My book, “Changing the Game”
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Category Archives: Interviews
Gamasutra just published an interview with me. Any complaints about my responses? 😉
I thought I’d start off 2007 with something fun. That said, check out my recent interview with Trip Hawkins, the Chairman and CEO of Digital Chocolate. Prior to founding Digital Chocolate, Trip also just happened to found Electronic Arts and 3DO. Interest piqued? Let’s get on to the Q&A. 🙂
You’re best-known for your central role in the founding of Electronic Arts. Would you mind sharing a few little-known stories about the birth of EA? How did decisions made in the early days set the stage for what EA would become?
I came up with the idea for EA when I was a teenager and saw my first computer in 1971. I had already started designing simulation games but they were complicated to play. The instant I saw that computer I realized I could put the complicated stuff inside the computer and create “real life in a box.” I then laid the groundwork by studying computer science and other relevant topics in college. It was during a summer computer programming job in 1975 that I thought it out and decided to start my computer game company in 1982. I really did plan it that far in advance. Again, I continued from 1975 to shape my experience to support EA’s eventual birth, including getting an MBA to learn more about business and going to work for Apple to help build the market for computers in the home so that I could then sell games to play on them.
Michael Gluck is a Senior Sales Analyst for EA’s sales team. In his spare time, Michael composes and performs video game music in concert; his shows often attract thousands of people at a time. Given his dual business and creative activities, as well as his remarkable immersion in gamer fan culture, I felt that Michael’s take on music’s place in the video game industry would be interesting…
Please say a little about your concert playing.
I am a pianist specializing in the performance of music from video games. Under the stage name “Piano Squall”, I gave my first concert in 2003 and currently perform about fifteen shows each year.
My only goal as a performer is to share my love of game music with as many people as possible, while raising as much money for charity as possible. I donate everything I make from concerts to The National Multiple Sclerosis Society, which is fighting the disease to which my grandmother succumbed. I also provide Benefit Concerts that support a diversity of charitable causes, such as cancer research, literacy programs, and food drives.
Todd Kerpelman is Creative Director for EA’s Pogo division, as well as one of Pogo’s most talented game designers. I’ve spent way too many hours playing his brainchild, Phlinx. Anyway, on to the interview:
In your experience, what are the most important elements of a fun *and* popular casual game?
Well, obviously, I think one the most important aspects to having a popular game _is_ that it’s fun. Honestly, if you’ve got a game that’s fun enough, a lot of the conventional wisdom around what players want and what kinds of games they like tend to go out the window.
But with that being said, I think accessibility is certainly one of the keys towards making a casual game successful. This is especially true in the downloadable space, where you only have an hour to get people to like your game, and there’s dozens of other games just waiting to be downloaded if the user gets frustrated with yours. In general, you want people to be able to pick up and play your game and feel like they’re doing something correct within the first minute. This doesn’t mean that games have to be simplistic, though. There’s a lot of really complex games out there, but the successful ones do a good job of easing the player into it.
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.
Phil Gee, University Relations Manager for EA, was good enough to answer a few of my questions about the EA internship program — by far the largest (and probably oldest) program in the industry, excepting perhaps the console manufacturers. On to the interview:
How long has EA’s college internship program been active?
If my memory serves, almost 10 years to this day.
When the program first started, how many interns did you accept (and in roughly what proportion: engineers, artists, production, business, etc?) How many interns do you accept now?
I’ve only been here for 3.5 years, but from conversations with early alumni of the internship program, I can tell you it was rather small. We had roughly 20-30 interns during the summer, working predominantly at EA Redwood Shores. A little over half (let’s say 60%) worked in game development (art, engineering, production) and the other half were on the corporate side (marketing, finance, IT). Today, our program is a global one; we host approximately 274 interns (fiscal year 2006) with close to 70% of them being in game development.
For those of you who don’t know, Xfire is an IM and file-sharing client for gamers, as well as a community portal. You may have seen a recent article on CNN: Is Xfire the next MySpace? It inspired me to run a few questions past Frederic Descamps, Xfire’s Sr. Director of Marketing and Biz Dev. Enjoy!
Has Xfire performed any studies that quantify the effectiveness of advertising via the client? What sort of return on investment can an advertiser expect from a standard banner placement?
The banner ad located at the top of the Xfire client application is indeed one of the most popular locations for advertisers. One of the reasons is that Xfire users spend on average 90 hours a month using the Xfire client, as opposed to just a few minutes a month on average on any given leading gaming news site. Our client application ad is also static, non intrusive, and is the only ad displayed in the Xfire client application — giving it great impact.
Xfire is the only marketing platform in the world to offer targeted and behavioral advertising by demographic information, geographical location, actual games played, files downloaded, and more. Our targeted advertising allows for very precise and therefore efficient marketing, which in turn means higher ROI: if you want to run different ads respectively for WoW, CS: Source or RTS gamers, you can; if you want to run different ads whether people have downloaded a trailer or played the demo of a game, you can!
I had the unexpected opportunity to chat with Dorian Richard, Atari’s external producer for Neverwinter Nights 2, the anticipated RPG from Obsidian Entertainment. We ended up having a long conversation about publisher/developer relations and the pitfalls of production, which I transcribed:
What do you feel distinguishes publisher (external) producers from developer (internal) producers?
As a publisher, you have a broader perspective; you work on a lot more titles than any given developer over a five year time span. The average developer has two teams, and it takes two years to make a game, so you’re looking at approximately five titles over five years. I’ve worked on nine titles over the past five years.
What are the most common challenges you face when interacting with developers?
There’s inexperienced developers, and there’s experienced developers. Inexperienced developers tend to lack staff with sufficient scheduling and managing experience. They might be good at certain development tasks, but they don’t know how to read warning signs and manage people, so they frequently fail to recognize when a big slip is looming. They don’t plan for likely emergencies, like a key team member getting sick or having a family emergency.
Please describe how you made use of in-game advertising in Karaoke Revolution Party.
KRP for the Xbox includes technology from Massive, Inc. If the player is logged into Xbox Live, new ad-containing textures will stream into the game.
We made sure that the advertising spots appear in logical places in the game environment. We were very careful, so the ads are not constantly “in your face” and they integrate nicely with the background environment. We believe that it adds to the gameplay experience when the environment changes dynamically.
Did you reach out to advertisers who you thought would “fit” the game’s theme, or did you work with advertisers who reached out to you, or both? How did that affect the design and development process?
Massive’s sales team sold the ads. We retain approval over all ads before they appear in the game. The content must be appropriate for the audience (the game is rated E10+), and we expect the ad art assets to be high quality, and to fit the general art style of the game.
Did you experience any conflicts with your advertisers? How did you negotiate the process of integrating their ads into the game in a highly visible but tasteful way?
We created a guide that shows where the ads would be placed, with screenshots of the game environment. This hopefully helped the ad agencies. There was a set of ads that we felt did not meet our quality standards and did not fit the art style of the game, so we rejected them.
What surprised you most about the process of embedding advertisements into the game? Would you do anything differently?
There are currently two different types of advertisements you can run, and they each have limitations. Static ads are placed on the game disc and are visible whether you are online or offline. The issue with static ads is that you can’t track how many times they are viewed, and you can’t refresh the content, so the user sees the same ads for the life of the product. The ads have to be placed in the game months ahead of time before the game is released, so agencies can’t run ad campaigns that hit at a specific time, such as an ad for a movie release. The PlayStation 2 does not have a hard drive to store data, so static ads are your only option there.
Dynamic ads can be tracked and scheduled, but the player must be online while playing the game in order to see the ads. This works well for online multiplayer games, but not as well for single player games. I expect this issue to be worked out in the future, when dynamic ads will be stored and visible even when you are offline.
From the development side, the process of planning where the ads will go and integrating the ad-serving technology into the game takes time. Although the impact to our development schedule was minimal, we were still taking time that could have been spent elsewhere.
Looking back at the project, I don’t think we would have done anything differently, but it would have been nice to store the streaming ads locally on the Xbox. We hope we did a good job of integrating the ad content without being too intrusive. Advertisers and their agencies understand all too well that the end user can have a negative reaction to ads if they are not integrated into any form of media in the right way.