November 14, 2004

Getting a Degree in EA

by Andrew Stern · , 5:08 pm

Co-director of the Carnegie Mellon Entertainment Technology Center Randy Pausch spent last spring in residence at the headquarters and major production branch of the world’s most successful game company, Electronic Arts Redwood Shores, and wrote up an informative document “useful to academics interested in how to prepare students for EA.” It’s also a good peek into the corporate culture of EA. The writeup paints EA as a pretty great place to work, which from my understanding of EA as a whole has a lot of truth to it, although this season’s heavy crunch time has been overly brutal in many’s opinion. (Pausch writes that 40% of CMU ETC grads get hired at EA, plus 10 summer interns per year.)

Whether you’re in academia or industry, I recommend reading the document, I think everyone can gain some additional insight from it. In case you’re pressed for time, here’s a few interesting quotes that stood out to me. (Any comments from me are in parentheses.) From Pausch’s document:

It immediately became clear to me that neither EA nor academia have any real understanding of how the other operates.

When preparing students for EA, the most important thing to know is that EA is a ruthless meritocracy. There is no better place for a bright, hard-working person, but mediocre performers are not tolerated. So, as they say, “play hard or go home.”
(Not as fun as the phrase we used to use at PF.Magic, “If you’re not coming in Saturday, then don’t bother coming in Sunday”, but basically the same idea.)

EA’s biggest challenge is the dramatic increase in team size. There are other grand challenges in terms of game design and content, for example, how to get greater emotional involvement with games and characters, but the biggest challenge is clearly management of large teams.
(Hence the slow progress on innovation in game design and technology that we’ve been lamenting.)

EA has historically filled fewer than 10% of its positions with students straight from college, but has stated a goal of filling 75% of open positions straight from universities. … Why? …
• To energize the culture: even though the culture felt very young to me, by historical EA standards, it is getting older.
• Younger workers draw lower salaries, so there are cost savings.

(And of course, to get fresh, not-yet-bitter workers willing to spend all their time at work… :-/ )

EA employees must be willing to work very hard. EA is interested in top performers and rewards them handsomely, but mediocre performers will not be happy for long at EA. … As is the case with many publishing-based businesses, there are “crunch times” with long work hours before deadlines, followed by “down times” after those deadlines are met. I believe EA would like to reduce both the length and severity of crunch time; finding the management processes to do so is an ongoing challenge in a still-developing medium.
(I think this is closer to the truth than the recent wave of excoriation of upper managment at EA.)

EA needs employees who can work in teams and communicate well within their discipline and with people from other disciplines. Technologists almost never fail to advance in their careers due to lack of technical skills; it is nearly always a deficit of “soft skills” that hold them back.

A rare (and valuable) breed is the technical artist who is savvy enough to write script code or plug-ins.
(See our artists as programmers discussion.)

It is common to have more artists than engineers (programmers) on a game, and that may explode as the next generation consoles have larger capacity media to store art assets (DVD vs. CD-ROM). As team sizes have exploded, EA has scrambled to find new ways to manage these larger teams. The current best practice is the “Pod” structure used by Neil Young as EP in Lord of the Rings, Return of the King. Rather than breaking his hierarchy down into engineering, art, design, etc. departments, he created 3-20 person “Pods,” each of which took on a different aspect of the game, such as “command and control.”
(This seems like a good idea, I’m not surprised it works better this way.)

When designing student project courses at CMU ETC, Pausch now realizes he should add this requirement:
Use formal project management techniques, including projection tools (e.g. Microsoft Project), source code control systems, etc.

Also, to avoid this “common trap” in their student project courses:
Assuming engineers can be critiqued like artists. The ETC made this mistake and it almost killed our program. Students who have spent four years as Computer Science or Engineering majors have lived in an objective world where they have never had to stand in front of a crowd and defend their subjective design decisions. Think hard about how to critique them without making them hostile and/or completely demoralized.

Thanks for Slashdot Games for the link to Pausch’s document.