Battle of the Century

June 1, 2009

Boxing’s on my mind as I pass through the expansive lobby of Electronic Arts in Burnaby and into the dauntingly named Alpha Room. Specifically, I’m thinking of Muhammad Ali’s 1974 knockout of George Foreman in the so-called Rumble in the Jungle. Ali wore Foreman down over eight rounds in a strategy he called the rope-a-dope: let your competition waste his energy coming at you, then, when he’s at his weakest, knock his block off. I’m here to test Fight Night Round 4, the latest entry in EA’s popular boxing franchise for PlayStation and Xbox. The game—due in stores June 30—lets players assume the careers of 48 famous pugilists. Tonight, Big George and I are hoping to revise history.

Testing games is an indispensable step in development. For this evening’s session, game-ops leader Chris Hrennikoff walks a dozen of us through an extended session (with a break for pizza and pop) of Fight Night 4. He’s clearly a veteran: he echoes our questions about interface and ergonomics and draws out our half-formed assessments into crisply edited, unequivocal statements: “So you’d say the opening training regimen should include three extra elements…” That’s practice for you: he’s been running a half-dozen of these sessions every week (half for staff, half for external volunteers like us) for over a year.

The other testers are adept with the buttons, triggers, and sticks, throwing haymakers and weaving around the ring as they progress through the bout. They’re in their late 20s. They keep their hair short. They text frequently (though not about the game—we’ve signed nondisclosure agreements). Some have come for one of several free games at the end of the night (The Godfather II is popular), but most are here out of love for the Fight Night franchise; they want a first peek at Round 4 and appreciate the chance to throw in their two cents. They seem a humble collection for a $4-billion company to court, but a dozen guys in T-shirts is the marketplace in microcosm and EA depends on them to catch the bugs that inevitably creep into both upgrades and new titles.

EA also depends heavily on these sports titles (its FIFA Soccer is the best-selling video-game franchise in the world, with lifetime sales of US$2.5 billion), and most of that action comes out of the Burnaby campus. Indeed, it turns out nothing but sports games (though when 300 employees migrate from the company’s downtown studio, which recently closed, they’ll bring action games like Need for Speed Undercover and Skate II with them).

It’s a tricky time for video games. Like Foreman heading into the Rumble, the industry has ridden a long undefeated streak: a recent industry survey put Canadian sales over US$2 billion a year for the first time, lagging only Japanese and U.S. revenues, with the Lower Mainland contributing 40 percent to the national market. Central to the industry’s success is Electronic Arts, which moved here from California when the company acquired Distinctive Software back in 1991.

On the surface, the place seems like a warehouse of fun: a three-quarter-size soccer field, full-service cafeteria, barber chair, gym with massage and physiotherapist on call, and NBA-regulation basketball court filled, on this night, with 20 employees engaged in plyometrics, a training regimen that superworks muscles. But under the hood, the building thrums with brain power. The young programmers and developers put in long hours; they’re the industry’s crème de la crème, struggling to stand out, to move up to the better titles, and to keep EA standing firm as the ground shifts beneath them.

Much of that shift is about undercutting. EA games typically cost $60, whereas online games are cheap (if not free) and popular iPhone games cost only a few bucks to download. (Even consoles like Xbox and PlayStation have downloads that cost a tenth of what Fight Night 4 does.) Industry leaders like EA may be able to withstand this competition, but smaller local players (like Radical Entertainment, Relic Entertainment, Propaganda Games, and Jet Black Games) can’t bank on enough sales to recoup the $25 million it can cost to take a new game to market. And the body blows—like Ali’s against the faltering Foreman—keep coming: a parsimonious provincial government (most provinces give substantially larger tax breaks to gaming companies); increased competition from other forms of entertainment; and an unsteady Canadian dollar. It’s no surprise that in February, Electronic Arts’ parent slashed projected earnings for this year by more than a billion dollars.

EA is fighting back. It’s adding online interactivity to every game it releases, and focusing on the Nintendo Wii, the fastest-growing gaming platform. It’s courting new gamers and trimming unprofitable titles. And it’s laying off 1,100 employees internationally—a tenth of its workforce—even as EA Canada welcomes some of the first graduates from the master’s program it helped kick-start with a grant to the Centre for Digital Media on the Great Northern Way campus.

Three hours after it began, our Fight Night is over. Despite the ache in my thumbs, my Foreman barely managed to turn pro—he deserved better. Before we go, Hrennikoff urges us to complete our questionnaires; a few keeners squeeze in a multiplayer session, and one of the developers wanders over to watch them puzzle through the logistics. Outside, the world blessedly quiet and still, I ask one participant if he’ll buy a copy of the game. He loves EA, he says, and loves nights like this, the free games and pizza. But no, he probably won’t—not for $60. “But I’m not going to tell them that. They might not invite me back.”

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