Towards the end of last year, EA made a small, seemingly insignificant change to its executive team.
I had the company’s group general managers – the executives responsible for EA’s various studio groups – report directly to CEO Andrew Wilson. It was a step with one goal: to bring the company’s leader one step closer to those who actually make the games.
“The goal is to give a stronger voice to the studio’s leadership,” explains Samantha Ryan, who is the general manager of BioWare, Full Circle, Maxis, Motive and a new studio in Seattle. “The knowledge that people like me have from being in studios for over 20 years is challenging knowledge. Ideally, the knowledge helps EA leadership stay in close touch with their studios needs.”
Ryan is an expert in video games. Initially starting in marketing, she led Shadow of Mordor developer Monolith, before becoming Senior Vice President of Development and Production at Warner Bros., overseeing huge teams such as Batman developer Rocksteady and Mortal Kombat studio NetherRealm.
Today, she’s tasked with leading the EA teams that don’t make Battlefield, racing games, or sports titles. And in these studios, you can see some of the new approaches the company is taking to developing games.
Perhaps the most obvious change is in some of the games they do. Full Circle revives the Skate series, while Motive reworks the horror game Dead Space. These are perks that EA had previously decided to move from. They have a cult following, but they lack commercial potential, for example, FIFA or F1.
“Both Skate and Dead Space have been fan requests for a long time,” Ryan notes. “There are so many great franchises, and there’s no way to bring them all back to life. But sometimes when a strong group of developers have a particular passion, and we notice fans are just as excited… Fate converge. As a leader, I look for those convergences and when I find them, I’m trying to achieve that.”
It’s “when a strong group of developers have a particular passion” that’s the key shift here. Ryan says EA has given its studios more independence in deciding which games they want to work on, rather than making those decisions from the top.
“People do their best when they’re excited about what they’re doing. It’s just the way humans are connected. The teams are no different. Passionate developers generally make better games. I remember visiting the creative leader of Star Wars: Squadrons and seeing the pictures he drew as a kid in a cockpit. Driving a Starfighter The depth of passion is amazing.
“In the early days of the industry, it was easier to be arrogant about who works in a game. As games become more complex and players’ tastes more diverse, those of us in the industry for a long time appreciate more than ever how important it is to be a team’s passion and background. complementary to the type of game they are working on.”
This definitely looks different than the EA we’re used to. Whenever there was a successful hack, be it World of Warcraft, League of Legends, or Destiny, I felt it was inevitable that EA would tip a team to work on their version. EA will look at what’s popular, and try to create something bigger, better, and more successful.
“Yes, we all need to be aware of market trends. But that doesn’t mean we have to chase every direction they want.”
Ryan says her studios are still trying to keep up with what players are up to, but it can’t just be about chasing trends.
“I work with my developers to help them understand who they are and why they are unique,” she told us.
“Yes, we all need to be aware of market trends. Players and games are constantly evolving. But that doesn’t mean we have to chase every trend unwillingly. BioWare can make amazing single-player games with powerful stories. Full Circle can create A digital skate park that is freely open to any player anywhere. Each one of them is unique and studios will be stronger when they are true to themselves.”
This all sounds great on paper, but there are definitely business facts at play. EA is a great company with shareholders to please and make profits. How do you balance letting developers make the games they love, and the commercial pressures that come with AAA development?
“I find our studios fairly practical,” Ryan answers. “They want to succeed. It means they have to deliver quality. They also want their work to be recognized. It means they have to make games that a lot of people want to play. If they do both, it will be easier to follow commercial success.”
Another change that Ryan is overseeing is through what’s called “radical transparency.” This is where EA is increasingly showing games in very early stages of development and getting feedback very early in the build process.
“Successful teams start with a strong creative position — and have conviction in what they are doing,” says Ryan. “They also need to realize that they can get very close to things. Being transparent with the players during development enables our teams to get feedback as soon as possible.
“Since 20 years working on No One Lives Forever, my first game as a producer, I’ve realized how easy it is to get a developer’s tunnel vision. Why would players buy a game over another…even if it was of similar quality? What does it mean to be fun?”
“At first, my quest led me to embrace the psychology and motivations of players. These are great tools that give our developers a sophisticated language to talk about the concept of fun. But over time, we need more tools in our toolbox. Games today have a thousand times more code and content, and the difference It has hundreds of people, and the players are incredibly sophisticated.We need to get to the feedback early enough which means we can actually respond.
“To do this, we are changing the status quo in how our games deliver to players, by enabling our development teams to adopt radical transparency and a more collaborative approach with players. It is a process that evolves over time.”
During the development of Mass Effect Legendary Edition, BioWare formed a “community council” of fans to make sure they were headed in the right direction. And with Dead Space, Motive has hosted a livestream showing footage in development.”
Ryan says: “With Skate, an ongoing multiplayer game with innovative elements such as the ability to build UGC ramps and jumps, we knew that a more radical approach was needed. We needed to introduce the game to players very early on. This approach was a fundamental effort from Full Circle. They recruit players for such early tests. Of course, once you do, people will talk. So why don’t we just be open and leave them alone?”
Ryan says EA has found that players understand the development process a lot these days, and showing off pre-alpha code isn’t as scary as it used to be.
“Players are very sophisticated in this day and age. They understand why we need to start with incomplete assets and incomplete features… they know there will be bugs. They still want to help. There were definitely people within EA who were worried about this approach, but given the feedback Positive for the player, they are now seeing the benefits.”
There are other cultural changes Ryan is making with these EA studios. Like a lot of companies, the company is trying to attract more diverse talent so that games can speak to more audiences. It’s something It has already started to show itself with developer The Sims Maxis.
“Our goal as developers is to provide great experiences for people to enjoy… and there are a lot of different people in the world,” says Ryan. “Our Maxis studio is leading the industry for representation in games – pronouns, sexual orientation, skin color, cultural events/elements, all kinds of live experiences – and it comes from within. 60% of recruits last year were women.
“For our developers to stay in touch with the needs of players, they have to put themselves in the minds of their players. Diversity of thought, gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, geography… all of these help bring new ideas to the table. Without diversity, it is difficult to understand the unique motivations of our players.”
The last big change that Ryan and her teams are enabling comes from prototyping. Building on its experience from Warner Bros., EA is now giving its teams more time to try things out and discover interesting things, before fully committing to the concept.
“The longer I’ve been in this industry, the more I learn, and the more I realize I haven’t learned yet,” Ryan continues.
“There were definitely people within EA who were worried about them [our transparent] approach, but now they’re seeing the benefits.”
“When it comes to big AAA games… they take a long time to achieve. In fact, if you have a new team, or you are trying to do something particularly innovative, running longer and more agile can be beneficial.
“Some of these lessons I learned during my days in [Warner Bros]. Back in Batman: Arkham Days, people will ask what makes Rocksteady such a great studio? Fortunately, the same elements that apply to them apply to many teams.
“First off, talent is important. And not just any talent…but talent with good team dynamics. Similar to sports, you can’t just hire a team of random superstars. It takes time for a good team to build trust with each other.
“Secondly, a developer’s core experience is important. In general, studios become stronger when they develop a specialty and hone their technical craft. There are many nuances of a particular game style that are not apparent to those without experience. This knowledge is difficult to gain and valuable. This does not mean That developers can’t try something new and succeed… it’s harder. Ironically, sometimes developers feel trapped in their success and pushed to do something outside their wheelhouse. I totally understand their desire to do something new.
“I also know how easy it is to underestimate the importance of jumping from one style of play to another. If you are going to do that… the third element – time – is especially important.”
And Rocksteady’s approach to pre-production was what Ryan introduced to EA when she joined the company.
“Rocksteady has been spending a lot of time prototyping over and over…trying new things and finding out what’s fun,” she concluded. “They were also one of the first teams I worked with and spent several months in Alpha/Beta improving their game over and over. And more.
“When I joined EA, it took a while to get everyone used to longer periods before production and completion. When you join in the middle of a project, you can’t always respond at the perfect speed. But as new projects get started, we’ve shifted towards game prototyping…plus more Time to refine. We certainly don’t always get it right – games are hard. But we learn and grow.”