Breaking Into The Industry is a weekly interview series that speaks with video game professionals from across EA. We hope that by sharing how some of the industry's biggest (and smallest) players got their start, you can learn how to do the same.
Let’s start at the beginning. Were you a big gamer as a kid?
The answer is yes, but I started with pen and paper games like D&D, coin-op games like Space Invaders and Battlezone, and plenty of pinball. It was a fully misspent youth.
Well, not totally misspent. Look at you now!
That's what I tell my mom.
So at what point did you decide you wanted to work in the game industry?
Well, I graduated from college in the late 80s after studying literature and art. The only thing I knew at that point was that I didn't want a job where I had to put on a tie. That was my whole career plan: "No tie."
Fortunately, a friend of mine who was a little more forward-thinking got a job as a writer at this place called “Electronic Arts.” She needed other people who could write, too, so she hired me on contract for a while. I was creating marketing and PR copy, writing cluebooks, and doing in-game text. Then, after a while, they decided to hire me full-time.
So that was in the 80s; have you been at EA ever since?
With the exception of one very brief detour, yes.
Let’s jump to the future for a second. What do you currently do at EA?
I've got the very slick title of “Creative Director” at EA Partners (EAP). We work with the industry's best third-party developers and publish them under the EA label.
As far as my day-to-day goes, I do a fairly wide variety of things. For some projects I act in an advisory or editorial context, providing feedback on game content and design. For others I might direct some assets we're creating to support marketing and PR. Sometimes I'm even creating game assets myself. It's interesting that I still occasionally find myself writing dialogue for games after 20 years! Really, it all depends on what an individual partner and project needs.
You started as a writer and ended up as a Creative Director, but you haven’t talked much about what happened in between. What did that progression look like for you?
I started as a writer here, then went on to manage writing and localization in our UK office. Later I came back to California as a Game Designer and Content Creator. I worked on the Road Rash games and everything in Jane's Combat Simulations. My first Creative Director role was on one of our James Bond games.
Is that a common path to Creative Directorship?
I'm not sure there is a common path. Maybe those paths are becoming a little more formalized now that game design is an academic discipline. But back when I started, the industry was a very different place. For example, the “Creative Director” job title didn't even exist in the games industry.
Honestly, after talking to others with this title, I’ve come to realize that they’ve all arrived at their positions in different ways, and that each of them does very different things in their role. Skills and personalities vary a lot. Some Creative Directors are more design-focused like I am, because they come from a game design role. Others might be more like executive producers, because they came out of production. Some Creative Directors have run entire studios in the past.
So what advice would you give to someone who wants to become a Creative Director?
My advice would be to focus on where your interests and skills lie. The Creative Director role can be done in different ways and with different skill sets. I would encourage people to try and figure out what kinds of things they like to do, and then figure out ways to do those things.
Can you talk to me a little about Reckoning? You mentioned earlier that each project varies depending on a studio’s needs. What did that mean with this particular project?
In the case of Reckoning, I did provide some feedback very early on while we were testing the game within EAP and through consumer testing. But for the most part I had a minor production role on Reckoning. I was flying Europe to present to the press and working closely with a video production house on marketing assets. When you’re a Creative Director in EAP you spread your time over all of the projects in our business unit. It's different when you're in that role on a single project, working with a development team on a daily basis.
Last week I interviewed Benjamin, the EAP Producer for Reckoning. How do you two work together?
In riot gear! Seriously, Ben is the main producer on Reckoning, so he spends every minute of his waking life – and probably some of his sleeping life – thinking about the project being on time, to quality, and to budget. I split my time between several projects, and in the case of Reckoning I was just there to support the effort.
When I think “Creative Director,” I think “lots of work!” Are you extremely busy in your role?
When I was a Creative Director on a single project, I was responsible for communicating what the project was (and wasn't) and designing, and it was a lot of work. Now I'm busy because I'm involved in several projects at once. It’s a different kind of busy.
Is working on multiple projects more challenging than focusing on just one?
It's all about time management. That said, it also means switching gears more often. Am I thinking about the fantasy RPG today, or the action/adventure title, or a free-to-play opportunity? But that's something I appreciate about working at EAP: the incredible variety of things to think about and act on. It's not only the projects we currently have signed – I get to hear product pitches every week. It's a good window into the wider industry.
Any parting advice for aspiring Creative Directors out there?
Some practical advice – any design role is about mediating between fundamentally opposed goals. It’s all too easy for an aspiring designer to think, “The designer is the one who gets to say what the game is!” While it’s trivially true that the designer is responsible for planning, the challenge of the role is to successfully moderate among many competing interests.
To use an analogy… An architect may have a great vision, but the project is built within the context of many conflicting goals: the intended use of the building, the amount of money to be invested, the materials used, structural engineering limits, the image the client wants to project, etc. So my advice is to cultivate your ability to listen and moderate, because it’s one big balancing act.
I'll also add this: Interactive entertainment is an incredibly interesting art form that is continuing to evolve. It's a great time to be in the industry, and there are all sorts of ways to be involved in this business if you have the drive and aptitude. Dream big!
Alright. I think we're good. Thanks again for taking the time, David!
My pleasure. Thanks for inviting me to interview!
Is there a specific video game job you’d like to know more about? Let us know in the comments! Plus, check out last week’s interview with Benjamin Smith, the EA Parnters Producer for Reckoning.