EA’s Collaboration for Growth

The gaming industry certainly has been getting a lot of attention, especially with new entrants like Zynga creating wide-spread buzz and adoption. Add to that the iPAD and mobile gaming phenomena, and you know that traditional style game companies have to be thinking about how to compete in this new landscape.

The execs at EA want to continue leading the gaming industry. We’ve likely all heard the phrase “real innovation comes from constraints”, and it was that context that set EA’s SVP and COO of EA Games Label, Bryan Neider, off on an effort he recently led within EA.

Bryan shared that he felt EA folks could drive more innovation if he let them define what it looked like. Knowing that the people working on real problems would know more than anyone, he didn’t want to own the solution; he wanted to have them to solve the problem to the fundamental business issue at hand. Which was this: what would it take for EA to produce a hit game that would sell 10M units, and constraint the development budget to half of what the teams are used to?  In other words, maintain or improve quality, with constraining resources to drive innovation.

A dozen folks from many disciplines were hand-picked, given the challenge with Neider simply asking: “How could we do more, better, with less?” As people looked at him and at each other for more direction, all he added was “go at it”.

Some context for the challenge is this: typically games take on average 2-3 years to develop with big mega games like Halo or Grand Theft taking up to 4 years. As a result, huge dollars are invested in a longish R&D cycle before knowing if something is going to yield. By reducing the time to market, or creating more games with the same resources, the bottom line would benefit.

“In the first few meetings, you could tell people were hedging their bets. wondering if this was a serious exercise and worth investing in,” said Neider. He explained this kind of collaborative strategizing was new. “No one knew if it would be worth the energy.”

But something must have happened that created that commitment. The results are starting to come out:

1.Six of the 12 ideas got green lighted by broader teams, and many of those went straight into implementation mode. Many of these ideas were tied to creating common community assets that would let the developers spend more time doing creative work. For example: If each game developer team has to spend time creating trees, then having a central repository of trees could allow everyone to gain efficiencies and do more “fun” work. From a market point of view, each developer team could do more things that materially mattered to consumers.

2. Two projects that have benefited from improved collaboration / tools-tech sharing have resulted in at least a 15% efficiency gains on two fronts:

One game was able to reduce the number of staff months required to complete the game. The team was able to utilize the tools/tech developed by the other team, which was located on a different continent.<

Another team utilized an internally developed “tracking tool” that provided better visibility into the quality of the software code across the entire team —  this increased transparency created a “Hawthorne-like Effect” … resulting in few(er) bugs, thereby allowing the team to shift resources on to game polish and new features — thus improving the customer experience and game quality; typically these resources would be been focused on “killing bugs” so they could complete the project.

Not surprising, from the two results thus far, on-time delivery of product was exceeded. One especially big product release was ready for release early. Rather than making it by a “down to the wire moment”, the team had space to go back, tune, and get it right. This not only improved the “predictability” aspect of what the market and Wall Street measures, it likely improved the customer experience. (More statistics are going to be gathered on revenue gains.)

Nice real results based on collaborative problem solving. Reducing the price of development impacts the bottom line. As reported by CNBC earlier this year: The price of development on console titles has skyrocketed this generation – and a hit or miss can make the difference between a good financial quarter and miserable one.

“It’s really tough in our space now if you’re not making a hit title,” said John Schappert, chief operating officer of Electronic Arts at the recent Game Developer Conference. “If you’re not making a game in the top 20 [of the monthly sales], you’re probably losing money.”

The Behind-the-Scenes view on how Bryan drove the process was also illuminating:

The people we picked were passionate members of the EA community. “We knew they had it in ‘em to figure out the answer to the business problem” said Neider when talking about the group.

We purposely picked people from far and hither so that a new set of neural pathways could be created for communication and connections.

People were asked to help, then the next challenge was to make sure their ideas were heard.

“Now that we’ve done it once, we have a track record to do it again and figure out what else we can we can do next to innovate. More importantly, we’re teaching ourselves to innovate everywhere, by everyone.”

Based on industry figures, the 15% gain amounts to $2-4M per game. Not bad. Add to those results, the improved buy-in within the organization, and the learning system around innovation… it’s not a bad ROI.

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