The biggest news at yesterday's Electronic Arts Studio Showcase was the announcement of the company's new publishing deals with two highly influential developers. The first was Grasshopper Manufacture, the maverick Japanese studio behind such cult hits as Killer7 and No More Heroes. The second was with Epic Games, maker of such megahits as Unreal Tournament III and Gears of War. The latter deal will see EA publish an unnamed multiplatform game from Epic Games' Polish studio, People Can Fly (Painkiller).
While both announcements produced audible gasps in the presentation hall on the EA Campus, the Epic deal struck many as particularly surprising. The studio already has established relationships with two major publishers: Midway Games, which just released Unreal Tournament III on the Xbox 360, and Microsoft Game Studios, which will publish Gears of War 2 on November 7.
Why didn't Midway or Microsoft land the opportunity to publish the new title? And why did Epic choose EA, of all companies? The answer lies in EA Partners, a program which has been thriving since John Riccitiello returned to EA in 2007 as CEO. Overseen by EA Games president Frank Gibeau, the initiative essentially rents out EA's vast resources to developers, offering such services as testing, marketing, publicity, publishing, and distribution.
While still remaining independent, studios in the EA Partners program can choose from as many--or as few--weapons in EA's arsenal as they desire. The a la carte nature of the program has proven irresistible to many top-tier developers. Valve signed on in 2006 with The Orange Box, and was joined in 2007 by Harmonix and MTV Games, which used EAP for Rock Band. Crytek's sci-fi shooter Crysis was published late last year under the EAP banner, which id Software hoisted last month at E3 for its forthcoming open-world actioner, Rage.
So what made Epic games jump on the EA Partners bandwagon? GameSpot sat down with Mike Capps, president of the Unreal Engine maker, to hear the story behind the deal.
GameSpot: So this deal is totally out of left field. Tell me how it came about.
Mike Capps: Our relationship with People Can Fly started when they used our engine tech to work on a demo to show publishers. They really impressed us and we said "Wow, we should really get these guys to do a few [Gears of War] maps." They did, and it just knocked us over. They were really, really cool.
GS: These are the extra maps in the PC version of Gears of War, correct?
MC: Exactly. They're just really gorgeous. We were blown away, so we partnered with them just doing the whole PC port [of Gears]. After that, we liked them so much, we bought the company.
GS: Move over Remington, eh?
MC: I know. It's silly, but it's totally true. They're that good. Two bottles of vodka and a smile later, we had ourselves a Polish developer. So we asked them, "What do you want to do next, what's your dream?" They pitched us a bunch of different ideas, and we really latched onto one we thought was pretty darn impressive. [Gears of War designer] Cliffy B was in there, and me, and the producers of Gears, everybody kind of helping to shape that into something we thought was cool.
Then, we did some demos and approached a few publishers. EA is the one that came back with the best understanding of what we were trying to do. They had the most flexibility in terms of fitting with an indie developer like Epic. We were really impressed with what they had done with The Orange Box and we called the guys at id, and they had really good, positive things to say. So it just added up. It made sense.
GS: So you just called out of the blue and asked, "Hey [Valve CEO] Gabe [Newell] and [id co-founder] John [Carmack], how'd that whole EA Partners deal work out for you?"
MC: Basically, yeah. It's a small industry. There are only so many small shooter companies that have been around for 10 years making engines, right? Jay Wilbur, our VP, cofounded id Software, so we're all pretty close. Bitter competitors, but still really close. [Laughs] I mean, it's a new EA. Five years ago, if you told us we were going to be working with EA, I'd have thought you were a little crazy. But the way they just put so much more emphasis on external development and really partnering [is important]. They're not just all about the games they're making. It's just being smart. I mean who wouldn't want to publish The Orange Box, even if they didn't develop it? Or Rock Band, right?
GS: That's funny you say that because whenever I've written an article saying that EA is publishing Rock Band, I get an angry phone call or e-mail from a PR rep saying MTV Games is publishing and EA is "just distributing it." You guys don't seem to be as sensitive about the terminology...
MC: Well, I think for Rock Band they're more the distributor, and for us it's a full publishing arrangement. They're handling marketing, PR, and worldwide distribution.
GS: When I spoke with John Carmack at E3, he said EAP offers a basically a menu of services you can pick and choose from...
MC: Yeah, exactly. And that's perfect for us. The last thing we want is a publisher coming in and saying, "You guys don't know much about level design, and we're going to assign someone to your team to show you how to do lighting." I've had publishers try to do that, and not only does that drive us crazy, but they tend to get hurt. [Laughs] EA is more than happy to say, "Yes, we'll do the testing, distribution, and marketing, but we won't do design oversight." So yeah, it's perfect for us, because we can pick and chose.
GS: Now with Rage, John [Carmack] said they had already self-financed the whole game. Are you guys doing something similar, given that you have the financial means to do so?
MC: We're not talking about the business terms, but that's part of the package of being able to pick and choose. We probably developed the product a lot farther than most people when they're going around pitching to publishers, since we can do that. That gave PCF the ability to take it a bit further and decide what they really wanted to do, and also let us show EA something more substantial than just a design document.
GS: I don't suppose you can go into any of the specifics of the game...
MC: [Shakes head, grinning] Sorry!
GS: But, to be clear, this is an all-new property, right?
GS: Totally unrelated to any prior series from either Epic or People Can Fly.
MC: [Deadpans] Oh, we've invented an entirely new genre.
GS: Now at the presentation, you said your instructions to PCF were to "make something as cool as Painkiller and go totally over the top." Is that more over the top than other Epic games? Because I can't imagine anything more over the top than the chainsaw bayonet duels and 100-Locust armies in Gears of War 2...
MC: All I can say is that it's totally cool [grins.]
GS: OK, how should I phrase this...will the game cover traditional Epic Games territory?
MC: Of course. More importantly, I think it's going to cover traditional People Can Fly territory. It's gonna have the things they really like to do, hopefully with a little input from us to make it fit Western sensibilities. They like to make really high action, over-the-top shooters with great physics and tech, and really good competitive multiplayer. We want to build on that, not throw it away and make them make a kids' game.
GS: So we can expect all those elements to be in the game?
MC: Well, where you end up is always different than where you started, but that's my expectation.
GS: Well do you guys ever want to do something crazy like Gearbox Software did with Samba de Amigo? Just tackle a totally new genre out of left field? I mean you guys bought Chair Entertainment, and they did Undertow...
MC: You know...[pauses] There's interest in the Epic family for that, but we have a lot of guys who have a "no unicorns" clause in their contracts. For them, that just wouldn't work. These guys want to work on stuff they think is badass and cool and they want to play. Maybe, as we grow there will be room for that, but not right now. This whole making-games-that-are-cool thing is working out for us. [Laughs.]
GS: OK. And is the PCF game the only new IP in the works at Epic?
MC: We've always got ideas on the table. But Epic's [North Carolina office is] a two-team company, and we're making two franchises right now. Our team in Utah is working on something that we'll announce very soon--that's the team that made Undertow, Chair Entertainment. And now PCF's a one-team company, so they've got this new game to work on.
GS: Now this mystery game is being developed for the PS3, PC, and Xbox 360. Are you guys planning on a simultaneous release on all three platforms?
MC: I'd really love to do that, yeah. We'll see what the realities are, and what the time frame is. The best way to do marketing is to release all three at once, so yeah, sure.
GS: Well, the reason I ask is that Unreal Tournament III came out for PC last November, PS3 last December, and Xbox 360 just last month. Are you developing on all three platforms simultaneously? I know the past model has been to develop on PC and 360 first and then bring it over to the PS3, but LucasArts said at GDC that they're now developing for PS3 first, since it's harder, and then porting that version of the game.
MC: I don't have specifics, but the plan is to do it simultaneously. But then again, plans are meant to be changed. Gears was always a 360-only release, but Unreal Tournament III changed a lot during development. We ended up doing a PC and PS3 lead with the 360 version following a few months later.
GS: Now this is a bit different from the traditional relationships Epic already has with two publishers. You've got a deal with Midway to publish Unreal Tournament III and with Microsoft Game Studios to publish Gears of War. If this EAP thing works out, do you see yourself abandoning the traditional publisher-developer model?
MC: Well, we still think the publisher-developer model is still the right way to go. I mean, it's a huge amount of effort to, say, do you own marketing. I mean sure, we could hire some really smart people to do marketing in 30 territories. Or, we could work with a publisher that already does that. I mean, distribution is not the hardest part of publishing. It's the partnering, the helping guide product, providing the public presence, and making sure people know about it. And then there's tests and all that.
I mean, I suppose we could contract all that out, but I just think it makes sense for us to work with a publisher. That lets us focus on what we do, which is make great games, and not worry how we go about buying newspaper ads in the Czech Republic. I hate to say I've got better things to do, but I've got things to do that I'm better at.
GS: That's a nice way of putting it, actually. However, while your describe your deal with EA as pretty much a standard publishing arrangement, your deal falls under the EA Partners aegis. How much autonomy are you going to have? Has EA just given you carte blanche?
MC: [Making air quotes] EA is "hiring" Epic, working with Epic because they've got a lot of faith in our ability to make a great game. Other than that, it's a partnership. They've got really good designers and producers out there in the team in London, who is working with PCF, who are giving great ideas we're putting into the product. And we want those guys excited about the product.
Look, Epic's always been the kind of shop where the systems administrator can do a play test and send in comments. If they're good comments, it goes into the game. We don't worry about, "Well, Cliff didn't come up with that..." Cliff's smart. He steals the good ideas, right? I'm smart. I steal the good management ideas from other companies and use them at Epic. That's what we do.