Breaking Into The Industry is a weekly interview series that speaks with video game professionals from all across EA. We hope that by sharing how some of the industry's biggest (and smallest) players got their start, you can learn how to do the same.
Okay. Let’s start with the basics. What’s your name and what do you do?
My name is Jerimy Abner and I’m a Director of Web Engineering. Or, as my cubemates like to say: “Chief Monkey.” In EA parlance I’m a Technical Director.
So what does a Chief Monkey – or Director of Web Engineering – do?
I take the billions of different ideas and directions that production teams dream up, connect the dots, turn Coke to Pepsi, and get it up on the web as fast as possible. Basically, I get to design the web platform for many of our sites.
You mean beyond EA.com? What exactly falls under your domain?
EA.com is our primary platform, serving 28 territories at the moment. I’m also responsible for many of the new Origin web applications that are in the works. There are some game sites thrown in there as well, including Battlefield, SSX, Syndicate, and others.
Soon we’ll be moving onto tablet and phone sites as well, pushing toward creating one site that runs in all the different layouts.
Can you walk me through a typical work day?
My day starts pretty early, as my EA.com cousins in the EU like to queue up some goodies for me to look into – usually regarding content publishing, a new feature, or a little data mining of the prior day’s traffic for their region – before I even get in. I can usually knock that out on the train ride into the office.
Once I’m actually in the office, it’s time to wake up my two laptops: development on the left, business on the right. As the team rolls in, it’s pep talks, new nicknames, trust falls – you know, the usual – as we navigate the two to five parallel development sprints we are on the hook to deliver. I spend quite a bit of time in meetings, which, you know, rock. And usually by the end of the day my Asia-Pacific EA.com cousins are in there mixing things up. End of the day SCRUM. Rinse. Repeat.
Sounds like fun. …at least the nickname part. And also the fact that you get to deal with the entire globe. Is that a real weight on your shoulders?
You’d be amazed at how light web pages can be… until you get a 728kb background image on the home page.
But seriously, EA.com has been the most rewarding thing I’ve worked on in my career. Believe it or not, I am a bit of a dork-gamer type, and knowing that I am getting the word out there on all the insanely awesome things our game teams are building – it’s extremely satisfying. As for the financial side of things… you have to know I “bust-a**” trying to make sure we get these games out there as smoothly as possible, because that’s what’s going to pay for the next year’s titles and so on.
Sounds like you’re pretty into games. What are you playing now?
For PC? Star Wars: The Old Republic and the Diablo 3 beta. For PlayStation 3, Portal 2 and Battlefield 3. Also Monkey Island on the iPad, which is a pretty nice blast from the past.
What about old favorites?
RBI Baseball on the NES, along with Zelda and Crystalis. On Genesis, Phantasy Star and Herzog Zwei. Old PC: SimCity 2000 and SimCity 4, as well as any baseball game with a strong stats simulator (Hardball 6 was good). All of these games were extremely important in keeping me interested in gaming.
Getting back to your job: How big is the team you manage?
Our combined development team is nine developers strong. We have two guys in operations, two front-end magicians, two middle-to-backend miracle workers, three backend services brain-steins, and, of course, the actual boss. Our development director. A.K.A. “the man with the plan.” As for me, I’m more of an “idea man.”
Do you do any coding yourself?
Yes. In fact, I’m somewhere in this page right now, optimizing content and getting us indexed for search.
While I’m not coding as much as I used to, I’ve become quite good at bugging everyone with my crackpot ideas, which they cultivate into something better.
It’s hard to not want to code all day, though. The amount of amazing content, data, and tools that are produced here at EA definitely encourages tinkering with things.
Do you get much of a chance to learn on the job?
My team and I get to spend most of our time on all the new things coming out of online gaming. We’re challenged daily by the need to bring the rich in-game experiences from EA’s titles to the web. I just don’t see that aspect of things ever slowing down, and definitely never becoming boring or repetitive.
How about the redesign of EA.com? What is the process like for something of that magnitude?
A site redesign, like what we rolled out earlier this year, can be broken up into several high-level phases. The first is usually called something like “Discovery,” the next is “Design,” then comes “Development” – which is sometimes replaced by “Death March” – with the whole thing finishing up in “Deployment.” You could say that maintenance is the final stage, but that is my least favorite. It doesn’t deserve the effort of coming up with an appropriate “D” name.
Discovery involves brainstorming around what we want the site to eventually do. How we want it to behave, how it will be different from the current build, and what it really means to do things “differently.” Then, in the design phase, we start to turn those ideas and decisions into a step-by-step plan to get the job done. On the tech side, we start diagramming how systems will talk to each other, how code should be written, how things like data validation and security will be enforced, etc. On the UI and experience side, mockups are created to communicate the desired visual and experiential goals of the application.
During development, the web team takes the design artifacts, the technical specifications, the site wireframes, the detailed visual designs, and the project’s timeline or plan and then drives toward completion. If any of the previous phases weren’t thorough enough or lacked involvement from the right individuals, development can become a death march, where the end is either severely compromised or altogether abandoned, regardless of how many late nights and weekends a team puts in.
At EA, we avoid death marches by doing something called “agile” development, where we talk daily about roadblocks and give our honest assessment of where each team member is at each day. Additionally, the full project is broken up into segments called “sprints,” where attainable goals are placed a couple weeks apart, each building to the eventual completion of the project.
Deployment is when we flip the switch and all hell breaks loose. Ask anyone in software development.
EA.com was actually a pretty crazy ride. A full redesign, completely new style guide, new graphics specifications, with six weeks to develop the application code as well as the content plan – all to be delivered for E3 to complement our global launch and announcement of Origin. We applied the principals I highlighted above, avoided the death march, and never looked back. Great experience.
What kind of advice would you give to someone in high school or college who wants a job like yours?
I would start off by saying how lucky this generation is. When I graduated from college, online gaming was only a few iterations removed from command lines and ASCII art. So my advice would be this: Stay positive and motivated. Gaming has never been this accessible, open, and ready to take in fresh ideas. Personally, I had to wait ten years before there was a good fit for my talents in gaming. It’s completely different now.
Lastly, stay current with what’s out there. Be that person that will help a team fast-forward and leapfrog the competition. Every day, production teams want that “new thing,” and more often than not it takes finding someone out there with their finger on the pulse who can give it to them. That could be you.
Anything else you'd like to add before we conclude here?
YES. Cheetos + Chopsticks = Win. Seriously. Your keyboard, mouse, and significant other will thank me.
Is there a specific video game job you'd like to know more about? Let us know in the comments! Plus, check out last week's interview with Senior Concept Artist, Norman Felchle, for more insight into the industry.