Rich Hilleman, the chief creative director of Electronic Arts, has a big task: getting the company ready for the future. He has to navigate the waters of the social and mobile revolution while also keeping core gamers satisfied as the company's products shift to blockbusters-cum-online services.
In this interview, Hilleman -- who has been at the company since the 1980s -- looks back as well as forward, reflecting on how the company's success on the original PlayStation and Sega Genesis taught it lessons that are still relevant today.
"Increasingly, free-to-play games, social games, mobile games, even the DLC and online play that drives consoles today, are good examplesis of the things we need to start considering to design around," says Hilleman.
But is the company up to the challenge?
You've talked about the idea of the game in service of the player. Where do you see the limits of that? Because you have a lot of things that you have to communicate before the game can start to be in their service.
Rich Hilleman: Well, I think it depends on what you're doing. So I think if your mechanism is to give the player some characters, some locations, and some capabilities and turn them loose, you have a responsibility to produce some continuity out of that for them. To give them some context about what's important, to teach them and kind of give them some direction on where they should be going.
On the other hand, is that really necessary in Minecraft? I think Minecraft does a pretty terrific job of just turning people loose and seeing amazing things happen. So the interesting point for us is, how do you balance that for a game like The Sims? Where clearly players use it in some very specific ways that we understand, but players are inventing new ways to use the game all the time.
So every time we iterate that franchise, one of the big questions is, "Are we making decisions that are taking things away from our future players -- things that we don't understand yet?"
So I guess what I'm saying is the more narrative a product is -- the more crisply you're trying to communicate a specific IP -- the more responsibility you have to show the player where he's going. But I think there are lots of examples of other products that are a little less prescriptive about their utilization that produce very different results.
How do you go about investigating what players may want to do?
RH: I've been playing with an idea, around EA, that comes from looking at the design problem in a kind of specific way. So the very first game I ever designed was a game called Ferrari Formula One. This is back in the era when we made record albums. [Ed. note: Hilleman is here referring to EA's early 1980s, square, flat PC game packaging.]
The primary mechanism that sold the game in that period of time was the back package screenshots; magazine articles didn't really do that much at that point in time; advertising didn't make a big difference.
People went into the store, they picked the package up, they turned it around and they looked at the screenshots. If there were six unique screenshots and interesting stuff underneath it they went, "Wow, that's a big product; look at all the shit in it." And if you built a game that had one screenshot in the back, it didn't sell nearly as well.
M.U.L.E. is a great example. If you take a look at the back package copy of M.U.L.E., it looks like shit. As a result, people did not pick it up and buy it. And yet, it's one of the true masterpieces of its time. But the problem was that they built a game that had one screen, and it was essentially a board game screen, and that, in the world of video games at the time, was not a compelling notion.
So when I designed Ferrari Formula One, I literally built the six screens for the back of the package first. I designed six very specific incarnations. You'll like this a lot. I put a wind tunnel, a dynamometer; I had the scoring monitor screen, which nobody had ever done before. I had the in-car view -- which was the big screenshot on the top -- I had the pit-side view where you actually change the tires. Oh yeah, and they put the splash screen on it.
What I did in that case was I said, "You know what? I get paid by people deciding what game to buy based on the screenshots, so I'm going to design to make sure that I have the things that get me paid."
Increasingly, free-to-play games, social games, mobile games, even the DLC and online play that drives consoles today, are good examples of the things we need to start considering to design around.
And so one of the things that I think is an interesting way to think about this is something I call service-oriented design. You're going to get paid in the future not for your client but for the services, and so don't spend all your time engineering a client to some undefined set of future experiences you think you might make out of it. The best way to build a new product might be to build the services first.
So how this might change something -- this is a hypothetical example, or else [Maxis senior VP] Lucy Bradshaw might hit me with a chair! So The Sims is the thought example that I use now to talk about it.
The Sims has three really interesting and discreet audiences: What I would call "dollhousers" -- people who build the fabulous houses that they wish they owned. They have folks who essentially have a virtual relationship with their character. And there are folks who essentially make stuff out of it: Moviemakers.
If you think about each of those current audiences today and what future Sims product we'd want to give them, what the dollhouser wants is not an application on their computer, but they want an application on their phone that I can go take a picture of that chair, and "get that chair in my game for $20," or for some number. And then what I want is I want the ability to express my houses to my friends; I want to be able to build a parade of homes for my particular house, so that I can win the Bathroom of the Year award for my particular category.
That second group -- the virtual character owners, the people who want a relationship -- they want to be able to have a deeper emotional interaction with their characters. What I would give them is the ability to have video chat with their Sims. Now, the Sims speak Simlish -- and I wouldn't change that, by the way -- but that doesn't mean that we can't have something that produces an emotionally evocative experience.
The other thing I want to do is make the Sims a part of your social life, make them a part of your friends circle, and how you do that is you make where your Sims go with you be as interesting as where you go. And so for instance, imagine an application that when I went to Mount Rushmore with my Sims in my phone in my pocket, that it sent a note to all of my Facebook friends with a postcard of the Sims standing in front of Mount Rushmore and the note on the back of what we did there. It's a goofy idea, but for somebody who cares about that character as deeply as one of their other friends, it's a natural kind of thing.
For that last group, you know, the most frustrating thing about using The Sims to make a movie is that unfortunately the Sims do what they want to do. So like in the middle of a perfectly executed scene, they decide to go to the bathroom; it's like, "Uh-oh. Wait a minute." So what movie makers want most of all is the ability to direct the Sims. But if I give them the joystick control to drive the Sims around, they're going to break things, and we're going to have less fun.
So as an example in this case, what I'll do is instead I'll give them the director. Instead of being able to direct the character themselves, I'll give them Martin Scorsese, who can. Now the trick becomes not getting the Sims characters to do what you want, but getting Martin to do what you want. I'm still abstracted in the same way The Sims has used before, but what I've done is I've turned it into a different kind of a problem that fits to the gestalt of what that customer does.
The underlying point there is that by building the service first, you align yourself with how your customers value your product. And chances are you built a client that builds the best possible incarnation of that service, that's going to be the way to build the most compelling project. The Sims is just one example; I would say the social and free-to-play and mobile spaces are probably even more important in those places.