Fast Company

Playing to Win

Computer and video games are a bigger business than the movies, and the biggest force in games is Electronic Arts -- a company whose blockbuster titles dazzle millions of customers and generate billions of dollars in sales. Here's a behind-the-scenes look at a creative powerhouse (and a model of disciplined management) where rappers beg to be hoopsters, war-game designers learn combat tactics from a Marine hero -- and a series of complex projects come in on time and on budget.

So here you are, 3,000 feet above Nazi-occupied France, in a Douglas C47 Dakota with other members of the U.S. Army's 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment. Rifle in hand. Fear in your gut. It's June 6, 1944. D day. You're moments away from leaping into the predawn sky and encountering who knows what on the ground. Over the engine's drone, the captain barks an order to get ready and you --

Wait, stop the war. "There's just not enough happening," says Rick Giolito. Between the opening shot and the captain's line, he counted 15 seconds. That's too long. "Make it 5." Okay, restart the war.

You're preparing to jump, when enemy fire suddenly strikes the plane.

Hold on, this scene could be better. "Could I get smoke in the cabin?" Giolito asks. A producer, Brady Bell, makes a note.

You land on a farm in the French countryside, not quite sure where to go. Armed with an M1 Garand, a Colt .45, and grenades, you set out to find your squad and avoid getting captured. It's dark and quiet.

Too quiet. "I gotta hear Germans yelling outside," says Giolito. "You know what would be good? If you heard Germans banging on the door of the barn, trying to get in." Bell adds this to his list.

After taking out some Nazis, you recover a machine gun and go one-on-one with a tank, triggering a mighty explosion.

"Cool," says Giolito. "You get to blow up a tank."

In a darkened office in the Los Angeles studio of Electronic Arts, down the street from the J. Paul Getty Museum, Giolito and his team are fine-tuning their own work of art, the latest version of Medal of Honor, or MoH in EA shorthand, a World War II video game inspired by movies like Saving Private Ryan. The last version of MoH, in which you were a 24-year-old lieutenant named James Patterson, arriving on Omaha Beach by boat, sold more than 1.3 million copies.

Giolito is MoH's executive producer, so technically speaking, he creates games. But he and his crew are aiming higher. Their goal is to create an authentic historical experience. Like Spielberg. But different and perhaps, as some gamers would dare to say, better. Instead of simply watching D day unfold in heart-stopping detail, you are a part of it. You kill Nazis, you save soldiers, you survive the invasion.

Actually, if you want to live to fight another day, you better start practicing. War is hell.

Welcome to the entertainment industry of the 21st century, where video games are serious business. Last year, U.S. computer- and video-game revenue surpassed domestic box-office receipts, and this year, the game industry is expected to widen that gap with more than $10 billion in sales. In this competitive and demanding field, Electronic Arts is a bona fide hit maker. The company, based in Silicon Valley, has created more than 50 best-sellers (more than 1 million copies each) over the past four years. Fiscal year 2002 was its best ever, with 16 best-sellers (more than any other game maker) and $1.7 billion in sales (30% higher than the previous year). Its share price has more than tripled since January 1998, giving EA a market valuation in excess of $10 billion. (Disney shares, by contrast, have lost more than 50% over that same period.)

Much of EA's lineup bears a striking resemblance to a multiplex marquee, with games pegged to the latest Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and James Bond movies. Best-selling sports "franchises" such as FIFA Soccer, Madden NFL, and NBA Live offer new versions each respective season. And The Sims, which is now the best-selling PC game of all time, has branched out to the Web with its first online edition.

But EA is more than just a successful company in a glamorous industry. It is a model of successful management for companies in any industry. Lots of organizations struggle to turn ideas into blockbuster products. EA pulls it off by honing the way that it develops and markets games: by thinking of its products as emotional, cinematic experiences, not toys. By allowing its 12 studios the freedom to innovate while instilling the discipline to meet deadlines. And by not taking its success for granted. "Every time we ship a game, we're as nervous as someone who's on Broadway for the first time," says EA president and COO John Riccitiello. "Every time we do it."

The anxiety is understandable. A top title takes anywhere from 12 to 36 months to produce and costs EA between $5 million and $10 million. That's twice as much as the company spent just six years ago. Indeed, back in the beginning, all you needed to make a game was a decent imagination, a solid understanding of algorithms, and a dry basement to call your studio. Now a company like EA has to pull out all the stops: motion-capture sessions with star athletes. Photo and audio field trips to Europe. Original soundtracks by hot artists. And in the case of the game that's based on Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, voice-overs performed by the film's cast.

Given all of the creative parallels, it seems easy to mistake EA for a Hollywood studio. But that's an unfair comparison: Making games may be more complicated. The market is ruthless and fickle, shaped by fleeting tastes and the march of technology. Unlike a movie whose release can be delayed until the time is right, a game's technology can quickly go stale. "In Hollywood, if you succeed one out of three times, you're doing okay," says Bing Gordon, EA's chief creative officer. "In this industry, that's not enough."

IT'S IN THE GAME
Fall is crunch time at EA. The company generates 80% of its revenue during the holiday season. With ship dates looming, many of EA's products are in the final stages of production, and veteran game makers like Bruce McMillan are playing them 8 to 12 hours a day. McMillan is a luminary in the industry, having helped develop Madden NFL, MoH, and Harry Potter. The title that he's perhaps best known for, FIFA Soccer, is the best-selling sports game in the world. Since its release in 1996, it has generated more than $1 billion in sales.

An executive vice president and group studio general manager, McMillan spends his mornings calling EA's studios and his afternoons playing the latest "build" of the games. From his Vancouver, British Columbia office, he calls EA's London studio, then follows the sun, calling production teams in Orlando, Florida; Austin; and finally Los Angeles and San Francisco. At this stage, he's "tuning the games." He plays, gives notes on what needs fixing, and plays some more. "What I've realized over the years is that unless a game has great game play, it doesn't matter how pretty it is," he says. "We can't hide behind the graphics." By "game play," he means fun interaction. Yesterday, he noticed that some of the bad guys in Bond shot with the same skill at each level of the game. "I want them to feel more menacing as you get to the higher levels," he says.

McMillan, 39, is lean, with blond hair and a playful air about him. He's an avid soccer player, and his office overlooks EA's soccer field. While tuning FIFA Soccer 2003 yesterday, he noticed that the defense wasn't playing smart. It reacted the same whether you brought the ball up the sideline or to the middle of the field. But in a real match, he says, "it's always easier to pass the ball sideways or backwards. That's a basic mechanism of football." Less than 24 hours later, the FIFA team made the adjustment by tweaking the artificial intelligence. "Some of them were here until four in the morning," he says.

Earlier in the week, McMillan himself was awake until four in the morning reviewing games. His wife woke up and walked into the den to find her husband talking to the TV screen again. McMillan was playing FIFA at the game's highest level, where the artificial intelligence is at its best. "It studies your tactics and looks for play patterns," he says. "The move you used to score the first time won't work the next time you try it." After taking a 1-0 lead, he was stymied in the second half, unable to penetrate, and he tried in vain to fend off the computer's attacks on his goal.

The next morning, his 9-year-old son Alexander was getting ready for school when he noticed the score on the TV screen: 2-1. He looked at his bleary-eyed father and said, "You lost again, did you?"

McMillan grew up playing video games in Vancouver. More specifically, he grew up at the arcade on Hastings Street, which isn't far from the EA studio where he now works, and he would pump every quarter that he had into the machines. He lets his three kids play considerably less. The rule is three hours a week, unless he has a game that he wants Alex to try. He's one of the company's unofficial testers. Like his father, Alex gives notes too.

Dad, school was great today. I got 35/35 on my spelling test. . . . I played the game today that you left at the house. Really fun but the control feels slow, and I don't understand all the buttons. . . . The first mission is easy. Took me five minutes or so. I'd make it harder. . . .The dart gun was cool. . . . Why can't I go back and replay levels to be better? . . . I hope Harry Potter is doing well. It's going to be fun to play it with you on Friday.
Love, Alexander

The boy has a knack for uncovering bugs that the creators haven't come across. In an earlier version of FIFA, Alex discovered that he could score by lobbing the ball from midfield all the way into the net -- something an experienced player wouldn't try, because it would never happen in real life. "That drove our producers crazy," McMillan says with a touch of pride.

A PASSION FOR THE GAME
It's hard to overstate how passionate EA game designers are about the products that they make. Nearly everyone you meet mentions that he grew up playing games: Pong, Pac-Man, even the obscure text-only games that left everything up to the imagination. "My favorite form of entertainment is games," says Danny Bilson, vice president of intellectual-property development, who has nonetheless written or directed over 150 hours of television and cowrote the movie The Rocketeer. "The reason why I work for this company is because I love games."

Traditionally, games are a guy thing -- more specifically, according to industry demographics, a 16-to-24-year-old-guy thing. As the market keeps expanding, though, the enthusiasts at EA have to figure out how to make products for people who are not like them. The casual gamer. The novice. EA is going after this audience with new content and game play. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was the biggest launch in company history, selling more than 9 million copies in fiscal year 2002. It was especially popular among children under 14, a younger audience than EA has traditionally drawn. It's easy to understand why. "They may never have played games before, but they go to a lot of movies," says Jeff Brown, vice president of corporate communications. "Their first time out, they go for the familiar."

According to EA, The Sims appeals to teenagers, parents, grandparents -- many of them casual gamers. More than half of its audience is women, unheard of in video games. As one staffer laments, "My aunt blames me for losing her job because she played The Sims so much at work." Part of the charm is that The Sims isn't a strange or threatening fantasy world. On the contrary, it's contemporary ordinary life. The simulated people, or "sims," take out the trash, go to work, make pizza, make friends, date, and fight -- the stuff of real life.

In attracting new customers, though, EA has to be careful not to lose its core customers, who don't want to see their beloved games dumbed down for newbies. So EA has begun focusing on the first five minutes of game play. That's how long a customer at Best Buy or Wal-Mart may spend trying out a game. The challenge is to create an experience that leaves these two distinctly different consumers with different impressions of the same game. It must be easy enough for one, yet hard enough for the other. "Some people don't like to lose, so you've got to give them a positive experience the first time they play," says Bing Gordon, EA's chief creative officer. "But at the same time, give a hard-core gamer the promise of challenging stuff to come."

RAISE YOUR GAME
Snoop Dogg has a fantasy that only EA can fulfill: He wants to play basketball like Kobe Bryant. Just listen to him rap in "Get Live."
Ya see my game is to back ya down and bang on ya.
I'm gonna bring it to your whole team,
Tryin' to win the whole thing,
Size me up for the ring.
I'm celebratin' while the other team's mad, their heads down hating,
waiting to get another rematch, but we ain't seein' that, believe that.
Next.

EA's sports franchises come out every year. And every year, the challenge is the same: Make them better than and different from last year's games. "We're trying to change the perception that it's just a roster update," says Steve Chiang, the general manager of EA Tiburon and the former executive producer of Madden NFL. "We think of five major hooks and five minor hooks that we mention on the box. But there are hundreds of other changes." One major hook in Madden NFL 2003 is being able to play online. Friends on opposite coasts can square off in a game between the New England Patriots and the San Francisco 49ers. Another hook is having Monday Night Football announcers John Madden and Al Michaels provide commentary in real time.

Hard-core gamers expect video games to reflect the latest advances. If EA doesn't offer a substantial upgrade, another company might, making its game this year's hot basketball or football title. Consumers also want cool new features. Enter Snoop Dogg: rapper, basketball fan, and Los Angeles Laker. Instead of just offering a great soundtrack -- NBA Live features hip-hop while Madden NFL has rock music -- the NBA Live 2003 team had a brainstorm: original music. EA asked several rappers if they would be interested in writing songs specifically for the soundtrack. It was a slam dunk. Some of the musicians visited EA's state-of-the-art recording studio in Vancouver and did their thing. "We asked ourselves, 'What's the next step in delivering a total entertainment experience?' " says Jeff Karp, vice president of marketing. "We feel that music adds another emotional element to the game." Not to mention a nifty marketing angle. The songs are available only on the game disc, but EA is providing radio stations with copies in hopes of generating buzz.

The recording sessions led to another new -- and unexpected -- feature. "Snoop said, 'I want to be in the game,' " says Karp. So EA added him along with fellow rappers Fabolous, Busta Rhymes, and Hot Karl, who hoop it up with Tim Duncan and Jason Kidd. The musicians were given NBA skills according to whichever player they wanted to model themselves after.

In terms of technology, EA hopes to unveil a radical improvement in each iteration. In NBA Live 2003, that innovation is the new "freestyle control stick." It allows you to use both joysticks on the controller, rather than just one. Now, in addition to moving a player forward, backward, or sideways with the left joystick, you can perform more sophisticated moves with the right stick, or right analog.

This is about more than simply adding a new button, says software engineer David Bollo. This is about increasing the level of control, which is a very big deal to gamers. Bollo is more than happy to demonstrate. He's sitting at his desk in the NBA Live office, not far from a row of NBA jerseys hanging from the ceiling. Although he can't palm a real basketball, when he picks up the game controller, he plays like Jason Kidd. "So I can palm the ball behind me or I can sweep it between my legs," Bollo says, moving various players like a puppeteer. "If I want to get fancier, I can cradle it to the right, then cross over and spin my way through traffic. I'm a big fan of the spin move."

Some improvements come straight from gamers, and not just those at EA. After focus groups in Europe said that FIFA wasn't authentic enough, EA assigned 60 people to fix the game. One of the biggest changes involved the ball, and how it remained glued to a player's foot when he dribbled. "We had to do an absolute rewrite," says Rory Armes, a senior studio vice president. The reason? The more realistic a game appears, the higher customer expectations become.

The moves themselves come from actual athletes. The Madden NFL studio, for instance, has tapes of every NFL game going back about five years. Chiang and his team study the tapes for acrobatic catches and tackles as well as for memorable celebrations, like the time San Diego Chargers wide receiver Tim Dwight tilted the ball back and pretended to drink it. "What's real to our consumers is what's on TV," Chiang says.

Actually, EA is going for authenticity rather than realism. It's an important distinction. The games look and feel real, but not too real. For instance, there is no trash talking in NBA Live, the coaches don't get fired in Madden NFL, and there's no ominous black smoke or fatalities in NASCAR Thunder. (Although there are plenty of fatalities in MoH, there's no blood.) When the cars crash, there's only white smoke, the sign of a less severe accident. At first, NASCAR insisted that the cars, plastered with corporate-sponsor logos, couldn't be damaged even after collisions. Eventually, though, Chiang's team convinced NASCAR that bent hoods and crushed bumpers were a part of racing.

FUN AND GAMES AND SERIOUS BUSINESS
It takes a tough company to make entertaining games. "The forgotten aspect of creativity is discipline," says John Riccitiello, president and COO. It's something that EA never forgets. Coming up with a clever idea for a game is the easy part. The hard part, the part that EA focuses on relentlessly, says Riccitiello, is identifying the right idea, assembling the best development team, solving the inevitable technical problems, creating a game that people want to play, getting all of the work done on schedule, getting it to market at the right time, and knowing how to generate buzz about it in an increasingly crowded market. True, many stages of that process are inherently creative, but what ties them together is discipline.

There is the discipline of trying to understand ideas in the making. "This is where a lot of great ideas get lost," says McMillan. "Maybe you don't understand what somebody is describing, and it could be the next Sims." Early in the process, game makers try to identify the creative center of a game, or what they have come to call the "creative x." At its core, NBA Street, which features rim-ramming three-on-three action, is about becoming a street-ball legend. Def Jam Vendetta, a new title, is hip-hop meets professional wrestling. "When we were building The Sims, we knew what we wanted in the game," Riccitiello says. "We knew what to put in and leave out. Ditto James Bond 007, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings."

There is the discipline of understanding the audience through focus groups. The discipline of sharing best practices and technologies across the studios through an intranet library. "There's a saying around here," says Brown in communications. "If somebody develops a better blade of grass in one game, that grass will be in somebody else's game the next day." There's also the discipline of grooming the next generation of executive producers. EA's "emerging leaders" program gives participants firsthand experience in departments outside their own. There is the discipline of studying (well, playing) the competition. "We often know more about the feature set of our competition's products than our competition does," boasts Riccitiello.

There is the discipline of methodical project management. "If you're working on a game and you miss your deadlines, you won't be working here very long," says Riccitiello. "This isn't some sort of summer camp -- it's boot camp. If you're not a hunter-carnivore, if you're not willing to work as hard as you can to win in the market, it's not a good place for you."

And yet, the staff is encouraged to take creative challenges. Neil Young was the executive producer on Majestic, an online conspiracy thriller that broke the rules of traditional computer games. It was episodic, like The X-Files. It took interactive play to a new level, offering clues via email, fax, and telephone. But EA discontinued the game because of disappointing sales. Despite being a high-profile flop, it was considered groundbreaking, if flawed, internally. Young was not fired. He became executive producer of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, one of this year's most important titles.

ON TO THE NEXT GAME
The Academy Award in Rick Giolito's office sits perched on a high shelf above his desk in EA's Los Angeles studio. "Oh, you noticed my Oscar?" he says. It's a joke. The award actually belongs to Mark Lasoff, who won a 1997 Oscar for his visual-effects work on Titanic and has joined EA as art director on MoH. That, in a nutshell, sums up the cinematic nature of video games today. If you want to create a war game that feels as compelling as a movie, you raid Hollywood.

MoH was originally created by DreamWorks Interactive, the much-touted multimedia experiment started by Steven Spielberg, along with Bill Gates, David Geffen, and Jeffrey Katzenberg. After the company failed to live up to its pedigree, EA bought DreamWorks Interactive and promptly transformed MoH into a best-seller. Like other EA acquisitions, the studio retains a good bit of its original identity. In fact, there was a Spielberg here just the other day, says Giolito. The director's son dropped by to play video games with a friend.

The MoH production team decided that it was creating more than a game. It was a "deep, interactive cinematic experience," says Giolito. Rather than spell out the player's objectives, the game starts in Normandy, and you figure out your mission by encountering soldiers who instruct you through scripted animation. Last year, when EA debuted a trailer of the game at E3, the industry's big trade show, people waited in line for three hours to see it.

The development team is obsessed with authenticity. It hired retired U.S. Marine Corps captain Dale Dye to serve as a consultant on the game. Dye, who earned three Purple Hearts fighting in Vietnam, consulted on Saving Private Ryan, Born on the Fourth of July, and Platoon. He teaches the game makers combat tactics and how to handle various weapons. He leads the camouflage-clad team in maneuvers in a mini - boot camp on a paint-ball range. "The people making the game get an understanding of what it means to flank and what it means to work as a team out in the field," says Giolito.

For the D day scenes, six designers and sound engineers traveled to Normandy to take pictures of the beaches and the towns, and to record the sounds of the French countryside. The multilayered soundtrack, featuring music as well as sound effects, gives the game its rich, cinematic feel, and hopefully, says sound designer Erik Kraber, it sparks emotions too. "Ultimately, MoH is a first-person shooter, so you're firing your weapon, but in between that, we try to create attachment to character and personality," says Kraber. "So if you lose someone in battle, it's not taken lightly. That's the Holy Grail in our game."

It's the sort of game that prompted EA to hire Barry Jackson. Although he doesn't play video games, he has worked on a dozen films as an illustrator, including Shrek and Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Jackson has helped refine the MoH preproduction process, which Giolito is sharing with other EA studios. First, a group armed with Post-it Notes gathers in a small conference room that's decorated with camouflage netting. Everyone tosses out dramatic moments to include in the game, such as an ambush, a reunion, or a dream sequence. Then they start rearranging the Post-its to build the narrative arc of the story. It's a common script-writing technique, says Jackson, known as "step-outlining."

Jackson and his team of illustrators make digital sketches of each moment (they call them "story beats") and string them together in an "animatic" (something that resembles a flip book of black-and-white action scenes that can be screened like a short film). Kraber adds the music and sound effects. The result is a design outline of one level of the game, the equivalent of a single chapter in the story. Jackson also charts the visual progression of action, tone, shape, and intensity to make sure that each element builds to a climactic point, like the Dow on an excellent day. "You get a better story this way," he says.

In just four weeks' time, the MoH team and EA executives have a clear idea of a game's tone, mood, and objective. "I was looking for a better way to communicate to senior management what we're doing," says Giolito. "Now they can see how the game unfolds moment by moment. It's like a play or a movie."

Actually, in the case of MoH, it's more like a miniseries. Next year's installment involves dramatic rescues, unexpected reunions, surprise attacks, and any number of plot twists. World War II lasted six years, but EA is hoping that MoH will last a lot longer. Giolito, for one, isn't worried about running out of ideas. He picks up a letter of citation about a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. After the soldier's unit was attacked, he was shot at and nearly killed by a grenade, yet he still managed to go after a machine gunner and later clear an airfield so that the wounded could be airlifted off the battlefield.

Giolito shakes his head, amazed. It doesn't matter that this soldier fought in Vietnam. Heroism is heroism. "Real life spins more intricate, interesting stories than anybody could ever make up," Giolito says. "I'll be dead and buried before we explore every possible story in this game."

Chuck Salter (csalter@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer based in Baltimore. He has yet to win a game in Madden NFL 2003. Learn more about Electronic Arts on the Web (www.ea.com).

Sidebar: THE DISCIPLINE OF CREATIVITY

At Electronic Arts, creativity is built on a foundation of management discipline. EA even takes a disciplined approach to the challenge of developing creative leaders. A dozen or so producers and designers at each studio meet throughout the year for a series of workshops. A dancer came in to talk about how movement can be used to express physical and emotional states. A film expert talked about the use of music in silent films to enhance the action. The idea behind the program is simple yet effective, says Andy Billings, vice president of human resources and organizational development: Expose creative leaders to other art forms and new ideas, and see what rubs off.

This past September, the guest speaker was Henry Jenkins, a director of the comparative media-studies program at MIT and a passionate gamer. Imagine the motion-picture industry in its infancy, when it had been around for only 25 years, he told the group. "That's where you are now," said Jenkins. "Video games will be the most important American art form for the 21st century."

The challenge for EA's game creators is figuring out how to build an industry and how to create lasting art. In a previous workshop, Jenkins talked about narrative structure, character development, and memorable moments in Homer, Shakespeare, Dickens, and Poe. "What can you put in a game that will endure?" he asked.

Over two days at the Vancouver studio, EA's creative leaders pondered these and other issues. The nature of fandom. The propensity of rule breaking and how designers might encourage this to enhance a game. And the importance of leaving space in a game for imagination, or the "meta game." Meaning that the game continues in the player's mind even when the console is switched off.

That's how the creativity sessions are supposed to work as well. "We're taking a group of people who more or less grew up with 'fight or flight' video games and saying, We can't just have great graphics," says Rusty Rueff, senior VP of human resources at EA. "There has to be deep, nuanced storytelling."

Between presentations, producers and designers played video games. As they deconstructed competitors, there was gleeful criticism, along with something else: genuine admiration when they saw something unexpected. They couldn't help it. Deep down, they're gamers.

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