For Blockbuster Games, EA Goes Hollywood

Times Staff Writer

John Batter drills into his crew the importance of character development, lighting and “key moments.”

Batter wants blockbusters, massive hits. To make them, he’s on the prowl for talent. Lots of it.

But Batter is no movie studio chief. He works for Electronic Arts Inc., the world’s largest video game publisher.


Over the next two years, EA expects to hire 300 digital artists, script writers and special effects supervisors in Los Angeles as the video game business takes on many of the sensibilities of the movie business.

To house all of these creative workers, the company is building a new studio on a still-to-be-determined site in West Los Angeles. It declined to disclose the cost of the project.

Batter is EA’s man in Tinseltown. Sandy-haired and freckle-faced, the 39-year-old EA vice president and former DreamWorks executive switches effortlessly between the persona of smooth Hollywood player and overly earnest geek.

Batter represents a new breed of video game executives, one who understands the mechanics of movies as well as games.

It’s a combination of skills that is in increasing demand as ever more sophisticated video games acquire cinematic qualities to draw players more deeply into the experience. Doing that, Batter says, requires visceral scenes, deft storytelling, memorable moments, fantastic explosions, sound effects, proper lighting, believable dialogue and a rich soundtrack -- in other words, everything required to make a good movie.

“How do we want the story to unfold?” he asked. “What are the highs? What are the lows? We’re trying to be very deliberate in our pre-production process. That’s how Hollywood works.”


Ten years ago, Hollywood and Silicon Valley had even grander ideas about merging their efforts, and scores of film studios started games divisions, including Disney, Fox, Universal and MGM.

The word “convergence” was on everyone’s lips, and studio executives talked of interactive movies that would allow audiences to choose the ending. The notion was that ultimately films and games would become virtually identical.

These days, EA doesn’t want to completely emulate the movie industry or fuse into one. Games and film are different, Batter and his colleagues insist, just as paintings and sculpture are different.

“They create environments you look at. We create environments you live in,” said Rick Giolito, an EA vice president in Los Angeles. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t borrow from each other.”

Batter was a pioneer in Hollywood’s early attempts to get into the games business, helping DreamWorks SKG build DreamWorks Interactive, a joint venture with Microsoft Corp., in 1995. With Microsoft’s technical know-how, the studio planned to build epic games based on movies made by director and DreamWorks co-founder Steven Spielberg.

But DreamWorks’ ambitions never came to pass. Many of the games that were produced lacked quality and sold poorly. Film workers recruited to make games became frustrated by the limits of the technology and returned to cinema.


By the late 1990s, several movie studios washed their hands of games, including DreamWorks, which sold its games division to EA in 1998.

Batter continued to work for DreamWorks as chief operating officer of its Palo Alto animation studio, which created the movie “Shrek.”

But the fun of making games continued to tug at Batter, and in 2000 he joined EA at its Redwood Shores, Calif., headquarters.

Almost immediately after he was hired, he lobbied to expand the Los Angeles studio that EA had bought from DreamWorks. By late autumn last year, Batter got his wish.

“It always felt to me that this is an area rich in talent,” said Batter. “This is the kind of talent that we’d need more of in the future -- writers, animators, actors, lighters. To make the best games, we’re going to need the best people. And many of them exist right here.”

Batter already has lured several heavy hitters, including Jay Riddle, former visual effects supervisor and a co-founder of Digital Domain, a Hollywood special effects house. Riddle, in turn, recruited Mark Lasoff, who worked on the water effects in “Titanic.” Batter also hired Tim Keon, one of six senior animators for “Shrek,” and Tom Allen, who created the lighting for “Shrek” and “Spider-Man.”


This time, the film people are staying put, because the technology can let them do so much more, Batter said.

The new studio is slated to produce EA’s “Command & Conquer” series. It also will make one of several games EA will publish using its “Lord of the Rings” movie license. And it will produce a “James Bond” title, in addition to the “Medal of Honor” series. EA also will fold its studios in Irvine and Las Vegas into the Los Angeles site.

“Games are maturing as a discipline,” said Giolito, a former television actor who has appeared in “Twin Peaks” and “Days of Our Lives.”

“It requires much deeper storytelling, better character development, more immersive environments,” he said.

Of course, that means geeks who used to be involved in all aspects of game development now have a smaller role.

“Games are less about hard-core software engineering and more about entertainment,” said David E. Davis, an EA executive producer who will be moving from Redwood Shores to Los Angeles this fall. “It’s become a more art-centric process.”


Times staff writer P.J. Huffstutter contributed to this report.