Interview with Bing Gordon (EA)

Bing Gordon is the Chief Creative Officer of Electronic Arts, as well as a member of the faculty for USC’s Interactive Media Division. He’s also one of the smartest guys around (not to mention famously outspoken), which is why I wanted to email-interview him for my blog. Here’s what came of it:

Controversy over the rising number of game design programs in the US has heated up. Some people claim that academics can’t (or won’t) teach useful skills to aspiring designers. Some claim that, beyond technical training, only commercial project experience is truly useful. How do you feel about this, and what do you think academic institutions should be focusing on?

From first-hand experience, I can say that the best university programs are graduating the best entry-level game-makers. Period. The advantage students have is that they can work on many smaller projects, with teachers as advisers, and they can polish their team and cross-functional skills.

I recommend to game-making students that before they graduate they should: complete 4 team-based interactive projects; complete 4-6 fast prototypes, in many different media, including paper, cards and dice, and lo-res animation; complete basic feature design projects for key game categories that have user tools, such as designing a “smart object” for an object-oriented “living” environment (e.g.the Sims), level design mods (e.g. Unreal Tournament), and mission design mods (e.g. Neverwinter Nights); learn software “architecture” and data structures, if not c++ and java and html; learn basic maya skills; and play as many of the “Best Games of All Time” as possible, just as film students are literate in the most important movies.

The best grads will have “published” at least one project to public acclaim, such as 10,000+ downloads or competition winner; and they will have invented an improvement to at least one “best game of all time.”

If an aspiring game designer (or producer) could take just one class in college, what class would you recommend? Why?

“Building Virtual Worlds” class at Carnegie Mellon’s ETC program. Students complete 5 games in 3 months, working in cross-functional teams. My second favorite class is “Building Sims Objects” at USC’s School of Cinema, TV and Interactive Entertainment.

You received an MBA from Stanford. How has that been most useful to you in your career? Where within the game industry do you think MBAs are most needed, if anywhere?

I have found that MBA training is great for enhancing students’ “business imagination.” You just see so many business histories and models in 2 hectic years.

Business schools tend to be best at teaching finance and accounting, however, because the basics can be covered in a textbook. But this material that is easiest to cover in curriculum is also easiest to self-learn. Once you find out that the trick to business is making “marginal revenue equal marginal cost”, the rest of financial planning is conceptually easy.

But for me, the most important aspect of attending business school was getting access to projects and internships at real companies, rather than exposure to interesting professors. I would probably have founded an ad agency, rather than joining “Amazin’ Software”, if it weren’t for doing a research project for the Fairchild “Channel F”, the world’s first cartridge video game system.

At EA, an MBA is very useful for people working in finance and business development. We must have 2-3 entry-level job openings per year for MBA-type skills in these areas. But there are many more openings per year for MBA’s who also can lead product development teams through sound business judgment, organizational development and leadership skills, and game-making creativity. We have 200-400 entry-level job openings per year for people like this. In other words, MBA’s who want to be in the game business should try to be Producers, not business specialists.

Despite the maturation of the game industry, many games (across developers and publishers) are still completed over-budget and behind-schedule. Is that an inevitable aspect of the creative process? If not, what can be done to change things?

The trick to finishing any creative project on schedule is to ship whatever is done by a given date. This is what advertising agencies usually do with the commercials they create. Of course, no one remembers that it was on time after it fails miserably.

Once you set minimum creativity standards on your work, predictability flies out the window. The trick here is to make progress through small, user-testable iterations, the way Neil Simon describes in his autobiography, “Rewrites”, and the way David Kelley’s Ideo process is described in “The Art of Innovation.”

The game business has an added wrinkle, that we deliver our creativity in the form of software, which is notoriously hard to schedule.

How do you feel about outsourcing labor to markets such as India, Eastern Europe, and China?

I think innovations happen from small, cross-functional teams of programmers, designers and artists. This kind of team seems impossible to outsource.

Content, some code modules and testing, because they are not cross-functional, and can be scoped in detail, are out-sourceable. For this type of work, cost versus predictable quality and schedule are the primary concern. In some cases, EA is outsourcing, and in some cases we are “in-sourcing” to EA employees in other locations.

Do you think that game developers and publishers should be putting more energy into meeting the needs of consumers in India and China? Or are these markets already being tackled with sufficient dedication?

I hate the word “should.” I have always rebelled against “should.”

Obviously, the capital markets are valuing the current and future potential of consumer markets in India and China. Publishers that cannot meet their long-term goals without success in all markets “should” try to succeed in all markets. It’s not clear whether there are any publishers who must succeed in all markets, however. EA, for example, has chosen not to enter several meaningful videogame markets, such as the gambling games business, and Microsoft has chosen not to enter the Playstation games business.

In many organizations, marketing and development still treat each other as “necessary evils.” What can be done to improve these relationships?

The best solution is to have a cross-functional company leader. David Ogilvy was a researcher before becoming a copywriter and founding Ogilvy & Mather ad agency. The next best approach is to have leadership with great empathy for the other function. In the games business, that means that marketing leaders should be awesome game-players, and game-makers should be awesome tv-commercial makers.

What are your thoughts on the MMOG market? Do you agree with Brian Farrell’s recent assertion that there’s only room for one big MMOG at any given time? (I.e. World of Warcraft as of now.) **Note to reader: interview took place prior to the announcement of the Mythic acquisition.

Nope. I think that “virtual worlding” will soon be a rite of passage for all teenagers with access to the internet.

What’s the biggest risk EA ever took? And now that EA is a huge, public entity, can you take those kinds of risks anymore? Would you even want to?

EA’s biggest risk was preparing to launch a lineup of games for the Sega Genesis without a license. We reverse-engineered the electronics in a “clean room” environment, because Sega wouldn’t give us licensee terms that we could live with. If this had not worked, and the games hadn’t sold, (Sega agreed to license terms the evening before our public introduction of games), EA would probably have gone the way of early computer game leaders like Broderbund and Sierra. It was truly a “bet the company” decision.

I don’t think that company size or shareholder status affects the kind of risks that a company can “take.” Look at Apple with iPod, for example.

What is the biggest business challenge facing game developers and publishers today? How can they address it?

Sheez, good question.

I think our industry’s greatest challenge is to transition from technology-based to creativity-based experiences. In other words, we should all become like Miyamoto! Easier said than done.

Our industry’s biggest business challenge is to figure out how to convince consumers to pay “fair value” for the increased quality we are delivering. We need to monetize our “excess hours” of satisfied play. Our best games are unbelievably cheap on a per hour basis, compared to, say $1.00 per hour for paperback books, and $5-10 an hour for movies and DVD’s.

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