Creative Generalist Q&A: Steven Rechtschaffner
Steven Rechtschaffner is a noted Athlete, Producer and Creative Director. As VP and Creative Director of Electronic Arts he pioneered many sports and action games and created a new brand called EA Sports BIG. A few years back he moved into the role of Chief Creative Officer for the Canadian EA Studio and then into the Creative Director role for the entire Worldwide Studio Group. He stepped down from the company last year and now resides in West Vancouver with his wife and three children.
What have you been up to since leaving EA? What sorts of projects are you working on now?
I thought I would be taking at least a couple of years off after leaving EA, but ideas got the better of me. During my time off I got involved in helping friends in a variety of businesses, ranging from resort development to style branding. Although, the best of the time was spent with my three teenage children. Figuring out how to play an important role in their lives once they’re teenagers is far more rewarding and challenging than any job I’ve yet to have.
As for me now: I’ve partnered up with a few old friends and a very interesting company called Nexon to help interactive entertainment become more relevant to a larger audience here in North America. We’ve started a new organization called Nexon Publishing North America, with my real responsibilities being the Chief Creative Officer for our studio called Humanature.
You’ve said that you’re on your 5th or 6th career now. In hindsight, has your diverse work experience helped or hindered you? What are some of the common creative threads between freestyle skiing, directing TV, marketing watches, producing films, and creating video games?
Whether you’re creating an entertainment experience, brand, Olympic sport or ballet skiing run, you’re creating. I find it really funny sometimes how some experience I’ve had 10 or 20 years ago, somehow becomes useful in trying to solve a creative problem in the present. Although this usually forces unbelievable patience on those working with me, as I usually need to tell some long winding story of what happened 20 years back, before getting to the point. This past week, I went through a ten minute story about being on the road with The Thompson Twins 20 years ago, before explaining why it actually was relevant to the issue that we were trying to figure out.
The common threads that I seem to run across are:
- Always needing to honor your inspiration and constantly revisit it.
- The need to push the idea forward with absolute belief in how it needs to be realized, until someone introduces a better way, or a better idea.
- Find people smarter than you to put your idea in front of. Challenge them to make it better and to make it their own.
- Once whatever it is can be experience or viewed, allow new people to try it and pay lots of attention to what their experiences and reactions are.
Has your background in athletics helped you in your business career? If so, how?
In trying to become a professional freestyle skier in the mid 1970s, I had a few things going against me. Firstly, by comparison to my other freestyle skiing friends in Killington Vermont, I was relatively chicken and nowhere near as coordinated. Similarly, as I entered the world of business, I was relatively uneducated and inexperienced in the ways of marketing, production of almost all aspects of business. Not what you’d typically call a great recipe for success.
At the end of the day, what allowed me to experience success in my skiing and business endeavors was an underlying sense of curiosity and creativity, fueled by fearlessness to believe in doing things in ways that lived outside of the norm. Looking back on my freestyle skiing, inventing new tricks to was always more interesting to me than learning something that someone else had already invented. Early on, I learned that people are always interested in seeing something that they’ve never seen before.
You were an executive at EA during a time of incredible growth. How would you say the company handled the rapid expansion? And how did the creative process change within the organization over this time?
For much of my 12 years at EA, it was a phenomenal place to be working. The amazing thing about EA was that even though we were constantly reinventing ourselves in how we made our games, the publishing and business backbone of the company was so professional and ethical that it made our jobs much easier and our company the best in the industry. For me, the best of times at EA was when the company was creatively decentralized. Never being much of a big company, “one process fits all” kind of guy, I was always able to do my best work when I felt like I was running a small company within a big company. Having the ability to earn a certain amount of creative rope through success always felt like a reasonable way to work. If we took some chances and it succeeded, give us a chance to take some more risks. We used to call these “silver bullets”. If you earned them, you could use them, especially when others didn’t quite see the world the same way as you did. Back in the day, I was able to be told by my superiors that I was wasting my time on an idea, yet not be forced to shut it down. I was only able to do this if I had earned some silver bullets by succeeding with my most recent games to have shipped.
We got our best work done when we were able to empower people to feel like they truly held their destiny in their own hands. Once the company started to try to centralize their processes and studios, small groups lost their identity and suddenly we were all working for a very large yet successful company. Looking back, this feels like it was the beginning of the end for me. EA continued to be successful in a way similar to the Japanese car companies 10 years ago. They did what other people did; they just did it better. EA’s games looked better, had more features and delivered a certain reliable level of quality that their competitors couldn’t consistently deliver. They continue to be a great company, but not the right sort of company for everyone.
Creating a video game obviously requires a lot of work from a variety of very different specialties – programmers, testers, illustrators, marketers, etc. Was it sometimes a struggle to pull all of these disciplines together? What sorts of things did EA do to foster collaboration?
My best experience at this was when we had a group called Chaos at EA. Chaos was about 200 people that were usually working on 2-3 games. I ran the creative side of the org and my partner Pauline ran the production side. It worked best when the creative side communicated a vision of what we wanted to build and the production side created the right balance of structure, risk-taking and accountability. In order to run a relaxed development environment you need to have management with a strong sense of when things are working and when they’re not. Trying to have a 100+ person team all sharing in the same vision was always challenging, but consistent team “show and tells” kept everyone looped into the bigger picture in a relatively unburdensome way. EA’s marketing people are some of the brightest in the business and were usually involved early in the process. Often, we’d be too close to an idea to communicate in a simple, understandable way. Often it was the role of our marketing person to speak up and say, “I don’t get it”. In most cases, it wasn’t the idea but how we had framed it that caused it not to connect. Refining the core of the concept was always important, especially when you’re trying to mobilize a big organization more than a year out from the game’s launch.
Coming to understand that as a generality, software engineers often approach the world differently than an artist might. Even a conceptual artist might approach the world differently than an executionally oriented artist would. Coming to understand that different points of view need to be involved at different times within a project, otherwise the level of discomfort can be stifling. Having a typical software engineer involved when a concept is at it’s loosest is not usually a good idea. By nature, and by training, a good engineer is usually looking to answer all the open questions as quickly as possible. While often, a good conceptual artist or designer, is looking around trying to find other ways of approaching a opportunity, even if they already have a plausible solution. Ultimately, an engineer with an artists POV is worth their weight in gold. These unusual people also tend to be some of the most interesting to spend your time with.
To foster collaboration, putting small groups of multi-disciplined people together usually did the trick. Not only did each of the factions have ownership in whatever it was, they also got to a better end result because their counterparts POV started to rub off on them a bit. Think of it as creative osmosis.
What is the ideal skill set of an effective games designer?
I think there are two different kinds of game designers. There are the Miyamotos, Alex Wards, Jay Kims and Will Wrights of the world that can create breakthrough new experiences. Then there are the limited number of talented designers who can create great experiences within existing defined parameters and genres. Although these two groups have a number of overlapping skill sets, the first group has a few extra skills in their bag.
From observation, in order to create a breakthrough new idea these creators need a reasonable mix of inspiration and tinker time. To effectively create new ideas it seems that you need to be able to play with the idea for a while. Great designers are also skilled at being able to realize an idea without all the technology high end graphics that usually impress the layman. Once they can see their idea, then they need to play with it. I don’t know of any great designers that can sit down and create a spec for a game in the way that a screenwriter can create a script. I guess that’s why most of the great designers are part writer, part director. Ultimately, to be an effective designer, you need a way of getting the game out of your head and communicated to other people that are actually going to build the experience. In order to make a great game that designer better be able to play with that experience and collaborate with other, and then be willing to amend their ideas to make it better. I don’t believe in the game designer as an auteur. They’re much more like the film director, depending on collaboration to get to a great result.
Where is video gaming heading? Any particular trends, stories or technologies to keep an eye on?
I find it hard to believe that the traditional console experience is the future of games. Spending $500 plus for a new console only to be offered the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 8th version of a game that you’ve already played and loved doesn’t sound like the next generation of games. Having to spend 20-50 million dollars to make a game look good on the new higher resolution consoles and TVs certainly doesn’t foster a creative, risk take environment. For me, that’s why I found myself unexcited about bringing my new ideas to life in the traditional console manner. The PC side of things was always a bit too geeky for me as a designer. In order to make a game attractive to the current Western PC gamer, you needed to make experiences that are so deep and so complicated that they hold little interest for me. What I was more interested in was: where are the next generation of game designers going to come from? If games were so expensive to make, what medium would they have to express and develop their creativity. The breakthrough for me came when an old friend, Alex Garden, opened my eyes to what had emerged as a dominant trend from Korea. It was an amazing new way of creating and experiencing games – saddled with the ugly name of “casual games”. In North America, casual games are defined by sites like Pogo, where you can go and play simple “time waster” games for free, or try slightly more involved games that you can then pay to download the rest of the experience. In Korea, China and Japan, casual games are now dominated for fun and addicting games that anyone can pick up and play. Best of all, they’re free to play. The idea of designing a game that only asks 5 minutes of the player, but keeps them coming back for months is irresistible. How these kinds of games make money is by allowing the user to continue to play for free indefinitely, but then offering them the opportunity to make micro transactions in order to buy things to enhance the experience.
Nexon has done this extremely well in Asia, with great titles like Maple Story and Kart Rider. By being able to launch a game over the Internet, allow a community to experience it and participate in it’s growth, you open up lots of new opportunities. Without the need to spend 20-50 million dollars to develop a HUGE game, I can now start with a small, inspired idea. Once we take it live, we can see how players react to it. Then we can continue to grow and improve the game once it’s live. We want to create games that everyone can play because they will be easy to pick up but hard to master. We’ll let the game live or die based on it’s own merits; is it fun, or is it not fun? Being able to take more creative risks at smaller costs allows us to take more chances with younger designer and out of the box ideas. While the big publishers are becoming more and more like the film studios, making fewer bets on bigger and bigger titles, we’re going to be more like the TV business. We can create new games like the TV industry creates pilot shows. If we like them we take them live and then continue to build on the experience. There’s no hurdles like paying for a subscription or download. You don’t have to go to the store and plunk down $50 or $60 to buy a game that you might not even like. I’m betting that the next big trend is not to build expensive niche games for hardcore gamers. There’s already going to be plenty of big publishers fighting for their piece of that shrinking market. My goal is to stop catering to the vocal minority and to start making games for the rest of us. Easy to play, free to start and not attempting to be photo realistic. Does anyone remember Final Fantasy the movie?
Where do you look for inspiration? Are there any organizations or people that you find especially inspiring?
I look for inspiration everywhere. Sometimes it finds me when I’m not even looking. I love talking to people. I’m a huge TV and Internet fan. And I constantly misinterpret things that people are describing to me into my own idea of what they’re talking about. Watching how people consume and experience things always seems to inspire me. Listening or watching anything that someone does really well (no matter what it is), somehow gets the creative juices flowing. I’m just reading a book about Houdini that has inspired me in countless ways. It’s not so much about what he did, but how he approached doing it.
I enjoy watching other people and groups’ processes. I watch DVD content on movies and TV shows I didn’t even like. I’ve been reading all the books that have been written about the creation of Disneyland and the Imagineering group. Seeing the early sketches of Disneyland can’t help but inspire you. People at the top of their craft always inspire me. Watching any movie done by Ridley Scott can’t help but make you think that anything’s possible. I recently went back and watched all the episodes of “Freaks and Geeks“. Both my 17-year-old daughter and I put it in our top five TV shows ever. How does something that good miss the public’s attention? Even questions like that inspire me to find answers that might help me somewhere down the road.
At ideaCity last summer you spoke about the power of naivete when it comes to thinking up ideas. Can you elaborate on what you meant by that?
By not knowing how things are “supposed to be done” it gives you the ability to approach opportunities with a fresh perspective. If you can put a fresh perspective at the front of the train, supported by people that can figure out what is and isn’t possible, you can create some great, new-to-the-world experiences. I find that when I start to lose that naivete, I need to add new thinkers to the mix that bring something new to the party, without knowing all the assumptions that I’ve already taken on. To me, assumptions are a burden and creative limiter. If you know too much, it’s like driving on a super-highway in a car with the windows all rolled up. A little bit of naive can get you off the highway, out of the car, onto a motorcycle and onto some pretty cool and exciting roads. You might even encounter some great smells along the way. If I had known how to market inexpensive watches the right way when I started at Swatch I’m sure I wouldn’t have done it the way that I did.
So what’s your next move?
Working with Nexon and establishing Nexon Publishing North America (NPNA), we’ve created the Humanature Studio. My old friend Alex is the CEO and I’m the CCO. We’ve been joined by some amazing talent, including Chuck Osieja, who is our Director of Design. Chuck and I worked together on numerous projects at EA and he went on to create The Need For Speed Underground games. Together we’re starting to design the first games that will created for Nexon, primarily for the North American player. Nexon has already launched Maple Story into this market and will continue to introduce some of their other hit titles into this part of the world. At the same time, we’ll be creating new experiences that will be going live in 2008. I’d love to share some of those ideas with you, but it’s too early to do that. Most of all, I’m excited about finally being able to build games for the rest of us.
Wow! Thanks so much for for sharing your thoughts here, Steven.