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Tour of Chicago - Pt. 3: EA Chicago


July 6, 2006
 

Introduction

When Gamasutra got a chance to visit Electronic Arts Chicago and talk to flamboyant GM Kudo Tsunoda, one of the driving forces behind recent hit Fight Night Round 3, we started, naturally enough, at the beginning - how EA happened to have a wholly owned studio in Chicago, when it has not historically done so.

EA Chicago opened two years ago, last February, according to Tsunoda, who is Vice President and General Manager of the studio. “We had been working with this developer NuFX,” he explained. “They’d worked exclusively with EA for eight years. They’d done NBA Street 1 and 2, then Fight Night 2004.  All number one hit games, all really well rated... So EA kind of merged with NuFX... to open EA Chicago.”  The studio started with 38 people, and their first project was Fight Night Round 2, and now employs 130, among its two offices; one out in Hoffman Estates, the other in a sprawling executive suite, where developers share space with lawyers and accountants. 

“We’re moving into a new facility downtown,” Tsunoda says. “We just got our own building in River North, downtown Chicago.  Three or four weeks, we’ll be moving into there.” “The studio’s growing so fast,” Tsunoda continues, “And we always knew we wanted to be in downtown Chicago.  Just with the amount of people we’ve hired, we’re out of space. Obviously, there’s a reason it’s called EA Chicago, not EA Hoffman Estates, right?”

He notes: “But still, we didn’t want to rush ourselves into some sub-standard building, or into some weird part of town. It’s only been a few months we’ve had people down here,” Tsunoda says.  “And mostly, it’s been good the way our product timing works.  One whole team of people here, and then one who team of people out in the Hoffman Estates office.  It’s not like the teams are broken up.”

 


EA Chicago's new headquarters

In The Beginning

Tsunoda’s very first job in the industry was gameplay hint-line operator. “I worked that for a few months, then I got promoted up to QA and I thought I’d made it to the big time.  I was testing games,” he said, including Lamb Chop's Play-Along for the Philips CD-i. “For two-and-half months, going around like a little sock-puppet, solving math problems.  And I was loving it, thinking, ‘Dude, there’s nothing better than this.’”

Later, Tsunoda would head to RealTime Associates, beginning to work on more action and console titles.  He worked for a company called Cyclone, then into the 3DO company where he did Air Attack, “the helicopter parts of the Army Men brand," and moved on to Electronic Arts after that. He started in EA Vancouver on Fight Night 2004, working with Chicago-based NuFX as an external developer.  “And then we kind of merged with NuFX to become EA Chicago, and I came out here to be the GM of the studio.”

“Besides working on the Fight Night stuff that we do,” Tsunoda says, “we’re working on that Def Jam fighting game, and then we’ve got a couple of unannounced fighting games that we’re working on. The studio is really growing fast.” Tsunoda believes the studio has a good reputation for next-gen games after Fight Night Round 3.  “We have a really good fighting game expertise here.  So really just working on fighting games, and starting to develop some action games as well.”

Next-Gen Plans?

Tsunoda confirms that EA Chicago is developing for both the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360, but what of Nintendo's Wii? “EA, for sure, we support all the consoles.  Every game, we do a ‘What is a good game for Wii - what is good for PS3, what is good for Xbox 360?’  So, I mean, there’s… we don’t have any announced Wii games that we’re doing out here in EA Chicago, yet, but obviously, it’s an awesome controller.  I loved playing with the Wii, out at E3.  It’s like… yeah. EA will support all the systems with their games.”

There's a mantra at EA Chicago to “get the person off the living room sofa, and really make them feel like they’re in the ring,” Tsunoda continues, “You’re not outside playing the game anymore, but you’re actually in the environment, as the character. The controller is such a hindrance to that sometimes, but that’s what’s really interesting about the Wii controller, or the PS3 controller -that you can move around and it give you actual gestural control in the game.”

Tsunoda also wants people to be able to pick up the game, and play it with ease.  You could look at it as ‘drawing gamers into boxing,’ or more importantly to Tsunoda, how you can draw non-gamers into games.  “You get them with that first, by removing the barriers of ‘I don’t know how to use the controls.’  If you make those as intuitive and easy to know as possible, more people want to check it out.”

“We’re looking to grow, as far as bringing on new products,” Tsunoda continues.  “We worked on one product two years ago, now we’ve got like three or four coming down the pipe.  Hopefully it’s three or four for a little bit now, we’ll get those to high quality completion before we take another step at growing.”

On Original IP

How does EA’s recently publicized push for new IP fit in with this plan?  “We have games that are not announced, that are not necessarily sequels, or based off of other licenses... It’s funny to me,” Tsunoda continues, “Lots of times, there’s kind of a knock on EA [that] we don’t necessarily do a lot of IP, or we do a lot of sequels, or a lot of sports games, right?  Which, obviously we do.”

“But actually, there is a lot of IP work that goes on with EA.  I think that’s a big push with all the different studios.  And we have a high level of creative quality at our studio, so we’re always looking at developing IP... Lots of times, it’s those sports games, and the other sequels that…you know they’re making money and that consumers want them.  Of course you still want to do those. And I think that’s really what frees you up to do the more risky creative IP games.”

But is it harder to create new IP, or to constantly innovate an existing franchise?

Tsunoda recalls when he first started on the previous franchise.  “Going from Knockout Kings 2002 and 2003, to Fight Night 2004, there was tons to innovate on.  And we put a bunch of awesome stuff in that game.” “And then,” he continues, “You’re done. You go to Fight Night Round 2, and to me, the level of quality we always want from EA Chicago is as big an innovation from Knockout Kings to Fight Night 2004, which was like a totally different game.  We need to deliver that same level of innovation on every Fight Night game that we put out.”

“When you’re doing new IP, there’s so many unknowns,” Tsunoda says.  “They’re both really challenging.  That’s why it’s always funny to me when you hear people talk about, ‘hey, yeah, it’s not a creative company, they keep making Fight Night over and over, or Madden over and over,’ 

On Leading, Staffing A Studio

Tsunoda doesn’t like to make sports or war analogies when it comes to game design or management, because of overuse.  “But in lots of ways,” he admits, “It is like being coach of a sports team.  As a coach of a team, you can do as good a job as you want, but if you don’t have players, the game is not going to be good.” He further cites [MLB manager] Jim Leyland.  “One day you’re skipper of the world championship Marlins, next day you’re skipper of the last place Marlins.  And you’re still Jim Leyland.  You’re still as good a manager.”

The EA Chicago GM's views on hiring are particularly interesting: “We’re always looking to hire people with good brains, and who can learn fast.”  Often developers don’t want to hire people with no game experience.  “But I’d much rather have someone who can learn and adapt and can figure stuff out, then somebody that has ten years of doing something the same way and that’s their only experience.”

 


The game, boss, the game.

 

Tsunoda thinks when you define how games are played on the next-gen consoles, it can be better to have people who “don’t have the baggage of trying to make next-gen games the way we make current-gen.  People have a way of doing things, and they tend to apply that to a new situation.” “We’ve hired tons of people from the movie industry, from advertising, from different kinds of creative fields that aren’t games,” Tsunoda explains.  “And the perspective they put on how a person experiences a game versus how they play the game has just been huge, defining how next-gen games are played.”

This is why EA Chicago has a mix of experienced developers, fresh students, and people from other industries.  “But that’s the thing that’s been most interesting to me,” Tsunoda says. “The value of people who don’t necessarily have the legacy of having made games for ten years.  And bringing them into the situation, and getting a new and fresh perspective on what games should be.” Which raises questions about quality of life. 

Quality Of Life?

“Well, I really don’t think it’s like EA_Spouse,” Tsunoda responds.  “Obviously, making games is hard.  It is not like a walk in the park.  Lots of times when people find out you work in the games industry, it’s like. ‘Oh, that’s awesome.  All you do is sit around and play games all day.’ And you’re like, ‘It’s not exactly like that,’ you know?”

He thinks one reason development teams work long hours is because “people have trouble seeing stuff, and defining what it is.  But they’re much better at, once they see something in the game, telling you how to change it.” "When a programmer is given a direction, such as ‘We want a new punching system.’  That isn’t clear to the programmer, who will implement something.  Then, a designer will come by and say, ‘That’s not what it should be, but change it like this.’  The result is a good deal of rework."

“When we started on the Fight Night series,” he continues, “All the designers started going to boxer training.  And we’d do just long pre-production stretches of three hours of boxing training in the morning, and then three hours of playing boxing games in the afternoon.  And really trying to learn what boxing is about.”

Tsunoda believes that EA, as a company, is getting better at reducing that waste.  “We spend 40% of our production time in pre-production.  Really focus on ‘Let’s prototype stuff, and figure out what’s fun, and what’s really going to make this game kick ass,’ before we have developers go put stuff in the games that isn’t the right stuff.  You just end up saving a lot of that rework.” “It’s not an easy task,” Tsunoda notes.  “Getting a game done.  And it’s always on deadlines, you know?  Very deadline oriented industry.”  As a management team, you have to figure out the best ways to reduce the amount of wasted work that goes on.  “Because that directly leads to better game quality, and then better life that people can have outside the office, which also leads to better quality, in my mind.”

Conclusion

Running a game company is like a game itself.  “Or even more so,” Tsunoda adds.  As the General Manager, you’re responsible for defining SKU plans, working on budgets, and similar work.  “When I was seven years old, in my basement, playing Space Invaders, I wasn’t dreaming of the day I could sit in some executive meeting, talking about the SKU plan, or how much money it cost to make games.”

That’s not necessarily what Tsunoda is in the industry for.  “I’m definitely all wanting to make the high-quality game, and crafting the games, and doing the creative on the games.  Like, that’s what gets me buzzed about the work.”


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