LONDON--This morning at the Game Developers Conference Europe, attendees crammed into a stuffy foyer in the Earls Court Convention Center. They were waiting to hear Bruce McMillan, executive vice president and general manager of Electronic Arts' Worldwide Studios, deliver the conference's opening keynote address. But as people took their seats inside the conference room, they were greeted by two other EA executives: vice president of corporate communications, Jeff Brown, and Rory Armes, managing director of EA European Studios--who was also the new keynote speaker.
Luckily, it was a pleasant surprise. Armes delivered an engaging presentation, free of the rehearsed evangelizing and nervous fumbling all too common in game conference speeches. After explaining that McMillan had been suddenly called away, Armes apologized in advance for his speech, saying he was just a "former Canadian cattle rancher" who still considered himself "an independent developer" at heart.
Armes started things off with a bang, making a bold prediction that Europe--not America--would be the leader of next-generation console development. "This is the next breaking spot for creative development--where we break in the next generation," he told an admittedly sympathetic crowd. "The UK is to gaming in [the] '00s what it was to pop music in the '60s. The world wants your games."
To prove his faith in the future of British development, Armes revealed EA European Studios' plan for rapid expansion. Currently, the internal developer employs 350 people in three locations: Chertsey, EA Northwest, and the recently acquired Criterion Studios. Armes said he plans to add at least 200 more staffers over the next two years, most of which will be hired locally. Armes also said EA has invested $250 million in its UK operations, and it plans on spending much more. In addition, he said the company would continue to work with indecent developers under its EA Partners program: "The EAP model works perfectly, finding young talent and nurturing it."
So what will all these developers create? "We want original EA IP," said Armes. "By next year, Harry Potter will be the only external, licensed IP we will be working on." He also singled out Criterion's upcoming racing game Burnout 3: Takedown for high praise, and he heavily implied that a sequel would be in the works. "The game's not even out yet, but it looks like we've got a hit," be beamed.
Armes also outlined his philosophy for game design, which he called "6 Things I Know About Developing Game Software." In order, that six-pack of principles was:
1. Never underestimate the universal joy of blowing stuff up: This point was self-explanatory, since it was illustrated by a fantastically fiery trailer for Burnout 3.
2. Nobody likes getting their ass kicked: Be it online or by the game's artificial intelligence, players will prefer to be given challenges versus frustrating obstacles. Armes used his own experiences getting clobbered by 18-year-old kids playing online sports games as an anecdote. He urged those present "to ask ourselves: are games too hard?"
3. The first three minutes are critical: Hook your audience or lose them.
4. How many people are working on "cool stuff?": Armes warned against spending too much time on bells and whistles like minigames and enough time on gameplay, presentation, and depth.
5. Never say never: Armes' example here was EA's rethinking of its practice of eschewing M-rated games, which will change with the release of Def Jam: Fight for NY. "We're not Disney," he said.
6. Stop worrying about the business and get back to making great games: 'Nuff said.
One of the more refreshing aspects of Armes' keynote address was his candor about EA's own missteps, including the recent dud Catwoman. "If the movie that you're making a game for is horrible, nobody really cares about the game," he said. He also admitted to making one of the FIFA games "too simple." However, Armes dodged questions about the presumably large amount of money EA will be making from other publishers that use the Criterion-made Renderware engine. "I use Renderware. I like the idea of everyone using one software," was the extent of his comments.
In closing, Armes gave some tips for surviving the leap to next-generation consoles. "The transition will be rough on midsized publishers, but indie studios will flourish," he predicted. But while he repeated his point that "a lot of development in Europe is untapped," the easygoing executive also said, "if you want a truly global hit, it has to be big in the [United] States." All in all, though, Armes thinks talented studios will have no problem striking next-gen development deals: "If you've got experience and a good idea, the money will find you."