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GDC Canada: EA Montreal's Schneider Gets Disruptive On  Army Of Two

GDC Canada: EA Montreal's Schneider Gets Disruptive On Army Of Two Exclusive

May 12, 2009 | By Chris Remo

May 12, 2009 | By Chris Remo
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

During GDC Canada in Vancouver on Tuesday, Army of Two producer Reid Schneider delivered a postmortem of the EA Montreal-developed co-op shooters -- but spoke more about broad game development lessons than about the specific production processes of Army of Two itself.

How I Got Here

Previously to EA, Schneider worked in film and television at New Line and NBC; now, he heads up the Army of Two franchise at EA Montreal.

In between those stages, Schneider worked at Ubisoft on Myst III ("It was tragically nonviolent, and I think that's why I stopped working on it"), Splinter Cell, and Batman: Vengeance, then Battlefield Vietnam and eventually Army of Two at Electronic Arts.

But those were just the hits, Schneider pointed out: "I think that the stuff you screw up, you learn more from."

For example, there was Little Nicky on Game Boy Color. "This was the first Game Boy Color game to feature partial nudity. I don't know what we were thinking," he said. "Also, your character goes to hell, which is what every parent wants their children to play."

Then there was Batman Gotham City Racers, which taught Schneider such skills as "how to pull people's names off the credits when they were freaking out."

Why Become a Producer?

"My art skills were poor, my coding skills were not much better," Schneider acknowledged, "but I was good at helping others realize their vision...I think that if the producers are able to help others achieve their goals, that's the sign of someone who knows what they're doing."

In high school, Schneider's "core desires" were alcohol, cigarettes, and girls. His first "production job" came when he assembled a team of friends -- a Printshop expert, a computer guru, and a "rich kid to fund the supplies" -- to create fake IDs to help facilitate the acquisition of those core desires.

Be Disruptive

As a team, it's important to keep a strong direction and belief in the project, said Schneider. Early in Army of Two's life, there wasn't a lot of confidence that EA Montreal, a relatively unproven studio, could pull a new property off: "We were coming at this before John Riccitiello took over, so this was the old EA where new IP was really hard."

Schneider referred to the personal philosophy of Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski: "There is no 'they.'... 'They' refer to the ambiguous higher-ups who say things like, "They think your game [should] ship 12 months early," or "They think your game should feature a ridiculous side plot with a love interest."

The most ridiculous (and persistent), Schneider said, is, "They would really like your game to be 10% more Grand Theft Auto." "My response to that is, 'what the fuck does that even mean?'" he exclaimed.

"Hiring disruptive people is almost always a huge win. Hiring people who are just going to say 'yes' all the time doesn't help," said the producer. On the other hand, "Hiring crazy people leaves to inevitable conflict and frustration."

Another of Verbinski's rules is, "Make execs crap themselves." "I'm not advocating this, but what I am saying is stick to what you believe in and what is relevant for your content," said Schneider. For example, the studio brought subject matter including terrorism, Blackwater, the Taliban, and corporate greed into Army of Two's plot.

Execution and Connection

Despite the importance of disruption, straight quality of execution is critical. "When we did a feature by feature analysis of Call of Duty 4 and Army of Two, we found we actually have a lot more features," Schneider recalled, "but their execution was way stronger."

Along with execution, the other key element in achieving high review scores and high scales is connecting with your audience, Schneider said, pointing to Valve as the primary exemplar in that area.

The Making Of Juice

Schneider described an internal EA tool, Juice, which is used to record all meaningful player data for testing and balance purposes -- the player's path, where and when players or NPCs died and with what weapons, and so on.

"This is not hard technology to build. It's not hign-investment," he said, "but it gives you a tremendous advantage in testing your game.

"In the past, balance was a designer and a producer arguing. This takes the guesswork out of balance. No longer is it me or a designer saying, 'This is unbalanced,' now it's just data," he went on. "I'm not saying 100 percent of your balance should be done like this, but this gets you to a stronger level faster than ever before."

In response to an audience question, Schneider said that while Army of Two did not track post-release player data, the sequel Army of Two: The 40th Day will.

Closing Thoughts

"We built a studio, learned a ton, and created a franchise," summed up the Electronic Arts Montreal producer.

He laid out some final thoughts: "Focus test often, and resist the temptation to take the controller out of your playtesters' hands and say, 'Let me do it.' We've all done that, and it doesn't work.

"And don't take 'no' for an answer with your work. If your idea is good enough, push for it, and if it's really strong, other people will come around."

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