Field of Dreams

Field of Dreams

By Chris Dring

July 20th 2010 at 2:12PM

Develop interviews EA Canada as it stands at the height of its creative power

Nestled in the Vancouver hills, EA Sports’ Canadian HQ is a sight to behold.

The 400,000 square foot complex boasts its own library, the largest motion capture studio on the planet, an NBA-regulation size indoor basketball court, two 24-hour gyms, a football pitch and a whole lot more.

It is far from your typical studio, but then EA Sports is not your typical developer.

The company behind iconic licensed titles such as Tiger Woods, FIFA, NHL, NBA and SSX doesn’t view itself as a games company that makes sports titles, but rather a sports company that makes video games. It is even ranked as the seventh biggest sports brand on the planet according to Forbes magazine.

In fact, EA Sports insists it has never been a studio that builds games for gamers, but creates experiences for sports fans. And these fans demand different things from the developers of typical video games.

EA Sports president Peter Moore, who has held senior roles at Reebok, Sega and Xbox explains: “I was flying to San Francisco once and the guy that checked my passport looked at it and said: ‘When am I going to see Shenmue 3?’ I love that passion. I love the banter going back to the Dreamcast days.

“Sport is a different kind of passion. Real in Shenmue was Yu Suzuki’s imagination, Peter Crouch is not in anyone’s imagination; he plays for Spurs and plays for England. People will criticise us for not getting that look right. What we do can be very polarising.”



BEST OF BOTH WORLDS

A great example of the way EA Sports straddles the sports and video games sectors is how its technology has been utilised outside of the Vancouver development hub.

TV networks Sky and ESPN have been using EA Sports tech to analyse matches during the World Cup, while its animation engine (ANT) has been used in Medal of Honor.

“We do tremendous cross studio sharing,” explains Moore.

“Feature sharing, technology sharing and great thought sharing with the two teams going back and forth between Vancouver and Orlando [EA Tiburon]. Interestingly we are utilising our engine in some of our FPS games.
 
“As soldiers run from position to position – and even the bigger games have this – there is kind of a stiffness of the soldier running that would not fly in a sports game. The use of our ANT engine in our FPS games is something you are going to hear more about. The utilisation of technology developed within Sports that uses motion, which can be moved across to our EA Games label, is something I am excited to see.”

RETURN TO FORM
EA Sports has had a fairly mixed track record in games development, though. In its ‘90s heyday it was renowned for creating the finest sports sims around.

This quality, combined with official licences and EA’s marketing muscle, helped the studio become a global sales force worldwide.

But by 2005, the development teams had become complacent. In terms of critical reception, FIFA was the poor cousin to rival Pro Evolution Soccer whilst 2K’s NHL and NBA franchises were far superior to EA’s efforts.

The Vancouver studio secured itself a reputation for making average, iterative games that offered nothing new year-in-year-out.

So in 2007 the EA chief John Riccitiello recruited Moore from his role as head of Xbox – he in-turn brought in some world class development talent to help turn the studio around.

The company dramatically cut the number of games it was working on, put a big focus on quality, and five years on EA Sports is a studio reborn.

“We are almost half of the SKU count we were at two or three years ago,” says senior VP of worldwide development Andrew Wilson. “What we are trying to do is make those games bigger. There were a whole bunch of random games we were making that were not getting the consumer feedback we were looking for.”

With a renewed focus, EA Sports’ titles began to improve. Last year’s FIFA secured a 91 per cent Metacritic score – making it the highest rated sports game on the current generation of consoles. NHL and Madden aren’t far behind, with a Metacritic of 88 and 85 respectively. In three short years Moore and co. restored glory to EA Sports.

“There were challenges five years ago in regards quality at EA that has all been put to bed,” insists Moore. “We had 20 titles with a Metacritic of 80 plus in our fiscal year.”

The firm’s newfound confidence in its ability is clear to see in Vancouver. Awards adorn the walls, while the firm is far more bullish about its line-up. When the producers unveiled its new-look NBA title – NBA Elite – to the press, it boldly claimed the game would match the standards set by FIFA and NHL. And to make sure it does, the NBA team has borrowed technology and even staff from those two franchises.

“Some of the things that work with FIFA can work for something like NBA,” says FIFA creative director Gary Paterson. “It is one of the advantages of being at a company as large as EA.”



PLAYFISH JOINS THE TEAM

The latest member of the EA Sports squad is social network specialists PlayFish.

The studio, which was bought be EA last year, has just launched its first EA Sports title – FIFA Superstars – on Facebook. This collaboration with the Vancouver team has already made a lasting impact.

“The FIFA team immediately went met with them,” says Moore. “The two teams, with very different skill sets, talked about authenticity being at the core and the use of the FIFA licence. Playfish gets it and gets it well. They’ve never done what we’ve launched, which is a core authentic sports game.

“The way Playfish develop and maintain a game is completely different to the way that we do it. They create the core game experience and watch it every day. They watch, figure out what is working and not working, and as the days go on they continue to change it.”

Wilson adds: “The shift to social and online gaming has made us as game makers significantly more metrics driven. In the early days of building games, the production team was employed as the consumer, and employed for their expertise and their opinion on what makes a great game.

“But what we have seen with social games is that metrics now drives a lot of those decisions, which means the people playing our games are telling us in real time. We always believed that producers, while their opinions are still valuable, will have to have their views taken into account with the feedback we are getting from consumers. We always believed this would happen.

“What the Playfish team has shown us is where we will ultimately end up for all of our businesses. The consumers vote with the way they play, and you respond, and if you respond right you will be successful and if you don’t then you’re not. That puts the power in the hands of the gamer and I think that is great.”

EVOLVING TECHNOLOGIES
Creating an annual, iterative sports franchise may not sound like every developer’s dream, but the EA Sports management encourages its staff to experiment.

The development teams are also working across an incredible 13 platforms – including browsers and iPad – and as EA Sports goes about digitising its business model, management is asking its staff to be innovative with its online and downloadable content plans.

One example of this innovation can be found in EA Sports MMA. In this brawler players can create their own fighting event, complete with real-life viewers, and even record their own pre-fight hype videos, which they can upload to the game for the world to see.

And that’s not to mention the studio’s experiments with 3D, PlayStation Move and 360 Kinect.
“Every new piece of technology has differing levels of investment needed to capitalise on it,” explains Wilson.
“Move and Kinect are changing the way we build some games as we look to the future, and the evolution from iPhone to iPad has been an interesting one. It comes down to each piece of technology; some is much easier to build towards while others are a little more complicated.

“The way we measure it is: what’s the consumer experience that we get out of the investment? Does it make sense? Does it enhance the game? I look at what we are doing with Move in Tiger Woods, and Move fundamentally changes how you play that game on PlayStation 3. And we look to invest in things that do that; things that change the way you play. We don’t invest in technology for technologies sake.

Moore concludes: “There will be a lot of trial and error. I read the forums and people do mock your decisions and say you should be doing this or doing that. But that is why we get paid; to make these decisions. Move, I think, we can do a bunch of stuff with that we have done very well with Wii.

For Kinect we have to figure out as an industry what unique experiences take advantage of that technology. I don’t think it will be about Madden Kinect or FIFA Kinect. It will be about brand new experiences that bring that technology to life.”