At EA, cool ideas find a way

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      For the third year in a row, EA Canada, the Electronic Arts development studio based in Burnaby, B.C., was atop the Develop 100 list ( That list, which ranks game developers based on their U.K. revenues, is considered by some to reflect which developers are the most successful in the world.

      Getting on the list is one thing. Staying on top is a different story. Especially when John Riccitiello, the new chief executive officer of Electronic Arts, has been quoted on as saying, "I put original intellectual property on the top of the list of growth opportunities."

      The video-game industry, like the Hollywood film business, is often criticized for relying on sequels. The fact that the CEO of the largest video-game publisher in the world is pushing new ideas is significant. But for EA Canada, a studio that built its reputation on a talent for developing and iterating sports franchises like FIFA soccer, NBA basketball, and NHL hockey, a strategy pushing new game concepts could be a bit daunting.

      Despite the directive from head office, Rory Armes, senior vice-president and group general manager for EA's Canadian studios–EA Canada, EA Black Box in downtown Vancouver, and EA Montreal–isn't about to give up on the bread and butter. "Need for Speed and FIFA are consistently in the top three games in the world," Armes told the Straight in a conference room at the Burnaby campus, and the company isn't about to let "$500 million in annual revenues" slip away. "We're never going to lose a sports game," he said. "But we'll start adding others."

      Coming up with new ideas is a time-consuming process that can take years–and hundreds of thousands of dollars–to complete. Even if the concept moves to prototype and then store shelves, there is no guarantee that it will be successful. For every Halo there are dozens of Advent Risings.

      "The great thing about a sports game is they [game designers] aren't challenged by 'What is it?'" With new intellectual property in an action or real-time shooter genre, said Armes, developers spend a lot of time trying to figure out what the game is all about. "And that takes a long time. In some cases, it takes too long."

      Because so many technological advances–in things like controller movement, lighting, and animation–come to life from producing better sports titles, the creation of new games at EA Canada is made easier. And the unique environment at the Burnaby campus is also having an impact. Despite the fact that EA Canada is a big place–there are over 1,300 employees working out of the two buildings in Burnaby–management has structured teams as small studios, each with its own unique culture inside the larger space.

      Armes said that EA has tried different approaches to generating ideas, from having everyone submit a concept for consideration to putting the "best of the best" in a room and tasking them with creating something. "What we've found is none of that works. Where we've gone wrong in the past is where too often we've said, 'Here's three guys and they have an idea, so let's fund them.' I'm not sure ideas come out that way. True creative passion doesn't come from assigning people to something."

      So rather than force staff to come up with game ideas, the EA Canada approach is to let the ideas be generated organically. Someone will come up with an idea and will recruit others, often from other teams, to help them flesh out the concept. So an artist from FIFA will partner with a programmer from NHL, and they'll have producers from NBA asking if they can help out. Things grow from there.

      Skate, a new game from EA Black Box, came from members of the Need for Speed team who wanted to use the technology of Need for Speed and combine it with something new. "They had passion for a skateboarding game," said Armes. So they created a game they wanted to play.

      It's the kind of phenomenon that comes out of having a critical mass of really smart people working together. "If you are that passionate about the idea, figure out how to do it. If the idea is that good, it will find its way. Then we'll fund it."

      And the new process seems to be working. Armes said there are three or four ideas circulating through the campus that have potential to be implemented. "When we can get that culture right," Armes enthused, "it's a pretty cool place to be."