Following the two major keynotes from Microsoft and Nintendo on the first day of Tokyo Game Show at the Makuhari Messe, the afternoon's proceedings saw a special CEDEC Premium event, curated by IGDA Japan's Kiyoshi Shin. This featured John Buchanan, self-described 'university research liaison dude' and former director of advanced technology for EA Vancouver, as well as Neil Young, general manager of EA Los Angeles, speaking to a room of Japanese developers on Electronic Arts' approach to game development.
Both talks had some fascinating insights into EA's strategy for the next generation of consoles, but Young's in particular, part practical and part high-level concept, outlined some of the publisher's inner thought processes over the last 18 months or so. Specifically, Young discussed the 'anatomy of a hit', noting that, in the company's view, high-quality execution, 1-3 design innovations and audience appeal are the ideal combination to produce both a critical and commercial hit, the goal of all Electronic Arts' titles.
Young noted that high quality execution on its own, with great AI, control, physics and so on, gives you a baseline average score, on a GameRankings-style site, of an 80% rating. It's vital - of the top 60 games of the past 3 years in North America, just 11 products had average ratings under 80% - but that's not necessarily enough. He then pointed out important game design differentiators - from the 'mod' for Doom to the gravity gun in Half-Life 2 and dual-wielding weapons for Halo 2, arguing that these kind of innovations have to be carefully designed into the game's schedule, to be mapped out during a pre-production process.
Some of the most interesting footage and information came at the end of the piece, when Young talked about the latest iteration of the Medal Of Honor series for PlayStation 3, currently in development at EA Los Angeles. He revealed that, while still early in development, the PS3 version of the game was already fill-rate bound, leaving 4 SPUs of the PlayStation 3 ready to be used for code-powered effects such as physics, particles, AI, and so on.
He also advanced his theory that, while only 20% of the processing power would be used for processes other than rendering in the current generation, as much as 50% would be available for AI, physics, and other such tasks in the next generation. This would hopefully lead to a much more sophisticated experience that isn't just better graphics running on a similar codebase, and while doing this, Electronic Arts is "trying to hold to a [budget] increase of 50% over the current generation" for next generation console titles.
The final video demonstration from Young also showed better graphics in abundance, however. He showcased how Electronic Arts is trying to bridge the 'Uncanny Valley' problem of realistically modeled characters which animate to look totally unbelievable by showing the Ucap motion capture set-up currently running on the EA premises in Vancouver.
As an example, Young showed a video of an actor playing a soldier in Medal Of Honor being motion captured with the incredibly sophisticated mocap set-up, as used in The Matrix sequels, and then showed it transposed into a Medal Of Honor PS3 game scene, where the actor's expressions and frenzied shouting looked wholly believable, with both high resolution models and realistic facial animation. It's clear that EA is putting its massive resources into intelligently solving some of the problems of the upcoming 'HD era', and judging by Young's demonstration in Tokyo, those resources are significant.
The question and answer session at the end of the EA lectures also revealed some extremely interesting details. When discussing staffing and outsourcing possibilities, Young mentioned that, in Los Angeles, Electronic Arts can create about 6 games simultaneously, but has around 500 people in the studio. If each game needs the equivalent of 200 people working on it, then EA LA would actually be tending towards a staff of 1200. But that simply isn't the case, because Young says the company is "trying to focus in-house talent on the things that really make a difference", and is looking to have the less skilled and complex tasks done out of house, presumably by outsourcing it to external companies, as EA has done in the past with The Sims series and New Pencil.
In further remarks, Buchanan discussed the 'common technical structure' over all EA studios, which is intended to be the recently purchased Renderware game engine in the long term - Young indicated that Electronic Arts Los Angeles is on 'the cutting edge' of the implementation of this. Buchanan's key take-away for this move is that: "For the most part, the understanding is that we want to get ready to innovate and experiment, and in order to do that, we need to stop wasting time by re-inventing a rendering or animation engine." Young also mentioned that the version of Renderware being used is what's internally called Renderware 4.5 - essentially, Renderware 4 plus an unspecified EA code-base.
Finally, Young and Buchanan talked a little more about EA Los Angeles' 'cell' structure, with a large amount of interdisciplinary teams moving around to work on projects as necessary, also outlining Electronic Arts' approach to game creation as including three pre-production phases (discovery, pre-production, and 'first-production'), before the ramp up to as many as 150 people in full production on an EA game - with so many staff working on a game, it's almost impossible for there to be any 'unknowns' before production starts.