Bryan Neider is senior vice president and chief operating officer of EA Labels, where he oversees global software development for EA.
Bryan Neider of Electronic Arts describes how EA trains its own workforce.
Interview conducted by Alan Morrison and Bo Parker
PwC: What are you seeing in the gaming business that’s applicable to non-gaming businesses?
BN: That’s a great question. Gaming in general provides non-gaming businesses an opportunity to accelerate change or improve learning and knowledge sharing across their organizations. Whether or not companies are in the gaming business, they can use gaming techniques to improve business processes and do quite a bit that’s comparable to what we’ve done.
Let me give you an example. Several years ago, we put together an exercise and a game called EA University for an internal group. It was meant to educate our creative and development talent on financial constraints and how to manage profit and loss on development projects.
Rather than go into a very dry explanation of “here’s an income statement and here’s a balance sheet,” we actually used a game model to set up resource management, as well as time, budget, and talent constraints, and then have participants figure out how to optimize that mix to ship a quality game on time and on budget.
The cross-functional team and the creatives had to play that exercise as a game. The goal was to increase their awareness of both budget and resources and how they could influence the outcome, rather than it seeming like something that a corporate suit like me is telling them to do. They learn that they really have a lot more control over the variables of making a game than they realized. EA University educates them on that process.
It’s a very fun exercise. We still do it today and have continued to update it for new variables as the businesses evolve. But it included everything from game pricing to retail distribution to digital distribution—they had to figure out all of that. And the payoff was that somebody would win the best model and idea. Because we make games, people here love to compete all the time.
So by having that compulsion and by having people present their ideas and then vote on the best one, they really got into it. That’s a far more interesting way to teach finance and certainly helps us educate our work staff on a very important aspect of their business. Some of these producers and executives on the game team side are managing more than $100 million, and a few of them as much as $500 million.
PwC: You mentioned the ability of developers to affect the outcome and see the results of their efforts directly. How does EA University reflect what specific developer teams confront in terms of project financial management challenges?
BN: The variables of how you make a game vary widely. If you’re working on a Madden football game, it’s one thing. If you’re working on a Maxis Sims game or a Battlefield first-person shooter game, it’s another.
They are so different in design and creative elements that we can’t and don’t want to have a cookie cutter approach to how the teams should work together. The application of EA University isn’t universal; it needs to be tailored. Our teams have personalities; they are very different, and they are motivated differently. We need to account for that and factor that into how we teach, learn, and share. As for most organizations, it is not a one size fits all.
PwC: One of the fascinating things about gaming environments is how there’s so much quick self-organization in multiplayer games; the teams just gel so quickly. There’s a mission that’s spelled out clearly, and each person takes a role and a lot of times the leadership differs. For example, somebody can be the leader this time and if there’s a vacuum there, then the team realizes it and the new leader jumps into it. Is that kind of dynamic at work here, too?
BN: Online gaming communities self-regulate pretty effectively. It’s more difficult for what we call a newbie to get into a more hardcore game, because the social online protocol has been established. But they do self-regulate, and they do form around scripted tasks that they have to perform. For gamification—or the use of game design techniques—in businesses, it certainly suggests a way to set up a learning exercise that stresses cooperation and a goal orientation.
Sometimes we’ll have people from our executive team run red team versus blue team. The two teams are pitted against one another to achieve the best outcome when tackling a particular market. By pitting two teams against each other in a game scenario, you actually get a more three-dimensional view of a business challenge, risk, or opportunity, and that view might be more informative in reaching the final recommendation. And you can do all that inside game design.
PwC: It seems like a lot of the effectiveness might come from the transparency that must be evident in the game-oriented environment itself.
BN: The end objectives are fairly clear and transparent, but the path to get there will be a little bit more opaque because that makes the journey inside the gaming experience more interesting.
Another factor is how you create the ability to collect and manage user feedback. We have what we call telemetry—real-time game data that tells us where people are hung up in part of the game where it’s too hard, or maybe other areas where it’s way too easy. Sometimes we modify the design to improve that experience.
In the same way, when using game design concepts inside a company, you’d want to know that people miss the point of what you’re trying to achieve in that particular scenario inside the experience and why. Perhaps they get hung up in it and spend way too much time there. You would want to have some sort of feedback mechanism in the game design itself.
That’s a very important part of our online feedback loop. For our online-only games, it’s critical to monitor the stats that are run real-time 24/7. We use that data to modify and improve the game experience and to make updates, code changes, and compulsion loop changes. That’s absolutely an important part of a real-time online game.
PwC: In spite of best efforts, a lot of games get launched that ultimately aren’t successful. The recovery from that kind of failure and the willingness to incorporate the lessons learned as a part of overall development would seem to be important.
BN: We do fairly extensive postmortems for successful or for less successful titles. And that is an absolutely critical process of developing and improving for the next iteration. Very deep debriefs. Sometimes we have peer reviews where people who weren’t on the game team provide input.
With an online game, it’s a little bit easier because it’s alive and it’s providing real-time feedback every minute of every day. So, as I mentioned earlier, you can track and find out—are people coming into the game and then dropping out? Are they playing the game for a while and dropping out at a particular point? Or are people not even clicking on and playing—is that a marketing issue or a branding issue? When it comes to live online games—social games, mobile games—we’re getting that kind of feedback in real time.
We do use input from focus groups, in terms of game feedback and adjustment. The people who come to those sessions are usually skilled gamers who are a lot more critical on the mechanics that are important. But for some games that are broader or that have a more mass appeal, we want to bring in people who are not as familiar with gaming so we can understand the user interface and usability experience. Things that we in the gaming community think might be intuitive could be extremely confusing to a mass market consumer. In other businesses that are applying game concepts, usability and reducing barriers of engagement are absolutely critical. It can’t be too geeky.
PwC: What are the trends in the evolution of gaming?
BN: Through the last decade, the rise of computing power on phones and tablets and the rise of social networking certainly have brought gaming as an entertainment form to audiences that did not experience it before.
You can assume that for roughly 400 million new smartphones every year, nearly everyone is going to buy at least one game and play a game. Consider also the nearly 1 billion people in social networking in North America, Europe, and Asia. A large amount of that audience is playing social games as well.
And so you have two ends of it. One is the desire to be networked with friends and family in playing games and sharing that experience. The other is the portability of games in the same way that TV or movie viewing has been time shifted. Smart devices allow location shifting from what used to be just the family room sitting in front of the TV or in the basement or den playing a computer game to now having that capability with them when they’re waiting in line for something.
That shift changes the interface, the speed of the compulsion loops in the game, and the reward mechanisms, because it’s not the same as sitting down with a 40-hour predesigned game experience. The device allows and people expect a faster payback. They don’t require production values to be as high.
The funny thing is if you look at good game design sensibilities, a lot of the tablet designs are almost a carbon copy of the early designs on Atari and Nintendo. That learning is new for both developers and consumers, but in fact it’s been around for the better part of 30 years. It’s just now been rediscovered because you can do it on a phone and a tablet and provide far better graphics than we had back with early Nintendo and Atari.
Imagine the chase and capture or be captured kind of element of the game. You’re seeing a lot of those core elements in tablet and smartphone designs—those core elements of how we get rewarded and our compulsion to avoid being captured and to find the loot and increase our score. But now we can provide a far richer environment with nearly the same compulsion loop. Imagine it’s a formula for the game design: chase equals x, rewards equal y. You want the right kind of balance between reward and penalty for how you actually close out and go to the next level.
But because people today didn’t play those games 30 years ago, it’s all brand new to them. The fact is a lot of designers are dusting off old game designs because they were so good. But now we can provide a much richer and more inviting experience for consumers because the graphics weren’t very good and the processing power was extremely limited.
PwC: So a lot of the challenge is distributing this kind of environment where it hasn’t been before. Not so much designing it from scratch, it’s just repurposing it for all these different
environments—including where it might be applicable inside a business, for example.
BN: I’d agree. Keep in mind that today’s workers are going to be accustomed to game mechanics. They will have played games. In a work environment in the right setting, playing games is not going to seem unusual or odd to them. It’s going to be second nature to them. A game-oriented design allows a very good team building and educational experience. Companies can engage employees to tackle tough goals in a much more intuitive manner.