D.I.C.E. '08: Riccitiello lords over "city-state" studio model

With the ink on the BioWare/Pandemic deal now dry, EA's CEO lays out his vision to make EA's internal developers semi-autonomous.


LAS VEGAS--The year 2007 saw Activision claim the crown of largest third-party publisher, even before its looming merger with Blizzard Entertainment was revealed. But for almost all of the prior decade, that distinction was held by Electronic Arts, which grew rapidly in the 1990s and early 2000s via a flurry of acquisitions.

John Riccitiello.
John Riccitiello.

EA's still-ongoing shopping spree has given it a massive library of marquee licenses, including the immensely profitable Sims series. However, in many gamers' eyes, the publisher has been a ravenous behemoth, gobbling up independent studios then grinding them down with an oppressive and byzantine corporate culture. EA critics pointed to the closure of once-mighty independent studios such as Origin Systems and Westwood Studios which were first subsumed and then shuttered by EA when their games ceased to be profitable.

For much of the time EA was painted as a corporate villain, John Riccitiello was its president and chief operating officer. After seven years, the Berkeley-educated businessman, who cut his teeth working at PepsiCo and Clorox, left the company in 2004 to cofound the venture capital firm Elevation Partners. The following year, he presided over the union of famed studios BioWare and Pandemic into an independently financed "superdeveloper" that bore their names. In 2007, he returned to EA, which turned around and bought BioWare/Pandemic for a whopping $860 million just months later.

EA's myriad detractors saw conspiracy in the buyout, with some theorizing the publisher rehired Riccitiello just so it could acquire BioWare/Pandemic and further feed its insatiable acquisitional appetite. However, today at the D.I.C.E. Summit, he made the contention that when EA buys a studio, "They're taking us, we're not taking them."

While the concept of EA as egalitarian assimilator might sound laughable to many, Riccitiello stuck to his guns. He said working with the founders of BioWare and Pandemic taught him to truly appreciate how independent studios' independence allows them to blossom creatively. Now back at the helm of EA, Riccitiello says he intends to let the megapublisher's various studios operate more autonomously than they ever have before, a theory he describes as the "label" approach to studio management.

"When we're doing it right, we're not synchronized swimmers paddling in unison," he told an attentive but weary audience. "We're like the NFL, with specialized teams with specialized cultures. Culture makes a difference. The studio model allows them to keep their own individual culture, like city-states responsible for their own houses."

As shining examples of the city-state system, Riccitiello held up a series of internal EA studios that were all once famously independent: Digital Illusions CE (DICE), EA Mythic (nee Mythic Entertainment), EA Black Box (nee Black Box Games), Criterion Games, Pandemic Studios, and BioWare.

Then, he surprisingly admitted that EA didn't create the "label" at all. Its rival Take-Two Interactive did when it set up the semi-independent Rockstar Games after buying Grand Theft Auto creator DMA Design, now called Rockstar North. "What Sam and Dan Houser have done there obviously worked," Riccitiello said, before going on to say he was "really looking forward" to Grand Theft Auto IV.

Ideally, Riccitiello believes, studios within a large publisher should operate like independent studios freed from having to worry about making payroll and strategizing marketing. He said he hoped EA's own internal studios would be like Valve Software or Blizzard Entertainment--self-contained organizations with strong leaders primed for massive growth and creativity.

"The command and conquer model, the command and direct model doesn't work," said Riccitiello. He went on to concede that EA's past post-acquisition tactics backfired badly. Bullfrog, Origin, Westwood--all no longer exist today because something broke. ... and I'll simply state that EA blew it, and to a certain degree, since I was involved, I blew it."

To learn from his mistakes, Riccitiello spoke with unnamed members of the aforementioned dissolved studios. "They told me they were stifled by politics, bureaucracy, and a fact they felt they weren't heard," he said. As a result, he is empowering his studio heads by giving them the corporate equivalent of the Bat-phone. "Large organizations will screw up, and if you have a strong leader at a studio, they'll call me up directly and change the direction of the company."

During his address, Riccitiello's affection for EA's high-profile studios was apparent. "The heart and soul of our company is out there with the developers, and we will never forget that," he gushed. That said, the executive also has a less sentimental reason for his new approach--it makes good business sense in a time of skyrocketing development costs.

To prove his point, Riccitiello said the independent nature of two of EA's studios, Maxis and EA Canada (nee Distinctive Software), led to the creation the company's wildly popular Sims and Need for Speed series. "In essence, these two companies took over Electronic Arts," the executive said, referencing the publisher's new hands-off approach. He said several new properties currently in development within EA's city-state system--including BioWare's Dragon Age, Mythic's Warhammer Online, and DICE's Battlefield: Bad Company--had the potential to be big successes.

In short, Riccitiello said the fact semi-autonomous studios can more easily create popular--and profitable--franchises offsets the risk of developing next-generation games. He had no compunction about spelling out the amount of effort a publisher wagers on each game as well. He estimated it takes at least 200 people--including outside contractors--to develop a triple-A title, which, with the introduction of Blu-ray, could grow to be as large as 25GB in size.

In other words, tens of millions of dollars are at stake in development costs alone. "We're in Vegas, and I don't have to tell you putting $34 million down on 34 [in roulette] and losing isn't a good thing."

In summary, Riccitiello feels that motivated, semi-independent studios are the operations best-suited to take on such mammoth projects with a minimum of risk. "The biggest cost is creative failure, and our consumers need to know that their 59 dollars are well spent. ... If you think that you can take [a studio's] label off the game, put your label on, and expect them to work as hard, you're crazy. ... Talent is migratory. If the talent leaves, there is no value in the business."

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Avatar image for commandere7

Let's just say that if they screw up Red Alert 3, I'm done with them. Red Alert 2 was my favorite game of all time, and Generals was... less than amazing. Leave those working on RA3 ALONE!

Avatar image for JDY1118

I'm happy to hear him apololigize for killing Westwood, and finally acknowledging that gamers are angry. I have some more respect for Riticello now... But i can't forgive him for buying up Bioware/Pandemic. If Mass Effect 2 and Saboteur turn out well, EA may be on the path to finally being a good company... As long as they stop screwing us for money with their ads and DLC rip offs!

Avatar image for Death_Masta187

"We're in Vegas, and I don't have to tell you putting $34 million down on 34 [in roulette] and losing isn't a good thing." if it cost you 34Mil to make a game then you are doing it wrong... "The biggest cost is creative failure, and our consumers need to know that their 59 dollars are well spent." hence the reason I stopped buying EA games long ago...

Avatar image for URError

their are way to many Madden games EA needs compitition

Avatar image for Petri87

@mark_unix - Hahahahaa. So what your saying is that Wii, DS and PSP all have 25gb Bly-Ray media for their games? Since 360 is the only one using Dual-Layer DVDs What you should have said 25gb only on the PS3.

Avatar image for mark_unix

25gb on everything except the xbox360, which is set stuck in time thanks to the DVD format...

Avatar image for FallenOneX

The only real problems I see with humongous companies getting even bigerr is a problem we already see: TOOOOOOOO DEPENDENT ON FRANCHISES! And when you buy any developer that makes competeing games, those great games get "added" features that make them just like everyone elses. Now on it EA on a personal level. If you think that the Madden games are getting "better" without competition, you're wrong. Sales increase because the hardcore NFL fans didn't have a choice, not that the game was so great. Right now, fans are getting ready to respond, "Well what game was better, huh?" None, and that's my point. Nothing from nothing leaves nothing, you gotta have somethin'........

Avatar image for ebonyflame

Took EA long enough to figure this out. Would have figured it out a lot sooner had they paid attention to their yearly shrinking sales figures or asked any random gamer what they thought of EA branded games. Shining example would be the mention NFS games and how every titles releases after Most Wanted has sold tremendously less than Most Wanted. Or how Madden sells less and less each year. There is no more creativity in the house of EA. If the company with large pockets sees a game developer developing a sure fire hit game, the acquire them, release the game, make their money back and then let the studios atropy. EA has along way to go before I buy another EA game. Last one I bought was Madden 98. Were they to release a simple Road Rash II remake, not over dver complicating it, I might buy it.

Avatar image for Damnation_6

Well I hope they will do the things they promise. Too bad, like people mentioned earlier, they had to destroy Westwood before finding this out. They could have asked any random gamer to find out. Ah well, atleast he publicly stated he failed, really warms my heart =P Last thing I bought that had the EA label on it was Hellgate London.....and only because I knew Flagship was an independent studio. If they actually do what they say.....I might start buying games from EA again.......maybe....very maybe.

Avatar image for code305

Kenny10112 i agrees

Avatar image for rbenns2

Okay, lesson learned. Now, let's see if he actually DOES do any of the things he SAYS he will. Saying and doing are two different things - something people tend to forget during election years.

Avatar image for Kenny10112

EA = Evil Agency

Avatar image for KhanhAgE

To bad he had to destroy Origin Systems and Westwood Studio to figure that out. Even if they're under the EA banner. I would still expect BioWare to make Dragon Age a triple-A title (when have they ever failed?).

Avatar image for theKSMM

I'm surprised that it took him quite this long to figure this stuff out. If you acquire an already successful studio, what good can come from you going in and mucking around with its internal operations? Better late than never, perhaps...

Avatar image for DeltaSpirit

-Ya Blew It

Avatar image for nate1222

diznella...bullseye. The suits ultimately call the shots. Sometimes the suits' interests defeat their own purposes.

Avatar image for Proman84

What do you know? An EA guy admitting his mistake! Cool. Partnering with SPielberg was a very smart move so let's hope they'll continue improving.

Avatar image for godzillavskong

I like this guys honesty. Seems like he means well, lets just hope he sticks to his word and actually give these newly aquired companies room to breathe and stay innovative.

Avatar image for Zoomer30

Hm....lets see...what that phrase I am looking for... OH THERE IT is, Conflict of Interest. Cant beleive you can get Bioware/Pandemic together, the go to EA and buy BOP there.

Avatar image for prioritymail

I like some of EA's franchises, but I just dont think they should be allowed so many.

Avatar image for Dryker

Yeah, yeah. That's all well and good... until the developer stops churning out hefty profits and instead of letting them figure out what they're doing wrong and start "really" getting creative, EA's gonna tell'em exactly what to do or pull the plug entirely. I'm personally looking forward to Army of Two, but I'm holding reservations until the reviews are out or a good demo.

Avatar image for ps3pwnr

number 3 game looking forward to this year 2 mgs4 1 army of 2

Avatar image for Jumoka1

John's talk is sweet music to our ears, but we'll just have to wait and see some actions. I have my doubts about EA because they are loyal to their stock holders, not use the gamers / consumers. Just like any mega-corporation, its about the bottom line MONEY!, not creativity or employee independence. EA will continue to try and maximize it's profits by gobbling up developers who can make them money and continue the yearly Madden, Need for Speed garbage that is watering down our industry. I just hope and pray that EA does not stifle the creative juices coming out of Pandemic and Bio-ware, that would be a true sin. I believe John's only talking like this because he hears the whispers that we the gamers are fed up with EA corporate mentality.

Avatar image for theembassy

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

Avatar image for trestx

My only hope is that EA brings back the Origin label intact, and starts reviving the series for Wing Commander and Privateer.

Avatar image for vahid_xbox_360

interesting !

Avatar image for Kravyn81

That's all well and good what this guy said, but actions still speak louder than words. I only hope that they don't ruin their newly acquired franchises like ME. Because you can't get a AAA game churned out annually; it just doesn't happen. EA sees a game sells well and their eyes balloon with dollar signs figuring they can just churn out sequel after sequel on a yearly basis and keep hitting gold. I still don't understand why in the hell people are stupid enough to keep buying the Madden franchise. Speak with your WALLETS and stop buying their sh*t and they'll quit making it. It's amazing that all people do on here is b*tch about how crappy Madden is: THEN QUIT BUYING IT OR RENTING. Simple as that.

Avatar image for ChuckNorris82

I agree with diznella completely!!!

Avatar image for diznella

For most mediums, the creative are controlled by the suits...ie, the recent writers' strike. It's always going to be that way, but if Bioware and Pandemic Studios can follow this model, they will only get better. In a perfect world, they'll have more time to be creative and spend less time on the marketin of the game. However, with a large publisher, the odds are that they're going to force a game into a specific quarter to increase their earnings. This can sometimes lead to a game with a lot of potential, that didn't have enough time for polish...ie, Crackdown. So, you go from having a game like Bioshock and end up with a Turok. Let's hope that EA is ready to buck its trend and allow Mass Effect 2 the time and space it needs to be a winner.

Avatar image for Hvac0120

It takes very little to say that you are going to do something. It takes a lot to prove that you are going to do something by actually going through with the promises that you make. EA still has the expectations of putting out a Madden every year. Same for Need for Speed and tons of other IP's that seem to keep bringing in the dough on a yearly basis. When you push developers to meet those yearly deadlines, you are emphasizing speed over quality in the development cycle. This means that usability testing is not done properly and developers have little time to come up with better ways to do things and fine tune the gameplay elements. That's why it took so long for them to get a decent next-gen Madden on the market - and they still have a lot of work to do to make Madden 09 better. The latest Burnout is a good sign that Criterion hasn't been completely ruined. However, since EA likes all their popular IP's to come out annually, I can see this new model as having little effect in the quality of the games that are returned. You have to give the developers the independence from time and the independence to create in order to get those AAA titles that sell so well.

Avatar image for Stedmister

"Square merged with Enix to make Square Enix EA bought Squares ownership and merged into it's self." It was actually a joint-venture between EA and Square, not a merge, When Enix and Square merged, Square repuiraced it's sharesl from EA. << LINK REMOVED >>

Avatar image for The_Mad_Nutter

It might be a step in the reight direction, but its still a long way for EA to become a company people respect creatively.

Avatar image for Dav_id83

That picture of Riccitiello it's like he's saying "look at me I am posh and great and look at you", EA are a bullying company they bought out/Merged Westwood Studios (Shut Down) Criteion BullFrog (Combined To EA Uk after Peter Molyneux (Fable/Lionhead) Left BioWare Pandemic Distincitive Software (Renamed it Electronic Arts Canada) Merged With Japanese Victor Inc. (Renamed Electronic Arts Victor Inc) Origin Systems Inc (Creator Of The Ultima Series) 3DO (Co Merged With Time Warner To Create 3DO Hardware Company then software company then closed) Mythic Entertainment (Warhammer Creators) Square merged with Enix to make Square Enix EA bought Squares ownership and merged into it's self. EA own 19.9% shares of UbiSoft a possible future merger could happen with them. Tell me that's not called bullying

Avatar image for Ndvanwely

Oh great, now EA joins the 'sustainable development' band wagon too! X'D But wow! Finally apologies for what they did to poor Westwood Studios! Hurray!

Avatar image for Rowr14

GIF said: "BLAHBLAHBLAH. For someone who had a hand in Westwood and DICES demise, its all hot air. EA sucks primarily because it has the clueless people who do NOT love games leading the talent since they are at mercy of investors. Want to make triple A titles? Let your creators create and not worry about money. This is the reason why studios like Blizzard and Bungie are so good? Because faith is placed on the creators and creative decisions are autonomous from financial ones." Thats almost exactly what he just said, did you not RTFA. amazing i think 50% of people are just seeing EA in the article title and flying off on a wicked tangent.

Avatar image for peon_frenzy

"EA aren't really the evil empire that people think they are. its just that they let the odd rubbish game through once in a while and get roasted for it. " Very incorrect. EA as the publisher controls when the game will ship among many other things. The large majority of the time EA rushes the development teams to get a game out on schedule even if the game isn't finished.

Avatar image for peon_frenzy

"The way PC gaming is going, we will soon have one publisher and one genre left - EA and FPS shooters! " In the same year that WoW reached 10 million worldwide subscribers. That is a really strange comment.

Avatar image for nazraq

i have been seeing a change in the way EA's working lately. crysis is awesome, and cryteck is the reason for that. spore looks amazing. and the battlefield games rock. those are the highlights that i can think of, and they are the games that ea has given more freedom to. i believe that us gamers have a lot to look forward to. more creative and original games from big publishers. expect more good things from activision, ea, ubisoft, 2k, ....

Avatar image for GIF

BLAHBLAHBLAH. For someone who had a hand in Westwood and DICES demise, its all hot air. EA sucks primarily because it has the clueless people who do NOT love games leading the talent since they are at mercy of investors. Want to make triple A titles? Let your creators create and not worry about money. This is the reason why studios like Blizzard and Bungie are so good? Because faith is placed on the creators and creative decisions are autonomous from financial ones.

Avatar image for Nxss-effa-sim

Potentially taking future losses of $350 million and fear of the combination of Activision Blizzard has finally knocked EA off their coveted throne and instilled some sense into them through the process. At least now we know there are some suites who actually think in the gaming industry (not always in terms of $ signs). But that is the beauty of competition, it forces businesses to evolve for the greater good--if they don't want to go bust that is. Who knows, maybe EA will eventually become the well-liked, high-quality game publisher and the likes of AB will be hated as the corporate beast. Well, I always root for the underdog, in this case EA (Superbowl terms, Giants). So we will see....

Avatar image for Phazevariance

Now if only they could make them glitch free (or as close as possible)

Avatar image for IRoxxorUrSoxxor

Activision's rise to prominence is already helping to mitigate EA syndrome! Huzzah Activision! As for EA, what a bunch of bastards.

Avatar image for Sirpapaya007

did anyone elses post date come up an odd year? mine just said Dec 19 1969....

Avatar image for Sirpapaya007

wow after having a record year for software sales the last thing i expected to see is a bunch of people claiming videogames are headed downhill. Did any of you play this years blockbusters?!? Gaming (not just casual) is alive!

Avatar image for Humorguy_basic

The way PC gaming is going, we will soon have one publisher and one genre left - EA and FPS shooters! :(

Avatar image for Rowr14

"EA are an evil empire blah blah blah cry cry cry" I think this new attitude Riccitiello is representing can already be seen at work within EA. From its recent releases, to its future line-up. Bioware and Pandemic, two studios which are very wary of big business effecting a creative environment, signing on to EA speaks volumes to me. He's admitting his mistakes from the past, theres no great conpiracy here. Someones not going to spout all this for the sake of it. Well i guess theres got to be a big bad guy in gaming, so you detractors keep up your doomsdaying, while the evidence eventually swings far enough to the contrary.

Avatar image for mohawkny115

I would have to say EA is doing a good job. They put out O.k. games but don't innovate in anyway, so we know what to expect from them but we won't ever see an original title again unless they buy out a company with an original product, and that means profits. That's how they did it with Crysis and that's how they will keep doing it. This way they save money while accumulating better or more technologies by having companies merge in with their buy out plans.

Avatar image for deactivated-5925dfb1d1fe6

This is good news.

Avatar image for minhas32

EA should release mass effect for pc.It will be a good profit for them.People in europe and asia are waiting to play this game on pc.Crysis reached platinum status.So ea please do it.And microsoft released halo3 for pc as early as possible