Saturday, June 16, 2012

EA Tiburon Field Trip And Retrospective (Do They Really Suck That Bad?)

So today, me and 50 other people from school drove 15 minutes up the road to tour EA Tiburon for a couple of hours.  While the words "EA" and "building" together conjure images of an Eldritch Location, the real estate is quite nice.  It's in this business park next to a Charles Schwab and Fidelity place.  The first building you see is the main studio.  Adjacent are two parking garages--one for employees, the other for visitors.  So where is EA getting all these visitors???  Um, whatever, we park wherever we can.

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This is it if you're interested.  So anyway, it's a six-story building.  First floor has a lobby, a store full of EA goods (including wonderful t-shirts that make you a big hit at gaming conventions), a conference room, and a cafe adjacent to a enclosed park/picnic area.  Second floor is marketing/finance stuff.  Third floor is NBA.  Fourth floor is Tiger Woods.  Fifth floor is Madden.  Sixth floor is NCAA Football.  So they're working on four games at once in the building.  There's about 350 employees working here right now.

The tour began with us all going to the lobby, getting a pass and a bag of EA freebies.  I got an EA Sports blue t-shirt and foam golf ball!  Others got mini basketballs & footballs.  Damn shame cause if they still did NASCAR then maybe I'd get a tire!  But anyway we were taken into a conference room where some guys talked to us about EA and stuff.

The propaganda presentations were about the Tiburon studio--"this is how we were founded" and "we're on the cutting edge of technology/social media," you know, all that softball stuff to get you loosened up.  Later we would all split into groups--the developers, the producers, the software engineers (they don't use the term "programmer" there), the tech artists, and the regular artists.

Oh, and about that NDA I signed...hardly anything mentioned was confidential.  During the programmer presentation, it was mostly about programming/shader/new tech stuff.  I couldn't even remember it all anyway and the blinds were open so anyone could look in and see for themselves (OMG, A SHINY LEBRON JAMES IN NBA LIVE).  Although we weren't allowed to bring cameras past the front gate.  Okay, sure thing, lady.

Frankly, these chats went on for way too long...I was waiting to tour the damn building.  But nonetheless, I got to ask a few questions for the EA guys:

"Will Sean Peyton be in Madden 13?"  Everyone cracked up.  Apparently not but it's because he wasn't part of the "coaches' club" or something so his likeness wouldn't be in the game anyway.

"Do you know where Peter Moore is?"  Peter Moore...that Sega bastard that killed the Dreamcast.  Apparently, he's living in San Francisco as the COO of EA Sports.  Didn't know he moved up so fast but w/e.  I'm always on the lookout for Sega guys.

"What happened with the NASCAR license?"  Apparently, EA decided to drop the series because they thought they'd make more money elsewhere. *coughFIFAcough*  I was wearing my Daytona Speedway hat so I looked like a moping racing fanboy I suppose.  Hey, it was a good question.  If they were still working on NASCAR, I might be more enthusiastic about an EA career.

(to an ex-student) "How similar is work at EA compared to grad school?"  Not much, apparently.  EA mandates that if you work too long a couple of days that you must go home and take a break.  I guess they don't want half-asleep programmers ruining the Perforce & stuff.

I should mention something funny.  During all this, some people brought out a bunch of goodies for us to enter for a raffle.  The prizes were some old-school EA t-shirts/phone cases, a bookbag full of EA games, an authentic Cleveland Browns helmet signed by Peyton Hillis (still in the box), some pair of shoes, and a pro-gaming headset.  Everyone got two tickets each and put theirs in the buckets of the prizes they want to win.  Everyone went heavy on the EA games and the headset.  Me?  I waited and put my tickets in the box with the best odds-to-value ratio and that was the NFL Helmet.  Surprise!!!...I won an actual NFL helmet signed by Madden '12 cover star Peyton Hillis.  It was the highlight of my day.

Me upon winning the helmet

Okay, time to go tour the building.  Obviously, I went on the "Engineer" tour.  Unfortunately it was a brief one and we only stopped on one floor--the six floor with NCAA Football development.  Even more unfortunate was that I had to haul that damn Peyton Hillis helmet around the entire building..."Whatcha got there?"  "Oh, I won a Peyton Hillis helmet in a raffle!"  The place looked rather...normal.  There were hardly any employees working at the time but the ones I saw looked clean.  The cubicles were densely packed but everyone had their own posters & toys so it really isn't that much different than grad school.  They had tons of reference posters of college football stuff for obvious reasons.  There was also all sorts of free food--chicken wings, cereal, candy bars, macaroni & cheese.  And a Mortal Kombat cabinet.  Didn't stop at the NBA, Tiger Woods, or Madden floors since they're pretty much the same thing with the same floor format (uniformity, it's in the game!).

The tour ended and we went to the cafe/picnic area, got some sandwiches and drinks and there were lots of EA guys around.  Most of them were young guys.  Everyone seemed nice and not terribly obnoxious.  Obviously, being socially awkward as I am (and still holding the Peyton Hillis helmet), I stuckwith my classmates.  I get a conversation or two with some tour guides and stuff because I radiate this aura about me as I sit lonely in the crowd staring at stuff and eating free M&M's and Twix bars.  There were also cookies with EA logos on them.  I'm sure they were delicious.

That's where the EA tour ends.  Regardless of my future with EA, I still got to see a legitimate game studio for the first time so the experience was alright.  Lately, everyone's been passing out resumes for job/internship interviews.  I dropped mine in a couple of inboxes--EA's included.  So I might have an interview with them really soon.  Hmm, interesting...a job interview with EA.  I just blew my mind.  They like to devour these newbie programmers...about 75% of them from previous classes (I'm not making this up) so that's pretty heavy.

Here's a bit of an aside from my recent expedition.  Looking at Electronic Arts for the millionth time, they're still full of crap in my book.  You can bring up a million reasons why EA sucks--the DLC, the DRMs, the killing of studios, the constant iteration of the same games, etc.  But give EA some credit since they do something right.  They're efficient, successful publishers.  If it weren't for them putting out mega hits like Mass Effect or Battlefield, you'd never have the luxury of ever playing them.  As for being an "evil" corporation, I could care less how much money EA makes.  The fact is I dislike them for other reasons...things that seep over to games I am actually interested in.

During the initial presentations, one thing we got a lot of was the "exciting new technology" from EA.  This included the new Madden tackle animations (look at this) and the realistic NBA light shaders (all the specular lights from the sweaty players, hence shiny Lebron James).  You's great and all but I ask, "Where's the gameplay?"  Oh sure, for the most part new features/R&D begets new gameplay but's the same game trapped in an eternal cycle.  "Oh, give us a few more years and we'll perfect it!"  Some EA guys said this is not a rehash at all and even went as far as to talk about 2K Sports and the exclusive NFL license.  BTW, did you think these guys were going to say anything remotely bad about themselves?  I don't think they're as evil as gamers say but I also don't think they're as good as they say about themselves.  Gaming is such a cut-throat business you take everybody with a grain of salt (even our beloved Sega).

In other words, if I hop on board with EA, I'm afraid most of my work with shaders/graphics.  Nothing really "new" in terms of gameplay besides bug squashing and whatnot.  Maybe I'm overstating this but that's the impression I got from the conversation.  And thus, this leads to even greater problems.  Yeah, EA puts out decent games but a lot of it is monotonous, only to be saved by massive, MASSIVE production value (EA has that $2 billion war chest, remember?).  And that's okay if that's their business plan.  I just think these big budget, broad, casual, play-it-safe titles are mainly what makes the game industry suck these days.  Hey, if EA is making money off this strategy, other publishers will follow suit.  Doesn't matter how stupid it is, if it sells, MAKE IT ANYWAY.  It it can't break 2.5 million copies, it's a failure (technically 5 million if you take it from this EA guy pertaining to Dead Space 3).

Sports, okay, I'll let those slide since there's no room to improve on that besides graphics.  But this mostly applies to Need for Speed I might add, most of which I find mediocre.  Most everything they make is a sequel or rehash in some way.  Hell, even Origin is a ripoff of Steam.  If it weren't for the HUGE IP's they've recently acquired like Mass Effect or Battlefield, I doubt anyone besides the sports junkies would care about EA.  Yeah sure, EA has recently made NBA Jam or NFL Blitz but those are just remakes which are really no better than the originals except for the graphics.  NFL Street was good but they canned it way too soon.  Skate is new I suppose.  Tony Hawk has gone to crap so at someone stepped up to the plate instead (speaking of which, where's the baseball games, EA???  Little Facebook/iPhone apps don't count).


On the other hand, there's one of the most beloved game developers in the world, Nintendo.  Now I'm not a huge Nintendo fan but I respect them for coming up with clever new IPs over a long time span like Mario, Zelda, Pokemon, Smash Bros, the Wii, etc.  Even if they use the same IPs often, at least they do different things with them (different generations of Mario & Zelda).  Yeah sure, they've made some blunders recently but only extreme segments of gamers really hate Nintendo.  On the other hand, you can't say the same thing about Electronic Arts whom everyone seems to be indifferent to or hate.  Holy cow, EA won the Worst Company in America contest, what did you expect...that people love EA???

And how about Sega?  Hey, I'm not denying production value is bad (Sega was on top of things with arcade hardware like OutRun or Daytona which made them even more successful) but at least these games came with revolutionary gameplay.  And how about the Dreamcast?  Most people overlook this but Sega had some serious GUTS back then!  Look at all the IP's they released in that time: Crazy Taxi, Jet Set Radio, Space Channel 5, Samba de Amigo, House of the Dead, Sega Bass Fishing, Seaman, Super Monkey Ball, Shenmue.  I mean, geez, if modern-day EA went back in time and made their own figurative Dreamcast, what games would they make for it?  A bunch of sports titles, a Need for Speed, and some more titles from other companies that they didn't make themselves.

I don't know.  Taking shots at EA gets old after a while.  It's really dumb.  So how can I still think about working for these guys?  I have my doubts.  But these guys apparently like making Madden and NBA games (I assume...defectors will be PUNISHED by their EA overlords).  And no one there is really a scumbag--they're just guys working on games and getting along just fine.  If you're not emotionally attached to one particular game/genre/company then EA is probably up your alley...BUT THAT'S NOT ME.

I make a big deal out of the games I want to work on.  This can be a terrible attitude to have at times but I can't help it since if it weren't for Sega, I'd never be in this scenario in the first place!  So assume I get a job at EA.  While I struggle to program a simple shader at an EA "incubation session," Sega continues to commit suicide and by the time I make it there, they'll be dead.  You can't flat out ask any of these guys "hey, do you know how I can work for Sega?" since they obviously want people to stick with them and no one else!  The EA experience helps a lot on resumes, if that means anything.  You can also use that in-house experience to slingshot to other EA studios across the world (this includes Bioware and DICE) but that's not where I want to touch down, of course.  Still, it's SOMETHING to think about.

I have mixed emotions about EA and the whole thing right now.  Hey, I don't know where to work right now but in the coming months, we'll just examine our job opportunities and choose.  EA's not off the table but I am super hesitant.  There's smaller studios where I'd feel more at home that are eager to hire people in the Orlando area.  I can't spend all my time worrying about the future cause then I won't have fun.  Fairly certain everyone is a bit worried as well, even if they don't express it so you're not alone.  Okay, I'm done rambling, another super late night post, signing out...

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