Correction appended: An earlier version of this story listed Daryl Holt and Alex Chatfield as working for EA Tiburon when they in fact work for EA Sports.
You wouldn’t think growing up in a cowboy family in Arizona would prepare someone for a career in the gaming industry. For Nick Laing, development director of Tiburon, the Orlando arm of Electronic Arts, being out there on the edge and not having everything available at his fingertips feels very familiar.
“I wake up in the morning, and I don’t know exactly what my job is,” Laing said.
For some people, living with uncertainty might be a problem. For others, the new EA Sports Innovation Lab in partership with UCF’s Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy, built for an industry in which uncertainty is the order of the day, might be just the thing.
EA Sports is the label behind Madden NFL football, FIFA Soccer, NHL hockey, NBA Live, Tiger Woods PGA Tour and other popular video games.
The idea arose last July when Daryl Holt, vice president and chief operating officer of EA Sports, and Alex Chatfield, EA Sports director of operations, were brainstorming ideas at FIEA on how to increase university hires. After the seed of an idea was planted, Holt said, EA Tiburon began negotiations with UCF on actually getting it built. Holt did not disclose the cost of the facility.
“UCF prides itself in being America’s leading partnership university, and the success of the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy attests to the power of partnerships,” UCF President John C. Hitt said at the unveiling ceremony last Friday at the downtown UCF Center for Emerging Media where the new lab is located, according to a release by UCF Today. Gov. Rick Scott was also in attendance and spoke highly of the program.
The Innovation Lab received suitors from locations elsewhere, but because of the all-star talent coming out of EA Tiburon and FIEA, it was a no-brainer for Holt to keep it in Orlando.
“We have had great success [with FIEA], so we chose to do it here,” Holt said.
There are 16 slots for the program. Six of those will be taken by EA employee instructors. The remaining 10 could be awarded to the student hopefuls who make it through, Holt said. The EA Sports Innovation Lab is budgeted for a certain number of students to work on proposals for producers, designers, technical engineers and others in the gaming industry.
The final number, Holt said, could be more or less, because the goal isn’t simply to fill seats with students.
“We want it to be the right people to thrive in the environment,” Holt said. “It is just like a job. It shouldn’t be any different.”
The students working in the Innovation Lab do not even have to be from the FIEA program, Holt said. He has even created a brand-new internship for intellectual property just from observing the work and interaction of one previous design intern.
“As we run into these people, this lab could be the environment to do something amazing,” Holt said.
Laing, who has spoken to and interviewed every designer coming out of FIEA this year, looks for one key trait: enthusiasm.
The desire to constantly improve and make it look better for the next guy, Laing said, takes a lot of it.
“I don’t need a student to be a genius designer or brilliant engineer; I need them to be interested in what we do,” Laing said. “Arguably, students who come out of FIEA already got that. Most recognize it as an intense experience.”
Sometimes a student goes through a master’s program, spends a summer in one of Laing’s intense gaming bootcamps and after going through these stressful experiences and surviving, has a tendency to be a little arrogant, Laing said. It’s the last thing he wants to see, but Laing understands.
“[After school] I came out thinking I know everything,” Laing said.
After working in a real gaming environment, he quickly turned the corner to maturity.
“So far I have had a really good experience with the students coming out of UCF and coming out of FIEA. I am fortunate to have a good time with them,” Laing said.
“We are at a stage in the industry where people are more on their phones. The landscape is changing, as well as what the technology in my pocket does,” Laing said.
People are expecting more devices to provide the same experience as they would historically expect from a console or desktop, and “it’s been a compliance nightmare.” Laing wants students willing to go into battle with him.
“The way it is like a battle is there is usually a small group of people working very, very closely under very stressful conditions,” Laing said. “The opposition is just that breakthrough wall that is so, so difficult to pass through to come up with innovation. The opposition is this faceless thing that some people refer to as ‘writer’s block.’”
Sometimes, Laing said, it just takes someone to say, “we didn’t figure it out today, but we’ll come back tomorrow.”
The advice Holt has for students is “don’t think you pale in comparison to the rest of the people in the room who seem more experienced.” It is really about being creative and thinking about what’s next, Holt said.
“Be comfortable being uncomfortable,” Holt said. “There is no script.”
Currently, 41 FIEA graduates are employed by EA Tiburon in Orlando.
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