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Neil Young has an almost 20 year history in games, having come from a programming background, and having launched Ultima Online, the world's first traditional MMO. Now, he's vice president and general manager of EALA, overseeing development on the Lord of the Rings games, among others.
In an interview conducted a few weeks ago, Gamasutra completed a lengthy talk with Young about emotion in games, original IP, working overtime, the Wii and the NFL. He's a man who pulls no punches, making this a rather entertaining interview to conduct. Not to be outdone, corporate communications head Tammy Schachter makes a few cameos as well.
Gamasutra: In the Serious Games Summit [at GDC] keynote, Jesper Juul was taking to task whether games could make you cry. And he maintained that they already did, like when servers crash, and things like that.
Neil Young: But that's frustration though. It's nice that there's a dialog going on about that question. But not being able to connect to your guild server and being sad about that… it's - you know. That's not really moving people emotionally, it's just annoying. I can do the same thing by going and hitting someone's windshield with a baseball bat. That's not the same thing we're driving for of course. What I want to figure out, and have a dialog around, is how do we decode the narrative of the medium. And [the question] can a computer game make you cry – to be clear, it's just a roll-up, just a broad stroke for “can a game move you emotionally.”
When I see a game like Ico, or Shadow of the Colossus to a lesser degree, they do move me. And you can see little glimmer of magic there. And they weren't bad games because they moved you, so why can't we make great games that do move you.
GS: It seems like it should be possible, and I think it was actually a bit more possible when the medium was younger, and the players less jaded. You really need that suspension of disbelief. What do you think are the main barriers there?
NY: The single biggest barrier is pacing. That's the biggest challenge to manage. So that suspension of disbelief that you get in a linear medium [like movies] has been very carefully crafted and managed for you. You're taken on a journey. And also, you're often in a setting – like in a theatre, or in the home to some degree – where everyone is focused on getting that entertainment experience. Games are a little bit more raucous. So you might be playing a game on your own, and someone's talking to you over here. That wouldn't happen if you were watching a movie. So I think there are two challenges. One's pacing, and the other is maybe you're more likely to get people to cry if everyone is focused on the game at the same time.
GS: Do you think you're more likely to get that in a single-player linear scenario?
NY: I think it's easier to manage the pacing. But if you think about it, the linear path game is the next evolution of copying film. And I'm not sure that we should just copy film. If you think about it, when we had those branching games back in the day [such as those by digital pictures] that literally was trying to copy film. And then we have cutscenes today, where it's like “little bit of gameplay, tell a story, little bit of gameplay, tell a story.” And the challenge I think we have is how to be moved in an open space, where I'm building empathy for that character and the plight of the world that I'm in. And it doesn't have to be crying. It could be fear, it could be laughter, all these different things.
GS: Obviously the easiest one is the power fantasy.
Tammy Schachter (Senior Manager of Corporate Communications, EA): Don't you think game designers are a little guilty of falling into that adrenaline trap? Like in Ico, it's much less combative.
NY: Yeah, but there's a real focus on it. If you think about action movies, rarely in one of those are you suddenly sobbing. Because it's kind of dealing with a different part of you. Participating in a ballistic narrative versus a more measured, suspenseful narrative, I think it's two different things.
GS: EA's been kind of prioritizing original IP more recently. What are you doing about that currently?
NY: Well there are two levels to IP for me. There's franchise IP and then there's feature IP. And I think we have a responsibility in general, across every one of our games, to try to invent more new features that can strive to change the nature of the underlying game. Things like the aspiration in The Sims 2, things like the open world in Grand Theft Auto. And then at the other end of the spectrum, franchise IP, I think that's more likely to get enabled in by having an organization - you know, your studios – thinking about small inventions. So you end up swimming in a sea of small inventions that inspire bigger inventions. So that's the idea, and we're trying to adjust the culture of our company as a whole so we can just get innovation into the lexicon of Electronic Arts.
With specific regards to new franchise IP, aside from the things that we've acquired, there are other things like the partnership with Steven Spielberg, and that's focused exclusively on producing original, new intellectual property. And I was looking at the list of everything we're working on across all studios last night, and there's a lot of stuff there. There's like 15 or 20 new, original concepts [in any stage of development] right now. So maybe two of them will work.
GS: So Spielberg actually has office?
NY: Yeah, he's in there every week.
GS: So what kind of work does he actually do there?
NY: Well, he doesn't like come into work, grab his lunch and set down for the day. Basically it's probably best described as a writers' table on a TV show or something. Basically, it's Steven, Doug Church who's producing his first game, me, a couple of the designers, Ryan Church [no relation to Doug], who did the walkers for War of the Worlds, so he's worked with Steven before. So we sit in a room, and we've been going through the story of the first product, and what we really want to center on. And then we take the game features, and try to tie all those things together.
GS: Have you found at all that you have to educate him about what's possible in a game?
NY: To some degree. But he's pretty conversant in the medium. He plays a lot of games. The thing that's wonderful about him is that he's almost egoless. He's clearly reached the point where he just doesn't need to do anything other than just contribute creatively. He's added a ton of great ideas to what we're building.
GS: Are you still trying to foster that kind of ‘game designers as rock stars' culture that existed at the beginning of EA?
NY: Not really. I think at some point that becomes disruptive. When you have 3,800 employees in the studios, I mean… who gets to be the rock star?
TS: More like hundreds of craftsmen.
NY: What we have are basically spokespeople. Like I'm a spokesperson, Will Wright's a spokesperson, and Paul Lee's a spokesperson, but we all have different ideas.
GS: With so many people, how do you single out the talent that needs to rise?
NY: It's a big challenge. The answer to that question is in how you organize the company. If you organize it and your teams are like executive producer, senior producer, producer, lead engineer, senior engineer, etcetera, new great people automatically get put at the bottom of the stack. Which sucks! Because if you're a phenomenal artist, you shouldn't have to go do a bunch of shit stuff if your natural talent is being a great artist. You should be able to impact things immediately.
So one of the structures we operate in Los Angeles, and we still have to do more to make it function correctly, but it's the idea of cells. And the basic idea of cells is, inside each cell there are seven or eight people. And the entire organization is made up of 53 of these little cells, that are constantly forming and reforming and breaking apart as we work through innovations. So let's say someone comes in from school, just graduated, and their natural talent is incredible. Now you can put them in a cell, and their collaborating with a group of people, and they're not buried under a giant stack. If they're innovating at a really high level, that will become apparent very quickly. We've got a lot of work to do to get our internal systems to a place where that works effectively, but it's the right goal, I think.
GS: I don't know if this is out of line, but I'm a personal fan of Takayoshi Sato's work, but I haven't seen anything from him at EA in a lead capacity, which surprises me given his stellar work on Silent Hill.
NY: It's not appropriate for me to go into the details of what he's doing, other than to say that he's making a big impact on a big product that he's been working on for a long time.
TS: He's maybe less visible, but he's still very talented, and very important to the organization.
NY: Yeah, he's great, and he's working on great stuff. It's just that his product is two years out. It should be available in 2008.
GS: Does any other publisher feel like a real threat?
NY: Oh yeah, they all do, but for different reasons. Clearly Activision. Generally pretty good software, good business. THQ in some areas. Take-Two because they've got a couple of really big franchises, and they do compete in sports. Not on a dollar basis, but on a product quality basis. Everyone's a competitor because basically anyone can have the number one game. That's still the great thing about our business. Any one of the 30-some publishers out there could publish a game that takes them from being a $100 million to a $2 billion business overnight.
GS: Does management ever get concerned when a particularly notable title makes a stir? Do you feel like you have to react?
NY: No, I mean you always need to understand the market, what the expectations of the customer are, and the state of the art, but generally no. A very specific example is I think the company made a mistake with Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault. It was before my time. They basically went to E3 with the game, saw Half-Life 2, and were like 'f*ck. This is going to ship, and our game is going to be wrong or different or sub-par. Now let's go spend another 6 months trying to get it up to par' – and you couldn't. Because 90% rated games are kind of made when they're started, not when they're finished. So it ended up getting delayed, and ended up shipping the week before Half-Life 2 shipped.
Now if it hadn't been delayed, and it was an 82% rated game, if it'd shipped when it was supposed to, it would've had a clear window, it would have rated higher, so it might have been an 86% rated title, it would've sold all the way through the season, and we could've then said ‘ok, now let's iterate on that.' So that was a mistake that the company made. So we do make them!