In 2005, I headed to EA headquarters for an event known as a Franchise Review. These took place each quarter, with the aim being for executives to provide feedback on games that were currently in production. The tone of these reviews could vary wildly. Sometimes they were constructive, other times they could feel like the snark of American Idol crossed with the terror of a firing squad. I experienced both sides. On this specific day, I sat in on the presentation for EA’s marquee title for that year: The Godfather.
The Godfather was being developed at EA’s Redwood Shores. This studio, which would later become Visceral, was where the company was founded, so there was a ton of pride in the group. When EA obtained the Godfather license, its goal was to make a ‘GTA killer’: the management at Redwood had decided that the studio would become the world leader in open-world adventure games.
The executive producer took to the stage to start the presentation. It began with a ‘target gameplay’ video: a pre-rendered piece designed to show what the gameplay would eventually look like. After the footage ended, there was nothing short of a standing ovation (in all fairness, it really was an impressive video). Next began a presentation, where features from Grand Theft Auto III were listed next to those from The Godfather. The meaning was clear: The Godfather would top all of them.
At one point, there was even mention of an ‘SPB Ratio’, which meant ‘Stuff Per Block’ – or the number of objects in the world the player could interact with during a play session. This wasn’t a metric I’d ever heard before; that someone had calculated it was pretty wild nonetheless. In fairness to the team, they needed to sell the game in this way; the costs of building an open-world game, in the Bay Area, were astronomically high. It’s also worth noting that there were some tremendously talented developers working on the game, and they had a vision. A big vision.
As is normal with game development, though, the challenge came down to execution, and realising all those big ideas. Their feature list not only had to match that of GTA, but exceed it. Unfortunately, the weight of that feature list, combined with the pressure to deliver the title in a given timeframe, meant that The Godfather would never achieve its lofty goals. While it spawned a sequel, EA would ultimately part ways with the license to focus on its own properties.
A few years earlier, while I was working at EA, I had the opportunity to work on a much more focused title that would ultimately go on to exceed sales expectations. I was working with DICE on Battlefield Vietnam, the follow-up to Battlefield 1942. It’s important to note that this title was far less anticipated than a project like The Godfather, and was far smaller in scope. Battlefield Vietnam had originally started as a ‘mod’, but as it grew in traction and quality, EA realised it could be a full game on its own. Fortunately, the game was priced competitively, and not positioned as a full sequel to the ground-breaking Battlefield 1942.
While we were working on Vietnam, the team had ideas for how to make it bigger. Fortunately, as it was being developed at a satellite studio, DICE Canada, we were constrained by the number of people who could be developing it, and the budget that could be spent against it. This ultimately worked to our advantage, as it meant we needed to be super-focused, and Battlefield Vietnam could never become a ‘kitchen sink’ game – that is, a title where you throw in every feature known to be popular at the time. This meant no single player, no console support, and no big changes to the engine. This focused development was precisely what made the game successful: it was a game that knew exactly what it needed to be. That’s not to say its development was simple or easy – it wasn’t.
Less is more
Over the course of that project, we built a new foliage/tree system called Overgrowth, and brought helicopters (along with their crazy physics and controls) to the Battlefield series for the first time. Overgrowth was needed to create the feeling of being in the dense and claustrophobic jungles of Vietnam, with scores of other players. The feature was unknown, risky, and scary, but ultimately worked due to the talented developers that laboured on it. Ultimately, we were able to ship the game, without a marked increase in the PC minimum spec required, and it went on to achieve both commercial and critical success.
The point, ultimately, is to always be focused when building your game. It’s better to subscribe to the ‘less is more’ adage, and do fewer things better than lots of things at an average level. That being said, this is much more difficult than it sounds; it’s easy to get excited about an idea that might not be critical to your project and want to start working on it immediately. When this happens, try to think critically about whether or not this feature really matters, and more importantly: does your team have the capability and time to fully realise it? It’s way more painful to cut a feature after work has been invested in it than at its inception. In the end, games, like any entertainment project or investment, are an informed bet. Always be mindful that it doesn’t matter what you did yesterday: all that matters is what you do next.
As a side note, anytime you hear a phrase like ‘GTA killer’, be warned. More often than not, the label’s doomed to failure, as an established incumbent – like the boundary-pushing Grand Theft Auto III – has usually benefited from being the first of its kind. If you’re going to ‘kill’ a rival game, your offering needs to be so far beyond the current champion that winning borders on impossible. As you’ve probably gathered, creating such a game isn’t easy.
Reid is the producer of Splinter Cell, Battlefield Vietnam, Army of Two, Batman: Arkham Origins, and Batman: Arkham Knight. Follow him on Twitter: @rws360