Joe Ybarra is currently the Vice President of Product Development at Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment, the company attempting to bring the Stargate franchise to an MMOG near you. His resume boasts an astonishing array of credits and stints with companies such as Apple, Activision, Broderbund, Sierra On-Line, Microsoft Game Studios and Ubisoft. He’s also one of the co-founders of industry giant Electronic Arts.
I first met Joe at last year’s Austin Game Conference, where he and various other Cheyenne employees (most veterans of other studios) were busy drumming up attention for their fledgling game, Stargate Worlds, set in the Stargate universe somewhere along the timeline of the television series.
Stargate Worlds is eagerly anticipated by both fans of the television show and devotees of sci-fi MMOGs (of which there are very few), but after speaking with Joe and his team for an hour or so in Austin, it became clear that the real story behind Stargate Worlds was its developer, Cheyenne Mountain, and beyond that, Joe Ybarra.
As we talked about Stargate, his plans for the franchise and Cheyenne’s operating philosophy, a picture emerged of Joe Ybarra; a portrait of a true veteran developer, a man who’s weathered the storms of a juvenile industry and has emerged, if not always victorious, determined to wave the twin flags of common sense and attention to detail in the face of an industry which has grown far too comfortable with throwing the dice and occasionally getting lucky.
Joe was kind enough to sit down recently with The Escapist for a follow-up interview.
The Escapist: Tell me a little bit about how you started in the industry.
Joe Ybarra: How did I start in the industry? I had to wait for the industry to be created before I could start in it. I’ve been a gamer all of my life, and it really wasn’t until I went to work for Apple Computer in my late 20s before – you know, this is right at the peak of the Atari 2600 revolution, if you could call it that – and it was pretty interesting, because I knew I wanted to be in electronic games, it’s just there was no business.
At any rate, what [working for Apple] does is it leads me to the opportunity of getting a chance to work in the same company that Trip Hawkins is working in.
I actually never met Trip until he left Apple, and then I went to work for him at EA, but essentially our reputations intersected with each other, even though we ourselves never intersected. And so … he called me up and said, “Hey, I’m interested in starting a computer game company, and are you interested in being involved in that?” And I said yes, absolutely. So that’s how I became one of the founders of EA, and the rest is history from there.
EA for me is very much of a start-up type of experience, because the first couple of years that I worked in EA we didn’t have more than 40 people working in the entire company, so we all knew each other very well; we worked very closely together. The [idea of a 100-hour work week] easily started in that time period, so I saw more of my co-workers than any other human being, wife and children included. So they were very close experiences. … There were no producers there; we had no methodology for doing things, we had no money either, and so it was very much a “if we don’t get this done we may not survive” kind of an existence for several years while I was there.
TE: I think you’re one of the few people I could talk to in the universe that would think of EA as a start-up. How do you feel now about the fact that they’re still sort of running on start-up times, still having those 100 hour weeks and still doing constant crunch time?
JY: Well, I don’t see why they do that. I think now it’s more of a cultural thing than anything else. I mean, they’ve been doing it for so long – since the beginning – that they don’t know how to do, probably anything else. It’s kind of frustrating from my point of view, because I would like to think, especially now that I have the degree of control that I do in the environment I work in, that I’m really anti-crunch, and I’m adamant about making sure that we do our job in finding the projects and allocating enough resources and biting off as much as we can chew … that I feel it’s my responsibility to make sure we don’t have to work like crazed animals for extended periods of time.
So I feel kind of bad about it, in the sense that there was no reason for them to do that. And of course, EA being the monstrous engine that it is right now, you would think that by now they would’ve figured out a way to not have to do that, but I don’t know what to say. But you know what? I’ve worked in other companies where crunch was part of the culture. I mean, the employees liked doing it, which I thought was crazy, but what do you do with that?
TE: What do you think, do you think that’s an industry impetus, or do you think it’s a symptom of the kinds of people that gravitate to the industry?
JY: I think it’s more of the latter, because gamers – as a generalized statement – people in the gaming space tend to be nocturnal kind of people that are very focused and high-energy kind of guys, so they’re kind of used to the idea: “When I get started on something I’m going to stay with it for 12, 14, 16 hours or whatever it takes, and if that happens to be overnight, so be it because I’m nocturnal anyway, I don’t care.” It’s just sort of the personality profile. You see a lot more of those kinds of people than you see the early morning, 8-5, you know, “I better go home and play with my kids” kind of people. Although, we have a lot of those kinds of people here, because you see a lot more of them now in the industry than ever. And I certainly, personally respect that kind of attitude.
I like the guys that can come in do their nine or eight hours or 10 hours get the work done and go home and leave the job at work. That’s really almost impossible to do in our industry, because even if you leave your job at work, you still go home and play games. So it’s pretty tough to not be working constantly, but nonetheless, as our industry matures we’re getting more people that don’t do that. That’s a good thing from my point of view.
TE: How do you gel those two different types of personalities, the more mature developer who may have been in the industry for a while or for whatever reason doesn’t crave crash time and the young energetic folks like you were just describing? How do you make those two work together?
JY: You know, the key to all of this good stuff is making deals that stick. So the idea is, if you have people working together and they say Hey, I’m going to get this done by XYZ time, this is what a deal that sticks is all about. So he’s going to make a commitment to the other employees to the effect that the piece of the puzzle that [he’s] working on, [he’s] going to deliver to you in this time period, and he actually gets it done. So, if you can do that, then it doesn’t really matter how the folks are working in terms of their work style, because everybody is making commitments. And as long as the commitments are being upheld, then it can be relatively transparent to everybody how they got there.
So, if I’ve got one guy that does nothing for two days and stays in the office for 48 hours, and he gets it all done, but he makes it deliverable on the day that everybody said that he needed it, then he’s just as good as the guy that comes in and works eight hours a day and gets it all done and has a normal life. It makes no difference to me. Whatever floats your boat.
TE: So you think it’s the tolerance of the different personalities then?
JY: Yeah. In fact, [the] one thing you’ve got to be in the game industry is really tolerant of different personalities. We get our unusually large spread of strange and interesting personalities in our business. I have no problem with eccentric people or people that are not necessarily polished in their personal relationship skills or whatever, but if they get the job done and you see the passion in their work, [who cares?] … One of the things I talk about with everybody is that nobody works in the game business unless they want it; everybody that’s here has a passion for being involved in games. So I want to see that passion exhibited in the output of their work, because I think customers see it. When the people that build the game really love their product, really care about it deeply, then you see it in the end result.
TE: Let’s go back to EA a little bit and tell me, if you can, one of your most memorable experiences working with that company.
JY: Wow, there’s a lot of them. I guess probably one of the most interesting [lessons] I’ve learned is … you can’t hide a hit. If you’re working on a product that’s going to be a top-selling product, you know it pretty early on, and one of the ways I learned that was working on Seven Cities of Gold.
After we got about four months into the project, it was pretty widely known in EA that I was getting a build every other Friday from the developer, Dan Button, over in Little Rock, Arkansas, and so one day I remember doing a build, and I looked up and outside my cubicle there was literally a line of 12 people. And I looked up and asked, “Why are you people here?” And they said, “Well, you’ve got a new build for Seven Cities of Gold, and we all want one.” So that’s when I started to learn, wait a second, if I’m still building this thing and I’ve got people lined up outside my door, then I know I must be onto something special here.
That phenomenon got repeated several times actually, when I worked on Bard’s Tale and Starflight and on Madden Football and on all the projects that I worked on. I could tell whether or not my product was going to really go, just by the number of people that were waiting around to get builds. It was pretty entertaining and exciting, too, and very nerve racking by the way.
TE: Can you ever say the opposite is true? Is it possible to detect a flop in the same way?
JY: Oh God yeah. Flops are easy to spot, because if I boot it and I don’t even like it, then I know we’re in big trouble. Yeah, I’ve worked on a few of those. I remember one that – I’m not going to mention any names – but I remember this product was so bad that nobody on my team wanted to have anything to do with it, including me. And so I told the team, Look, there’s really only three ways to [finish] a project: you can ship it, you can kill it or you can give it away.
Well, EA is not going to let us kill this game, and there isn’t anyone crazy enough in this company to take it away from us, so I guess the only way for us to get rid of it is to ship it. So we did. That was not the wisest of decisions, but it did get it out of our faces. … So somehow we overcame it that time, but I can tell you there’s nothing worse than when you’re working on something and you know that it’s awful.
TE: What’s interesting in talking to you about this, Joe, is that talking to a number of other developers or producers, you hear things like, “capture this genie” or “put this lightning in this bottle,” but talking to you, taking the context of your words away, it’s like you’re describing making any other kind of product. Do you think that’s really the key, approaching it from that point of view?
JY: Absolutely, where the secret sauce is going to come in is by parsing the talent of the team and giving them the freedom to really do cool and clever stuff. Because I can’t dictate at the beginning all the characteristics that are going to make my product an amazing product, what’s going to end up happening is during the course of construction, opportunities will arise while I’m building the product that will transform it from being a product into being an amazing thing. I mean, that’s where the secret sauce kicks in, right? And the thing that’s really hard to do is trying to figure out what the secret sauce is going to be from the very beginning.
Where the secret sauce is going to come in is the passion of the folks that are working on the game. They will find a way to get it in there. And I’ve seen some products with some nice last minute finishing touches, maybe not so much last minute, but nice touches get put in or somebody raises their hand and says, Hey, I’ve got this idea about this feature, and you kind of look at it and say, Wow, why didn’t we think of that? And [you] stick it in there, and by George, you have something pretty astonishing.
You know, one of the things that I believe in is if you don’t have any rules, you don’t know when you’re breaking them, so we have lots of rules for how our project works. So if you have to break one of these rules, raise your hand and let’s talk about it, and if it makes sense that we should break this rule, then let’s go break it. But at least we knew consciously what we were doing when we did it. So rather than let this stuff fumble its way to the finish line, I like attacking the finish line.
TE: You’ve been in the industry, it’s fair to say, since the beginning. Is there anything you can see at this point in time that you would say is the number one problem facing the industry?
JY: Yeah, I can certainly say that the number one problem right now is how expensive these damn products have gotten. You know, because they’ve gotten so expensive, it’s discouraged people from taking risks. And because we’re not taking risks, we’re not getting the opportunity to innovate as much as we might otherwise.
I don’t see any barriers to it stopping, actually. I mean, look at movies, movies got ridiculously expense because you’re always going to have the top-three list. … The potential in revenue and the audience is so big, that as long as people feel that by spending more money [they’ll] have a better shot at getting that bigger audience, then people will keep doing it. And a lot of the decisions that get made in our industry are not done with rational thinking, so we’re just going to see these numbers getting bigger and bigger.
The thing that’s fun about this is every now and then, one of those really big-budget projects is actually going to do what everybody expected it to, which is sell a gazillion units and be a watershed product, blah, blah, blah, and all this does is throw more gasoline on the fire, so it’s just going to keep going.
And talking to Joe Ybarra, it’s clear he’s trying to do just that; make his next game the next game, and with Stargate Worlds, he’s in position to make that dream a reality. The amount of raw talent being thrown at the game, and the rampant consumer demand (the Stargate franchise continues to grow, with a third TV series in the works) would seem to point to a sure-fire hit, but we won’t know for sure if Cheyenne has a hit on their hands until either it launches or people start lining up outside of Joe’s office to get a look at the code. That uncertainty, that gamble, is what makes this industry so unique, and rainmakers like Joe Ybarra such a powerful force.
Check The Escapist Daily throughout the week for more on Joe Ybarra and Stargate Worlds.
Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. He has written and produced for television, theatre and film, has been writing on the web since it was invented and claims to have played every console ever made.