Electronic Arts' Spielberg connection

For the game maker's Neil Young, collaboration with the famed Hollywood mogul is worth its weight in Oscar gold.

Last fall, Electronic Arts said it had entered into a deal to create three original games in conjunction with noted film director Steven Spielberg.

These are not to be games related to Spielberg's films, but will in fact be entirely new creations. EA is hoping it can leverage Spielberg's story creation chops and put together a winning set of brand-new titles.

The chief advantage of doing so, beyond the obvious marketing potential? Such games could go a long way to helping EA challenge the notion that it only creates games based on its successful franchises like "Madden NFL," "Harry Potter" and so forth.

One of the chief architects of the deal to bring Spielberg on board is Neil Young, the general manager of EA's Los Angeles studio.

Young sat down with CNET News.com at E3 for a one-on-one talk about the Spielberg project--though he wouldn't give any specifics about the games themselves--as well as the Los Angeles studio, the other games it's currently developing and its future plans for expansion.

Q: For EA L.A., what's the big news here at E3?
Young: We've got "Medal of Honor: Airborne" for Xbox 360, and "Battle for Middle Earth 2" for 360. It's interesting in that it's the first time we've tried a traditional RTS (real-time strategy game) for a video game console. And it works. The feedback we're getting is that it works.

We're very focused on trying to make games, but we live in a talent pool where we're competing with the entertainment companies for talent.

Why wouldn't it have worked?
Young: If you think about RTS games, the two challenges to bringing them to console are, first, the console itself--RTS games traditionally work with a mouse and a keyboard. The second challenge is the distance from the screen (since consoles can be on the other side of the room from the player). But with high-definition, that problem goes away. Between the innovation of the controller and HD, we've gotten to the place where, for the first time, it's able to work.

Who do you see as the competition for EA's L.A. studio in particular?
Young: We see it as the entertainment companies in general. Long term, we want to be the No. 1 entertainment company. The tip of our spear is the video game business, and we're very focused on being the best we can there. But as the entertainment business grows and matures, you'll see IP (intellectual property) properties--just as we've seen them go from the screen to games, I think it's likely we'll see more and more IP properties from games to the screen. Therefore, the competition is the people capable of creating IP. And we're very focused on trying to make games, but we live in a talent pool where we're competing with the entertainment companies for talent. And the pipeline for creation of games and (screen) titles is (similar).

What is it like to work with Steven Spielberg?
Young: It's going very well. Steven's at the studio every week. He collaborates very closely with executive producer Doug Church and myself and the team we've created. We're getting the first game rolling, and we want to understand what that is before we get going on the second. And Steven's great. He's humble but has strong opinions about story, and also about game design. He's also flexible. We iterate the story and the game design almost every time we're together. Now we're almost at the point where we have a good understanding of what the game is, and a good understanding of what the game mechanics are.

One thing Steven said as we came out of one of these meetings is that this is the exact same process he goes through when he's creating a film.

Who's driving the process? Is Spielberg an equal partner, or just offering opinions?
Young: It depends. The great thing about the partnership is that Steven really respects that we're the experts in making games. But that doesn't mean his opinion isn't valid. We have long meetings on game mechanics.

An example of the tools we're using for working through ideas is that over the course of two to three brainstorming sessions, we collected a whole bunch of ideas on the mechanics of what players can do. We created cards with ideas on what players can do, and put them on three boards: Steven's board, Doug's board and Neil's board. Then each of us goes to the other boards and writes "definitely not," "maybe," "cool" or "definitely" on each card. Then we go through a filtering process, and then we go over the common ideas. It's pretty collaborative. One thing Steven said as we came out of one of these meetings is that this is the exact same process he goes through when he's creating a film: the merging of story and mechanics.

EA has taken some criticism for focusing so much on franchises like "Madden." So how important are the Spielberg games to combating that impression?
Young: We need to operate a balanced portfolio, and we're going to have new IP we've built, as well as long-term (franchises) and short-term (franchise titles) that might be one-off things. If you look at the portfolio as a whole, everybody would wish we would increase the original IP things we're building. But "Army of Two" and "Spore" are big, new, original product. And "Black," I think, is important. So, I would absolutely not hang EA's new IP hopes on a single title. Also, the L.A. studio is only one end of the spectrum. With "Battle for Middle Earth," everything is new IP.

We've heard the EA L.A. studios have a lot of empty space. What's the plan for that empty space?
Young: The first thing is that with the acquisition of Jamdat, we'll probably be up to around 700 people, out of a capacity of around 1,100. Today, it's like 500 people. But in terms of growing the studio, what I'm really focused on right now is making sure "Battlefield 2: Modern Combat" for Xbox 360 knocks it out of the park.

Also, we want to bring the "Command and Conquer" franchise back in a big way. And so it seems to me that being successful at those things are going to be drivers of growth. So are we going to double the size of the studio? Absolutely not...I'd rather have eight teams of 40 and figure out new ways to develop the content and figure out the right way to develop efficiency.  

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