Last week, Electronic Arts' Origin platform celebrated its first birthday. EA did not publicly note that fact with any kind of outward fanfare, but the service had a busy first 12 months. Since its launch in June 2011, the platform has tallied 12 million users, attracted 50 different publishing partners, and found itself in the midst of a privacy concern controversy and a tussle with Steam.
GameSpot caught up with the man in charge of the operation, EA senior vice president of global e-commerce David DeMartini. We picked his brain about the successes, shortcomings, and evolution of Origin in its first year.
During the talk, DeMartini explained that the Origin feature set in its first year was rather foundational, and noted it was important to him to lay the appropriate groundwork before adding more "glitzy" features. He said bringing socially interactive services like improved friends lists and cross-platform play options to Origin in the current year is EA's focus moving forward.
Elsewhere in the interview, DeMartini explained that EA wants to work with all publishing partners for Origin. He specifically called out Activision, saying he would love to see Diablo III and Call of Duty games on Origin. DeMartini also expanded on Crysis 2's vanishing act from competitor Steam, and why he's OK with Mass Effect 3, Dragon Age II, and Battlefield 3 not being available on that service.
Check out the full interview with DeMartini below.
GameSpot: Origin is now a year old. If you could describe the year in one word, what would you say?
David DeMartini: Can I use two?
DD: I would say, "continuous improvement."
GS: Was this year a success for the platform?
DD: I think a huge success. When you consider where we started from, which we kind of say was a standing start, we've got 12 million downloads of the application. We have 50 partners: independent game developers and publishers who are publishing on the platform. We've generated over $150 million in revenue, which represents huge growth on a percentage basis versus the previous year. In every numerical dimension it was a huge success.
"When you start one of these services, you can't leap to the glitzy features. You have to get the meat and potatoes down first."
That said, the Origin feature-set last year was very foundational. When you start one of these services, you can't leap to the glitzy features. You have to get the meat and potatoes down first. I guess the analogy that I would use in the sports industry is if I'm starting a football team, I might draft a lot of offensive and defensive linemen and those aren't the sexy positions, but if you want to have a really strong team, you're gonna start with that foundation. And once you have that strong foundation you can get a bit more elaborate in some of the other positions.
Last year was very much a foundational year for Origin. And this upcoming year we're very excited because we're going to start to draft some of those skill position players that are going to put a lot more sticky features on the Origin application.
GS: What kinds of growing pains has Origin experienced in those first 12 months?
DD: Shocking as this may be to you, Eddie, people like Steam a lot.
GS: I've never heard that (laughs).
DD: I've never heard that either (laughs). I think people have been critical of our efforts. And usually, we really appreciate their criticism. When you start a service, if nobody says anything about you, they don't care about you, and you're irrelevant. I would not say that's the case with Origin. There are many people with opinions about Origin: where we should go, about features we've deployed. And again, if you take a look at the bigger picture, and you look at where we were on the day that we launched versus where we are now, and you look at things like cloud saves, the improvements we've made to friends lists, the capabilities we've put in there with in-game chat, the ability to pop into the in-game overlay, what we've done with merchandising experience, how we've added partners. And you look at it at a meta layer, and you look at where we started versus where we are right now, it's very hard to look at that and say 'Wow, they're not making any progress.'
After immediately saying that, I would also say, we're very much engaging with the community, and we're trying to hear from them what are those sticky features that they want us to be developing that would allow us to be differentiated from any other download service. We don't have an intention of being any other service. We have an intention of being the best Origin that we can be. And I think those are the kinds of features and activities that we're pushing forward with.
GS: Which is more impactful to you in your decision-making: positive or negative criticism?
"If nobody says anything about you, they don't care about you, and you're irrelevant."
DD: Having made a lot of games for seven or eight years before I started working on Origin, you know I would be foolish not to say I don't appreciate the positive comments. At the exact same time, I'm equally embracing those that are our harshest critics because they cut right to the chase. No BS about it. They don't pat you on the back while building the foundation, they immediately leap to "You can't do this!" and "You can't do this!" We take stock in their comments, and we try to make as much progress as we can with our team, and that's really a lot of the fuel that our team uses to drive the implementation of a lot of these new features that we're working on.
GS: What are some types of things you can point to that Origin did well in its first year?
DD: Certainly the commerce experience is very solid. Also our integration with EA's games during the first year and then subsequently what you'll see with all the third-party games and externally developed games would be a strength as well. I think the kind of exclusive offers that we've had out there. We've had Battlefield 3 and what we've done with Star Wars has certainly been very attractive to the people who downloaded the Origin application. I think when you look at things like our implementation of cloud saves, in-game chat; some of those foundation pieces have done quite well. The reason they haven't gotten more positive write-ups is because a lot of those features are features other services have. So when you do something that other people have done and you do it quite well, if you're not the first mover, you're not going to get as much credit as somebody who did it for the first time, and we certainly understand that. But these pieces, these features, are fundamental and foundational to what we want to push forward and what we want to achieve going forward.
Being self-critical of Origin, I would say it's not sticky enough. And we want to put features in place where we fully take advantage of your friends lists and gameplay activities amongst all of your friends so you can compare achievements. We want you to be able to challenge your friends, and to challenge your friends to play other EA games to try and achieve things that might even be across EA games. A lot of people are loyal to us and we need to reward them with that stickiness, so we're looking in that direction. And then obviously, EA has made a significant investment in mobile and social as well as PC as well as console, and we need to take full advantage of how cross-platform EA is and allow that to be realized within the Origin application.
On EULA controversy: "We were a toddler and we were learning to get out of our crawling position and into our walking position, and sometimes you get out in front of yourself."
GS: Can you point to some examples of things that didn't go so well at Origin or things you wish you had done differently in the first year?
DD:I think some of the end-user license activity that we did and how we actually went through an Origin install. I think we were under-prepared for the harsh feedback for some of the feedback we got in some of the European countries based on how we were even just doing the basic install of Origin. And we had to react quite quickly to that with some changes to our EULA as well as to our install procedure. I mean, there's nothing nefarious going on there, but just on the surface people's reaction was appropriate. It gave the illusion that we were being far more intrusive than we actually were and those things needed to be changed. So those types of things are learning experiences. We were a toddler and we were learning to get out of our crawling position and into our walking position, and sometimes you get out in front of yourself, and you start running before you know how to do it as effectively as you need to. You need to listen to the community, take their feedback, not overreact to the tone of the feedback, but cut it down to its essence then make quick corrections. And I think we got on things very quickly and we made improvements where we needed to make improvements.
GS: In the past year, Origin has added dozens of new publishing partners. Big ones like Warner Bros, Capcom, and THQ, and also smaller outfits like Paradox and Autumn Games. What steps is Origin going to take in the next year to bolster its roster?
"If Activision was open-minded, we're absolutely willing to take on their great titles. Diablo III is a great game. Call of Duty will be very popular."
DD: We're always so open-minded to taking on every partner in the industry. If Activision was open-minded, we're absolutely willing to take on their great titles. Diablo III is a great game. Call of Duty will be very popular. Take-Two, I mean there are a couple of large publishers out there that are not on Origin.
GS: Have there been discussions with Activision and Take-Two?
DD: As you can imagine there's not a stone that we haven't unturned in regards to participation with the Origin program. We want everybody to be on the platform. We're very much an open platform and we would like every publisher to participate and we'd like every independent game developer to participate. And we'd like everybody who can get a crowd to fund their game to participate. We have absolutely no restrictions with regards to who we would welcomes on the platform. And I think the fundamental premise behind Origin and our view on the whole industry is that an open industry where the customer gets to choose where they purchase their content is healthiest for the game industry overall.
GS: A move that may have caught people off-guard was EA's decision to waive distribution fees for 90 days for successfully funded crowd-funded games. What role do indie games play in Origin's overall platform strategy?
DD: I would love to say that was so strategic. Some ideas just sort of naturally pop up. And to give you the genesis of that idea: literally a few of us were sitting next to each other and we were looking at a bunch of the crowd-funding sites and we started looking at it and there was so much passion on these crowd-funded sites for in many cases old intellectual properties that people had great remembrances of. It seems like the perfect marriage of Origin and independent game developers and the support of independent game developers that the idea kind of just instantaneously rose up and it was such an obvious, right thing to do. That the idea went from idea to implementation probably within less than three months' time and from the first iteration of the idea to full execution to announcement was a very short window. And it was just something obvious to do. It rewarded the core and rewarded those people who were really passionate about the crowd-funded game, and it rewards the guys who are doing the creating, who have been around the longest time and have helped build our industry. So there were so many positives from the perspectives of benefits the hardcore, benefits the crowd, benefits the independent game developer, and it was just an idea we had to do and do it as quickly as possible.
GS: What has the response been to this promotion thus far?
DD: Kind of a gulf. From the most popular names to some of the most unknown names where somebody is saying 'Hey, I've got this idea.' You get the crowd to fund it and we're gonna help you by virtue of the free publishing in the first 90 days. The response has been very positive and my goodness, for the first time ever, even hardcore gamers out there on Reddit and everywhere else that we watch really didn't have anything negative to say about what we did [laughs].
GS: Is Wasteland 2 the only confirmed title for it so far?
DD: That's the only confirmed title, yes.
GS: Another major event for the year was issues around Crysis 2 on Steam. First it was there, then it wasn't, and now it's there again. Can you talk about your relationship with competitors like Steam and your rules for selling your games through their channels now that you have Origin?
"We haven't taken a single title down off Steam. But as games have fallen out of compliance with Steam's rules, they've chosen to take product off."
DD: Clearly, there were changes made by Crytek to Crysis 2--the Crysis 2: Maximum Edition--that brought the game back into compliance with Steam. So I think consistently, if you look at everything we've said, we haven't taken a single title down off Steam. But as games have fallen out of compliance with Steam's rules, they've chosen to take product off. And there's been many quotes and misquotes with regards to who did to what to who and who took what off what. We've not taken a single title off of Steam. Certain titles have fallen out of compliance. Crysis 2: Maximum Edition actually brought, if you will, Crysis back into compliance by virtue of all of the content being contained within that product, so there wasn't some additional download that had to happen only on Steam. So the entire bundle is available, and by virtue of the entire bundle being available, they were in compliance, and lo and behold, it was back up on Steam. That's really all there is to that story.
GS: So are Battlefield 3, Dragon Age II, and Mass Effect 3 not available on Steam for those reasons?
GS: Is it a big issue for EA to not have those titles on Steam?
DD: No. Those three titles have done fantastically on Origin and every other download site where you can get access to those games. So the one thing about working at EA is that when you have this fantastic IP that you get to put up at your store and every other store that will take it, is gamers find the best intellectual property wherever it is for sale. That said, we're very supportive of having our intellectual property for sale on as many sites as we can. Obviously, we'd love to have those titles up on Steam, but unfortunately, those titles don't follow the rules that Steam has so therefore those titles are not up on Steam.
"That's our goal: to make a great gaming service. We are not there yet. But in the next 12 months we are going to make great strides towards it."
GS: What are some benchmarks for Origin during the next 12 months?
DD: Most importantly, improving and continuous improvement in our customer satisfaction in regards to how happy people are with the site and the features we're implementing on the site. That is always our most important indicator. In our games, our game teams look very closely at Metacritic, which is a reflection of what the community is saying about your product. I think we very much look at what anyone says about Origin, and we assign our own 'virtual Metacritic' for Origin. We continue to try to improve that Metacritic. And I also think we always want to make a significant amount of progress with regards to the platform nature of the service and we want to make progress with regards to the stickiness of the service. And I think if we satisfy more and more customers everything else takes care of itself from there. If you make a great game, if you have a great service, people buying games on your service is an outgrowth of making a great service. You don't set out with the intention of saying I want to sell $300 million worth of product on this gaming service. What you do is make a great gaming service and people then want to buy it from you. And that's our goal: to make a great gaming service. We are not there yet. But in the next 12 months we are going to make great strides towards it.