Interview with Bing Gordon (EA)

Bing Gordon is the Chief Creative Officer of Electronic Arts, as well as a member of the faculty for USC’s Interactive Media Division. He’s also one of the smartest guys around (not to mention famously outspoken), which is why I wanted to email-interview him for my blog. Here’s what came of it:

Controversy over the rising number of game design programs in the US has heated up. Some people claim that academics can’t (or won’t) teach useful skills to aspiring designers. Some claim that, beyond technical training, only commercial project experience is truly useful. How do you feel about this, and what do you think academic institutions should be focusing on?

From first-hand experience, I can say that the best university programs are graduating the best entry-level game-makers. Period. The advantage students have is that they can work on many smaller projects, with teachers as advisers, and they can polish their team and cross-functional skills.

I recommend to game-making students that before they graduate they should: complete 4 team-based interactive projects; complete 4-6 fast prototypes, in many different media, including paper, cards and dice, and lo-res animation; complete basic feature design projects for key game categories that have user tools, such as designing a “smart object” for an object-oriented “living” environment (e.g.the Sims), level design mods (e.g. Unreal Tournament), and mission design mods (e.g. Neverwinter Nights); learn software “architecture” and data structures, if not c++ and java and html; learn basic maya skills; and play as many of the “Best Games of All Time” as possible, just as film students are literate in the most important movies.

The best grads will have “published” at least one project to public acclaim, such as 10,000+ downloads or competition winner; and they will have invented an improvement to at least one “best game of all time.”

If an aspiring game designer (or producer) could take just one class in college, what class would you recommend? Why?

“Building Virtual Worlds” class at Carnegie Mellon’s ETC program. Students complete 5 games in 3 months, working in cross-functional teams. My second favorite class is “Building Sims Objects” at USC’s School of Cinema, TV and Interactive Entertainment.

You received an MBA from Stanford. How has that been most useful to you in your career? Where within the game industry do you think MBAs are most needed, if anywhere?

I have found that MBA training is great for enhancing students’ “business imagination.” You just see so many business histories and models in 2 hectic years.

Business schools tend to be best at teaching finance and accounting, however, because the basics can be covered in a textbook. But this material that is easiest to cover in curriculum is also easiest to self-learn. Once you find out that the trick to business is making “marginal revenue equal marginal cost”, the rest of financial planning is conceptually easy.

But for me, the most important aspect of attending business school was getting access to projects and internships at real companies, rather than exposure to interesting professors. I would probably have founded an ad agency, rather than joining “Amazin’ Software”, if it weren’t for doing a research project for the Fairchild “Channel F”, the world’s first cartridge video game system.

At EA, an MBA is very useful for people working in finance and business development. We must have 2-3 entry-level job openings per year for MBA-type skills in these areas. But there are many more openings per year for MBA’s who also can lead product development teams through sound business judgment, organizational development and leadership skills, and game-making creativity. We have 200-400 entry-level job openings per year for people like this. In other words, MBA’s who want to be in the game business should try to be Producers, not business specialists.

Despite the maturation of the game industry, many games (across developers and publishers) are still completed over-budget and behind-schedule. Is that an inevitable aspect of the creative process? If not, what can be done to change things?

The trick to finishing any creative project on schedule is to ship whatever is done by a given date. This is what advertising agencies usually do with the commercials they create. Of course, no one remembers that it was on time after it fails miserably.

Once you set minimum creativity standards on your work, predictability flies out the window. The trick here is to make progress through small, user-testable iterations, the way Neil Simon describes in his autobiography, “Rewrites”, and the way David Kelley’s Ideo process is described in “The Art of Innovation.”

The game business has an added wrinkle, that we deliver our creativity in the form of software, which is notoriously hard to schedule.

How do you feel about outsourcing labor to markets such as India, Eastern Europe, and China?

I think innovations happen from small, cross-functional teams of programmers, designers and artists. This kind of team seems impossible to outsource.

Content, some code modules and testing, because they are not cross-functional, and can be scoped in detail, are out-sourceable. For this type of work, cost versus predictable quality and schedule are the primary concern. In some cases, EA is outsourcing, and in some cases we are “in-sourcing” to EA employees in other locations.

Do you think that game developers and publishers should be putting more energy into meeting the needs of consumers in India and China? Or are these markets already being tackled with sufficient dedication?

I hate the word “should.” I have always rebelled against “should.”

Obviously, the capital markets are valuing the current and future potential of consumer markets in India and China. Publishers that cannot meet their long-term goals without success in all markets “should” try to succeed in all markets. It’s not clear whether there are any publishers who must succeed in all markets, however. EA, for example, has chosen not to enter several meaningful videogame markets, such as the gambling games business, and Microsoft has chosen not to enter the Playstation games business.

In many organizations, marketing and development still treat each other as “necessary evils.” What can be done to improve these relationships?

The best solution is to have a cross-functional company leader. David Ogilvy was a researcher before becoming a copywriter and founding Ogilvy & Mather ad agency. The next best approach is to have leadership with great empathy for the other function. In the games business, that means that marketing leaders should be awesome game-players, and game-makers should be awesome tv-commercial makers.

What are your thoughts on the MMOG market? Do you agree with Brian Farrell’s recent assertion that there’s only room for one big MMOG at any given time? (I.e. World of Warcraft as of now.) **Note to reader: interview took place prior to the announcement of the Mythic acquisition.

Nope. I think that “virtual worlding” will soon be a rite of passage for all teenagers with access to the internet.

What’s the biggest risk EA ever took? And now that EA is a huge, public entity, can you take those kinds of risks anymore? Would you even want to?

EA’s biggest risk was preparing to launch a lineup of games for the Sega Genesis without a license. We reverse-engineered the electronics in a “clean room” environment, because Sega wouldn’t give us licensee terms that we could live with. If this had not worked, and the games hadn’t sold, (Sega agreed to license terms the evening before our public introduction of games), EA would probably have gone the way of early computer game leaders like Broderbund and Sierra. It was truly a “bet the company” decision.

I don’t think that company size or shareholder status affects the kind of risks that a company can “take.” Look at Apple with iPod, for example.

What is the biggest business challenge facing game developers and publishers today? How can they address it?

Sheez, good question.

I think our industry’s greatest challenge is to transition from technology-based to creativity-based experiences. In other words, we should all become like Miyamoto! Easier said than done.

Our industry’s biggest business challenge is to figure out how to convince consumers to pay “fair value” for the increased quality we are delivering. We need to monetize our “excess hours” of satisfied play. Our best games are unbelievably cheap on a per hour basis, compared to, say $1.00 per hour for paperback books, and $5-10 an hour for movies and DVD’s.

14 Responses to Interview with Bing Gordon (EA)

  1. Thanks. Good interview.

  2. This guy is really cool. Impressed by his multidisciplinary attitude and intelligence.

  3. Great interview. I am currently a Game design student at IADT Toronto and all the education just helps you get your foot in the door. You definitely need experience but education is an asset as well at my school we always work as a team and for our class thesis we must create our own game from scratch. If educational programs let you do that than you have something to give to an employer that shows what you can do.

  4. Why did you not ask him anything about EA\’s infamous treatment of their employees? What\’s an interview without a single tough question?

  5. Gordon’s answers to that last question there are interesting. On the one hand, you have an answer of remarkable insight into the ongoing transition of the gaming medium into a full-fledged art form, and on the other hand there’s this answer about monetizing player enjoyment.

    How many times have you bought a game and been disappointed? How many games have you purchased for $50 and not even spent 12 hours playing? Gordon’s making an error of ommission here– we are already paying for that quality enjoyment time through the games we DON’T spend 50 hours playing. I’ve spent hundreds of hours playing Counter-Strike or Tony Hawk. But I didn’t spend 5 hours with MechAssault, and that was a highly rated game that I paid full price for. I spent 20 hours on Call of Duty 2 before deleting it from my HDD. I pay my $15/month for WoW, but I only play 5-10 hours a week. How good a deal am I really getting from that?

    If you ask me, that’s simply asking the wrong question. A better question is how do you attract the larger market, rather than how do you eek more money out of your current customers. It just reeks of the sort of slimy business practices as seen in downloadable content over Xbox Live, where you pay $15 for a tiny map pack or $5 for a single upgraded graphic. How about treating your customers fairly? Modern consumers, and gamers especially, are a lot less willing to put up with mistreatment than they have in the past. If you give them a good deal, with solid content for a fair price, they will gladly pay. Otherwise, you’re just courting piracy– the natural response to being screwed by a business whose services you nonetheless desire.

    If there was an easy way to cheat cell phone companies, there’s not a one of them that could stay in operation. Why? Because they screw their customers up one side and down the other. It’s bad business practice held in place by oligopoly power, just like sweatshopping your game developers is bad business practice.

  6. “just like sweatshopping your game developers is bad business practice. ”

    The nature of capitalism lends itself to screwing someone else out of wealth and sucking it upward towards the points of power.

  7. Wish he would address the sinking ship called Battlefield 2, when it came out it was a great game, but EA/Dice have totally screwed that great FPS up with all their patches that make the game worse, then charge us for expansion packs that don’t even work. I don’t see myself giving EA games another dime of my hard earned money

  8. “Once you find out that the trick to business is making ‘marginal revenue equal marginal cost’, the rest of financial planning is conceptually easy.”

    I’m confused. I thought the trick was to increase marginal profit, instead of static as this statement suggests. Then again, GSB provided the human capital for the .com bubble and now the hedge fund bubble, so perhaps this theory works in those cases :) (j/k! have friends from GSB).

  9. From technology to creativity … we must all be like miyamoto!?

    Curious; Miyamoto is himself in a technology driven model so what is really failing us to be Miyamoto now? To be like Miyamoto does not demand the transition from technology to creativty. What is required is recognition of creativity in ones company as well as the process of creativty. Unfortunately, creative endeavour continues to be valued at the code level and less so at the design level. Content is excluded from creaivity which is why, although valid to a large extent, content is percieved as as outsource commodity.

    With regards to “fair value” for quality … I’m assuming he does not mean quality at a Pirsig level? Quality is too subjective to quantify in monetary terms.

  10. Problem is that game developers can no longer “seed” new properties, in the past when game development was cheaper the could “seed” new game ideas, in other words, the game didn’t have to sell so many copies to make a profit and recoupcosts, think of final fantasy series for instance, that whole series started out with a 8-bit game on the NES…

    How many new styles of gameplay will never see the light of day simply because new gameplay concepts,
    are chained to higher graphical standards?

    IMHO the real problem is that graphics advancement eating away at creativity, no longer can you seed
    ideas that don’t start off as immediately popular and grow them, you need some sort of watered down game that will reach some kind of critical mass… it’s sad to see modern MMO’s whose “gameplay” is about the computer playing the game for you with you merely navigating and firing off menu commands once in a while.
    mass.

  11. (I’m confused. I thought the trick was to increase marginal profit, instead of static as this statement suggests.)

    He’s talking about “econonic cost”, which already has the normal ROI expectations built-in.

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