EALA's Neil Young

GameDaily BIZ: Interview: EALA's Neil Young:

"BIZ: So let's talk a bit about the quality of life issue. Ever since the whole EA Spouse blog post EA has been criticized for quality of life issues. Recently, however, the company settled with its former employees and I hear now that you've really cut back crunch time with something called '5 great days.' Can you talk about how this was enabled and what it means for the workers?

NY: Well the basic underlying idea sort of stems back to that concept of creating intellectual property. Right, so crunch, managed crunch if you like, is built around maximizing execution productivity. And what you really want to do, is you want to maximize creative productivity. You want to create the type of environment where people have the best ideas, you know the first time, instead of a mediocre idea because they're tired and they then have to iterate 9 or 10 times to an OK idea. All of this, '5 great days,' is really just one system with a catchy name. But the whole idea is let's take, in the case of the studio in Los Angeles, which is the studio I run, let's completely rewire the culture. And if you believe that the work is a product of the culture, then the question to ask yourself is, 'What are the things that we need to change in order to deliver a culture that can consistently produce great work?'

And that's about the tone that the management team sets, the talent that you have in your organization and how you work with that talent and how you treat that talent, and you know, the practices that you have in place to be able to move those creative ideas through your organization. And so, really, speaking for Los Angeles, that's really what we've been focused on and I think over the course of the next few years you'll see the results of that and I can tell you that."

Neil Young used to 'work for me' at Virgin. I put 'work for me' in quotes because people like Neil Young and Dave Perry don't really ever 'work for you'. They are genuine self-starters and so the best idea is to create an environment where they can work and then let them go. I also believe in the inverted pyramid view of management - management exists to provide services to the people that do all the work. So in a way it's more accurate to say I worked for Neil and Dave and everyone else in development at Virgin Interactive. In fact, I had the view that Virgin Interactive provided a publishing service to developers. This is definitely in contrast to how most publishers view developers. Most publishers feel that developers are the ones providing the service, which makes sense, since that is the way the cash flows. But I digress.

One thing that Neil did that I really admired was the game Majestic. It was a flop commercially but I was really impressed the way that Neil went out on a limb creatively and technically with that game. I think that modern cell phones have matured to the point where the entire game (which had streaming video and phone numbers you dialed and got clues and things like that) could be played on just the phone. All of the browsing and video and obviously the phone calls could be done by cell phone. The fax portion of Majestic could be converted to text messaging. I think it would be cool if someone resurrected the assets for that game and made it work on modern fancy cell phones.

One thing about Majestic was that it did a pretty good job of making a fake world integrate with the real world, sort of the way Lost (the TV show) is doing with the Hanso Foundation.

On 9/11, 2001, I awoke to find an email in my inbox that one of the World Trade Center towers was on fire. Later I got another email about the second tower being on fire. As I was a beta tester for Majestic I thought these emails were part of the game! Later I received another email about the first tower collapsing and I paid more attention and I realized that these messages were from the alert service I subscribed to from the NY Times. Like everyone else, I instantly ran down and watched the disaster on TV all day.

However, the impact of thinking that the horrible events of 9/11 were fictitious was pretty astounding. (After all, who could have imagined it happening in real life?)

Anyway, I think Neil is really having a positive impact on EALA, which has to be one of the most difficult assignments in the world. Hollywood doesn't 'get' games in general (Spielberg might be an exception) and hiring people who have worked on visual effects to work on games is highly problematic, which is going to be the likely situation if you're located so close to Hollywood. On the other hand if you can integrate with the schizoid Hollywood environment (for instance, by clever use of contracting, which is fairly normal there), you can get a pretty good development engine going.

So good luck to Neil and EALA.

© 2006 Stephen Clarke-Willson - All Rights Reserved.