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.

10 Responses to “Getting a Degree in EA”

  1. Malcolm Ryan Says:

    Can art really be produced in this kind of high-pressure factory-like conditions?

  2. Walter Says:

    (Pausch writes that 40% of CMU ETC grads get hired at EA, plus 10 summer interns per year.)

    Are there any such figures for grads of Georgia Tech’s IDT program? (Not necessarily for getting hired at EA.) I realize it’s not as production oriented as CMU’s ETC program: it’d be interesting to know what sort of impact that has on IDT grad employment in the game industry.

    Whatever the case, I know that I personally would want nothing to do with EA from a production/design standpoint (unless we’re talking about Maxis). While it might be a meritocracy as far as internal advancement goes, it’s quite obviously a mediocracy when it comes to content. And in truth, one has to wonder if a mediocracy of content doesn’t really wind up hampering the supposed meritocracy: if only mediocre ideas get greenlighted, this should naturally favor people who come up with appropriately mediocre ideas, rather than the best ones.

  3. Aaron Says:

    re: “Can art really be produced in this kind of high-pressure factory-like conditions?”

    It happens in movie studios and theatre companies all the time. You can read numerous tales of shoestring productions that almost didn’t make it without everyone burning out, but ended up being amazing anyway.

  4. andrew Says:

    Walter, I’m definitely including Maxis as part of EA. But also, wouldn’t you consider the EA sports games as more than mediocre, for what they set out to do?

    Malcolm, I agree with Aaron that we can look to the film industry to see examples of good work being created in a money-oriented, commercialized setting. But I’d modify Aaron’s comment to not take the example of shoestring-budget-sized film projects, and instead look at mega-budget film projects with huge teams. With small shoestring budgets, in many ways it’s more possible to make artistically interesting work; since you have no money for visual spectacle, it’s all got to come down to making something really compelling on a personal level, which requires talent and hard work, but not lots of money. (Granted, you often need money to attract the best talent, but not always.)

    There are plenty of cases of big budget film productions resulting in some great work. My favorite films tend to be the smaller budget ones, because they tend to be more intimate, but who could deny that big budget films such as The Wizard of Oz or Casablanca or Dr. Zhivago or Saving Private Ryan or Blade Runner are amazing works of popular art.

    Game production differs some from film production though, especially in this relatively early stage in the history of game development, where the technology is still so much in flux. With big budget game productions, you have this huge ocean liner of a team that’s can be difficult to be flexible and spontaneously creative with. And with so much money on the line, the team managers (e.g., the executive producer, as Pausch describes) are going to be pretty risk-averse.

    I think the way artistically interesting work can still happen in this situation, is with team managers who really know what they’re doing, and up front can come up with a design that takes an acceptable amount of design risk — a design that is similar enough to past designs to ensure it won’t fail but different enough that it will be interesting. However there may not be a whole lot of room for iteration and improvisation during production, since signficantly changing course is so expensive. It’s tough.

    In such big teams, it’s the team managers steering the ocean liner that are going to create the framework for an artistically interesting work to be created (or not). The “factory-like” team then executes within this framework. Although each team member may have only their slice of the project they’re building, each individual piece need to be awesome if something great is to be achieved. So both the managers and the team itself need to perform well; both are required to pull off something good.

    Another analogy I like is building a cathedral; you have master craftspeople sculpting all those faces and statues and elaborate decoration, probably in harsh factory-like conditions, within the overall structure laid out by the head architect(s). I think many would say the great cathedrals are complex works of art. (Hmm, maybe some would say the construction of the Pyramids is a more accurate analogy. Although it appears that the popular belief that slaves were cruelly forced to build the Pyramids may just be a Hollywood myth.)

  5. Aaron Says:

    Of course; I didn’t mean to “marginalize” big-budget Hollywood productions which may often be on insanely tight schedules and still produce great works of art and/or entertainment. Poor choice of words on my part.

  6. Walter Says:

    Walter, I’m definitely including Maxis as part of EA. But also, wouldn’t you consider the EA sports games as more than mediocre, for what they set out to do?

    I would, though I usually don’t think about sports games much, partly because I just don’t play many of them, but also because they seem relatively isolated in terms of the discourse that goes on between videogames. Not that they’re not important, of course.

    (Incidentally, the interesting thing about Maxis is that they’ve managed to retain their identity and status under the EA umbrella. I think that they just might be the sole exception to the rule.)

  7. Walter Says:

    More fuel to add to the EA fire.

    I’m honestly just flabbergasted by how damaging EA is to the industry.

  8. Louis Says:

    The IGDA (International Game Developer’s Association) just published an open letter on quality of life issues of game developers.


  9. Tiernan Graber Says:

    Im a games design student Im due to graduate soon

    I have been working flat out for 3 years to get this degree as a mature student.
    I know what long hours are as i work 2 jobs as well as the degree.

    For me EA has a point about improving working methods and making sure you get the best people you can to work for you. But its not about woking harder Its about working smarter. ( commonsense is it not)

    Personaly In life i have found that people are more poductive when they feel appiciated, when EA talk about rewarding their employees perhapse they should consider somthing else other than throwing money at them.

    I wanted to go in to games becaurse i wanted to make fun games and id hope id have fun doing it along the way, it seems to me i sould reconsider my options and become a plumber or a builder at least ill get some time with my family =)

    I guess what im saying is that we all need a balance bettween our work and personal life.

    If were not happy with the way things are we should change it. Lets destoy the culture that destorys our personal lifes for the sake of all our familys and those of who’m will followus in the future so that this cool way to have fun will still be fun to make=)

  10. andrew Says:

    Here’s a leaked internal email from an EA manager to the EA staff about the controversy.

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