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In this in-depth interview, Gamasutra quizzes EA Los Angeles VP and general manager Neil Young regarding vital industry-related subjects including emotion in games, original IP, working overtime, the Wii and the NFL.

Brandon Sheffield, Contributor

May 22, 2006

23 Min Read

Neil Young has an almost 20 year history in games, having come from a programming background, and having launched Ultima Online, the world's first traditional MMO. Now, he's vice president and general manager of EALA, overseeing development on the Lord of the Rings games, among others.

In an interview conducted a few weeks ago, Gamasutra completed a lengthy talk with Young about emotion in games, original IP, working overtime, the Wii and the NFL. He's a man who pulls no punches, making this a rather entertaining interview to conduct. Not to be outdone, corporate communications head Tammy Schachter makes a few cameos as well.

Gamasutra: In the Serious Games Summit [at GDC] keynote, Jesper Juul was taking to task whether games could make you cry. And he maintained that they already did, like when servers crash, and things like that.

Neil Young: But that's frustration though. It's nice that there's a dialog going on about that question. But not being able to connect to your guild server and being sad about that… it's - you know. That's not really moving people emotionally, it's just annoying. I can do the same thing by going and hitting someone's windshield with a baseball bat. That's not the same thing we're driving for of course. What I want to figure out, and have a dialog around, is how do we decode the narrative of the medium. And [the question] can a computer game make you cry – to be clear, it's just a roll-up, just a broad stroke for “can a game move you emotionally.”


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Neil Young

When I see a game like Ico, or Shadow of the Colossus to a lesser degree, they do move me. And you can see little glimmer of magic there. And they weren't bad games because they moved you, so why can't we make great games that do move you.

GS: It seems like it should be possible, and I think it was actually a bit more possible when the medium was younger, and the players less jaded. You really need that suspension of disbelief. What do you think are the main barriers there?

NY: The single biggest barrier is pacing. That's the biggest challenge to manage. So that suspension of disbelief that you get in a linear medium [like movies] has been very carefully crafted and managed for you. You're taken on a journey. And also, you're often in a setting – like in a theatre, or in the home to some degree – where everyone is focused on getting that entertainment experience. Games are a little bit more raucous. So you might be playing a game on your own, and someone's talking to you over here. That wouldn't happen if you were watching a movie. So I think there are two challenges. One's pacing, and the other is maybe you're more likely to get people to cry if everyone is focused on the game at the same time.

GS: Do you think you're more likely to get that in a single-player linear scenario?

NY: I think it's easier to manage the pacing. But if you think about it, the linear path game is the next evolution of copying film. And I'm not sure that we should just copy film. If you think about it, when we had those branching games back in the day [such as those by digital pictures] that literally was trying to copy film. And then we have cutscenes today, where it's like “little bit of gameplay, tell a story, little bit of gameplay, tell a story.” And the challenge I think we have is how to be moved in an open space, where I'm building empathy for that character and the plight of the world that I'm in. And it doesn't have to be crying. It could be fear, it could be laughter, all these different things.


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Ultima Online

GS: Obviously the easiest one is the power fantasy.

Tammy Schachter (Senior Manager of Corporate Communications, EA): Don't you think game designers are a little guilty of falling into that adrenaline trap? Like in Ico, it's much less combative.

NY: Yeah, but there's a real focus on it. If you think about action movies, rarely in one of those are you suddenly sobbing. Because it's kind of dealing with a different part of you. Participating in a ballistic narrative versus a more measured, suspenseful narrative, I think it's two different things.

GS: EA's been kind of prioritizing original IP more recently. What are you doing about that currently?

NY: Well there are two levels to IP for me. There's franchise IP and then there's feature IP. And I think we have a responsibility in general, across every one of our games, to try to invent more new features that can strive to change the nature of the underlying game. Things like the aspiration in The Sims 2, things like the open world in Grand Theft Auto. And then at the other end of the spectrum, franchise IP, I think that's more likely to get enabled in by having an organization - you know, your studios – thinking about small inventions. So you end up swimming in a sea of small inventions that inspire bigger inventions. So that's the idea, and we're trying to adjust the culture of our company as a whole so we can just get innovation into the lexicon of Electronic Arts.

With specific regards to new franchise IP, aside from the things that we've acquired, there are other things like the partnership with Steven Spielberg, and that's focused exclusively on producing original, new intellectual property. And I was looking at the list of everything we're working on across all studios last night, and there's a lot of stuff there. There's like 15 or 20 new, original concepts [in any stage of development] right now. So maybe two of them will work.

GS: So Spielberg actually has office?

NY: Yeah, he's in there every week.

GS: So what kind of work does he actually do there?

NY: Well, he doesn't like come into work, grab his lunch and set down for the day. Basically it's probably best described as a writers' table on a TV show or something. Basically, it's Steven, Doug Church who's producing his first game, me, a couple of the designers, Ryan Church [no relation to Doug], who did the walkers for War of the Worlds, so he's worked with Steven before. So we sit in a room, and we've been going through the story of the first product, and what we really want to center on. And then we take the game features, and try to tie all those things together.

GS: Have you found at all that you have to educate him about what's possible in a game?

NY: To some degree. But he's pretty conversant in the medium. He plays a lot of games. The thing that's wonderful about him is that he's almost egoless. He's clearly reached the point where he just doesn't need to do anything other than just contribute creatively. He's added a ton of great ideas to what we're building.

GS: Are you still trying to foster that kind of ‘game designers as rock stars' culture that existed at the beginning of EA?

NY: Not really. I think at some point that becomes disruptive. When you have 3,800 employees in the studios, I mean… who gets to be the rock star?

TS: More like hundreds of craftsmen.

NY: What we have are basically spokespeople. Like I'm a spokesperson, Will Wright's a spokesperson, and Paul Lee's a spokesperson, but we all have different ideas.

GS: With so many people, how do you single out the talent that needs to rise?

NY: It's a big challenge. The answer to that question is in how you organize the company. If you organize it and your teams are like executive producer, senior producer, producer, lead engineer, senior engineer, etcetera, new great people automatically get put at the bottom of the stack. Which sucks! Because if you're a phenomenal artist, you shouldn't have to go do a bunch of shit stuff if your natural talent is being a great artist. You should be able to impact things immediately.

So one of the structures we operate in Los Angeles, and we still have to do more to make it function correctly, but it's the idea of cells. And the basic idea of cells is, inside each cell there are seven or eight people. And the entire organization is made up of 53 of these little cells, that are constantly forming and reforming and breaking apart as we work through innovations. So let's say someone comes in from school, just graduated, and their natural talent is incredible. Now you can put them in a cell, and their collaborating with a group of people, and they're not buried under a giant stack. If they're innovating at a really high level, that will become apparent very quickly. We've got a lot of work to do to get our internal systems to a place where that works effectively, but it's the right goal, I think.

GS: I don't know if this is out of line, but I'm a personal fan of Takayoshi Sato's work, but I haven't seen anything from him at EA in a lead capacity, which surprises me given his stellar work on Silent Hill.

NY: It's not appropriate for me to go into the details of what he's doing, other than to say that he's making a big impact on a big product that he's been working on for a long time.

TS: He's maybe less visible, but he's still very talented, and very important to the organization.

NY: Yeah, he's great, and he's working on great stuff. It's just that his product is two years out. It should be available in 2008.

GS: Does any other publisher feel like a real threat?

NY: Oh yeah, they all do, but for different reasons. Clearly Activision. Generally pretty good software, good business. THQ in some areas. Take-Two because they've got a couple of really big franchises, and they do compete in sports. Not on a dollar basis, but on a product quality basis. Everyone's a competitor because basically anyone can have the number one game. That's still the great thing about our business. Any one of the 30-some publishers out there could publish a game that takes them from being a $100 million to a $2 billion business overnight.

GS: Does management ever get concerned when a particularly notable title makes a stir? Do you feel like you have to react?

NY: No, I mean you always need to understand the market, what the expectations of the customer are, and the state of the art, but generally no. A very specific example is I think the company made a mistake with Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault. It was before my time. They basically went to E3 with the game, saw Half-Life 2, and were like 'f*ck. This is going to ship, and our game is going to be wrong or different or sub-par. Now let's go spend another 6 months trying to get it up to par' – and you couldn't. Because 90% rated games are kind of made when they're started, not when they're finished. So it ended up getting delayed, and ended up shipping the week before Half-Life 2 shipped.

Now if it hadn't been delayed, and it was an 82% rated game, if it'd shipped when it was supposed to, it would've had a clear window, it would have rated higher, so it might have been an 86% rated title, it would've sold all the way through the season, and we could've then said ‘ok, now let's iterate on that.' So that was a mistake that the company made. So we do make them!

GS: Back to the sports thing, it seems like you guys kind of put up a stopping block.

TS: Well I don't know if you know, but the NFL was actually shopping the license around. So it's very typical in sports for the league to partner up with whomever, it might be if it's apparel or whatever. And the NFL was looking for a specific partner on video games, and we sort of just won that bid. Largely on the basis of history, and the quality of the products, and the relationship.

GS: It does concern me that it would be hard to make another football game though. Are you worried that the competition won't be there anymore? Because obviously competition is something that encourages you to improve.

NY: I get that point. But maybe you find other ways to stay hungry, and make sure you're pleasing the customer. To some degree, you've always got what you did last year to improve upon. And people are rarely just sports gamers. There's overlap, and if we don't build really full, compelling pieces of software, they'll go play another game. The thing to remember specifically about the NFL thing is that if we hadn't bought it, someone else would. So you'd be sitting here with a guy from Activision maybe, who'd never made a sports game, but they thought it was important, and they went out and got the NFL license.


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Winning Eleven 9

TS: Then you'd have 8 million pissed off Madden fans. And there are a couple of other things going on too. Not having a license doesn't preclude someone making a great game. That's something we see very clearly with FIFA and Winning Eleven. Winning Eleven doesn't have a license, but it doesn't stop them from making a kickass game and pushing the market.

NY: Same with baseball – we don't have the baseball license, but we're still making baseball.

TS: Exactly. We don't have it but we're still doing it. And the other thing is that when we first acquired the license, we thought “ok – we don't have that level of competition anymore,” so we're bound really to our customers. It's not that we have a free pass because of the license, it's almost like we're under greater scrutiny. They're more skeptical, and challenging us even more. If anything, they're holding it to us more aggressively than ever before.

GS: There's been a lot of debate about the multi-studio system versus the incorporated model. Are you still confident that incorporation is the way to go?

NY: You never say never, but I think there's a tremendous benefit to having a lot of creative people in the same place. And I think there are good business reasons why you'd want to do that. There will always be teams of like 30-40 people that really enjoy being independent and having their own mini-culture that enables them to be successful, and I do think that we have to make sure that we have a mechanism to be able to respect that. So the big challenge is managing them. There's a lot that goes into running a studio, and if you've got 27 studios instead of seven, it becomes a really difficult challenge, and you spend a lot of time on an airplane.

I would love to get to the place where we could open-source our organization structure. If you think about open sourcing – there's an administrative group, and there's a set of standards, and things are kind of vetted in and vetted out, but everyone has access to the code-base. So imagine if your organizational structure was like that. Your processes, and the way you work, your technology solutions and everything. Because that's what you're really trying to manage. If you could get to the place where that was really well understood by everyone, then I think it would actually be a benefit to subdivide the studios and give everyone some sort of autonomy.

I'd be totally open minded about it, but the thing you can't do is lose control. I mean we're making stuff here.

GS: So have DreamWorks and Westwood totally merged?

NY: Yeah, it's one studio. We're very proud of the DreamWorks heritage, and very proud of the Westwood heritage. And Lou Castle's on the management team and everything. But I do think one of the challenges we had in Los Angeles stemmed from us having not fully integrated everybody. Everybody had a slightly different vision. On one end of the spectrum you had the RTS team, which actually was even autonomous from Westwood. So you had the EA-specific people, you had the Westwood Las Vegas people, you had the DreamWorks people, and then you had the more console people, who weren't necessarily DreamWorks people anymore, and then you had the GoldenEye team, which was essentially kind of new. So one of the things we had to do when we went into the studio a year or so ago, was really just to try and get everyone on the same page. Just got to figure out the mission, and say let's be a team.

GS: Are you guys concerned at all about the next generation? How are you going to be combating overwork and going over budget?

NY: There are two dimensions to that question. Basically - how hard is it to work on next-gen, and what do you have to do to maintain your dates? The second is - how do you operate an organization at its highest level of productivity?

On that latter question, the basic premise that we have in Los Angeles is this. You will be better if you're well-rested. Like right now, I'm not entirely well-rested. I was up till 2:30-3:00 in the morning, I got up at 7:30 to basically screw up my presentation, and then I had a couple of meetings and came over here. So the quality of my messages to you are kind of a little rambly, maybe not so crisp and as on-message as they should be. And that's because I'm tired. Now take that concept and apply it to someone checking in 100,000 lines of code. You introduce problems and bugs that slow things down. You make wrong decisions. And inside EA we have to build a system that optimizes creative productivity, like getting the best answer as soon as possible, rather than the wrong answer quickly. So that's what we try to do.

We have a process in place that's kind of cheesily known as the 'five great days' process. The idea is we wanted to change the cadence of the organization, manage it daily, but we also wanted everything to be stoked against a week's worth of work, so we set the goals and the objectives, the cells come up with the tasks, we work against those tasks, and occasionally throughout the life of the product they're going to need to crunch to get over the finishing line. But the definition of crunch is never seven days a week. It's like six days a week for the last eight weeks of your mission if it's necessary, and hopefully it isn't. And with Battle for Middle Earth II, none of them worked a single Sunday. And many of them didn't even have to work a Saturday. It was a normal job where they got to go see their families. It's kind of bullshit to hold people hostage against a deadline, that forces them to do bad stuff.


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Battle for Middle Earth II

GS: We recently got a column in Game Developer magazine by Relentless Software, and they have no Internet use, and you have to leave at 5:00 , and they've never crunched. So it seems like a hard way to work, but it's definitely one method.

NY: The hard part is, it's really not a normal job. It's an artistic, creative industry, and it's hard to go “well I'm not excited enough to come in tomorrow.”

TS: It's 9:30 in the morning – my great idea should be coming to me… just about now!

NY: It's hard to run a business that way too. So we have to think about the values we're going to build this culture on. The values for me are: let's push responsibility down to the lowest levels, and empower people to affect their own destiny, drive five great days, never crunch for longer than eight weeks, and never ever work seven days. You're going to break my business if you work seven days.

TS: It's preventative medicine to prevent burnout and to manage human hours.

NY: I get angry at the end of the day – you will f*ck up my business if you work seven days and make bad decisions. I do want to create a fun business environment, but as a business person I also want the games to be great, and we can't have it f*cked up because someone checked in something broken.

GS: And as a game person, when you said prevent burnout, I was thinking – wait, I thought it was a viable franchise!

NY: (laughs)

GS: I'm curious to know what you think of the Wii so far.

NY: I love the way that Nintendo is focusing itself on an area in which it can actually compete effectively. The feature IP for the Wii is the controller. The feature IP for the 360 is the Xbox Live. The feature IP for the PS3 is the Cell Processor. So Nintendo has picked something that's far more cost-effective to be able to innovate in, and actually has a far more dramatic impact on the games at the end of the day. So I love that.

GS: Are you specifically interested in working on it? I mean it seems like RTS is a pretty natural genre.

NY: Yeah… so if you think about RTS, one element is the control scheme, but the other is the distance from the TV screen when you're playing a console game versus a PC game. So one of the challenges for the Wii is that it's not HD. One of the reasons Battle for Middle Earth II works so well on the 360 is the controller, but the other reason is the HD – you can see everything, frankly as well or better as you can when you're [as close as you would be to a computer screen]. So I think there are some questions there, and the other issue is performance. I mean the hardware performance is sort of current gen plus, versus the 10x to 20x multiple that you get on next-gen.

GS: Are you worried about multiple SKUs with the Wii? It seems like you'd have to build pretty different games.

NY: Well not if you're doing current gen. I mean you can take your Xbox version and sort of upres it and figure out a mechanism to take advantage of the controller. I think just like the last generation for those guys it's going to be dominated by Nintendo-owned properties. It's going to be harder for third-party publishers.

TS: And our publishing decisions are made on a title-by-title basis, so there'll be instances where we'll make only two platforms. Or seven.

GS: It'll be interesting to see how much dev kits are going to cost. I imagine they may have a low barrier of entry there. I'm wondering what will come of the small team thing they're pushing for.

NY: Yeah, you want to see more small, innovative things. I'd like to see that too. That's a step down the path toward having a robust and thriving indie level to our industry.

GS: But it would take an opposite Nintendo stance from their usual approach. Especially versus the NES days when they controlled everything.

NY: The business question is why do they need to do that. They might not need to – they might look at it economically and think they might not need to do that, and make a fine business putting their own games on it, plus an old library, and then sell enough pieces of hardware. They're not going to be the number one or number two manufacturer of consoles.

GS: Just something funny I was thinking about – I'm sure you get a lot of name jokes. I was talking to Masaya Matsuura recently, and he was talking about wanting to collaborate with musicians he heard sometimes, and then we came to the concept of game design jam sessions. It occurred to me that maybe you and George Harrison of Nintendo should do one!

Neil Young: (laughs) I guess that's your comment for the day. Maybe we should!

 

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About the Author(s)

Brandon Sheffield

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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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