EA needs auto racer for its Speed games

The auto-racing motif is obvious the moment you enter the Dolce 67 gelato shop in Burnaby. Patrons are greeted by pictures of race cars, a photo of a driver's helmet, and framed shots of auto- racing video games.

The owner of the 3700-block East Hastings Street eatery, Marc De Vellis, is only 23 years old. But already he has accomplished more than some folks twice his age. As a teenage race-car driver, he won championships across North America. More recently, as an entrepreneur, De Vellis has created his own slice of Italy in North Burnaby, featuring 32 flavours of gelato as well as specialty coffees and grilled panini. And over the past five years as a consultant for Electronic Arts Canada, De Vellis has also helped produce five Need for Speed video games that have generated hundreds of millions of dollars in sales.

"I get e-mails every day from kids playing the Need for Speed games, asking for advice and how to tune the cars," De Vellis told the Georgia Straight. "That's my way of giving back to the community and to the kids. I feel horrible when I don't have the time. There are hundreds of e-mails coming in."

For most of his life, De Vellis has been operating at a blistering pace. At the age of 11, he began racing go karts. In his later teen years, the Burnaby resident was racing competitively in the Star Mazda series, winning three races and rookie-of-the-year honours.

He also found time to graduate early with a 4.0 average from Burnaby Central secondary school. He advanced to the Toyota Atlantic series in 2002 and 2003, reaching speeds of 280 kilometres per hour. Throughout his racing career, he said, he has subjected himself to gruelling physical and mental training.

That included three physical workouts per day, two more hours each day on the electronic- racing simulators, and paying rigorous attention to his diet. "Some of the world's best athletes are race-car drivers," De Vellis said. "Cockpit temperatures get up to 140 degrees. Heart rates get up to 185 beats per minute."

De Vellis is remarkably poised and comes across as much older than his years. He credits his parents for making huge sacrifices to finance his auto-racing career, and he said his big break in the video-game industry came when he received a call from Edoardo De Martin, a former EA director of development now at Yaletown-based Next Level Games Inc. According to De Vellis, De Martin felt that a competitive driver could help make the company's video games seem more realistic.

"They desperately needed someone to tune their vehicles because their cars weren't handling well," De Vellis recalled. "The technical knowledge that I picked up in racing was the same knowledge they were using within the programming."

De Vellis explained that as the "physics designer", he helps software developers incorporate the authentic race-car driving experience into the Need for Speed video games. He said that his technical knowledge, reflexes, and years of experience on racing simulators have made him an exceptional gamer.

"When we have competitions, usually I can outpace any driver at EA," De Vellis said.

He has worked on five EA games, including the recently released Need for Speed: Most Wanted, which highlights illicit street racing. De Vellis said that video-game development and auto-racing both require teamwork involving many specialists. "A lot of it is paying attention to little details," he explained. "If you can adapt certain styles of certain cars, you can get the most out of the video game."

EA spokesperson Peter Nguyen told the Straight that the two "underground" series games have sold more than 15 million units. Assuming that the average video game sells for approximately $50, total retail sales would be in the $750-million range.

Need for Speed: Most Wanted allows gamers to pretend they are street racers eluding the cops. Nguyen said the company consulted with real police officers about the types of tactics used to capture a street racer. It's rated "T" (for teenagers 13 and older) by the Entertainment Software Rating Board.

When asked for the company's response to any suggestion that this product encourages street racing, Nguyen replied: "It's a fantasy game just like all video games. There is a disclaimer at the beginning."

Billy Colettis, an 18-year-old Vancouver gaming enthusiast, told the Straight that he likes the police chases in the Need for Speed series. "Other racing games are really boring," Colettis said. "You just race around an oval track all the time."

Need for Speed: Underground 2 for PlayStation 2 ranked number five in video games sold in 2004 in the United States, according to the NPD Group, which tracks the industry. The same consulting firm reported that in 2003, Need for Speed: Underground was fourth in the top-10 list of console video-game units sold.

De Vellis won't reveal how much EA pays him for his expertise, emphasizing that this is kept confidential in his contract. "The game brings in hundreds of millions of dollars for the company," he said. "They reward me fairly for what I feel I give. I have to put my business on hold to help them, so it costs me money to be there."

Andrea Molloni, a local video-game industry recruiter, told the Straight that companies are increasingly seeking out people like De Vellis to enhance the "immersive" experience for gamers. "For someone like Marc, who is a very rare expert in this area-and EA is paying for that expertise, of course-[his compensation] would be far outside what the standard pay range would be for someone who would be contributing in a production-type role," Molloni said.

De Vellis said he took the last year off racing to concentrate on his gelato business and on his work for EA. He added that he is trying to find sponsors so he can return to the sport next year.

He said that all great drivers have an ability to stay calm while travelling at breakneck speeds. "Concentration is the key," De Vellis said.

The same could be said for succeeding at most video games.