REDWOOD CITY, California — They toiled at "Tiger Woods." They put their touch on "The Sims" and "The Simpsons." Barely old enough to drink, they got their names in the credits of upcoming video games coming out this fall. And they tried, as best they could, to pass the toughest on-the-job test: eating some extremely spicy hamburgers.
This is how three interns at video game giant Electronic Arts spent their summer vacation.
"All my friends are amazed," said "Tiger Woods" programming intern Tiffany Wang, 21, last month while sitting at her cubicle in Electronic Arts' global headquarters. Around her computer were rubber ducks, a small basketball, a grass hula skirt and the Xbox 360 where her programming work eventually comes to virtual life. "It's, like, the coolest job ever. It's every kid's dream job."
This past summer, 137 college and grad school students, a little over half of them male, spent their summer interning for EA in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. They spent three months not fetching coffee or executives' dry-cleaning, but programming, producing, designing graphics, helping to craft marketing plans and other odd jobs that make an impact on the games people play. They began applying for the internships last September, throwing their names into an applicant pool that numbered about 2,500 when EA chose its class of 2006 last spring.
From that group, 45 were assigned to development teams and business divisions at EA's headquarters, located in Redwood City, just south of San Francisco. They were stationed in the plush campus of an industry leader, a cluster of buildings rife with locked doors and secret projects going on behind them, along with such enviable amenities as a video game lending library and a gym with exercise bikes rigged to consoles playing "Need for Speed."
So what did this year's group actually do?
Swiveling in her chair, Wang powered on the Xbox 360 to show how the complex codes she programmed into her computer manifested themselves in the "Tiger" game. Programming alerts verified the status of the game's current build. One noted that "CRAP is over-budget," referring to the computer memory being used by the game's create-a-player feature. Wang flicked her way through a game of golf while various menus and icons popped up on the screen indicating which club is being used and the golfer's distance from the hole. Someone has to make sure the right information shows up at the right time in the right window — and that's what Wang's department does.
A floor below Wang, Gwynne Olson-Wheeler, also 21, showed some of her intern work in a cubicle that wasn't hers — she was spending her final weeks of the summer working on a different floor, on EA's under-wraps "Simpsons" game. Meeting with her there would give away too many secrets. So instead she zapped some graphics work she did earlier in the season for "Sims 2 Pets" onto her iPod and plugged into a computer at a less-sensitive area. The room where she set up was darkened by dropped blinds, most of them dotted with spent ammunition from the floor's many Nerf gun battles. On the walls, signs addressed the staff of another under-wraps EA game: "Welcome 'Sims 3' team."
"I never had to get coffee," Olson-Wheeler said of her internship. A student at Florida's Ringling School of Art and Design who dreams of working at Pixar, she helped create the opening movie for next month's "Sims 2: Pets." "I was really happy to work on the intro video because it's the first thing that people are going to see," she said.
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Another intern, 23-year-old Mike Stein, sat in a barren cubicle he'd never bothered to decorate. He's at the University of Southern California now, at an EA-backed program for interactive media. He worked on the "Darfur Is Dying" genocide-awareness game sponsored by mtvU, and his ambition is to work on games that make a difference; he hopes one day to create the " 'Schindler's List' of video games." However, dreams sometimes start small: He worked on "Tiger" this summer as well, as a production intern overseeing one key feature. "All the crowds in all the courses — they are there because I put them there," he said.
Stein hustled his way into EA the hard way. Four years ago, he dropped a dead-end job at Abercrombie & Fitch on the spot when he got a summer gig as a tester on an earlier EA "Tiger Woods" game. He came back for more summer testings, became discouraged by his lack of progress and even did some soul-searching in Europe before persistence got him into the internship program.
Now he's tasked with imagining how a crowd of people might react to an incoming golf ball. Among other things, he's watching every YouTube clip he can find for reference: There are plenty of crowd shots for him to watch, plus some things best tested by folks other than himself. "There are a lot of strange people who decided a good thing to do would be to hold a golf ball in their hand and let someone take a swing at it," he said, adding, "I don't think we should put [that] in 'Tiger.' "
The internship program at EA is run by Colleen McCreary, the company's head of university relations and a woman who used to dye her hair to match various game characters, before ditching hot pink for her natural brown after she became a mother. McCreary travels to schools around the world talking up EA. She frequently runs into counterparts from Activision, Ubisoft and other game companies. The top schools EA pulls from are Ringling College and USC. No interns come from the so-called gaming trade schools like Full Sail and Digipen, because McCreary and her team prefer the depth of education offered at more established colleges.
McCreary said the easiest way to get noticed in the application process is to make your own game. "Those are clearly the people who tend to be most passionate about gaming," she said. She prefers Web-based games, something she or another application reviewer can open with no fear of viruses.
Of course, it is possible to be too passionate. One student sent McCreary a résumé boasting of three maxed-out characters in "World of Warcraft." "More than likely, if you have multiple level-60 characters at 'World of Warcraft,' you probably haven't been going to class very often," she said.
What's important is pursuing the game-making skills of art, engineering and production that make games come to life. Love for games doesn't even have to come first — and Olson-Wheeler speaks from experience. "At first I was like, 'Movies are the best and games are OK,' " she said. Then she wound up rocketing through her "Sims" tasks and landing the bonus assignment on "The Simpsons." She's hooked now.
Prospective interns aren't the only ones crossing their fingers during the selection process. McCreary said that EA's development teams have to apply for their interns, offering a plan for what they'll do with them. "These are people the teams are craving, any way they can get them," she said. "The students have been playing games forever, they represent part of the target market — so that's excellent right there — and we've gone aggressively out to find students who are the best and the brightest, rather than whoever is at our doorstep."
The best and brightest get offered some fun too — although some real-life risk is definitely involved. There's regular intern dodgeball and whitewater rafting. And then there's the annual EA entry — mercifully not compulsory for employees or interns — into a local pub's habanero-spiced hamburger eating contest. The pub challenges area businesses to determine which has the largest number of employees capable of consuming their fiery burger.
The whitewater trip was a bonding moment for the interns, but the burger contest? Stein is loathe to talk about it. "I normally go straight in for the spicy food, but I thought, 'What if it's really hot? And I've got half the day ahead of me.' " He'd been at the burger joint at the same time as Wang, who'd wolfed hers down with the help of some iced tea. "There's spicy, and then there's pain," she said. "This was like eating pain." As Wang ate, Stein looked on in shame. "It was an incredibly emasculating experience," he recalled.
The interns get paid by the hour and are even paid for overtime, which is good news for those who have heard of EA's recently settled litigation with workers over unpaid overtime. "All my friends were like, 'Make sure they don't work you too hard,' " Wang said, noting that the internship did not put undue strain on her non-EA life. Stein said he was playing fewer games, though, due to the many hours he was spending at EA HQ.
EA gives their interns other financial matters to ponder, particularly those that involve how and why games sell. McCreary said the company offers lectures not just from their creative leaders but also from their business chiefs. "[Interns] learn early on that just because [an idea] sounds really cool and might be really fun, it doesn't necessarily mean there's an audience that would purchase it."
At the end of the summer, the company hosts an intern game-design challenge, which is judged by the same people who green-light real games for EA. Fittingly, one of the criteria used is whether or not a game will sell. Last year a marketable "Da Vinci Code" concept beat out a particularly creative adventure game that McCreary felt would have been helped had it been promoted in the way she saw it, as "teenage MacGyver."
This year, however, the competition wound up going to the idea deemed most creative. A team of interns that included Stein pitched a feature for EA's upcoming "Lord of the Rings" role-playing game. They didn't win, but the feature will now be added to the actual game.
Not bad for a summer's work.
For more information about EA's internship program, visit www.jobs.ea.com