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EA Sports Opens Up About The Challenges Of Developing During COVID

by Brian Shea on Sep 03, 2020 at 12:29 PM

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To say that 2020 hasn't gone as any of us expected would be an understatement. With the COVID-19 global pandemic serving as a backdrop, everyone has been asked to change their way of life over the course of this year. Perhaps the place most impacted is how we work on a day-to-day basis. Businesses have been severely affected by the pandemic, and the recommended safety measures by experts and state officials have led to a major shift to working from home where possible. In a survey published by GDC in July, 70 percent of responding video game developers said they moved from an in-office setting to a work-from-home setting due to the pandemic, with only 3 percent saying they continued working in an office at the time of response.

As one of the largest game publishers in the industry, Electronic Arts is among the companies affected by the pandemic and the transition to working remotely. Fortunately for EA, the company had been exploring how to enable employees to work from home over the last several years. The publisher began putting technology in place to allow its team members to work on any game from any location while maintaining IP security. The timing for the company could not have been more fortuitous, as the global events forced the gaming giant's plan into action.

"A lot of the stuff, from an infrastructure standpoint, we had in place and we had been testing; we've been having those discussions for years," says Daryl Holt, vice president and general manager of Madden NFL 21 developer EA Tiburon. "When the stay-at-home order was put in place in mid-March, as a company, we made the decision, and pretty much overnight, people started working from home. I remember it was a Friday in Orlando and we were sending out the message kind of late at night, 'Hey, Monday we're all going to be working from home, so come in Monday, we'll talk about what you need to take with you and what you'll leave at the studio and how we'll work.' It seemed probably hectic in the moment if I look back on it, but at the same time, it was a quiet confidence of knowing some of the stuff we can go do. The infrastructure was the easy part."

That ability to have its team members up and running in short order proved crucial for the team at EA Tiburon, which was in the thick of development on Madden NFL 21 at the time. However, there was still much to learn for the studio. "The real hard work became, 'Well, what does this mean?' How does it change making a game? How does it change finishing a game? Is it as simple as it used to be? What's different? What are we going to have to come up with new ways for? That became the conversation," Holt says.

For the team behind EA Sports UFC 4 at EA Vancouver, a program was already being discussed that would allow for more flexible work-from-home situations. UFC 4 executive producer Sean Ramjagsingh had been wanting to run a test pilot allowing employees to work from home one day a week to see how it affected efficiency, but due to the speed of development on the title, the test kept getting delayed. "We just couldn't execute against that plan, so we didn't get to test it," Ramjagsingh says. "Then, sure enough, COVID hits, and within 24 or 36 hours, we are executing the plan and it's on a one-day trial."

The timing of the pandemic uniquely hit the Madden development team due to the timeline of events: The Super Bowl had happened just a month prior to the COVID-19-imposed lockdown of the United States, so the studio was firing on all cylinders with Madden NFL 21 development as the pandemic hit the U.S. "We are in full production, making the game and working on a lot of creative problems to solve and work through, and then moving into finalizing the game," Holt says. "The good news is that EA Sports, because of the timeline we operate on – releasing Madden every year – we have lots of data and we have lots of processes. Our development directors and project managers are really, really strong, so we can look at data and make informed decisions and choices to understand things. It's the creative aspect that becomes really difficult as you're trying to finalize a game. Everything is harder; getting content in the game, dealing with audio, we've still got some mocap pickups to do, or face-scans to do, commentary that we're finishing up ... there's so much of that where, because of not having a long lead-in [to the work-from-home situation] and it was just to flip the switch and go, everything was different. Everything was harder."

The UFC 4 team benefited from a longer development cycle, with the game having been in development for two or more years, versus the annualized release cycle of the Madden franchise. While this meant a greater percentage of in-office development time compared to EA Tiburon's Madden NFL 21, the UFC 4 team did hold concerns about making sure the game came together in the home stretch. "So much of the magic happens in finalizing the game," Ramjagsingh says. "The features are there, but they're not balanced, they're not tuned, we're finding all the bugs, and we're really trying to find the fun. That's the piece that candidly scared me the most: How are we going to find the fun? It was scary, I'll be honest, but the team got creative and they adapted."

A member of EA Tiburon observes a remote commentary recording session

While UFC 4 was fortunate with much of its timing due to a longer development cycle, it was still affected to the point that the game was briefly delayed before it was even revealed. According to Ramjagsingh, the team was targeting a release the weekend of July 11 to coincide with the UFC's annual International Fight Week event. While the team made a smooth transition to working from home, that date just wasn't possible. "Very quickly, once we were set up from home, we realized that date was not going to be achievable," he says. "We went through multiple iterations, multiple different scenarios about when we think we can launch the game with a bunch of different assumptions baked into that – not knowing the duration we'll be working from home – then once we started to settle in to working from home, understanding what our efficiency was going to look like, we could have more informed decisions or conversations around what we think we can launch the game."

While Madden NFL 21 didn't miss its release date, it did have to change course on multiple things, including how some of the cutscenes were done in its Face of the Franchise career mode. Longtime sports personality and journalist Rich Eisen had to self-shoot his scenes, while other components were changed or outright cut. "We had different storyboards and different approaches," Holt says. "Our producers and designers had to change a little bit about how they approached things. Certain things got cut, certain things got shifted, but with Rich, it was something we really wanted to make sure still made the story, so he was a trooper, willing to pivot and adapt as well."

One of the Beam robots used during Madden NFL 21's remote motion-capture sessions

Ordinary game-development situations, like being able to order pizza and spend an evening playtesting the game, became impossible, so the team had to find new solutions. Instead of getting together in a somewhat social setting and calling out things they do and don't like, the Madden team had to playtest as isolated individuals.

Another hurdle for Madden involved finishing up motion-capture. Since having large groups in the studio was inadvisable, Electronic Arts distributed motion-capture equipment to the talent, and the development team used Beam robots, wheeled devices with a screen and camera, so the developer could interact and direct the talent. "We initially were looking out for the health and welfare of our people as much as we were trying to make a game; first and foremost, it's making sure our teams are safe," Holt says. "So we'd say, 'Okay, we can't do a mocap shoot. We can't bring talent in because we don't want to expose the people, so we just delay.' But you start looking at things and we can't delay forever, so we had to look at different creative ways to do this."

Despite the Madden team's best efforts to make it as normal as possible during motion-capture sessions, having a robot with a face and voice telling the mocap talent what to do is hardly typical. The result was some sessions were more laborious in getting the creative content the team needed. However, the communication changes were hardly contained to the motion-capture sessions.

The developers had to adapt and pivot when it came to communication as a whole. From using different techniques and timing to having life distractions such as family or internet issues at home disrupt the normal flow of work, EA Sports had to be nimble in how it approached keeping the lines of communication open. The studios used asynchronous communication methods like prerecorded messages team members could watch on-demand, and it relied more on applications like Slack for text communication and Zoom for live video communication. The UFC 4 team at EA Vancouver even began doing virtual build reviews over Zoom. These types of communication have typically been avoided by EA over leak concerns, but it became the norm in order to ensure teammate connectivity and safety.

"You have to over-communicate no matter what; in a situation like this, you have to make sure the communication is coming fast and furious," Holt says. "We have to do it in different ways for different people. We definitely adapted that, and we went to shorter meetings to make sure people had time to work. We made sure there were documents that we were sharing and all collaborating on at the same time. It's just a creative process, amped up."

Former UFC champion Daniel Cormier joining the EA Vancouver team on a Zoom call

For EA Vancouver, the team operated on a policy of flexibility to enable its employees to take care of any responsibilities they had. "We said, 'Everyone's got a unique situation they need to deal with at home. You tell us what you think you can do. If you need to adjust your hours and be with your kids in the daytime, then work at nighttime, then let's have that conversation and we'll figure it out,'" Ramjagsingh says. "Those first couple weeks, we were just kind of figuring it out together, understanding everyone's unique situation. From there, starting to build a plan of how we continue moving forward as best we possibly can, understanding some limitations we're gonna have."

However, regardless of how many plans you put into place, life sometimes gets in the way; schools being closed or extra precautions needing to be taken for previously simple tasks such as grocery shopping led to additional stressors that could make working difficult at times. "We had to make sure people knew it was okay," Holt says. "At the same time, we had to then use what data we were seeing. As we start to deal with the human element and make sure it's supported, then we need to interpret that and what it means for the project and the team."

Because of the human element, EA Sports had to consider work/life balance in a way it didn't have to before the pandemic. The teams began scheduling virtual pizza parties and giving out gift cards to help support time spent in meetings and playtesting. The UFC 4 team even worked to make certain Zoom meetings "must-see TV," by bringing in celebrity guests like former UFC champion Daniel Cormier to chat with the developers or hosting Zoom costume contests. 


As the games approach launch, the marketing teams also had to think outside the box. Massive in-person cover-reveal events and over-the-top video shoots with hundreds of people present weren't possible, so once again, creativity and nimbleness played a key role. EA Tiburon worked closely with Lamar Jackson, cover athlete of Madden NFL 21, to let him shoot and direct his own cover reveal. EA Sports shipped Jackson camera kits and helped with direction remotely so that the Ravens quarterback could tell his story. This approach carried into the title's TV ads, with remote shoots including multiple athletes and celebrities, and the marketing beats that typically include events like EA Play and the NFL Draft, both of which were drastically different this year.

"For the covers of the game, we normally do photoshoots and have tons of assets, and have these assets early," Holt says. "All of sudden, we can't do that. So even the cover of Madden, which was a departure from our past approaches, becomes a creative outlet and a new way of looking at it."

The UFC 4 team once again benefited from fortunate timing and was able to gather its two cover athletes, Israel Adesanya and Jorge Masvidal, together in Las Vegas for a protected, sanitized photoshoot around March 20. "I think we benefited from that shoot being so soon after they moved to working from home that nobody knew what the future was going to hold," Ramjagsingh says. "I think if that shoot was scheduled a week later or two weeks later, it probably doesn't happen."

As the teams move into the future, all of the lessons learned and processes developed for this situation will not be for naught when the world returns to relative normalcy and ordinary professional life is restored. 

"We've always had an 'adapt, improvise, overcome' mentality on the team; I think it's just the nature of creative people in creative endeavors," Holt says. "It's getting tight up front on some of the things that we know we're going to have to be realistic on, while at the same time, not being so risk-averse that you don't swing for the fences, or you don't think about what your community is telling you or the improvements we still want to make. There's a long list of things we want to do in Madden, and that's not going to change. It's continued learning, and I think we will work better. When we come together, there will be work-from-home as part of our future, there will be remote creative solutions that we've come up and lean into and do better. More importantly, I think all the things that we do so much better and so much easier together, will feel like an amplifier. I would expect that we'll probably see an uplift from that as we start to come together in, hopefully, a world around the corner where things do return to some sense of normalcy."

Ramjagsingh thinks working from home will almost be an expectation rather than an exception. "I feel like as the next generation of the workforce starts to come through, they're going to want more flexibility and have different expectations of how they work and where they work," he says. "I'm really interested to see, once we get back to a bit of normalcy, how we change our processes to enable people to work from home more. I think if you were to ask people in the past when people worked from home, it was usually a bit of a lighter day, and I think expectations around people that are working from home have changed through the process as well. There's an expectation that you're available, that you're working, you're accessible throughout the day. I think once we get back to normalcy, that's the exciting part for me: seeing how we adapt to enable people to work from home more and be more flexible with where and when they work."

For a broader view on how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected game development, read our summary of GDC's State of the Game Industry 2020 survey here.