Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 17
Sims in the world of Wii

Brainy Gamer in the land of The Sims

On Friday I visited EA's headquarters in Redwood City California for an event called Blogger Day. I met producers, designers, artists, and writers working on a variety of projects, and I spent hands-on time with several upcoming games. This is the first in a mini-series of posts describing my visit and the people I met, places I saw, and games I played.

EamazeEA's Redwood Shores studio is home to the wildly successful The Sims franchise, its offspring MySims, the forthcoming Dead Space, and several unannounced new games based on original IPs. Lest we forget, The Sims is the best-selling PC game series in history and the 3rd most popular franchise ever, trailing only Mario and Pokémon. To ensure this point was fully hammered home, the nifty green Sims spiral notebook I received in my swag bag was emblazoned with the logo: “The Sims: Celebrating 100 million sold.”

The campus occupies four sprawling buildings situated on twenty-three acres just south of San Francisco. It is an undeniably impressive facility that makes good on all the wild speculative assumptions we gamers tend to make about big development studios: a chic but casual beehive of creative activity full of games and other playful amenities, state-of-the-art 24/7 gym, full-size basketball court, soccer pitch, cafeteria, coffee shop, free movie and game rental store, child daycare with outdoor playground, and a large, open, naturally-lit atrium. And, of course, floor after floor of conference rooms and dozens of dimly lit cubicles littered with concept art, workflow charts, pop culture artifacts, snacks, and personal family photos.

If the idea is to create a workplace that your 2500 employees will never want or need to leave, EA Redwood Shores pretty much nails it. The fact that your pre-school kids (if you've got 'em) are only a short walk away is a pretty big deal, and several designers told me they considered this, and a flexible work schedule, major perks. With an average employee age of 30 and rising, it seems clear the company is making an effort to accommodate the needs of its employees with families. My impression is that Redwood Shores employs more women than most game studios, perhaps because The Sims and MySims are such centerpieces of development here.

In a nine-hour visit, it's impossible to get a truly accurate sense of a place, but one can certainly collect a series of impressions, and I must say mine were overwhelmingly positive. The designers, producers, and artists we met were uniformly upbeat and welcoming, including those I simply bumped into on my way from one place to the next. I've spent considerable time in a variety of work environments - from breweries to factories to Silicon Valley code shops - and I must say that EA Redwood Shores is one of the happiest workplaces I've ever seen. The people I met seemed genuinely enthusiastic about what they're doing, and the whole place exuded an air of creative energy and cordial professionalism.

The profit imperative is deeply embedded in the EA ethos (surprise!), and I was startled by the degree to which our host openly reflected this and conveyed it to us repeatedly. Despite my left-wing socialist egghead-academic leanings, I must say that I found this transparency oddly refreshing. EA is in business to make money, and they don't mind telling you so right up front. Nobody is much interested in making critical-darling games that nobody buys. When our host listed EA's obligations, she made no bones about its priorities. First come the shareholders; next come the employees; and finally, she noted, come the consumers. “We want to make great games,” she said, “But we need to make great games people want to buy.  If we don't make $3 for every $1 we spend, then we're laying off people.” Scary, but at least everyone knows the score.

Touring the campus, it's impossible not to bump into one shrine after another to EA's industry dominance. One hall, in particular, is decorated with plaques commemorating games that reached certain sales milestones. 500,000 units sold was once the threshold; later it was upped to a million; then 2 million. Today, if your game doesn't sell 5 million copies - sorry, no plaque for you. EA's cross-platform muscle is simply stated: “As a developer we outperform Sony on Sony consoles; we outperform Microsoft on Microsoft consoles; we're the number one developer on the PC; and we're second only to Nintendo on Nintendo consoles.”

Obviously, we weren't given free passes to roam the facility unimpeded, but I sensed that as bloggers we were considered less threatening, or perhaps less jaundiced, than our counterparts in the mainstream games media. Clearly, most of us operate apart from the enthusiast press, and our opinions have no impact on Metacritic scores. We're safe, you might say, and as I'll discuss in my next post, we may be a more appropriate audience for the kinds of games EA showed us.

Of course, another way of looking at it is that we're naïve bloggers - easy prey for corporate spin and free hotel/airfare-induced obeisance. Perhaps. But having met the other writers invited (terrific people, but decidedly un-giddy), I would say it's not likely. Frankly, I never felt terribly “spun.” After touring the campus, the format was fairly simple: meet with each game producer (usually accompanied by several artists and designers); watch a walkthrough of the game's features; vigorous Q&A; and hands-on time playing the game with developers nearby to answer more questions. Despite the fact that we were looking at games in various states of development, nothing was embargoed, and we signed no NDAs.

Tomorrow I'll discuss a couple of the games I saw, including one I'm playing now just prior to its North American release: SimCity Creator. And by “just prior” I mean I get to play it a full 48 hours before you do. See how special I am? ;-)