Breaking Into The Industry: Benjamin Smith, Producer With EA Partners



With Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning just a day away from launch, we decided to bring EA Partners Producer, Benjamin Smith, in for a quick conversation. Join us as we discuss the upcoming RPG, examine the role of EA Partners in game development, and trace Benjamin's rise from QA to Production.
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Breaking Into The Industry is a weekly interview series that speaks with video game professionals from 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.

Let's start from the very beginning. Where are you from?
I bounced around California with my family until we landed in Ukiah, CA when I was eight. I mostly grew up there. Went to university here in the Bay Area and never left after that.

And were you always into video games?
Oh, god yes. My dad was a tech nut and we always had good computers. We had an Odyssey for Pong, then a 2600 with tons of games, then an NES and so on. When we didn't own games, I rented them. I rented a Genesis system a few times too, but I was pretty loyal to Nintendo after the NES.

Nintendo? I was more of a Sega fan.
There was one of those on my block – a Sega fan – but only one.

Do you still play games?
My wife would probably say “too many.” Not only did I reach level 45 in Battlefield 3, I just dumped 160+ hours into a pretty big open-world RPG. I’m also starting to play the retail version of Reckoning. Outside of that… I go back to Batman: Arkham City every few days to chase down a couple more trophies, and I’m playing Rayman Origins with my daughter. Oh – and I can always find a little time for NHL 12 late at night. Still. My pile of unplayed games from this fall is scary.

Benjamin SmithIn my experience, it seems like a lot of people who grew up gaming didn't decide until later in life that they wanted to work in the industry. Was it that way for you as well?
Yep. My parents used to say, “If only there were a job where you could play video games all day,” and I laughed it off. Clearly that job was too good to be true, right? Now, bear in mind, I grew up in small towns. I had no idea how games were made, or that there was a thing called QA where you could play games all day, so I made plans to be a genetic researcher instead. I actually have a B.S. in Molecular and Cell Biology from UC Berkeley. In my head, that was a legitimate career path.

So then how did you end up at EA?
Well, I spent a year after college working at a terrible biotech company before my wife helped me decide I needed to leave that job. She was the one who pointed out the Customer Support and Testing jobs at EA. In my head, it was going to be a temp thing and I was going to keep looking for research jobs.

Anyway, I took a Customer Support job here at EA – this was in 1999 – even though I still didn’t think there was a career path for me in games. I wasn't an artist and I wasn't a programmer. It wasn't until I got here that I realized that I could actually make an awesome career of games.

How did you manage to make your way up from Customer Support? I've heard that it’s an easy way into the game industry, but that it's hard to move up from there.
I started as a temp in Customer Support and got converted to full-time pretty quick, which was a rarity. These were the days when you could work as a temp for years, as long as you and the company were happy.

I became a Floor Lead after that, and worked a lot of overtime in a group called Customer Quality Control – now “EA Cert.” These were the guys who would work that last crucial week before a game went gold (PC) or to first party (console). They made sure there weren’t any bugs left that could become major customer issues or get us bounced from first party. It was a very small team back then, running through lots of games, but it’s a much bigger deal today. Anyway, that was the job I wanted to have.

Sounds like fun.
It was awesome. I worked on tons of different games every year. Normal QA, you play the same thing – sometimes even the same slice of a thing – for days and weeks at a time. In Customer Quality Control (CQC) you play the game like a customer and think about its issues like a customer, because when it ships, you’re the department that answers to customers about any issues they encountered.

Anyway, after almost a year in Customer Support as a Floor Lead, I was lucky enough to be picked to work in CQC full-time. I did that for about a year and a half before my boss, Joel, took a chance on me and made me a lead on his localization team. I had a kick-ass first season doing everything from recruiting testers to running teams. Later, two other awesome managers – Joel and Daggi – found me some interview opportunities in Production at EA Partners (EAP). That was when I got my Localization Coordinator job.

So you’ve been at EA since 1999?
That’s right. And I’ve been in EAP since 2003.

And what do you do now?
I am a Producer in EA Partners. I was the lead Producer on Reckoning from the EAP side of things.

Could you give me a quick overview of what EA Partners does?
EA Partners is the external-facing studio of EA. We work with external development teams – usually teams that are working on their own IPs – and help them with everything from distribution deals – like those we do with Valve – to full publishing deals, where we would do all or almost all of the marketing, public relations, QA, certification, manufacturing, etc. for a title.

And how do you interface with the Reckoning team?
On Reckoning I was involved from the time of our very first due diligence visit, where we met the team, took a look at their tools and processes, fed back on the pitch, etc., all the way up to today. Big Huge Games – the development team behind Reckoning – is a very open, collaborative team, and they welcomed EAP with open arms. I visited them at least monthly to see milestone progress and traveled with them to shows and demos.

What's the role of a Producer on the EAP team?
On the EA side, you’re an internal champion and walking knowledge base. You have to make sure that EA always knows how the project is going and what the game is shaping up to be. On the development side, you’re a guide, mentor, and translator.

What would you say is the best part about being a Producer on the EAP team?
There's something new to learn every day. Some new problem to solve. And I've been fortunate enough to meet and work with a ton of amazing people. I could get fanboyish about a couple people in particular, like Ken Rolston. But it wouldn’t be fair to point just to Ken. He’s awesome, but so are many of the other people I’ve worked with over the years.

What other games have you worked on?
I was an Assistant Producer on Battlefield: Vietnam; an Associate Producer on Battlefield 2, Orcs and Elves, and Ninja Reflex; and a Producer on Rage (when it was still an EAP project) and Reckoning. I've also worked with Valve on all of the titles they’ve distributed with us.

DICE is in Sweden and Big Huge Games is on the East Coast. Does that translate into a lot of travel for you?
Oh, yes. Travel is one of the fun things about this job. It can be grueling at times, but mostly it’s awesome. I went to London five times last year for Reckoning, and I was taking monthly trips to Baltimore for them as well.

Do you have any advice for someone who’d like to become a Producer?
Nowadays? The road I walked is pretty much bulldozed. It doesn't exist. But there are so many other roads into the industry: art school, dedicated game design schools, CMU, USC's game program… In EAP, we need people who know games.

So it's important to be a gamer.
I think so. In Production, you should know what is and isn't a good game at a mechanics level – not just a game level – because you need to understand why a particular game is good. But you should also be good at process. Organized. Articulate. This is a relationship job and a relationship business.

So, say you go to USC and graduate. What role could you apply for to get onto the Producer track?
The good thing about the programs at USC is that they tend to send us a lot of summer interns, so those kids get a shot at doing the actual job. That's a great “in” to an Assistant Producer gig. So is taking a contract Assistant Producer job here at EARS; it’s a foot in the door for someone who has some technical or art background applicable to games. QA could still work for some people, but it's harder now.

Honestly, at the end of the day, it's all about getting a shot to impress – and then nailing that shot.

Sound advice. I’ll be sure to pass it on. Thanks for talking with me today, Benjamin.
No problem. Good luck!

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 Tom Mitchell, the Senior Manager of Interactive Messaging at EA Mobile, for more insight into the industry.

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