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Is the megalithic publisher up to the challenge of navigating an increasingly digital and diverse landscape of players and platforms? Chief creative director Rich Hilleman, who joined Electronic Arts in the 1980s, takes us on a tour of the industry's evolution.

Brandon Sheffield, Contributor

March 26, 2012

24 Min Read

Rich Hilleman, the chief creative director of Electronic Arts, has a big task: getting the company ready for the future. He has to navigate the waters of the social and mobile revolution while also keeping core gamers satisfied as the company's products shift to blockbusters-cum-online services.

In this interview, Hilleman -- who has been at the company since the 1980s -- looks back as well as forward, reflecting on how the company's success on the original PlayStation and Sega Genesis taught it lessons that are still relevant today.

"Increasingly, free-to-play games, social games, mobile games, even the DLC and online play that drives consoles today, are good examplesis of the things we need to start considering to design around," says Hilleman.

But is the company up to the challenge?

You've talked about the idea of the game in service of the player. Where do you see the limits of that? Because you have a lot of things that you have to communicate before the game can start to be in their service.

Rich Hilleman: Well, I think it depends on what you're doing. So I think if your mechanism is to give the player some characters, some locations, and some capabilities and turn them loose, you have a responsibility to produce some continuity out of that for them. To give them some context about what's important, to teach them and kind of give them some direction on where they should be going.

On the other hand, is that really necessary in Minecraft? I think Minecraft does a pretty terrific job of just turning people loose and seeing amazing things happen. So the interesting point for us is, how do you balance that for a game like The Sims? Where clearly players use it in some very specific ways that we understand, but players are inventing new ways to use the game all the time.

So every time we iterate that franchise, one of the big questions is, "Are we making decisions that are taking things away from our future players -- things that we don't understand yet?"

So I guess what I'm saying is the more narrative a product is -- the more crisply you're trying to communicate a specific IP -- the more responsibility you have to show the player where he's going. But I think there are lots of examples of other products that are a little less prescriptive about their utilization that produce very different results.

How do you go about investigating what players may want to do?

RH: I've been playing with an idea, around EA, that comes from looking at the design problem in a kind of specific way. So the very first game I ever designed was a game called Ferrari Formula One. This is back in the era when we made record albums. [Ed. note: Hilleman is here referring to EA's early 1980s, square, flat PC game packaging.]

The primary mechanism that sold the game in that period of time was the back package screenshots; magazine articles didn't really do that much at that point in time; advertising didn't make a big difference.

People went into the store, they picked the package up, they turned it around and they looked at the screenshots. If there were six unique screenshots and interesting stuff underneath it they went, "Wow, that's a big product; look at all the shit in it." And if you built a game that had one screenshot in the back, it didn't sell nearly as well.

M.U.L.E. is a great example. If you take a look at the back package copy of M.U.L.E., it looks like shit. As a result, people did not pick it up and buy it. And yet, it's one of the true masterpieces of its time. But the problem was that they built a game that had one screen, and it was essentially a board game screen, and that, in the world of video games at the time, was not a compelling notion.

So when I designed Ferrari Formula One, I literally built the six screens for the back of the package first. I designed six very specific incarnations. You'll like this a lot. I put a wind tunnel, a dynamometer; I had the scoring monitor screen, which nobody had ever done before. I had the in-car view -- which was the big screenshot on the top -- I had the pit-side view where you actually change the tires. Oh yeah, and they put the splash screen on it.

What I did in that case was I said, "You know what? I get paid by people deciding what game to buy based on the screenshots, so I'm going to design to make sure that I have the things that get me paid."

Increasingly, free-to-play games, social games, mobile games, even the DLC and online play that drives consoles today, are good examples of the things we need to start considering to design around.

And so one of the things that I think is an interesting way to think about this is something I call service-oriented design. You're going to get paid in the future not for your client but for the services, and so don't spend all your time engineering a client to some undefined set of future experiences you think you might make out of it. The best way to build a new product might be to build the services first.

So how this might change something -- this is a hypothetical example, or else [Maxis senior VP] Lucy Bradshaw might hit me with a chair! So The Sims is the thought example that I use now to talk about it.

The Sims has three really interesting and discreet audiences: What I would call "dollhousers" -- people who build the fabulous houses that they wish they owned. They have folks who essentially have a virtual relationship with their character. And there are folks who essentially make stuff out of it: Moviemakers.

If you think about each of those current audiences today and what future Sims product we'd want to give them, what the dollhouser wants is not an application on their computer, but they want an application on their phone that I can go take a picture of that chair, and "get that chair in my game for $20," or for some number. And then what I want is I want the ability to express my houses to my friends; I want to be able to build a parade of homes for my particular house, so that I can win the Bathroom of the Year award for my particular category.

That second group -- the virtual character owners, the people who want a relationship -- they want to be able to have a deeper emotional interaction with their characters. What I would give them is the ability to have video chat with their Sims. Now, the Sims speak Simlish -- and I wouldn't change that, by the way -- but that doesn't mean that we can't have something that produces an emotionally evocative experience.

The other thing I want to do is make the Sims a part of your social life, make them a part of your friends circle, and how you do that is you make where your Sims go with you be as interesting as where you go. And so for instance, imagine an application that when I went to Mount Rushmore with my Sims in my phone in my pocket, that it sent a note to all of my Facebook friends with a postcard of the Sims standing in front of Mount Rushmore and the note on the back of what we did there. It's a goofy idea, but for somebody who cares about that character as deeply as one of their other friends, it's a natural kind of thing.

For that last group, you know, the most frustrating thing about using The Sims to make a movie is that unfortunately the Sims do what they want to do. So like in the middle of a perfectly executed scene, they decide to go to the bathroom; it's like, "Uh-oh. Wait a minute." So what movie makers want most of all is the ability to direct the Sims. But if I give them the joystick control to drive the Sims around, they're going to break things, and we're going to have less fun.

So as an example in this case, what I'll do is instead I'll give them the director. Instead of being able to direct the character themselves, I'll give them Martin Scorsese, who can. Now the trick becomes not getting the Sims characters to do what you want, but getting Martin to do what you want. I'm still abstracted in the same way The Sims has used before, but what I've done is I've turned it into a different kind of a problem that fits to the gestalt of what that customer does.

The underlying point there is that by building the service first, you align yourself with how your customers value your product. And chances are you built a client that builds the best possible incarnation of that service, that's going to be the way to build the most compelling project. The Sims is just one example; I would say the social and free-to-play and mobile spaces are probably even more important in those places.

What do you think about the Minecraft idea of releasing an alpha and seeing what people like, and supporting that more?

RH: I think Minecraft's a great game; it dominates my household like nothing else. I think Minecraft is fundamentally a construction set at the bottom of it, and that what it does well is that thing. But I think the name is a very cogent thing to think about Minecraft as a business. So I think Notch is doing great; I'm really happy for him. I think in the long term that business evolves into something different.

My favorite television show of all time is Deadwood. Have you ever seen that show?

I never watched it.

RH: But you know about it?


RH: What Deadwood taught you more than anything else -- and anybody who went to a California school learned this too -- is that the people who made money from the gold rush were not the gold miners. It was guys named Levi Strauss and Crocker, and folks who ran banks, and people who sold jeans, and sold picks and axes.

I think ultimately in the long term that the money that will get made in Minecraft will not be about Minecraft, but will be about the services and products that get introduced into it. And so that's what's most interesting to me about Minecraft, is that the ecosystem, it's almost an American history lesson.

Going back to the concept of the service of the player to the player, what do you think about the concept of like "I" in a game? You've done all this Madden stuff and you make people feel like they've accomplished something great in this game.

RH: "Pride," as [Bethesda's] Todd [Howard] called it the other day [in a DICE Summit presentation]; I thought that that was a good word.

If you're in Call of Duty, or something, and you get this amazing headshot, you say "I did this", but you simultaneously mean you as a person and you as the character. And in a game like Minecraft, it's kind of a different thing, because the character's really just the embodiment of the player. What do you think about that space there?

RH: I think there are many people for whom Minecraft is definitely "I". I think sports games are a reasonably good example of a subtle difference. So in a sports game, do I want to be me, or do I want to be Michael Vick?

Or do you want to be the team?

RH: Or do I just want my team to win? We see people kind of play it in both ways. There are folks who the fantasy is to be an NFL player, and then there are other folks who the fantasy is to be Michael Vick. It's real specific.

I think NBA, the products we made with Jordan sold a lot better than the products that we made that didn't have Jordan. And they didn't just sell because Michael Jordan's an attractive individual; I think it's because, for most people, that's a very specific fantasy that they wanted to have.

And so I think it has to do with, does the player want to be something specific, or do they want to be themselves in that context? And that's really the difference. The games that have to deal with that in a subtle way end up being like The Sims and Madden. The games like Skyrim, I don't think you have to be subtle about it; I think those characters are them, in that world.

The interesting one, I think, of all of the fantasy role playing ones that's hard to describe is Ultima. Because Lord British is definitely a thing, and more specific than that -- it's not only a literary creature, but it's a human being who really thinks that's who he is.

So in that particular context, I always thought that was a somewhat confusing thing for the players of that game. That they had a somewhat hard time displacing themselves from who Richard was, and the character, and we really never saw anybody else in this business play that game that way. I think there's a reason why; I think it is disturbing to the player.


RH: It takes away their ownership of it. I love Richard, but who knew at the time? God sakes; it's 1981, give the guy some credit! [laughs]

People were just coding away at whatever they could at the time.

RH: Those of us who remember Ultima I and the BASIC code that was in it, the fact that it shipped is a miracle. He did a lot better after that.

Speaking of those times, what's your opinion on the whole video game crash? It was around the time that you came into EA.

RH: Essentially it's the [Atari] 2600 crash. Because coin-op did fine. It turned out coin-op just fine during that period of time.

Yeah, computers did, as well.

RH: Yeah. So the 2600 crash, from my perspective, was a good example of creative destruction, and anybody who's spent any time reading about Atari at that time recognizes that they needed some creative destruction; they clearly were not the right custodians of a great new business. What I know happened was the 2600 raised the profile of what was possible, set expectations in people's minds.

And then when the business went away, it did a couple things. It scared the crap out of an entire generation of retailers, and they were absolutely -- every single one of them knew somebody who got fired because they bought too much of 2600 stock. Or actually, most of them were guys who got fired and got a new job. They all changed seats.

So number one is, it changed the behavior of our retailers toward the way they took product, and the way that they took risk, and I think the consolidation at the top of the chart is an example of that expression and its long-term influence.

But the other thing that happened was it went away, and it left a hole and the hole got filled by computer games, and those computer games were really different in form. 2600 games were, almost without exception -- maybe Star Raiders being the sole exception -- they were essentially 90 second arcade experiences. There was no changing of the form; there was no changing of the granularity, no changing of the expectations.

Computer games did all that innovation. And some of it was because they had writable, local media, some of it was because they were pirateable. But I think the decline and demise of the 2600 market was absolutely necessary, or actually we would've died as a fad.

Do you think that current retailers are learning the lessons they need to be learning now, fast enough, as much of the business goes away from retail and toward digital?

RH: What I see is different people reacting in different ways. Walmart is spending a lot of effort trying to figure out what it means for them. They have essentially bought a TV company, and their vision of that TV company is not as a straight TV. That's emblematic of them understanding they need to change their relationship to the value proposition, from my perspective.

Companies like Best Buy, what you see them doing is taking their digital distribution assets very, very seriously, and spending time and money to be effective in that place and doing experiments -- crazy things like Gaikai -- to try and be a difference in that business.

So we have a sales guy named Tom Cipolla, who I've known for 25 years, and we love each other to death. And I worry about his future, but I've been telling him for the last three years that I think he needs to be telling sales people "It's going to be okay."

And the reason why is because if a retailer has a relationship with 20 million customers, they're not going to someday be stupid about that. They got to that position because they understand how to talk to those customers, how to bring value to those customers, and how to produce some outcome with those customers and have helped us over the years.

It is very likely that if they run a digital distribution asset -- and they do as good a job as they learned how to do a brick-and-mortar -- that we're going to want to do business with them. And that means that those sales people will have jobs, except without standard return allowances, which they will be pretty happy about.

There are going to be some that go away. Absolutely. But I think to believe that they all die and Amazon is the whole winner, I think, dramatically underestimates the talent of people who run retail and their understanding of customers.

I do see that in a lot of cases sales and marketing are, to some extent, unnecessary for parts of this new business.

RH: They're different jobs. They're not unnecessary; they're just different. So marketing is a day-to-day job -- it's a radio job, not a movie release job. And your relationship with the customer is driven by a whole bunch of new things including understanding a collection of numbers you've never been responsible to understand before.

The sales job, I think, is evolving into understanding how different markets are accessed, what are the tools of communication that work in those places, and then crafting an individual digital offering for each one of those players. These are big, meaty problems -- I think they're better jobs.

Do you think we're going to get to the point where, rather than hardware savvy, it's going to be much more network and service savvy as things go more cloud-oriented, for the value proposition for presenting a game? Like, theoretically, I can play OnLive stuff on an Android device, and I can just have Batman: Arkham City on my phone that can't run Arkham City.

RH: Yeah, I think all the growth in the business for the last eight years has been people outside of the core. The vast majority of the places they're playing are not at home with a 20 foot experience from their television set; they're doing it where they are, at the time that they are. They're paying for it when they want to, the way they want to, and they're running it on the devices that they have.

For those people, the competition is really much more about their time than money. If you gain their time, you'll eventually gain their money; if you lose their time, you may not get them back. And so for us that's the challenge on these platforms is to create an experience that feels pervasive and ubiquitous across those platforms. That they don't want to go anywhere else and they don't want to spend time anywhere else, or at least limited amounts of time in those places. That's really our job.

Do I think that that's going to change the specialization in this business? It means that the services and products that customers value will increasingly be content and services that are delivered through network services that the piping and architecture of them has a lot to do with how they're qualitatively perceived. Game teams in the future will have great network engineers on them, because they won't be able to produce their services without them.

But do you think someone could have or should have sold Minecraft to customers, aside from just Notch himself?

RH: So I don't know if Notch cares -- in fact, I'm pretty sure he doesn't. What I've told the guys who run Origin for us is that we should do it for free, because as you can see my vision of that business, that's not where the money comes from anyway.

As somebody who has had to reinstall Windows on my son's computer after he attempted to install Mod Manager on that machine, there's a lot of value to be provided for the customer in making Minecraft and its mods and installations something that's a more commercial and predictable product.

And those are the kinds of things that Notch needs help with, and that without the help of a publisher or other support, he's probably not going to get there completely by himself. Now maybe his community will, and I'd love to see that happen. It's a great experiment; I'm really anxious to see what happens.

The reason I wish we were involved is because I think we'd learn from him. And the other thing that's true is Notch is a true talent of this business; I just like us being associated with great talent. So from my perspective, I'm watching Minecraft with both eyes -- sometimes with a third and fourth, because my wife is trying to manage my children's behavior. But what we think is true about it is that it is a style, and not an end in itself, and that the long-term evolution of it as a business has to do with the things that go around it, and not just the client.

It's definitely interesting to see how people take an initial success and run with it. Like when I met the League of Legends guys [Riot] for the first time, they were six dudes and they were trying to convince me why I should care about their game [a free-to-play action-RTS]. But I kept in touch with them, because they were nice, and then over the years I've seen how they have done a fantastic job at building it as a business, and have really been meeting and sometimes exceeding the needs of their user base.

RH: They had a vision behind the tactics, and that showed.

Yeah, but then sometimes when you get someone it's like wait, now I have all of these players; what am I supposed to do about it? [laughs]

RH: Many times -- and for a lot of designers -- some portion of the people who are successful in this business have no idea how it happened. And what is more absolutely immobilizing? The fear of having been successful at something you have no concept of how to reproduce.

And so we've seen that a few times in this business. It's sad; to me it's often sad because it usually involves a tremendous amount of thrashing [laughs] that turns somebody who you used to like into somebody you don't like for a while.

What I think is best -- when you see the best of this business, it's when you see the creators help each other understand what made them successful, because often you are just too close.

And so when I look back, I remember going to the first GDC. In the middle of Chris Crawford's living room is Jon Freeman, Sid Meier, Chris Crawford, and Dan Bunten talking about how to play Seven Cities of Gold better. And none of those guys had any money in Seven Cities of Gold, and Dan's not done with it, and it's crashing every 15 minutes, but I guarantee you every single one of those guys put something in that game that Dani shipped.

I think that's a part of this conversation. When you get in one of those circumstances, ask somebody else. It's okay! To be honest, the industry's full of people who love to have that kind of conversation. But for a lot of folks, the simple "asking somebody else means that I might not know" means they don't want to have that conversation.

Yeah, there are definitely a lot of people on both sides of that thing, but I think that we've done a relatively decent job as an industry of encouraging people to talk to each other.

RH: Well, so, the very first product I ever did was Chuck Yeager's Flight Trainer, which was like number one in the country for 18 months. So I have some sympathy for the problem. [laughs]

It's a good problem to have.

RH: It is, but you really do not know what to do next; you have defined a success in a context that you had no idea. So it's as new to you as everybody else; the problem is all the people around you have no idea that's true.

I have a really dumb question for you. Were you involved at all with the TurboGrafx version of John Madden Football?

RH: Involved? I think I signed the contract. I think I said it was okay. I think Scott Orr was the guy who ran the thing, and I think it was built by Visual Concepts, if I remember correctly. So I kind of know about it; I'm sure it ran my playbook from that time. But, yeah. We built a lot of versions of Madden in that era.

I was just curious, because I'm a big TurboGrafx fan.

RH: That was one thing I was going to say, is it was definitely a machine we did it for with no commercial justification at all; we did it because we liked the hardware. And so we did a few of those things. I mean, God sakes, we made Amiga products for three years; what other reason? We probably made more money than Commodore did off the machine. But there was no rational reason to be on that machine except that we liked it.

Sometimes that works.

RH: Well, I was going to say there are two real cases in EA where I think we made bad choices, and ended up being brilliant choices, and Amiga's the first one. When we built Amiga titles for the first time, we were coming out of the 8-bit world; we were building some IBM PC stuff, but for the most part it wasn't high quality, relatively high resolution high color stuff.

And so the Amiga, for us, taught us a whole bunch of new things. We had to get good at music, we had to get much better at art, we had to get better animation that wasn't all sprite animation, we had to do 3D for the first time -- a whole bunch of things that we had to do.

None of that paid off except Deluxe Paint, really, in the Amiga world. But how it paid it off is almost all of that stuff went straight to the [Sega] Genesis. And so really what happened for us is the Amiga was sort of a pre-run of what the Genesis business was for us.

About five years later we did exactly the same thing over again -- it was called 3DO. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out how do you build products for disc-based media with this particular set of characteristics.

And although 3DO didn't achieve the commercial results we were after, Ken Kutaragi was definitely paying attention, and that product carried a lot of the same characteristics that Trip [Hawkins] had wanted in the 3DO titles. As a result, everything we did on 3DO was a preface for what we could do on PlayStation 1.

So what's been good for EA is even sometimes when we don't get it exactly right, we're in the neighborhood of where something's going to happen; we just showed up a little early. And what that does is it makes you ready for the future.

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About the Author(s)

Brandon Sheffield


Brandon Sheffield is creative director of Necrosoft Games, former editor of Game Developer magazine and gamasutra.com, and advisor for GDC, DICE, and other conferences. He frequently participates in game charity bundles and events.

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