GS: Back to the sports thing, it seems like you guys kind of put up a stopping block.
TS: Well I don't know if you know, but the NFL was actually shopping the license around. So it's very typical in sports for the league to partner up with whomever, it might be if it's apparel or whatever. And the NFL was looking for a specific partner on video games, and we sort of just won that bid. Largely on the basis of history, and the quality of the products, and the relationship.
GS: It does concern me that it would be hard to make another football game though. Are you worried that the competition won't be there anymore? Because obviously competition is something that encourages you to improve.
NY: I get that point. But maybe you find other ways to stay hungry, and make sure you're pleasing the customer. To some degree, you've always got what you did last year to improve upon. And people are rarely just sports gamers. There's overlap, and if we don't build really full, compelling pieces of software, they'll go play another game. The thing to remember specifically about the NFL thing is that if we hadn't bought it, someone else would. So you'd be sitting here with a guy from Activision maybe, who'd never made a sports game, but they thought it was important, and they went out and got the NFL license.
|Winning Eleven 9|
TS: Then you'd have 8 million pissed off Madden fans. And there are a couple of other things going on too. Not having a license doesn't preclude someone making a great game. That's something we see very clearly with FIFA and Winning Eleven. Winning Eleven doesn't have a license, but it doesn't stop them from making a kickass game and pushing the market.
NY: Same with baseball – we don't have the baseball license, but we're still making baseball.
TS: Exactly. We don't have it but we're still doing it. And the other thing is that when we first acquired the license, we thought “ok – we don't have that level of competition anymore,” so we're bound really to our customers. It's not that we have a free pass because of the license, it's almost like we're under greater scrutiny. They're more skeptical, and challenging us even more. If anything, they're holding it to us more aggressively than ever before.
GS: There's been a lot of debate about the multi-studio system versus the incorporated model. Are you still confident that incorporation is the way to go?
NY: You never say never, but I think there's a tremendous benefit to having a lot of creative people in the same place. And I think there are good business reasons why you'd want to do that. There will always be teams of like 30-40 people that really enjoy being independent and having their own mini-culture that enables them to be successful, and I do think that we have to make sure that we have a mechanism to be able to respect that. So the big challenge is managing them. There's a lot that goes into running a studio, and if you've got 27 studios instead of seven, it becomes a really difficult challenge, and you spend a lot of time on an airplane.
I would love to get to the place where we could open-source our organization structure. If you think about open sourcing – there's an administrative group, and there's a set of standards, and things are kind of vetted in and vetted out, but everyone has access to the code-base. So imagine if your organizational structure was like that. Your processes, and the way you work, your technology solutions and everything. Because that's what you're really trying to manage. If you could get to the place where that was really well understood by everyone, then I think it would actually be a benefit to subdivide the studios and give everyone some sort of autonomy.
I'd be totally open minded about it, but the thing you can't do is lose control. I mean we're making stuff here.
GS: So have DreamWorks and Westwood totally merged?
NY: Yeah, it's one studio. We're very proud of the DreamWorks heritage, and very proud of the Westwood heritage. And Lou Castle's on the management team and everything. But I do think one of the challenges we had in Los Angeles stemmed from us having not fully integrated everybody. Everybody had a slightly different vision. On one end of the spectrum you had the RTS team, which actually was even autonomous from Westwood. So you had the EA-specific people, you had the Westwood Las Vegas people, you had the DreamWorks people, and then you had the more console people, who weren't necessarily DreamWorks people anymore, and then you had the GoldenEye team, which was essentially kind of new. So one of the things we had to do when we went into the studio a year or so ago, was really just to try and get everyone on the same page. Just got to figure out the mission, and say let's be a team.
GS: Are you guys concerned at all about the next generation? How are you going to be combating overwork and going over budget?
NY: There are two dimensions to that question. Basically - how hard is it to work on next-gen, and what do you have to do to maintain your dates? The second is - how do you operate an organization at its highest level of productivity?
On that latter question, the basic premise that we have in Los Angeles is this. You will be better if you're well-rested. Like right now, I'm not entirely well-rested. I was up till 2:30-3:00 in the morning, I got up at 7:30 to basically screw up my presentation, and then I had a couple of meetings and came over here. So the quality of my messages to you are kind of a little rambly, maybe not so crisp and as on-message as they should be. And that's because I'm tired. Now take that concept and apply it to someone checking in 100,000 lines of code. You introduce problems and bugs that slow things down. You make wrong decisions. And inside EA we have to build a system that optimizes creative productivity, like getting the best answer as soon as possible, rather than the wrong answer quickly. So that's what we try to do.
We have a process in place that's kind of cheesily known as the 'five great days' process. The idea is we wanted to change the cadence of the organization, manage it daily, but we also wanted everything to be stoked against a week's worth of work, so we set the goals and the objectives, the cells come up with the tasks, we work against those tasks, and occasionally throughout the life of the product they're going to need to crunch to get over the finishing line. But the definition of crunch is never seven days a week. It's like six days a week for the last eight weeks of your mission if it's necessary, and hopefully it isn't. And with Battle for Middle Earth II, none of them worked a single Sunday. And many of them didn't even have to work a Saturday. It was a normal job where they got to go see their families. It's kind of bullshit to hold people hostage against a deadline, that forces them to do bad stuff.
|Battle for Middle Earth II|
GS: We recently got a column in Game Developer magazine by Relentless Software, and they have no Internet use, and you have to leave at 5:00 , and they've never crunched. So it seems like a hard way to work, but it's definitely one method.
NY: The hard part is, it's really not a normal job. It's an artistic, creative industry, and it's hard to go “well I'm not excited enough to come in tomorrow.”
TS: It's 9:30 in the morning – my great idea should be coming to me… just about now!
NY: It's hard to run a business that way too. So we have to think about the values we're going to build this culture on. The values for me are: let's push responsibility down to the lowest levels, and empower people to affect their own destiny, drive five great days, never crunch for longer than eight weeks, and never ever work seven days. You're going to break my business if you work seven days.
TS: It's preventative medicine to prevent burnout and to manage human hours.
NY: I get angry at the end of the day – you will f*ck up my business if you work seven days and make bad decisions. I do want to create a fun business environment, but as a business person I also want the games to be great, and we can't have it f*cked up because someone checked in something broken.
GS: And as a game person, when you said prevent burnout, I was thinking – wait, I thought it was a viable franchise!
GS: I'm curious to know what you think of the Wii so far.
NY: I love the way that Nintendo is focusing itself on an area in which it can actually compete effectively. The feature IP for the Wii is the controller. The feature IP for the 360 is the Xbox Live. The feature IP for the PS3 is the Cell Processor. So Nintendo has picked something that's far more cost-effective to be able to innovate in, and actually has a far more dramatic impact on the games at the end of the day. So I love that.
GS: Are you specifically interested in working on it? I mean it seems like RTS is a pretty natural genre.
NY: Yeah… so if you think about RTS, one element is the control scheme, but the other is the distance from the TV screen when you're playing a console game versus a PC game. So one of the challenges for the Wii is that it's not HD. One of the reasons Battle for Middle Earth II works so well on the 360 is the controller, but the other reason is the HD – you can see everything, frankly as well or better as you can when you're [as close as you would be to a computer screen]. So I think there are some questions there, and the other issue is performance. I mean the hardware performance is sort of current gen plus, versus the 10x to 20x multiple that you get on next-gen.
GS: Are you worried about multiple SKUs with the Wii? It seems like you'd have to build pretty different games.
NY: Well not if you're doing current gen. I mean you can take your Xbox version and sort of upres it and figure out a mechanism to take advantage of the controller. I think just like the last generation for those guys it's going to be dominated by Nintendo-owned properties. It's going to be harder for third-party publishers.
TS: And our publishing decisions are made on a title-by-title basis, so there'll be instances where we'll make only two platforms. Or seven.
GS: It'll be interesting to see how much dev kits are going to cost. I imagine they may have a low barrier of entry there. I'm wondering what will come of the small team thing they're pushing for.
NY: Yeah, you want to see more small, innovative things. I'd like to see that too. That's a step down the path toward having a robust and thriving indie level to our industry.
GS: But it would take an opposite Nintendo stance from their usual approach. Especially versus the NES days when they controlled everything.
NY: The business question is why do they need to do that. They might not need to – they might look at it economically and think they might not need to do that, and make a fine business putting their own games on it, plus an old library, and then sell enough pieces of hardware. They're not going to be the number one or number two manufacturer of consoles.
GS: Just something funny I was thinking about – I'm sure you get a lot of name jokes. I was talking to Masaya Matsuura recently, and he was talking about wanting to collaborate with musicians he heard sometimes, and then we came to the concept of game design jam sessions. It occurred to me that maybe you and George Harrison of Nintendo should do one!
Neil Young: (laughs) I guess that's your comment for the day. Maybe we should!