CANADIAN DEVELOPER FOCUS: EA CANADA
Canada runs rich with talent on pretty much every front, but as one of the most prolific and important nations in the world when it comes to game development, we’ve got a jump on practically every other country in the world. Whether that’s down to smart management and government incentives, the fact that we all really, really love video games or simply that
we’re awesome at pretty much everything we turn our hands to is up for debate, but the fact is that we’re real game development power houses and
we’re going nowhere anytime soon! To celebrate the development talent found in our fair land, we’ve decided to start a new regular feature that looks at some of the biggest, and most important names in the local game development scene, starting with
Vancouver’s EA Canada.
Housed within the glorious EA Burnaby campus, EA Canada is one of Electronic Arts’ longest and most enduring development teams. With well over a hundred titles under its belt over the course of almost 25 years, it’s also one of the most prolific studios in the gaming world, and it’s responsible for some of the biggest names on the EA roster, including arguably the two most important franchises for the EA Sports brand: FIFA and NHL.
The studio began life as Distinctive Software, founded by Don Mattrick ( who you might remember from his time at Microsoft) and Jeff Sember, before being taken over by Electronic Arts in 1991 in a deal worth around $ 11m. At that time Electronic Arts was far from the monster it is today, but it had been going about things the right way, building an everexpanding consumer base and pioneering a unique way of dealing with retailers - opting to sell directly rather than going through the standard distribution channels. This approach ensured that EA gained an intimate level of knowledge of the industry, allowing for some shrewd moves and investments, one of which being the acquisition of Distinctive from under the noses of Accolade, then a major publishing power. In 1994 EA Canada rolled out its first release, NHL 94, establishing the first links between the studio and the sporting world, and followed that up with the PlayStation port of 3DO title The Need for Speed, a racer that had garnered widespread critical acclaim, and would go on to become one of Electronic Arts’ most high profile franchises, even spawning a movie in 2014 ( which, depending on who you speak to, was either dreadful or, at best, okay). The early to mid 00s saw the studio come under fire from both gamers and the gaming media, however, for its sheer volume of output and a perceived lack of originality, as highlighted by the fact that, by 2007’ s end, EA Canada had a release list comprising of no fewer than 16 (!) basketball games, 13 installments in the Need for Speed series and 9 NHL titles. At that time, the gaming public held a particularly negative view of EA’s release practices, and the prolific release of iterative updates to key franchises, particularly those coming from EA Canada’s halls, certainly didn’t help, but a wind of change was about to blow through the Burnaby campus. Suddenly it felt as though there was
a sense of pride about the studio again. The games still came thick and fast, but they featured a lot more than mere roster updates and minor engine tweaks - they actually attempted to make sweeping improvements year after year, and with the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 finally starting to find their feet and show what they were capable of, there could hardly have been a better time to start turning things around. The most obvious change in tack came via the FIFA series. Established in 1993, FIFA Soccer had since fallen a long way behind its only real competitor, the Konami- developed Pro Evolution Soccer ( formerly International Superstar Soccer). While the Japanese title lacked the real- life licenses of the FIFA series, it had grown to offer a much superior gameplay experience, relegating FIFA to the sidelines as an also- ran in the eyes of soccer purists. With the 2008 version of the game, however, there were signs of life once again. Complete overhauls of the game engine were implemented in a bid to go toe- to- toe with Konami and, over time, it all started to come together - with the Japanese studio taking its eye off the ball and failing to capitalize on its previous success, allowing the EA Canada team to reestablish the FIFA brand as a real fan favourite, thanks in no small part to a more well- rounded understanding of the needs of a new generation of connected gamers. Similar changes could be seen, too, in the NHL franchise. Old and tired engines were turfed out acrimoniously and replaced by more intelligent, realistic and functional physics- based models, creating a level of unprecedented realism that grew with each iteration. Even though NHL has no Pro Evo to go head to head with, the development team nevertheless set out to overhaul every aspect of the game, and they continue to improve the series annually, last year’s minor misstep aside.
It hasn’t all been hockey, soccer and racing games for EA Canada, though. While the studio’s output might be a little limited in scope for some gamers, let’s not forget that, in the past decade, it has been responsible for the likes of the Skate series ( with EA Black Box, a part of EA Canada, looking after development duties following EA’s acquisition of Black Box in 2002 - the studio was closed as part of an internal reshuffling in 2013), as well as the awesome Grand Slam Tennis, Fight Night Round 4 and Champion, and the rebooting of old favourite NBA Jam. Employing around 1,700 staff at the studio’s Burnaby complex, which includes several cutting- edge facilities used for full body motion capture, sound design and more, EA Canada is a major part of the Canadian games industry, and while its titles may not be to everyone’s taste, you can be sure that, come August/ September each year, Canadians will be lining up around the country to get their hands on the studio’s latest installment in the long standing NHL franchise.