CMC Silicon Valley Trip: Tuesday

Electronic Arts
  • Electronic Arts had by far the best presentation of any of the companies we've been to so far. This is partly because they have excellent facilities, including a gym and fitness room (and gave us a product we wanted, a free EA game from the company store) and because as a large company that hires lots of college grads, they're clearly used to showing college kids around.
  • What's the most interesting conversation that we can have? That's what I want to know and what I'm trying to talk to people about, especially because we don't have that much time to talk to any one person. I would rather not waste time talking about what my favorite EA titles are. Today I tried to jump in by asking people what they are thinking about or working on right now, with good results. However,
  • I need to be careful because people expect me not to know anything. Silicon Valley execs were once young college students, and then they graduated and learned everything they needed to about how to run things, be effective, make good decisions and create value for a company. Currently I am a young college student; my role is to be a sponge. Tomorrow I will ask for advice instead.
  • An executive at EA repeated the line we heard yesterday about Wii bowling tournaments at retirement homes.
  • The number of different skills required to successfully produce a game is astounding. EA needs a great story, great engineers, great artists, and managers that can make eighty people work together and get a complex product out the door, when everyone's going to want to stuff more features into it.
  • EA is currently producing a game called Dante's Inferno, with nine levels based on the nine circles of hell. One member of our group wanted more stories based on classic stories. The developer pointed out the problem, which is that in good stories, not very much actually happens. Most storytelling involves setting the scene, describing the relations of the characters to each other and the changes in status that arise from events in the story. But in a videogame, especially an action game like the type the developer makes, you need lots of action and bad guys, all of the time. Video sequences in between the action can only tell so much of the story and give the player so much accomplishment. For a further dramatization of this point compare the fight sequences in Star Wars Episode 5 between Darth Vader and Luke (lots of conversation and emotion; little sword play), which are excellent, with the fight sequences in Star Wars Episode 1 after Qui-Gon is killed (lots of choreographed sword play, which is easy for video games to reproduce, but little passion and little story).
  • In Dante's Inferno the main character is a pretty evil guy, with a dark history who does evil things throughout the game. We can root for this character in a video game but not in a movie; why? Off the top of my head, the audience is different, we are playing up the differences between protagonists in movies and video games, when we are the one controlling the character we think differently, or we think video games are "less real" than movies.
  • An EA executive mentioned his current project was to get his engineers to be more accepting of change. This point is echoed in FP2P by one of the interviewers, who points out how hard it is for any country to stay at the forefront of technological progress. To reach the bleeding edge a country must be willing to accept rapid and uncomfortable change, but once it experiences success the vested interests and the technology that got the country to the top begin to try to protect their interests against future upstarts, through legislation or by discouraging the competition. If I have five engineers that are using Maya, they're going to compare themselves based on how good they are at using Maya. The best Maya programmer doesn't want to switch to a new, better technology because he's already the best.
  • In my opinion, EA still has a significant problem allowing users to share stories between game players and non-game players. Obviously they are excellent at developing a story within a game and allowing collaboration, competition and networking between players of that game. But if I spend three hours playing Madden and then my girlfriend asks me what I've been up to, what kind of story can I tell her? "I was down 14 points in the fourth quarter and then came back and won the game" is not compelling to a person who's never played the game. In that sense while games offer utility to the people who play them, they don't give players a story they can tell to non-players. When everyone in your network plays the same game, this isn't a problem.
  • Just like every five year old wants to be Spiderman or a pro sports player, every high school and college kid looking to work in the Valley wants to work for Apple, Google, or start the next Twitter. Atlassian isn't the sort of place college kids dream about working it's where Silicon Valley bread is buttered; creating a good product that businesses and developers need, even if it has no flash to it.
  • Atlassian was profitable from day one and took no VC funding. Outstanding.
  • Because the developers were Australian, they had to do all of their sales over the web, which isn't common for enterprise software. This led them to keep the product cheap, and make it absolutely exceptional. Both of those steps were crucial to their business.
  • Everyone at Atlassian said how much they enjoyed working there. The benefits are good and everyone works out in the open in the same office.
  • Atlassian's in an extremely competitive industry; there are over 50 difference corporate wiki products, many issue/bug trackers and Atlassian competes both with enterprise giants like Oracle and Microsoft and with free products. It's not hard to be cheaper than the large clients but the software also has to be good enough to justify paying about $1000 for a license. They are thus extremely sensitive to quality, making their issue tracker public, and allowing everyone to see feature requests.
  • I asked whether people steal the product, considering that Atlassian gives away the source code with every license. The company said yes, and that they don't do anything about it because people who want to steal the product are going to steal it. Businesses don't really want to steal things though, so they get enough paying customers.
  • We got onto the subject of blogs because the marketing team said that blogs are an important part of their marketing strategy, because they have to create and deliver a great experience for their customers. We then were told how blogs let us advertise how we think about things and that a blog is a good landing page for companies trying to find out more about you. Sounds great.
  • Luck has been another resonant theme of this trip. I spoke to one executive at Atlassian whose first company sold out to Cisco, I think, for $1.2 billion and second company sold to another large SV firm for $300 million. Other people became extremely rich and powerful because they were one of the founding members of a startup, or were in the right place at the right time. Some lucky people are probably not so good and some people that worked at failed companies are good. Of course, by virtue of being a rich white male over six feet tall, I have already hit the jackpot.
We also had a dinner in the city with entrepreneurs, which was fun, but it's getting late here. Entrepreneurs aren't very different than the rest of us, or more risky, but they are extremely good at getting things done and running projects. They also prefer to be their own boss. I'll leave you with this video by Pete Diamandis about energetic fundraising. Tomorrow: Lockheed Martin and EMC.

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