Monday, February 23, 2015
The Game of Life
Rachel Franklin (S'91) merged lifelong loves of math and film in her job at Electronic Arts (EA).
Franklin produces video games as the executive producer of "The Sims 4." She weaves big data into improving players' experiences, capturing real-time feedback to improve on these virtual worlds.
The availability of telemetry for The Sims' latest version provided feedback about how virtual people were doing in completing their life goals. Real-world players might hope that their Sim would become a master chef, but the game wasn't allowing for enough people to achieve their goal.
Franklin's team stepped in, looked at the analytics and made some fine-tuning on the back-end. They watched the results, and saw the virtual Sims were meeting their aspirations by more than five times than before.
"In The Sims Studio, we look at data every day to see patterns in player behaviors. My ability to interpret it quickly and find patterns that inspire further research are definitely benefits of my math education," Franklin said.
In her own life, Franklin is living her aspirations, too. She chose to attend Carnegie Mellon University not only because of its strong math and computer science programs, but also because of its prestigious School of Drama. At the time, the bridge between entertainment and the software industry didn't exist, and Franklin remembers that people would laugh when she said that she went to school to study "film and computers."
Her math classes at CMU also helped structure her outside-the-box thinking.
"I can still remember my first day in Algebraic Structures. My professor said to the class, 'Throw out everything we learned about numbers so far. The number you think of as '1'? It's not really '1'.' That statement blew my mind but it also challenged me to look at structures, methodologies and labels from a completely different perspective. That thinking combined with the logical side of my brain that was developed by my math training are critical to my job as a creative leader," Franklin said.
Franklin started her first job after college as a programmer for the Department of Defense, but found she missed acting, so she took classes on the side. She took a nine-month hiatus from programming and studied theater in London. With only acting on her plate, she found herself missing technology.
She moved to L.A., and became involved with creating video games where her talents merged.
"I love that video games are an active experience, a different take on entertainment. And it's the software that allows us to do that," she said.
Also working as general manager of The Sims Studio at EA, Franklin collaborates with CMU alumni, like Nadia Labeikovsky (ETC'10), an assistant producer at The Sims Studio. Labeikovsky credits her time at the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) with preparing her for her current work.
"I learned the pipelines and the roles of the industry and how to work in harmony in multidisciplinary teams. In a way, at the ETC I was a part of a mini-Sims team," Labeikovsky said.
Mike Duke (ETC'06, CS, E'04), a senior development director at The Sims Studio, works closely with Franklin.
"One of the most valuable lessons I learned at CMU was the importance of teamwork and collaboration with others. The emphasis on cross discipline projects and learning to leverage the strengths of whoever is on your team at any given time has proven incredibly valuable during my career," Duke said.
EA has aided CMU's Alice Project by sharing characters and animations from The Sims 2. The Alice Project was established by the late Randy Pausch with the goal of making it easier for students to program software. In 2007, EA created the Randy Pausch Scholarship Fund, awarded annually to a female undergraduate at CMU who demonstrates excellence in computer science and is pursuing a career in the video game industry.