation and I think to some degree other people have followed. I mean, Nintendo had the first analog stick. Then Sony sort of took that idea with the DualShock and took it forward and now Nintendo leading with a full gyroscopic controller and I think other people will ultimately follow that.

BIZ: Do you think though that because Sony and Nintendo both have motion sensing while Xbox 360 doesn't that there will be some more commonality between games perhaps being brought to both systems? Does it make it easier for EA?

NY: Well, I think the difference for the Nintendo controller is that it's core mode of operation is gyroscopic and I think that's different from the new controller from Sony, which is essentially a wireless DualShock 2 with motion sensing built into that. I think when you see our Madden product, that's something that really works very, very well with the Wii controller and I think it would be a little bit difficult to match in sort of throwing the [PS3] controller [laughs].

BIZ: EA recently announced that it plans to put much more emphasis on the creation of original intellectual properties, rather than relying on licenses. In fact, you just opted out of the James Bond license, which Activision picked up. Where did this change in strategy for EA come from?

NY: The first thing is that we're a big company and you sort of have to manage a balanced portfolio, and so what we're certainly not saying is that we're never going to work on a licensed property again but the types of licensed properties that we want to invest our time in are things that we can turn into meaningful franchises on a really long-term basis, and at the end of the day we can sort of invest the development resources that we have for inventing features that we have for those licensed properties or completely new intellectual properties. What I wouldn't say is that the company is swinging to an exclusive development of original intellectual property because that's not the case, but it's much more a managed portfolio.

I think the change inside our company sort of happened about 18 months ago where we sort of said to ourselves, "You know what? We have to narrow our definition of intellectual property, right now. And also to narrow our definition of new franchise intellectual property and we need to broaden that definition so that at one end of the spectrum we've got brand new things like Spore, but at the other end of the spectrum we've got the type of culture inside our company where we can create new features; features can be intellectual property too."

And what we don't want to do is sort of throw away those tried and true fantasies that people love. You know, stepping into the shoes of a World War II soldier or being a player in the NFL, but what we need to do is we need to figure out mechanisms to keep those fantasies sort of fresh and exciting. So really, about 18 months ago we just said to ourselves, "You know what? We need to start affecting the culture of our company at a very grassroots level so we can invent." So a lot of the motivation behind things like Medal of Honor: Airborne is to ask yourself, "Essentially, you've been playing the same first-person shooter since Allied Assault. What do we need to do to kind of move that category forward? What type of inventions do we need to bring to bear?"

And we sort of started saying, "Ok, so what do you do in a first-person shooter? Well you start at the beginning and you move to the end." So then the next question is, "Well, what if you didn't start at the beginning? What if you started not along a linear path but could you start anywhere? What would be the fictional conceit to be able to start anywhere?" And then you go, "Wait a sec, there haven't been any games based on the Airborne," and then you get to the place where you say, "Ok, that's not new franchise IP, although it is Electronic Arts owned IP, but the concept of the jump and jumping into a sort of open space is original and it changes the way you then play the game, which in turn leads you down the path of like, "Ok instead of placing enemies that pop up from behind crates and barrels or in windows, what kind of systems do we need to be able to deal with that gameplay? And so, there's a piece of technology called Affordance AI in Airborne that essentially manages a whole group of enemies that react to you based on the natural affordances inside the environment; and so that's an existing intellectual property that's being reinvented through individual features.

And then of course we've got things like Spore and things like Army of Two that are new intellectual properties that ultimately, at the end of the day, bubble out of that culture. You know, you don't just in a sea of executions put a little boat of invention. You've really got to look at the very grassroots of your organization. How do we make sure that everything we do has some sort of degree of invention? And that'll take time to play out in our portfolio; it's not something you just do overnight.

BIZ: It's interesting that more and more Hollywood bigwigs are getting involved in the video game industry. Why do you think they're looking at games so intently? And what does the recent announcement of the collaboration between EA and Steven Spielberg mean for EA?

NY: I think in general now the [film and video game] industries are touching similar types of people. I mean our business has grown up from a tiny hobbyist industry back in the day where you were copying Commodore 64 or VIC-20 discs and putting them in bags and selling them through magazines to where it is today where hit games can touch literally tens of millions of people. So I think why the interest from the entertainment business in general is I think 1) because it's a large market; 2) the type of entertainment experiences that we're able to deliver now—and this sort of speaks more to Steven than to anything else—start to get close to the type of emotion resonance or fidelity that you can see in a film. And that's not just the visuals, but it's the ability to kind of tell a story.

With specific regards to the relationship with Steven, he's always been a gamer. He's sort of been a friend of Electronic Arts ever since we purchased DreamWorks Interactive, which obviously he was the principal of. And over the course of the last—I think the deal came together maybe a year or so ago now—he started to see what the next-generation machines were capable of doing. He just started getting very excited, and we started talking again about the questions that Electronic Arts was actually founded on—that "can a computer game make you cry?" And he's very motivated to solve those problems too. So we formed the collaboration and have been working with him since then and it's come along great. He's in the studio every week and it's good.

BIZ: So when will we see the results of this collaborative effort?

NY: We haven't announced a release date for the first product. It's a three product partnership and the first product is well underway with a relatively small team of people in Los Angeles developing that led by a guy called Doug Church...

[EA rep interrupts] They're still integrating ideas and putting together the sort of backbone for the game, but we haven't announced it yet.

NY: Yeah, it's pretty cool.

BIZ: Is there a rough timeframe you're comfortable with announcing, like maybe 2007?

NY: We really haven't announced that time, but suffice to say we're going to take our time, we're going to make it great, and you know, make it right. You can assume that it'll be sort of centered on being a powerful and moving story as well as a great game.

BIZ: Is this Hollywood/gaming convergence ultimately a good thing for the video game medium? Shouldn't games be focused on their own medium rather than aspiring to be cinematic? What are your thoughts on this?

NY: I think we're long past aspiring to be Hollywood. You know, I think Hollywood aspires to be us right now. So I think that's good and I think that's the way it's going to be. I mean we're very proud of the industry; I'm very proud of the games industry and Electronic Arts is very proud of the industry that it's helped sort of build. We're going to stay focused on trying to be the very best video game company that we can in the world. Now along the way we're going to create intellectual properties and we're going to have intellectual properties that we're going to want to bring across to as many different mediums as possible and we're going to come across people, you know, like Steven, from other industries that we want to collaborate with.

I think the difference is that where we stand today versus where our industry may have stood 5 years ago is that we're a lot more self confident in our own creative capability. And that's one of the great things about working with Steven, by the way. Steven doesn't walk in and say, "Do this, do that... or see you later." It's a collaboration. He looks to Doug and I as game makers and we look to him as a phenomenal storyteller and filmmaker and we just have tremendous respect for one another; it's a phenomenal partnership.

BIZ: So let's talk a bit about the quality of life issue. Ever since the whole EA Spouse blog post EA has been criticized for quality of life issues. Recently, however, the company settled with its former employees and I hear now that you've really cut back crunch time with something called "5 great days." Can you talk about how this was enabled and what it means for the workers?

NY: Well the basic underlying idea sort of stems back to that concept of creating intellectual property. Right, so crunch, managed crunch if you like, is built around maximizing execution productivity. And what you really want to do, is you want to maximize creative productivity. You want to create the type of environment where people have the best ideas, you know the first time, instead of a mediocre idea because they're tired and they then have to iterate 9 or 10 times to an OK idea. All of this, "5 great days," is really just one system with a catchy name. But the whole idea is let's take, in the case of the studio in Los Angeles, which is the studio I run, let's completely rewire the culture. And if you believe that the work is a product of the culture, then the question to ask yourself is, "What are the things that we need to change in order to deliver a culture that can consistently produce great work?"

And that's about the tone that the management team sets, the talent that you have in your organization and how you work with that talent and how you treat that talent, and you know, the practices that you have in place to be able to move those creative ideas through your organization. And so, really, speaking for Los Angeles, that's really what we've been focused on and I think over the course of the next few years you'll see the results of that and I can tell you that the studio's a pretty fun, cool place to be. On a purely selfish basis, when you've tasted the magical environment, when you've been in the environment where everything is fine and all cylinders are [firing], and when I worked at Maxis, you know when I worked on the Lord of the Rings stuff, the Return of the King, you get addicted to that magic, where there's like electricity in the air, people are buzzing, everyone shares the same vision and goal and so you want to try to propagate that around the whole company so you can end up with a consistent portfolio or studio system that creates things that are as exciting and interesting as Spore or Airborne... the Spielberg stuff, Army of Two, on a really consistent basis.

So that's kind of where that's at. And I know personally, I can't crunch for a very long period of time without starting to make bad decisions. So if you take a holistic view it just makes good business sense to not crunch. It's like, you know what, if I'm a programmer and I'm exhausted and I check in a bunch of code that I haven't really been able to fully debug and it brings the game down, which in turn brings the team down, then we've lost way more than the time that was "gained." I think we just have to take a much more mature attitude as an industry... and there will be times when we crunch. I mean, there just will be. But the crunch needs to be because it's from people who are like, "I so want this [game] to be great."

BIZ: And the "5 great days" program is something that is being instituted throughout EA, not just EALA?

NY: It's in different stages in different places around the company. So the thing about "5 great days," and I know people are very focused on that, is that it is one practice within a complete set of practices in the way that we're trying to sort of build a better business.

BIZ: Next-gen game creation takes more resources than ever before and consumers are constantly expecting better and better experiences. How does EA go about making development as efficient as it can be on these huge projects?

NY: Well games tend to go wrong when you start making them before you actually know what they are. And so we've put a lot of emphasis on trying to figure out the game that we're making first before we actually roll it into production. You really want production to be that piece of the equation that takes a big volume of resources, to build out all the assets, to be as short as possible, with no variability at all. And so you want to be able to prototype everything up front, understand that the game that you're making is fun, understand its scope, and our industry is fundamentally tactile so you need to prototype with code and simpler systems to be able to forecast whether your game is fun. And the way that we deal with it once we know that it's fun is we put it into production and we go on. We're working on an unannounced product for calendar 2007 that we've been prototyping for about 14 months, maybe 18 months, just to understand the system; we've been using one of our old engines just to make sure the game systems will hang together. It's like we have a grayscale world where all the systems are kind of figured out and now it's just a question of building that out. So that's really how we manage the development process.

BIZ: Ok, well thanks for taking the time to interview. It was a pleasure speaking with you.

NY: Thanks very much James. Very nice to meet you.

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