EA COO weighs in on Infinity Ward firings, retail's fate

GDC 2010: COO John Schappert says digital revenue will still be tied to shiny discs for years to come, expresses regret that Modern Warfare 2 developers will be spending time making court cases instead of games.

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Who was there: John Schappert, chief operating officer of Electronic Arts, took part in a half-hour "Mythbusting Fireside Chat" with Los Angeles Times writer Alex Pham. The executive was expected to talk about the industry's migration to digital distribution, the ultimate fate of retail game sales, and how social media and other recent trends will influence that evolution.

EA COO John Schappert.
EA COO John Schappert.

What they talked about: Alex Pham began the talk by recapping a bit of Schappert's history, back when he was a lead programmer for Visual Concepts working on an EA Madden game and FIFA Soccer. Things quickly turned toward the future, as Pham asked if there were any prospects at all for disc-based games with the advent of digital distribution.

Schappert called it a misnomer that retail discs would be done away with in the short term. He acknowledged that there's a huge opportunity in digital distribution but pointed out that no matter how successful the current wave of add-ons and downloadable content may be, those business transactions still start with a retail sale of a physical disc. Even when most of the industry's revenue is drawn from digital distribution, Schappert said he still expects the majority of that money to have been spent on extending and adapting a standard retail game.

Schappert said EA has seen consumers buying fewer games of late. Sales of the top 10 games are representing an increasing amount of the industry's total take. He added that if a publisher doesn't have a game in the top 30--and arguably, the top 20--then that company isn't making money. Hit games are bigger than ever, he said, and they're selling for longer thanks to downloadable map packs and other add-ons. While Schappert stood by the "shiny disc business," he emphasized that the model has changed, saying the days of "ship it and forget it" are behind the industry.

EA's faith in retail games doesn't mean the company is shying away from downloadable titles. Beyond its own efforts, the company has begun teaming with independent developers on digitally distributed titles through its EA Partners program. "It's easier than ever to be your own self-publisher," Schappert said, before adding, "It's harder than ever to stand out."

Schappert also touted another EA development, the recent acquisition of Playfish. When asked if the company aimed to use the company to further EA's existing brands or launch new ones, the executive said gamers would likely see the developer produce both. Pham asked if classic arcade titles were among those being considered, and while Schappert evaded the question, he did say it was an area EA was looking at.

When pressed about whether social gaming is a bubble waiting to pop, Schappert explained that any bubble perception was due to a combination of the space being the "hot" thing right now and having low barriers to entry. As a result, he expects some social entities to emerge healthy, but he won't be surprised to see others go under.

"It's the place to be right now, but we'll see what happens tomorrow," Schappert said of social gaming.

When asked about innovation and whether or not it's the place for big publishers to be, Schappert pointed to Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect, and Battlefield: Bad Company. Dead Space and Mirror's Edge were also name-dropped as Schappert touted the publisher's track record with its own original products and ran down some of EA Partners' success stories.

Pham brought up the recent Infinity Ward-Activision flap and asked if EA is a good publisher ("mothership" was the word she used, referencing a Bobby Kotick presentation from last month's DICE Summit) for developers to team with.

"Maybe you don't pick motherships that like to litigate that much, or have a legal team that is a revenue-generating team," Schappert said, drawing a wave of laughter from the crowd.

Joking aside, Schappert said he was disappointed with the situation, calling former Infinity Ward heads Jason West and Vince Zampella two of the best creative people in the industry. He also singled out Modern Warfare 2 as a great game.

"To think that they're going to be spending their time dealing with lawyers instead of making games is a loss," Schappert said.

Quote/Takeaway: "At the end of the day, online is great. It's a nice evolution of our space. But it does all start with a shiny disc."

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