Develop speaks to the GM and VP of EA’s Canadian studios.Congratulations on the Develop 100 hat-trick. To what do you attribute to EA Canada’s continued commercial success?
A honed production philosophy. We’ve got a great process in place that has created some great games and is quite predictable.
The change in this place as younger developers come in from around the country and around the globe means we’re seeing a marriage between predictable production process and highly creative new idea-driven energies. What excites me is seeing the young, new developers come here and then put their ideas to work in a seasoned environment.
Our industry has a track record of having a great idea, but taking a long time to get that idea out. Yet I think if you marry a great creative process with a predictable development philosophy that’s a nice mix for us.
FIFA and Need for Speed still excite me because we’ve made sure we introduce new feature IP into those franchises. FIFA Street has changed perceptions for us and brought in a whole wave of players. And from our handheld group we’ve got a number of new ideas in the works for the DS – same goes for Wii. Our Montreal studio just produced SSX Blur and has just announced Boogie.
Can we take that to mean that EA thinks the DS and Wii are more suited to new ideas?
It’s easier to start, at least, a new idea on the Wii or DS because there are so many different styles of product on those machines. So a game where you controlled a hot air balloon would work really well on the DS – you could blow it to steer it around – but not on the 360 or PS3 because it wouldn’t work. So you can take simple ideas and develop them through the Wii or DS.
But I think you’ll eventually see just as much activity on the PS3 or 360, especially for the big epic games. It’s just, because of the power of those machines, it’s taking us longer to announce them.
Given that there are almost 2,000 staff across EA Canada’s teams, what do you say to the accusation that such a large outfit is more factory line than games studio?
I hear that a lot – and one of my jobs is to make sure that each game team feels like a studio in a studio. That’s my philosophy and how I like the culture to feel. It doesn’t really matter how many bright people are in a building – it houses us and there is a good atmosphere. What’s important is that each game or franchise has its own atmosphere.
Really I see it as leasing space to 50 little development teams and then helping each one in their own unique way.
It’s a fair question for an outsider to ask – it’s certainly a worry a lot of people have, but it’s not like a hospital, each team is autonymous.
Why do you think Canada specifically has seen so much growth?
Well, Montreal has grown because it’s a very cool city and people from there tend to stay or return – it’s an area that will keep growing because of that.
Vancouver, meanwhile, is just one particular city, but we have people from all over the world come to a great location. I think that’s what has convinced people from the UK, America and other countries to come to Canada and settle their careers as a game developer here. Canada’s just a great location to live.
How does something as big as EA Canada grow – is it through acquisition or just recruitment?
We have no purchasing plans as such, and I think we have a good enough number of people in Vancouver right now. Montreal is where we will grow most – they have three new IPs on the go there, including Army of Two. Their unique culture means they can create unique games which means they will attract talent.
In theory, if we found a small team of Canadians – say 20 or so people – that didn’t want to move to either Vancouver or Montreal we’d look at trying to support them and would take a view on that, however.
Is there much of a talent shortage in the Canadian development sector?
I think EA is stuck right in there with everyone else – there is a shortage of talented engineers.
I think what you’ll find is we’ll do the best we can with the pipeline and tools we have and try to make better use of them.
Do you feel much competition between the other publisher-owned studios in Canada such as Relic or Ubisoft Montreal?
Every single GM at each of those studios probably has a different philosophy on how they approach culture or staffing within their city or the whole country. My philosophy is that people have a great opportunity to learn in this business and if they decide to move jobs to do that, I’ll happily shake their hand – I hope also that they’ll learn lots and they might even come back to us eventually.
We’re all in the business of making great games – I buy games whether they are made by EA, THQ, Ubisoft, whoever – so if someone wants to go and make good games in another company, then good for them. Likewise I’d hope that people from Disney, THQ or Ubisoft may think one day ‘I’ll try working at EA’. Really we’re just a strong, growing community and we all have to work together.
You spent two years heading up EA UK as GM until early 2006. How does the Canadian scene compare to the British one?
In Canada the country is very pocketed and isolated. Vancouver and Montreal have grown into their own communities – but it’s very isolated. Whereas in England all the developers, just because the country is slightly smaller, know each other and has a real national community. And that means you can have those tighter, smaller teams. Plus there’s a real community of programmers in the UK that I enjoyed watching – the country’s engineering strength is staggering.