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Paris GDC: McCarthy On Bringing EA Sports To The Wii

Paris GDC: McCarthy On Bringing EA Sports To The Wii Exclusive

June 24, 2008 | By Brandon Sheffield, Staff

June 24, 2008 | By Brandon Sheffield, Staff
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More: Console/PC, Exclusive

In addition to revealing EA Sports' plans to bundle peripherals with its future titles, Electronic Arts vice president and executive producer David McCarthy spoke at Paris GDC on details behind its new All Play initiative and the company’s experience adapting EA Sports to the Wii.

Though McCarthy admitted that evolving EA Sports for new platforms seems like a relatively straightforward problem, in practice, the process was akin to “turning a tanker around.”

He mentioned that though the publisher likes to describes its EA Sports brand and games with words like “authenticity, competition, innovation, and lifestyle,” consumers have developed much different terms with their experiences in recent years: “exclusive, difficult, intimidating, and no easy entry point.”

Contrasting EA’s efforts with Nintendo’s, McCcarthy described Wii Sports as “a sports interactive experience. It’s a different approach.”

While gauging the market, EA found that many felt EA Sports was not a fit for the Wii: “We asked people to say what they expected out of EA Sports on the Wii, and the big one that concerned us was ‘square peg in a round hole.’”

Seeing a need to expand its audience, EA couldn’t ignore Wii Sports: “Our target demographic, the 18-34 year old male, isn’t exactly growing, in fact it’s dropping. So what Nintendo is doing becomes very important to us.”

McCarthy also noted added pressure from mounting costs, with licensing agreements and marketing costs rising.

Bringing in Peter Moore to lead EA Sports was a wake-up call for the team, as “he sat down with the design team and said that if we don’t clearly change what we do, we’re going to be left behind.”

Important Trends For EA Sports

The executive producer pointed to several trends that’ve caught EA’s interest, such as second generation gamers picking up after their parents, casual gamers increasing in numbers, and women flocking to gaming.

He also predicted the importance of attracting baby boomers: “These people are going to start gaming in droves. They’re about to have a lot of leisure time when they retire, and their other physical hobbies will die out due to physical or health reasons.”

Lessons Learned From Family Play And EA Playground

McCarthy went on to discuss Family Play, EA’s initiative to implement family-friendly controls that let the game’s AI take over core actions.

“It was a pretty risky proposition for us,” he explained. “It really was a departure in how we allow of facilitate players to control actions in game.”

Though EA recognized Family Play as a great idea, its execution didn’t engage consumers: “We had two control schemes " one that was everything " the kitchen sink. And another that was arguably less than satisfactory in terms of control.”

On EA Playground, EA Sports’ attempt to attract casual gamers with “playground games” for the Wii and Nintendo DS, McCarthy described the releases as successful, but with limited potential.

McCarthy believes that only dipped its toes in the water: “Last year, I would’ve said, ‘No, we’ve gone far enough, and this is all we have to do.’ I don’t agree with that now.”

All Play

EA Sports’ is now planning a new initiative, All Play. The publisher aims to make its All Play games have a more playful visual style while being less intimidating.

In developing All Play’s new control scheme, EA Sports learned from Sony and Microsoft’s attempts to incorporate motion controls: “There was a different gesture for each thing you could do, and we didn’t do it for any reason other than that the PS3 and 360 did it, and it just didn’t make sense to users.”

Eventually, the company discarded the complicated controls: “Now, if you just shake the Wiimote, the AI figures out what is the best move you would be doing at that time.”

EA’s exec added, “You need to market these games differently as much as you need to design them differently.”

He also brought up FaceBreaker, which is being released under the EA’s new Freestyle line. He described the line as being a lot like EA Sports’ Big brand, but more over the top.

According to McCarthy, the company has two original IPs in development under the Freestyle line. “We’re going after very very different audiences.”

Working On What’s Most Important

Reassuring attendees that EA has no intentions of moving towards a more shallow approach with developing its games, he explained, “The acid test for me is, when you look at your schedule as a team, are you really spending the most time on what matters most?”

His team meets every Friday for a show and tell session: “The sole purpose of that meeting is to celebrate whatever the team has succeeded in that week, but also to criticize and make sure we’re focusing on what matters most.”

McCarthy feels that the meetings are an opportunity for team members to remember their goals, “Often people feel they’re focusing on it, but when milestones come around, they often go back into checklist mode.”

What Matters Most For New Audiences

In attracting new audiences, McCarthy stressed the importance of providing approachable concepts: “They’re familiar, they’re fun or inspiring, and they don’t look intimidating on the outset.”

Companies need to consider accessible gameplay, too: “Ideally it’s not something that requires a tutorial. Boom Blox is an example " well it has a tutorial in it, but I would argue it might not need it.”

McCarthy spoke on the need to provide good stats and feedback screens. He noted that in EA Playground, players were met with a huge X when they lost. “You don’t need to tell a kid, who has just lost, that he loses, with a big fat X. That was a failure.”

Emphasizing that gamers often don’t have time to play every title to completion, he argued that games need to have habit-forming gameplay that can be digestible. McCarthy pointed to daily routines such as exercises, and creating persistent competitions.

He also advised that developers not “let up with quality and innovation. [Gamers] don’t deserve bad games.”

Almost Making Children Cry

He warned developers against becoming bored with their project after becoming too close to it. He noted that while creating EA Playground, the team found themselves bored with making the project and added new features, making the game more difficult.

Afterwards, McCarthy brought the engineers down to the play room: “They were flabbergasted seeing the kids almost cry at the difficulty of the new controls.

In order to avoid wandering too much with prototyping, the exec suggested that teams set specific goals on what they really want to make, prototyping with that goal in mind.

Review Scores And Teams

On the subject of Metacritic scores, McCarthy commented, “Don’t take scores of products at their face value, because they may or may not be an indicator of quality, and they may not be an indicator of interest from the consumer.”

Sharing a few tips when putting together a team, he suggested that developers start small, foster creativity, demand customer involvement, and staff accordingly.

“If you’re a female game designer with a little experience, you are absolute gold right now,” he added. “We don’t have enough female developers, and we need more of them.”

McCarthy concluded, “It ain’t an easy space to enter. It may seem easy, but it’s really not. Don’t underestimate the challenge.”

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