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EA's snuff film @ GDC


We haven't seen anybody else mention this, so we feel obligated to describe a truly awesome talk given at GDC by the head of EA's LA studio, Neil Young (pictured here, bio here).

First, it must be said that Neil Young is charming as all get-out. He's got one of those endearing English accents that automatically adds like 30 IQ points to the bearer of said accent. His stage presence inspires confidence and willing suspension of disbelief. Within moments of his opening remarks, I felt myself wanting to like this guy, whoever he was.

His presentation didn't disappoint that expectation. He spoke about "feature IP," a businessey buzzword for the video game features that are unique enough to drive sales of games. Examples of feature IP include EA's "Game Face" technology (first used in Tiger Woods PGA Tour and to see re-use in the upcoming Godfather game as "mob face") and Microsoft's global leaderboards and achievements system (found in Xbox 360 games). Feature IP, as defined by Neil Young, can be leveraged across multiple games and therefore has the power to drive the sales of not just one game or franchise, but a whole raft of games in a publisher's portfolio.

Young demonstrated feature IP in action with a breathtaking sequence that occurred during a World War II first-person shoooter game in development by EA. He introduced the topic by first showing a screenshot of the box art for rival Activision's blockbuster Call of Duty series. When the box art appeared, Young said, "In World War II FPS, it galls me to say that this is the state of the art. Nnnngarrrrrgh.... fuckers!" EA's answer to Activision's dominance in the WWII shooter category is to develop differentiating feature IP that will help EA's competing Medal of Honor series win marketshare.

So what's the big feature IP that EA plans to roll out to make their competing World War II FPS win the battle for genre supremacy? One of the ideas is "ECAP" for "Emotion Capture." Emotion Capture is enabled by software that allows EA to generate believable emotion in digital characters in order to generate player empathy. In much the same way that Disney transitioned to more detailed facial animations to draw audiences in to their stories (compare Ariel's facial animations in The Little Mermaid to the animations of the dwarves and princess in Snow White).

That empathy point was driven home by a demo in which the player's AI buddy in an urban warfare environment is shot through the neck by a hidden sniper. The demo, perhaps 20 seconds in total, first shows your AI buddy alive and healthy, climbing over rubble to reach a safe position where you (the player) are hidden. Suddenly, a bullet rips through your buddy's throat and he has only a few seconds to clasp his neck and choke out a few last gasps. Surprise, realization, horror and awful pain flitted across the character's face in sequence like scenery racing by a fast-moving train window. It was chilling.

The audience -- which had been enthusiastically clapping after each demo up until that point -- was confused. The guy sitting next to me leaned over and asked, "Did we just watch a snuff film?"

Do you applaud a visceral depiction of death? The scene reminded me of the gut-wrenching encounter in Saving Private Ryan when a German soldier slowly slides a long knife between the ribs and into the heart of an American soldier who had the misfortune of ducking into the wrong building as his squadron moved through the city.

If EA can deliver a gaming experience that has delivers such consistent emotional impact, they've got a hit game.

In the end, I came away from this presentation with renewed belief in EA's long-term viability as a top publisher of games. Though the company is often criticized for failure to develop compelling new games, some visionaries within the company are dedicated to creating unforgettable game experiences.

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