Created in 2003, EA Montreal has grown to around 900 staff, with 400 of those working on console franchises such as Army of Two: The 40th Day, and the Wii versions of Spore and Need for Speed Nitro.
Here, general manger Alain Tascan discusses the attraction of working in Montreal and how it attracts industry talent in an area populated by rival developers and publishers. He also shares his views on respecting the consumer, how the development of motion control can advance videogaming, and whether the studio is ever going to return to the much-loved SSX franchise.
Q: Can you give us an overview of your studio, the number of staff and the games you're working on?
Alain Tascan: EA Montreal right now is almost 900 people, but we are also mobile activities and some testing. The studio is around 300-400 people. We're doing Army Of Two: The 40th Day obviously, our next-gen title, also we're doing Need For Speed Nitro on the Wii. We're doing Spore on the Wii, Spore Hero, and a few other unannounced titles.
Q: Canada is an attractive place to industry talent for the lifestyle as well as the tax breaks. Do you employ may Brits that have moved out there?
Alain Tascan: Actually we do, we have a lot. They complain about the weather, but actually I say the weather back home is not that good either! I think Canada is becoming a major player in videogames. It's not only the support of the government, it's also a place where you can find different cultures. If you go to Montreal in particular – I'm French from France – it's a place where you can find Americans, Brazilians... We have 28 nationalities in the studio and when you think about how games reach across not only generations but also cultures, I think a place like Canada, and Montreal in particular, is the perfect place to bring all this talent from all over the world – they just have to embrace the tough winter – and work together to make great games.
Obviously there's EA, but you also have Eidos, Ubisoft, A2M, which is a developer. I think it starts to be a platform for people to come on and bring their passion for games.
Q: Do you find the competition to attract talent tough, given the other studios in the area?
Alain Tascan: It is always difficult to attract people, but I feel every studio tells it's own story. The studio size, for instance, what kind of game is more important. Do people want to work on Splinter Cell in this very, very large team on this epic project, or do they want to work in something that works differently. At a certain stage of your career, you're going to pick something, a story, because I believe every studio, every project has its own story. You have your own story as a person, and you're going to find the matching pair – sometimes it's going to be Ubisoft, sometimes it's going to be us, but you want to come for the right motivation. But yes, our main focus is to find the right talent, bring them on, and to get excited about working with our team.
Q: And are you still finding a lot of CVs coming in from Britain and Europe?
Alain Tascan: We have a lot of CVs coming in from Europe in general because the markets here are a little bit tougher – people talk a lot about development in Canada, but we're not focusing on one country in particular and we're not pro-actively trying to steal talent from a country, but yes we receive a lot and usually we try to follow-up when the quality is there.
Q: The biggest game you're working on is the Army of Two sequel. The original was well received with a Metacritic rating of 72 on 360 and 74 on PS3. What are your ambitions for the sequel?
Alain Tascan: Better than that! It's a good learning – we took a big bet on the first one. The bet was that every gamer will have at least one friend and it looks funny now, but it worked.
I think people bought the game in a significant manner – over 2 million units – and I feel the game proposition resonated with people. Playing this game is a very unique way of playing a shooter. You play always with another character on the screen. I feel we reached that success, people are still playing the game now – two years after we have a fanbase. What we're promising with this new one is to double down on the co-op experience and give something more organic, and we're also going to focus all our effort on the quality, which means better AI, better through the gun experience, the graphics, the world and the scenario, are going to make people happy with the quality.
Q: Is there specific pressure on you with Metacritic? We've been speaking to Peter Moore and he's very focused on upping by five to six points certain franchises, and getting a 90 rating for FIFA. Do you set those targets for your games? Is that a pressure and a focus, and is it a good thing for the industry in general?
Alain Tascan: I think it's important not as a pressure, as a focus. It's respecting the customer; not trying to push something down their throat – 'just buy this game', and putting a lot of marketing behind it. If you look across EA we're really drastically improving our quality. For Army of Two is it a real focus? Definitely, but I think Metacritic is not the only thing – it's a combination of a high quality game, but also a proposition that people are interested in. Am I interested to play this type of game? And for some games the answer will be more positive than for others.
When you reach the quality and the proposition that people want to enjoy, this is when you have massive success.
Q: Take a game like EA's Mirror's Edge last year, which was well received by critics but came out in a very busy period and didn't achieve the sales EA would have hoped. And now you're almost seeing the great Christmas clearout, whether they're avoiding the rush or just avoiding Modern Warfare 2. Do you think we're seeing the industry learning its lesson and spreading releases around more?
Alain Tascan: I think it's a combination of everything. I think also games are ready when they're ready right now because of the focus on quality, and yes there is this cluster coming out after Christmas which is really incredible, but we're going to learn a lot via this period because the market is way less predictable than before – if it was ever predictable. We have new announcements coming up, now the life cycle is longer we're going to see how people are going to play.
We're also out of one of the biggest recessions the world has seen in a long time, so it is going to be an interesting time for the holiday season.
Q: There is a recession, as you say, and game sales have been impacted. It wasn't long ago that people were calling the industry recession-proof. Activision is taking a bold step in the UK by raising the price of Modern Warfare 2. Is that something you can see happening more? And is their argument right?
Alain Tascan: Well everybody has their own strategy. I'm more on the development side, right, so what I feel you need to do is respect the customer. The more you respect the customer, they have this collective intelligence to know what's right for them, and if they feel the proposition is fair they'll buy the game. If it doesn't feel fair they won't and we'll learn like this.
If you really try to just focus on your business goals and you forget the customer, then I think in the middle and long term you'll be losing. And if you look at the success of other companies – take Apple, for instance – they have this real focus on quality and respect of the customer and are very successful.
If you look at products that are very high in quality, usually they find their market. There is not an elastic amount of money in your pocket to buy games – if there are 10 games, you have to pick two or three that you like.
Q: Are you as a studio excited by the potential of Natal and PS3 motion control?
Alain Tascan: Definitely. Anything that brings something different to the experience... We're doing a lot of focus on this kind of initiative; now what type of game? In terms of a shooter, the alphabet of shooting, the control even the layout now is pretty tight and people when they have a different layout say it doesn't feel right. So do we do an add-on to our existing game with Natal or the PS3 controller, or do we specifically develop for them? And I think the answer – and Nintendo has shown it – is that the big successes might come from something developed for it. And this is something we're looking at to trying to see if there's the right idea to put in production.
Q: Have you started prototyping?
Alain Tascan: We're doing a lot of prototyping anyway, so this is something that we're looking very closely at, yes.
Q: Do you think Natal is as important as Microsoft seems to think it is for their business, almost as a new platform?
Alain Tascan: I'll be very smart or very lucky if I say something that's right. I think it's a very interesting one. Down the road the thing is, it's a little bit like online distribution – we know it's becoming a big part of the business. For the controller, being the controller or having a camera, we know down the road with voice recognition it will come, but is it going to come with Natal 1, Natal 2? Or is somebody else going to come with it? This is where it's tough to predict, but I can imagine a world in five to 10 years where motion sensors and cameras are going to work together to deliver a better experience.
Q: Looking at some of your other franchises, are we going to see another SSX?
Alain Tascan: Ah, SSX. We have a big catalogue and we were talking about what people like. I think this is something we will look at in the future to see if it makes sense to revive the franchise.
Q: Well, SSX was a very popular franchise and has a lot of fans – at the moment do you think there's sense in bringing it back?
Alain Tascan: It's a little bit early to talk about it, but I feel... I know internally it is a franchise that people love because it was successful and good, and it reminds me of when we were young, and I feel if the market is there and is ready for a new one then we'll consider it.
Q: Do you think the market is?
Alain Tascan: Ha ha. You want to get the information! I might tell you that some day!
Q: Are you doing any more Boogie games?
Alain Tascan: I think for the moment we put it at rest, but we learned so much with this title. The first one was pretty successful commercially – we learned a lot about the control. My kids are still playing the game and enjoying it; it was a worthwhile effort. I don't know if we need to do another one, to tell you the truth, right away, but I know we had fun and we're proud of what we did and I feel the quality between the first and the second drastically improved, so if you want to buy it I think you can still find it!
Alain Tascan is general manager of EA Montreal. Interview by Johnny Minkley.