GCDC 2007: EA's Jeffery On Moving Forward In Europe
Matthew Jeffery, Electronic Arts' European Head of Recruitment, addressed the GCDC Conference in Leipzig on a wide variety of topics in a presentation entitled "European Development: The Challenges Moving Forward," speaking on the topics of talent pool crisis, investing in Europe and whether gaming can provide a fair work/life balance.
Recruitment In Crisis
Jeffery started by clearly stating that, "there is no recruitment crisis in Europe. That's just a myth made up by lazy recruiters and companies who don't offer attractive employment propositions." He continued, "Europe has the finest talent pool in the world, so much so that companies like Pixar, Dreamworks and EA recruit talent from Europe for America. That speaks volumes about our talent pool."
Jeffery said recruitment for EA was not as easy as one might think, as the company has had perception challenges to overcome, including the perception of 'sequelitis', being seen as too large and a corporate Borg, and challenges around the work/life balance issue, following the notorious 'EA spouse' episode.
However, Jeffery said the UK studio has recruited 350 permanent staff and 400 contractors in the past two years, 720 of which came from direct recruitment, not through recruitment agencies.
"EA cannot be accused of sequelitis any more," Jeffery asserted, listing Boogie, Playground, Smartypants, Rock Band, Crysis, Army of Two, the Spielberg projects and Spore as examples he feels demonstrate the company's commitment to new innovation.
"Of course we will develop sequels," he allowed, "but let's look at it another way: If a game does not have a sequel, that says a lot for the quality of the original game. Sequels are hard to develop, as they have to innovate to ensure people buy them. A poor sequel can destroy a franchise."
Jeffery confirmed that the experienced talent pool was shrinking, and that all companies in entertainment were competing for talent, including games, film, TV, toys, mobile and IT. "We are truly in the age of a global war for talent," he said.
"The games industry has to be less lazy in its recruitment and recognize that we can attract great talent from different industries including, TV, film, consumer goods, mobile, IT, public sector, media, banking -- and the critical salvation to the talent market, graduates."
A Taxing Situation
Jeffery expressed concern at the UK games development community slipping to 4th in the global list of developers, behind Canada. Jeffery said the debate had been focused too much on skills shortages, recruitment issues and proposing Games Academies for Geeks.
"The UK is losing its attractiveness for games companies to invest in comparison to other countries overseas," he said. "Let's no longer turn a blind eye and be dazzled and seduced by the phenomenally impressive and ever-increasing retail sales figures in the UK. Let's look at the real challenges facing UK development."
Jeffery's list of great games already made in the UK included Burnout, Black, Harry Potter, GTA, Singstar, Home, LittleBigPlanet, Fable 2, Viva Pinata, Haze and Project Gotham 4, all of which he provided as examples of innovation in the region. "The UK talent pool and hub of creativity means we could have so much more but the UK is not playing on an even playing field," he said.
Jeffery pointed to Montreal, whose tax subsidies allow studios to claim 37.5% of creative salaries after 2 years of business plus 40% tax credit for R&D, and to France, who has introduced tax credits. Lastly, Jeffery indicated Asia as a place to build new cost-effective operations with new talent pools in India, China, Russia and South Korea.
"People are geographically mobile and want to work on the best games. The danger is that we will see talent relocate to where the best games are made," Jeffery warned. "The UK, once known as the workshop of the world, [would transition] into the 'training center' of the world'. The UK can compete with any country on a level playing field; we are the creative engine of games development. But when other countries offer incentives we don't, it is inevitable that investment will flow outside of the UK -- which would be a crying shame with the creative talent we have."
Discussing graduates, Jeffery stated they were the solution for future talent shortages but too few companies were willing to invest in raw talent because it did not yield immediate returns.
Jeffery stated his concern for the huge growth of games degrees in the UK, particularly game design degrees. Jeffery warned that of the past 350 hires made into the EA UK studio, only 2 were entry-level games designers and they did not have games degrees.
"The industry has very few entry-level game design roles," he said. "We will soon reach a saturation point with so many students studying games degrees. What happens if they don't get a job in games? Games degrees are not readily transferable into other industries."
Jeffery expressed dismay that classical degrees, which allow graduates a solid education and a choice of career options, including the like of computer science, mathematics and physics, were in decline with enrollment numbers falling 10-15% annually. "With a proliferation of degrees, students are often seduced by easier looking degrees and don't see the merit of 'boring core subjects'," he said.
Jeffery continued that a Games Academy or Center for Excellence was not the answer for games industry talent acquisition. "The idea of a finishing school for graduates in Games Development to polish their skills sounds seductive, but do we really need one?" he asked.
"If universities can produce a polished product," he continued, "is there a need to add extra education on to a student when they could benefit from learning live on a job with a good training and support network? Can we really ask a graduate with £18k of debt from studying to do another 1 or 2 years with no guarantee of a job at the end?"
Jeffery then warned the industry faced a "ticking time bomb", with wage spiral inflationary pressures building. "With the experienced talent pool shrinking, people have learnt their salary bargaining power and now, when moving jobs, command several offers, which they negotiate to get the best deal. The industry has to be mature in the salaries it pays, otherwise we won't have learnt the lessons from the dot-com crash."
Jeffery expressed that the biggest challenge facing games companies was that workers were not as loyal as they had been in the past. "I remember the day when no one would leave a game team when a project was finalling," he recalled.
"That's not the case today," he warned. "Companies have to work daily to recruit their existing staff to stay with them. Leaders have to ask themselves if their staff are challenged, if they are well remunerated, if they have a good work/life balance, if their staff work on world class games, if they can work towards promotion, if they receive enough training and development and whether their ideas are listened to. If not then they are prey to a head hunter, and will lose their staff."
Jeffery said game team sizes had ballooned in the past but now the key was how to maintain smaller game teams, to encourage a cohesive team to be creative together. Jeffery said despite Next Gen demands, that looking at the film industry model of a flexible workforce with contractors and outsourcing some work to other companies would allow teams to be more creative and dynamic.
Going Back To The "Golden Era"
Jeffery was positive about the development of the industry. "A couple of years back, the headlines were all about the games industry being dominated by 2 or 3 super-developers," he said.
"Fast-forward to today and the return of the cottage industry of bedroom programmers emerges with possibilities of developing small," Jeffrey continued. "[We have] accessible casual games for Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, online gaming sites, even for mobile phones. Games could be developed in 3-month cycles with teams of 5 or less. That's phenomenally exciting for creativity in games."
Jeffery stated that gaming was heading into a 'golden era,' saying "the industry has recognized that games were reaching out to the same hardcore gaming demographic and that to grow, we need to reach out to new markets and attract new games players."
"Games were becoming boring, safe and predictable, repetitive, not really accessible to new players, too long at 40 hours, with too few gamers completing games 100 percent, not family-friendly and overly predicated on violence, based on complicated controllers with combination button pushes," he noted.
"Now the industry recognizes these developments and is developing casual accessible fun games," said Jeffrey, "as well as not neglecting the hardcore gamer. That's really showing the diversity of gaming as an entertainment medium."
Is crunch inevitable? Jeffery said "EA spouse" was a painful wake-up call to not only EA but the games industry. "Any industry with a project deadline, be it film, game, IT, even school course work, will face higher working hours at the end of the project," he said.
"Our job is to ensure that crunch is reduced by an effective preproduction process, by locking down game design at the start of development and then ensuring project schedulers can distribute work equitably over a project," confessed Jeffrey. "We also have to recognize that games teams are perfectionists and want to add new, cool content right up until the last minute. Crunch will always be a challenge for gaming. It is getting better but peaked hours at the end of a project are inevitable."
Jeffery concluded by expressing that the winners of the next gen battle would be those companies that can accommodate multitasking games players, hungry for enjoying different forms of entertainment at the same time.
Those who develop scalable games that can be enjoyed in brief bursts as well as longer sessions will also move ahead, as well as those who include social and community networking components and those that leverage user generated content and offer users multiple different uses and experiences.