The Top Talent Departs as Madden Nears Its ReleaseS

The executive producer of Madden NFL quietly stepped down this week after less than a year on the job. He is the third senior-level Madden developer to leave the title in the past two months. But Phil Frazier and his former bosses say it is an amicable separation, one that won't affect the video game whose annual release is treated as a national celebration.

"It certainly feels convenient to link them," Frazier says of Madden's brain drain. He's the outgoing chief overseeing a games franchise that is not only one of the glamour titles in sports gaming, but in all video gaming.

"But I don't think that would be fair or true," Frazier adds. "For me, it was about my professional development. I needed a bit of a change after 14 good, long years, and that's it."

Frazier didn't say where he was headed, just that he and his family would pile into an RV this summer and head back to San Francisco, where he began his career 14 years ago with EA Sports.

He came to his Madden executive producer job in November after EA Sports reorganized itself, a move that dismissed the general managers of its two principal studios - EA Canada in Burnaby, British Columbia, and EA Tiburon, in Maitland, Fla. The shakeup placed responsibility for games development in the hands of so-called "czars" who oversee a single sport, and now answer to the label's overall chief of development, Andrew Wilson.

Though it followed the calamity that saw NBA Elite 11 canceled late last year, EA Sports President Peter Moore said the reorganization wasn't provoked by the failure to deliver on a high profile license. He said the move was begun in 2009 and modeled on the "strategic business units" he implemented as an executive at the sports apparel company Reebok, before moving into sports video games. Therefore, a single executive would be in charge of all soccer products, all American football products, all combat sports products, etc., with those managers reporting to Wilson, and Wilson back to Moore. These sport directors, for lack of a better phrasing, are expected to know what matters most to those who play the games, and build products that serve it.

That meant Cam Weber, a former college quarterback who led recent successes in EA Sports' FIFA and Fight Night titles, was sent to Florida to oversee the American football titles Madden and NCAA. In private, Tiburon developers past and present have told Kotaku that Weber brings a diamond-hard focus on gameplay that all have embraced. Indeed, one of Weber's first acts was to double the core gameplay team serving both Madden and NCAA. And gameplay is in fact one of the two "pillars" of EA Sports' overall development vision, modeled somewhat on FIFA's four-year turnaround from runner-up to global showpiece.

That's where Frazier's departure is eye-catching. Core gameplay upgrades are red meat for a sports games developer as much as they are for a lifelong fan. As antagonistic as the relationship may seem in community forums, they're actually both on the same side. Neither really care about the marketability of new features, yet for the past few years, Madden's team has had to implement many that seemed designed to sell games to new customers rather than impress existing ones.

Frazier's departure may not be a clash of creative vision with Weber, as much as those dots are easily connected by some. Nor is the farewell of former creative director Ian Cummings (succeeded by Mike Young), nor that of previous Madden 11 executive producer Jeremy Strauser. They were, however, employees with very long relationships to site executives who were handed pink slips in the reorganization. Wilson, EA Sports' senior development executive, said that such a change naturally provokes a reassessment of personal goals.

"We encourage everyone to evaluate their careers after every three years," Wilson told Kotaku. "Whether they think this still is the right opportunity for them [and] do they still feel like they're growing. If not, yes, we do want them to stay, and encourage them to seek new [positions] in the company. But when we initiate this sort of change, it can act as a catalyst for people to make that evaluation."

Florida is a province in games development, with EA Sports its dominant studio. Some on the Madden team had roots in the game going back to its PSOne days. In the Bay Area, or the Pacific Northwest, or elsewhere in the nation, turnover is more frequent because developers may jump to other studios, or even move within their publisher, without pulling up their family's roots. At Tiburon, any separation from EA Sports usually means one must be willing to move across the country, as Frazier is.

So at Tiburon, there seemed to nowhere to go other than out. That entrenchment also means fewer opportunities for EA Sports to bring new blood to a product line that is, daily, accused of delivering the same old thing. Frazier's successor has been named; he's Roy Harvey, the executive producer of NCAA Football and a Tiburon mainstay since 2003.

Major sports titles' annual publishing obligation predates the new demands of the Call of Duty or Assassin's Creed franchises. And anything those games have heard, EA Sports has heard it worse. As a game, a sport's core gameplay features - whether it's covering 10 yards in four downs or making three outs in an inning - haven't changed in more than a century.

Keeping that fresh, and true, every year, is the eternal challenge of a sports video games developer. Frazier agreed that hardcore sports fans are video gaming's most unforgiving constituency. But they aren't the most demanding audience he's faced.

"I still remember the very first time I met John Madden himself," Frazier said, "and being yelled at for not being authentic enough."