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EA Canada pushes boundaries in Burnaby

For 15 years, EA Canada has been a cornerstone of Burnaby’s technology industry.
EA Canada - Colin Macrae
Colin Macrae, senior director of integrated communications at EA Canada, chatted with the NOW about the Burnaby-based video game developer’s history, its most successful titles and potential followups to beloved franchises.

For 15 years, EA Canada has been a cornerstone of Burnaby’s technology industry. The video game giant’s sprawling 450,000-square-foot headquarters – tucked away in forested west Burnaby – houses a workforce of 1,300 people, churning out some of EA’s landmark sports titles.

The campus boasts state-of-the-art design tools, a motion capture studio and high-tech hardware and software to deliver a surreal experience to millions of devoted gamers year-round.

It’s hard to believe it all started in some guy’s parents’ living room.

“Going back to the original roots of Electronic Arts in Canada, it was back in 1982 that Don Mattrick and his friend Jeff Sember spent the summer making their very first video game in Don’s parents’ living room right here in Burnaby,” said Colin Macrae, senior director of integrated communications at EA Canada.

That highly successful game – Evolution, an arcade style action game that takes the user from an amoeba to a human – spurred the formation of Mattrick and Sember’s company Distinctive Software and caught the attention of the California-based Electronic Arts, a brand new publisher at the time. In 1991, EA acquired the software company and created the EA Canada brand, eventually settling down in 1999 on two city blocks in Burnaby to become this country’s video game mecca.

“This is Electronic Arts’ largest development studio,” said Macrae on a tour of the massive campus. “We’ve always had the vision of creating a real landmark for the video game industry in Canada.”

Behind Japan and the U.S., Canada is the third largest developer of video games, and EA Canada is one of the country’s biggest contributors, with annual NHL and FIFA titles dominating the sales charts.

“The FIFA franchise has always had its home here, and it’s annually one of the biggest video game franchises in the world,” said Macrae. “The NHL franchise has been a critical favourite for years, one of the biggest video games in Canada for years.

“There are legions of guys who grew up playing NHL 94 all across Canada and their dream was always to work in video games and to work specifically on NHL. That’s a big component of the men and women who work on NHL today.”

Unlike some of Electronic Arts’ other Canadian studios like BioWare in Edmonton or EA Montreal, its Burnaby base has a strong sports focus, which makes it all the more appropriate to have an almost regulation soccer pitch onsite and portable motion capture equipment to take to Burnaby 8 Rinks.

But hockey and soccer aren’t EA Canada’s only sports specialties. Although it’s been three years since their last boxing title, the company still has the Fight Night franchise to its name, and recently released EA Sports UFC, delving into the world of mixed martial arts.

“Boxing is not a sport that has seen a lot of growth of late, and where fight fans have congregated over the last several years has been around mixed martial arts and UFC,” said Macrae. “Right now, FIFA, UFC and NHL are the bedrock franchises for us.”

According to Macrae, authenticity is crucial in the development of sports games to create an enriching experience for gamers.

“It’s all about immersing you in your sport, fuelling your fandom, tapping into the love that you have for your club or your team and that competition you have with your friends,” he said. “That level of authenticity creates the emotion and immersion that you feel when you’re playing the game.”

Thankfully for developers, the new generation of consoles – led by Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One – has allowed developers to push the boundaries, with more powerful systems and fewer hardware limitations than their predecessors. For instance, FIFA 15 allows for multiple players to challenge headers, while NHL 15 can now perform multiplayer collisions.

“It’s a challenge for the teams. They can then think about things they always wanted to do but couldn’t do – now they have an opportunity.”

With hockey, soccer and MMA in the spotlight, Macrae said there’s nothing on the horizon for EA Canada intellectual properties like the gravity-defying snowboarding series SSX or the skateboarding simulator Skate, but followups haven’t been ruled out.

“We never bury anything,” said Macrae. “We just put it into storage.

“There can be gaps – we’re always looking at what trends are coming, what fans are asking for, constantly listening to their feedback. Moving to the new consoles gives us an opportunity to re-examine some of our franchises and see what might be an opportunity to bring back one of our older franchises.”

For now, extreme sports enthusiasts and boxing fans will have to wait, but jersey-clad flag wavers and virtual stick handlers can get their fill on NHL 15 and FIFA 15, which hit shelves Sept. 9 and 23, respectively.