EA Sports' game plan: Follow the fans

Q&A: Newly appointed label head Andrew Wilson explains the consumer-focused approach driving expansion into cross-platform services, Kinect- and Move-capable FIFA, and consumer apathy for 3D games.

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Earlier this week, GameSpot caught up with former EA Sports president Peter Moore at Gamescom to get his appraisal of an array of industry issues now that he has ascended to the position of chief operating officer of Electronic Arts. Moore's EA Sports successor, Andrew Wilson, also sat down to discuss his new domain with GameSpot. During the discussion, the executive covered the early gamer reaction to the Season Ticket program, EA Sports' spotty support of handhelds, customer apathy over 3D support, and bringing Move and Kinect support to FIFA 13.

New EA Sports head Andrew Wilson, speaking at the Evolve conference last month.

GameSpot: Are you expecting to make any changes to the direction of EA Sports, or simply following through on the approach put in place by your predecessor?

Andrew Wilson: The good news about my predecessor, Peter Moore, is that he worked with the entire leadership team building a strategy for EA Sports. And as recently as a month ago, Peter and I and the rest of the executive team spent a lot of time in the studio delivering what that strategy was. And what I look forward to now is following through on that strategy. For us, I don't think anything changes. We'll miss Peter, of course, but the strategy that was put in place is going to drive forwards.

GS: What has the response to the Season Ticket program been like so far?

AW: It's been good so far. We've had a lot of feedback, a lot of downloads of the app, and certainly some people taking up Season Ticket. The feedback is the concept of early access is something that's very valuable to people, and certainly if you download a lot of content in Ultimate Team modes, then the concept of the DLC discount is also very valuable. And we think it'll come into its own about three days before Madden launches. There's been solid take-up already, but as we get five days out and people are thinking about playing Madden three days early, that's when we'll see the big shift.

GS: Could it continue every year even if only the most diehard of EA Sports fans supported it?

AW: Absolutely, and that's who we built it for. They were the people who came to us and said they play our games every year and would like some benefit for that. In all honesty, it's built for them, and we will evolve the program based on their feedback.

GS: EA Sports' coverage has been spotty on handhelds, with only the biggest series making the leap to the DS and PSP. Can we expect better representation of the entire lineup of EA Sports games on the 3DS and PS Vita?

EA Sports titles will be on the Vita, but only if gamers are vocal about wanting them.

AW: Again, we try and build the games that people want to play on those platforms. Right now it's been the big games that people wanted to play, and if we get feedback that people want to play things other than what we'll launch there, then we'll look at that as well. But at EA Sports, we're now trying our darnedest to be a consumer-driven games-making group. So as long as people want to play the games we make on those platforms, we'll make them.

GS: What's your feeling about the PS Vita?

AW: Having played FIFA on Vita, it's cool. It's a PS3 game in your hand, and it's pretty spectacular when you get to play that.

GS: And that's something you think EA Sports fans want?

AW: I think so, yeah. I've played a lot on DS, a lot on PSP. I think one of the things is it's always been kind of a cut-down version of the console experience. But now the ability to deliver that frontline, next-generation engine in the palm of your hand? That's pretty cool.

GS: How about PCs? Is the plan to feature primarily free-to-play titles on the PC platform, or will EA Sports be bringing more of its primary installments in its sports series to computers?

AW: One of the things we see as a company is that PC is making a resurgence for gamers. Typically sports games have not been a big PC gaming [genre], but we've got FIFA there. We're launching Tiger Woods on PC. And I've challenged the team to really think about what their games look like on PC in the future. That may be a twitch-based game like we have on console, or something completely different that makes more sense on the platform. But certainly as a company, we think PC has a bright future. And as a label, we're challenging our teams to look at it.

GS: So will PC grow stronger or maintain at current levels?

AW: Again, I think that's driven by the consumer. Right now, people are doing lots of things on PC. We have our Superstars games on Facebook. We have free-to-play games with Tiger and FIFA in Asia. We have a strong representation in PC already, and based on consumer feedback, that will drive how we use that platform in the future.

GS: How do the hardcore sports fans engage with free-to-play?

Tiger Woods Online was just an early step in EA Sports' free-to-play plans.

AW: There are different ways people play at different times of the day. The way we build our strategy is that if you're a sports fan, there's going to be a time you play on your console, a time you play on your mobile phones, on your social networks, on free-to-play games. The important thing is not just to build all those products and services; you have to make sure they're connected so that everything you do adds value to each other.

GS: Can you share any data on the percentage of players for your free-to-play efforts who choose to pay for content?

AW: We don't share that data. I think what the industry would tell you is it's anywhere from 10 percent, 20 percent, if you're doing really really well you get to 50 percent. But certainly, it's different per product, and the important part of free-to-play games is that the world is enriched by people who pay and those who don't. It's actually the symbiotic relationship between those two groups that drives that world forward. So the important part is we make sure to build games that cater to both those groups so they can enrich each other's gameplay experience.

GS: The difficulty being that you don't want free players to feel like they're getting a poorer experience?

AW: Absolutely.

GS: At Develop, you were talking about multiple cross-platform access, that one connected experience. What else can you tell us about that?

AW: You're going to start playing FIFA on your console. You're going to have challenges pushed to you two times a week based on your local club, from the Web pushed onto your console. You're going to play those, share that experience on Facebook, and be able to take that to mobile. When you think about the mobile game launching later in the year, you'll be doing things that also add value to your progression as an identity. Then next year you'll play FIFA Street and that will also add to your identity.

You get to a point where no matter what you play on what console, none of that time is wasted. Everything adds to who you are in that world. And that's our vision, because we know that people are playing on more than one console, that people are playing across years. The important part for us is to make sure we can deliver value and reward that gamer for that type of play.

EA Sports is hoping gamers take to FIFA's cross-platform features.

As a company, we started investing in the core strand of DNA for this experience, which is a single identity that spans across platforms, about four or five years ago now. At the time, people looked at us and said that seems odd to spend that much investment against this single identity. But we get to today and we're the only publisher of our kind that has the ability to build an experience that truly goes across platforms and builds status with everything you do on those platforms.

GS: Social's a huge push for EA, but it seems 3D isn't. What's EA Sports' approach to 3D?

AW: Our approach for everything is that we're looking to build games for hardware that our gamers have, that our gamers want to play on, and that our gamers tell us they want to play on. Right now, that has not been our focus because that has not been the feedback from gamers, that they want us to invest in it. That could easily change in the future, and we are primed and ready to invest there when they say, "Listen EA Sports, here's the game we want you to make us." Right now they're asking us for a game where they do things on console, on mobile, on the Web where they add up to each other. And that's our focus.

GS: So it's not in the same vein as social where you want to be investing four or five years ahead to get in on the ground floor?

AW: The 3D technology is a different kind of investment. That's a rendering investment for us. And our rendering engines are more than capable of doing it. But for us, it's about focusing on the things gamers really want us to focus on. That's why we're driving this cross-platform experience, because that's how people are playing games now.

GS: What's your feeling personally on sports games in 3D? Because we get some football in 3D in the UK, and it's amazing.

AW: Yeah, and I've watched my favorite club Chelsea play in 3D, and it's very cool. But the take-up has been slower in other parts of the world, and certainly the take-up has been slower with gamers so far. At the point that take-up increases, we'll start getting that push from gamers and start investing in it.

GS: We heard at the Sony conference that there's going to be Move integration in FIFA 13. What can you tell us about that?

AW: All of our products are going into their preproduction phase for next year. One of the challenges we've given to our teams is to say there are more people playing with Move and Kinect, so how do we integrate that in our games and take advantage of those control schemes? We don't have that problem solved yet. We have some very cool ideas, but the team is working through that now in preproduction.

GS: So it's about adding to the experience, not basing FIFA 13 on motion control.

AW: Yeah, FIFA 13 won't be based on motion control. It'll be based on great 11-on-11 twitch core gameplay. But we think there's a gamer out there who has the Move, and we're looking to see how we can enhance the game with Move.

GS: And not just with Move, but also Kinect?

AW: Yes.

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