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Q&A: EA Tiburon's Holt On The House Of  Madden

Q&A: EA Tiburon's Holt On The House Of Madden Exclusive

June 24, 2008 | By Christian Nutt, Staff

June 24, 2008 | By Christian Nutt, Staff
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For over a decade, Florida-based EA Tiburon - founded as Tiburon Entertainment before being acquired by Electronic Arts in 1998, has served as the primary developer of Madden NFL, one of the highest-revenue franchises in gaming history.

In 2004, EA Sports acquired exclusive rights to the NFL in video games, further cementing Madden's position in the industry while drawing criticism from industry observers for the move's effective stifling of competition.

Through this, Tiburon itself has remained unusually low-profile for a studio responsible for so many dollars. In addition to Madden, it essentially serves as the guardian of all EA football franchises, as well of other sports series such as Tiger Woods PGA Tour and NASCAR.

To help fill in some of the blanks, Tiburon general manager Philip Holt sat down with Gamasutra, discussing the legacy of the Madden juggernaut, the necessity of regularly shipping a game on an 11-month dev cycle, Tiburon's rivalry with sister studio EA Canada, and his thoughts on the NFL exclusivity deal.

You guys are responsible for most of the [football] titles, but NFL Street isn't Tiburon. Or is it?

PH: Street's always been at Tiburon. We're basically responsible for all of the NFL titles, all the football products. We do Tiger Woods, we do NASCAR, and a few other smaller titles.

EA Sports GameShow, which is a pretty cool, innovative title, is out of our studio. Our sister studio, obviously, is EA Canada in Burnaby, and they do FIFA, NBA, NHL, those kinds of things.

EA recently opened a NASCAR-oriented studio in North Carolina. Is that an adjunct to Tiburon?

PH: Yep. It's a small group; there are nine, ten guys.

Oh, really?

PH: Yeah. And they're building NASCAR 09 for PS2 this year, then we're looking at what they're going to do next, and it's likely to be the NASCAR business.

And then they would ramp up accordingly?

PH: Yeah, exactly.

The sports business is perceived as the bread and butter of EA, and the king of the sports business is Madden. You're basically in the driver's seat there, but what do you think of the situation?

PH: Well, it's fantastic, right? It's just really gratifying. I mean, everybody in the industry works really hard on stuff, and everybody cares about the titles they're working on.

But to be able to put in that same level of effort and dedication, and then see it rewarded with, you know, 8 or 9 million people every year, and with the kinds of launches that only EA Sports can put together - where we take down Times Square in New York, and Ozzy's playing at your launch - is a pretty cool deal.

So just seeing that kind of pop cultural phenomenon around the title is just really great for our guys. There are a lot of people in the studio that grew up playing Madden. It started on the Genesis versions, and so it's kind of a dream job for them to be able to contribute to something that has such a legacy.

A lot of game developers really like the core games, and some of them probably wouldn't be as well suited on the design side to work on a Madden game. How do you find the right people?

PH: Well, we look for people who have passion for what they're doing. So, some people come, obviously, because they're interested in a sport that we're working on, but there are a lot of technical challenges and creative challenges that are unique to our business, that I think a lot of people are there to do.

When I talk to people from the studio about what they love about being there, invariably they say it's the people. And so, I think people find the sources of inspiration and passion in a lot of different ways, and everybody's there for different reasons.

So clearly, a lot of people are going to call us because they want to work on a football title, but I think the opportunity to work in a place that has the kind of legacy and history that Tiburon does is equally attractive to other people.

Now, next-gen development takes a lot of resources, big teams, and usually a lot of time, and you have to ship a Madden game every year. Do you do alternating teams?

PH: No, it takes us about eleven months to put it out. It's a unique problem in the sports business, because the level of expectation from our audience, from our customers, is no different than it is for any top five title, and yet we have eleven, twelve months to put a game together.

So we've, I think, focused on certain areas of how we build games to facilitate that. Whether it's our design approach, or a sort of maturity and success of our project management techniques, just to really know where we are, and be predictable, and parallelize a lot of work across a wide group of people, is a key to our success.

Like you said, the people have high expectations, and they aren't going to drop sixty dollars on a roster update, as much as that's a joke about Madden. So what is that efficient way of working, to make sure you have everything locked down and ready for production?

PH: Every hour of time is precious for us, and so we don't want to explore anything that we don't think is going to be really cool and people are going to really like, and that is not going to meet our capacity to build. So we do a lot of very rapid exploration of ideas.

We do a lot of rapid estimation, and we're really, really focused on understanding where we are with respect to capacity of our team, so that at any given time we are not pursuing something that doesn't have a good chance of making it into the product.

Are you using agile development?

PH: Somewhat. For us it's that our requirement is to be highly predictable and highly transparent through the organization. So, again, with having that crown jewel, you talk about being in the driver's seat, but in many respects there are a lot of drivers on that bus.

So we need to make sure that from [the top] all the way down, people have a good understanding, a good comfort for where we are, and that we're going to build a great game every year. It's sort of a unique challenge in that respect.

Is Tiburon only doing sports titles presently? I know there was recently something shown that is an unnamed [Nintendo DS] experimental platformer.

PH: Yeah, that's right. That's in our studio.

That was something someone just did on their own. That product, is it going to be a Tiburon game?

PH: Yep.

Do you like to see that kind of thing happening?

PH: Absolutely. It's great for the studio. The guy was clearly passionate about the idea, and asked for a couple weeks of time trying to develop a core concept. He presented it, and it was a really good idea, so we said, "Here's some runway. See what you can develop."

There are a number of products which have actually come to being in that fashion. In fact, GameShow started out exactly that same way. Two guys had a great idea, presented the idea, and we said, "It's really compelling. Let's give you a little bit of funding, a little bit of time, a couple of people, and see what you can do."

Then we revisit those kinds of things, and as they show promise, they get resources, get a team, and ultimately it shows up on the market.

Obviously there's a lot of creativity and passion that has to go into making sports games, but given their need to hew to the realism of the actual sport, is it harder for people to get a sense of the personality of your studio? Do you think that we're going to see more non-sports projects out of your studio?

PH: Yeah, I think it's hard to speculate on what's coming out that's not necessarily a core sports title for us. But yeah, I think that as good ideas emerge, we try to find good ways of making them happen. And the project you're speaking to is definitely one of those cases.

I think one of the challenges, with respect to personality of the studio - and I agree with the comment - is that for so long, because our EA Sports brand, is so powerful and pervasive in the industry, that brand really becomes the face of the studio.

Tnd that's a key reason why I'm here today - to show that behind the game, there's a bunch of really, really passionate guys that love football. They love sports, they love working on this kind of stuff.

We have 96 fantasy football teams in the studio; there are three leagues, and you have to get promoted from one league to the next to get to the top league. The guys are pretty serious about what they're building.

So yeah, it sounds like it's absolutely football central, basically.

PH: I mean, that's the football group, but then there's the Tiger team. I think one of the reasons that football has been a success has been because we've developed a really strong culture of football. The guys that are there, they live and breathe football every day, and that's one of the things that makes the game special.

But the golf guys are just as crazy about golf, the NASCAR guys are just as crazy about NASCAR. I think when you have an absence of that love for the sport, that lack of passion that really comes through, and I think you start seeing problems in how the game gets executed.

Do you think the physical location of your studio affects your development in any way? Does it attract people who want to work on your title, or is it just how things evolved?

PH: Well it certainly is how things evolved. I don't know that when the three founders started the studio back in '95, I don't think they anticipated that we'd be this size, and have the kind of success that we do today.

I don't know that that was a strategic decision, outside of just that [John] Schappert, one of the core founders, was from Florida, and it was an inexpensive part of the country, with really high quality of life.

So it was a really good place for them to start. There are certainly pros and cons of being geographically isolated from the industry. I think it's a toss up. The good news for us is that there are ups and downs in anybody's work life, and when there's a down, if you're in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, or Vancouver, you can get another job at lunch.

For our people, it's a cross-country move they're contemplating. Equally, to get somebody to come work for us, a lot of people are relocating, so it's a bigger challenge. But when we look at the kinds of people that we try to attract, we focus on a lot of regional schools, so we try to cover the entire Southeast.

And for veterans in the industry, the one thing we can really offer [is more affordability]. I was just talking to a guy this morning, and he said he loves working in San Francisco, but he can't afford a house. He knows that he's got friends that work at Tiburon; he knows that they all own houses. That's a big deal for people that are a little bit older in their lives, and starting families, and things like that. So Florida is a great place for that.

How have you, as a studio, been doing on quality of life stuff? Especially with eleven-month schedules, I imagine there's a lot of pressure to get it out the door. Do you have crunch problems?

PH: The only way that we can be successful is if we have the best team. It's our single greatest asset. When I look at Dale Jackson, the executive producer of the title, or Richard Wifall, our CTO - he was a co-op back in 1995.

These guys have been in the studio for ten, twelve years, and they're running big chunks of our business now. They're really key guys. So their contributions ten years ago were important then, but it's really the experience that they've gained over the last decade that has allowed Tiburon to be the kind of place that it is. It's a legacy that they've created.

We look at issues around the quality of life for our people very, very seriously. I think we've tried to develop that make our work very, very plentiful, very predictable, and very much focused on the health and well-being of our team.

Obviously, a few years ago, this started to come to a head, and EA was one of those companies that was in the middle of the controversy. It does seem like Tiburon's it's a little bit more out in left field from an overall industry perspective.

PH: Yeah, that's a key part of why I'm here. For a long time there was a bit of a veil of secrecy around how we do things. My point of view is that I think that we have a lot to contribute, and we have a lot to learn from everyone else, and I don't think that we've done a great job of engaging the game development community at large, and talking about what's cool about working at Tiburon.

So that's a part of what we do. I've been in the industry now for, I think, fifteen-some years, and I've worked in a number of different companies. I think everybody struggles with these kinds of challenges, and one of the reasons it attracted me to Tiburon in particular is that I think that there is a clear commitment, and a desire to address meaningful and systemic changes, for people to have really viable, long-lived careers. And there's an ability and a platform to do it.

So, when you're looking at something like an annual title, and you're looking at something as big as Madden, it's one of the best platforms to address these kinds of issues head-on.

What do you think about the exclusivity of the NFL license? Has that benefited your studio, besides from the predictable financial advantage?

PH: Yeah, absolutely. We love working with NFL, and there's so much that that brings. Not only to the title, and the market opportunity for us, but just having a really close partnership with the NFL has made certain things a lot easier to do. So, having that extended, we couldn't be happier about it.

But didn't you guys have a close relationship with the NFL before the exclusivity?

PH: Yeah, but I think there are certain opportunities that are available to us because of the exclusivity.

What do you think about having competition? Don't you think the competition in the industry creates a greater sense of creativity, a broader option for the consumer?

PH: There are two ways to address that. The first is that we look at our competition as the top 5 titles in all platforms, every single year. I think when you find yourself in a position where you have majority share, you need to redefine your competitive sense. It's sort of the General Electric way: once you're at the top of your business, you have to redefine your business so you're no longer at the top, and you have to compete. So we certainly do that.

Then internally, the guys, like I said, are very passionate about building the best football game ever, and our goal every year is to make obsolete last year's version. So, the focus and the drive from the team is clearly there, to make a great, great experience.

There is a certain characterization of the guy who buys Madden and Gran Turismo and that's about it. Do you find that realistically you're competing less with the other big titles?

PH: I think when you're selling to 8 and 9 million people a year, everybody comes to the title with different expectations. There's certainly a hardcore football fan base that's there every year, and loves what we do, and follows us avidly. Then you have the "hit-driven" buyers, who are looking at two or three purchases a year, and they're buying the things that are at the top of the charts.

So, in that respect, absolutely you are competing with things like Halo, things like Grand Theft Auto. We certainly look at those titles very carefully, even from an analysis standpoint. If people are just deciding, "What am I going to buy this year? I've got sixty bucks in my pocket. I'm buying one title. I'm going in the store," then we need to be sure that Madden has a really strong argument for why they should be buying us instead of someone else.

With that broad audience base, it's probably like a bell curve. At one end there's people who are really casual and just like football, and don't even buy it every year. Then there's a wide swath of people who are average, who watch football on TV. Then at the far end there are the really hardcore people. How do you keep the game satisfying for that whole range?

PH: That's one of the big challenges in design, that you are having to provide features for everyone. We look at certain kinds of features that we consider 'depth' features. Franchise Mode and Superstar Mode tend to get lots of play from the hardcore audience. Some of the hardcore guys, they love the online competition, and that's all they play - they play head-to-head against their friends, and whoever else is online.

Casual people, they love just playing plain out. They want to play their favorite team against whomever else, maybe with a buddy on their couch, or by themselves. Behind all that is a need for a really high quality, innovative experience. And if we don't deliver that, then we're not going to satisfy the variety of people out there. So core to everything we do, we have to make a great experience. Our fans deserve the best thing that we can possibly deliver.

Have you ever looked back at a title in recent years, with some great ideas that didn't quite work out, and thought, "Well, maybe next year," or are you satisfied with every one that's shipped?

PH: Tough question. I think that you can always look back and find faults in your own work. There's a guy in the studio who's a scratch golfer, and he doesn't want to work on the Tiger game, because he's such a passionate guy about Tiger, and he knows that when you work on a title, you get to see all the warts there, and he doesn't want it to diminish his enjoyment of the game.

I think that, for us, we love to see the really great reviews, but when we start planning for next year, it's the more critical reviews that are actually more helpful.

And in terms of informing our design for the following year, we see what the reviewers are saying, we look at all the forums, we watch the wishlists, and we talk to our community guys - there are a lot of fan sites and forums - all that stuff becomes really, really valuable input in terms of next year's design.

Do you feel that if Madden started to go downhill, there'd be a period for probably a couple years, where sales wouldn't decrease, partially because it's the only game in town, and partially because everyone's been so used to it for years and years? Do you think that you have a safety net that provides some blinders if things are going downhill, or is the fan base so passionate that you get that feedback that you need?

PH: Well, I think you know that some of the strongest fans are actually working on the game. There's an internal quality standard. People are proud to put their name on that title. They're proud to have Tiburon's mark on the title. I think that they wouldn't be satisfied with producing something that they couldn't stand behind.

Again, I think, because of Madden's place inside the industry, and inside of EA, there is zero tolerance for allowing quality to slide over the years. While I do think there is brand equity that can carry forward, it's not something that we really think about, because that's not an option for us.

But even if not relying on it, it could be a limiting factor, or a blinder to what might be going on with the title. Do you think that could be a potential pitfall?

PH: Like I said, we look at all the reviews. We read all of that stuff. We read all of the forums that we can. We host community days in the studio, and bring people in who are passionate enough that they've got a website about our games. I think we're pretty in touch with our audience, and we feel like we're accountable to them to deliver a great experience.

Did you guys do the Wii versions of the recent sports games, like Tiger and Madden on Wii?

PH: Tiger Wii was produced out of Tiburon, and it was actually developed out of Salt Lake. And Madden Wii was developed out of Vancouver. There's a really close partnership, so the franchise is really owned in our studio. Whether development is in our studio, or with an external developer, or with another EA studio, there's a really close partnership with us overseeing the production.

I think the most recent Wii versions, where you really tried to ramp up the Wii features of it beyond the initial Wii versions, which were more like PS2 versions Wii with a little bit of tweaking, have shown that to make a hit on the Wii, you really have to make a Wii game. How do you feel about that?

PH: I think that's true for every platform, that you need to be delivering an experience that really takes advantage of the capabilities of the hardware, and understands what the audience is looking for with that platform.

To me, that's the biggest transition that we've gone through in this cycle. It used to be the case that you could put out a singular experience across as many platforms as possible, and I think that, clearly, we're seeing a very, very different demographic and customer expectation on different kinds of platforms.

There are certain brand values and attributes that have to be present for any NFL game, but clearly we're looking at, "How do we take advantage of the hardware? How do we deliver an experience that customers are really going to appreciate?"

There are probably pros and cons to doing like a sports game on the Wii, the obvious pro being the motion control adding a sense of realism, and the con that since sports games are so based on realism, the best graphics help a lot. How do you find the balance that makes the game work?

PH: Well, even on the Wii platform, you're going to have people who, that's their only platform at home, and they want a great Madden experience. They want a great NFL experience, and so they go buy Madden.

Then you have people who are there because of the gameplay that's unique to the Wii platform, and they pick up Madden because there's something interesting and unique there. Again, I think it's really trying to understand how you take advantage of the platform, and how you really understand the market.

Rivalry is a big element of sports. Do you have a team rivalry with EA Canada?

PH: Well, sure. (laughs) I should say that there's always that kind-of good natured competition, but there's a huge amount of sharing. You know, across EA Sports, there are a lot of people. Fifteen to eighteen hundred people.

How do we bring that to bear? When we're competing in the market, the team has to compete against eighteen hundred people in sports, not just the fifty guys that are working on that product. So there's a lot of technology that is shared across the organization, and there are a lot of ideas that are shared across the organization.

That has a huge advantage for us. So there's a lot of that that goes on, but absolutely, we talk about how we go prank their campus, and stuff like that.

Tech sharing is an interesting point. You have to have robust tech solutions, I'm sure, to ship the game every year, without missing a beat. Can you talk about the tech sharing arrangement you have?

PH: I guess there are two ways that tech is shared. A team will pioneer a feature, or a technology solution, and one of the evaluations is that they're looking at how to scope it and schedule it. "Is this something that we really want to share? Is there a strategic advantage here?"

But rather than just coding it a custom solution for a single project, sometimes we'll specifically invest in technology so it can be shareable. And then that technology is handed off.


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