A diesel van carrying half the Simon Fraser University men's basketball team is barrelling down the desolate highways of the Pacific Northwest.
Head coach Jay Triano is at the wheel, leading a boredom-evading discussion about the particular skills of NBA players, only this isn't a car game. It's the early 1990s, and the coach is working for video-game developer Electronic Arts Canada, filling an increasingly seminal role for the company's NBA Live franchise.
Somewhere between Lewiston, Idaho and Ellensburg, Wash., above the roar of the engine, Mr. Triano and his crew will determine a major element of the gaming experience.
"We'd sit there and I'd say 'How do you rate this guy as a shooter?' " said Mr. Triano, now of the Toronto Raptors, and the first Canadian to become an NBA head coach. "We'd take the average score and give it to the particular player. At the time, that was the best information they [EA]were getting. They were all computer guys building this game, but they didn't have a basketball guy. It's neat the way it has transformed."
By transformed, Mr. Triano is referring to EA's ascendance into the professional sports club, its behind-the-curtain access, and its Nike-esque cachet among athletes. The long-time industry leader has evolved from making games about sports, to making games with sports.
From inexact beginnings in Mr. Triano's van, EA Canada is now a place that doesn't flinch at the sight of tennis luminary Venus Williams, or basketball's Dwight Howard, one of the NBA's emerging superstars, who visited its suburban Vancouver campus last month. Other visitors over the years include golfer Tiger Woods, soccer stars Thierry Henry and Paul Scholes, boxing champions Sugar Ray Leonard and Lennox Lewis, and Dion Phaneuf and Jeremy Roenick of the National Hockey League. Vancouver Canucks players, who are far more accessible, have also helped the NHL game.
It's a good thing they all do visit, especially since the video game industry could use their help.
The recession has taken its toll across the U.S., with sales of consoles and games suffering their worst year-over-year decline in nine years, according to a report by market researcher NPD Group. Hardware, software and accessories sales fell by 31 per cent in June, to $1.17-billion (U.S.).
Electronic Arts Inc., headquartered in Redwood City, Calif., late last year announced that it was slashing 10 per cent of its work force, about 1,000 people, including cuts at the Burnaby office, home to 1,600 employees. EA Canada moved its Black Box studio from downtown Vancouver to Burnaby to save costs. It also had another 20,000-square-foot downtown space, which was intended to be a third B.C. studio, but leased it to a third party. ,
EA Sports, the sports-games brand that made the firm famous in the 1990s, has accounted for about one-third of company revenues in recent years (revenues last year were $4.2-billion), and the NBA Live franchise annually sells more than 1 million units worldwide.
In 1991, the company bought out Distinctive Software Inc., the B.C. firm founded by Don Mattrick in 1982, and the Canadian arm began publishing many of the EA Sports titles, including basketball, hockey, boxing, soccer and tennis. EA Sports partners with sports leagues, governing bodies, unions, scouting services and broadcasters, but the relationship to athletics transformed its business.
It happened in the name of realism, which gamers began expecting, and which the company itself promised with its trademark phrase: "It's in the game." And it happened because the technology, namely a realism-culling process called "motion capture," and the advancement of the consoles, placed athleticism at the forefront of sports-game creation.
Rather than the passengers in Mr. Triano's van deciding on the individual merits of players from afar, EA went to the source, and began digitally replicating the athletes on which its sports games are built.
"We realized the level of fidelity we could get to in terms of how our characters looked, the way they moved, and the way they behaved," said Brent Nielsen, an executive producer who started as an EA game tester in 1995. Dwight Howard, EA's cover athlete for NBA Live 10, is a prime example of motion-capture possibilities.
The Orlando Magic centre stands 6 foot 11, and weighs 265 lbs. Clearly, Mr. Howard has few body doubles, but if he did, they wouldn't be able to move with his power, speed and grace.
"[With motion capture]we can get Dwight Howard's perfect signature shot, and we can get the suite of dunks that he typically uses at any given time in a game," Mr. Nielsen said.
The motion-capture studio, the largest in the world at 40,000-square-feet, is equipped with 119 cameras and can also gauge the length of Mr. Howard's stride, the form of his shot, and the height of his leap. During these sessions, athletes will wear a skintight black bodysuit affixed with tiny rubber spheres wrapped in reflective tape. It allows the "mo-cap" team to record the movements three-dimensionally, and integrate the data into the games.
But Mr. Howard, just 23 and nicknamed "Superman," also serves another purpose. Unlike superstars such as Wayne Gretzky or Michael Jordan, his generation was raised on video games, and understands their showmanship and entertainment.
"They play games now, and that's another big difference in the culture," Mr. Nielsen said. "They speak with a level of not only an authenticity about the sport, but an authenticity about gaming ... They know what players would be more likely to do in what situation, but they also understand that it's a video game that has to be fun.
"From our perspective, that's fantastic."
The company will never be able to motion capture every athlete, in every sport, on an annual basis, so EA compensates as best it can. It employs scouts and consults communities of gamers with knowledge of sports. It is hiring more players from the NBA Developmental League, a minor league for basketball, and retired players, for motion capture shoots.
EA's game developers are continuously educated on their sports. They go on skating field trips, shoot hoops in the company gymnasium, and have twice weekly boxing workshops. If an employee isn't athletically inclined, then at the very least, he or she will know enough to join the conversation at sports bars.
"When I first came here, that wasn't necessarily the case," said Mr. Richards, who joined in 1999. "We're method gamers.
"We really dive deep into what that means and try to experience what that is, so that when we go to tell that story, it's coming from a place of authenticity."