There's no third-party publisher that carries a history quite like Electronic Arts. Founded in 1982 through one man's ambition to publish the best PC games, this Californian corporation surfed the unstoppable tide of PlayStation in the '90s and 2000s, becoming a monstrously successful multi-national in the process. It made billions. It made enemies. It made a lot of Need for Speed.
Then in 2007, its chief executive at the time--John Riccitiello--gave his colleagues a stabbing wake-up call, in a meeting in New York now known as EA's "Burning Platform" moment. Electronic Arts was not, JR explained, too big to fail. Quite the opposite was happening, in fact; The publisher simply could not sustain its own excessive costs.
A painful reorganisation followed, transforming this megalithic publisher of discs into a broader entertainment group, making inroads into the business of social games, mobile, free-to-play, and online passes. It wasn't making as many billions, but it was still making new enemies. Zynga. Gameloft. Eric Hirshberg, et al.
And who can forget its biggest enemy of them all, the internet. Somehow along the way, EA was twice declared the Worst Company in America; a fine example of how short-sighted internet survey respondents can be, granted, but a bruising assessment of EA's public image nonetheless.
What's so surprising about this long-in-the-tooth publisher is that it still strikes me as a forward-thinking company; pioneering with loyalty initiatives such as EA Access, transforming its legacy sports franchises into successful around-the-clock services, and opening up new studios. All the while, dare I say, it has begun to restore that relationship with the online games community.
For now, EA's future is a more interesting topic than its past. At Gamescom, GameSpot met with Peter Moore, chief operating officer at the company, to discuss the long journey ahead.
GAMESPOT: How important are season passes for the future of your business? I say that because the profit margins on triple-A games tend to be getting thinner and thinner.
MOORE: Well it depends on so many things. It depends on whether it's a wholly owned IP, or whether it's licensed. It depends on the volume you drive. But yeah, these things are high risk, with hundreds of people connected to it, and sometimes with their livelihoods connected to it. You have high capital investment, and you hope it pays off.
Eight years ago when I joined EA, we were publishing 70 games a year. 70. And this year we might do twelve.
That's true of the whole triple-A industry, right? People are making fewer bets because the stakes are getting higher.
Yes, and there's a reason for that. The big games drive so much engagement nowadays, because they are not games you play for a while and then walk away from. Triple-A games today have live elements to them, and things like season passes are a way of keeping people engaged.
Season passes themselves are also a huge investment. Today we've got what used to be the size of a whole game development team, of about 40 or 50 people, working solely on the extra content.
My desk in the office is about fifty feet away from Visceral, and it's a hive of activity developing extra content for Battlefield Hardline.
And yet there is a pronounced resistance to this. Many fans express grievance towards obligatory DLC plans. On the other hand, I've heard executives tell me that DLC has become so important that, in some cases, it is sustaining the triple-A games business. How do you reconcile this conflict?
Well a lot of that resistance comes from the erroneous belief that somehow companies will ship a game incomplete, and then try to sell you stuff they have already made and held back. Nonsense. You come and stand where I am, next to Visceral's studio, and you see the work that is being done right now. And it's not just DLC, this is free updates and ongoing balance changes.
People will no doubt accuse me of being a total corporate shill for saying this, but I think there is some confusion within game communities that, when the foundations for future DLC is discovered in a game, such as the expansion levels in Destiny, people think that those expansions are already finished. The point being, development studios tend to put the basic foundations of future DLC on disc to help facilitate future updates, right?
"A lot of resistance to DLC comes from the erroneous belief that somehow companies will ship a game incomplete, and then try to sell you stuff they have already made and held back. Nonsense."Peter Moore
That's true, and you have to do that from a technical perspective. Think of them as APIs. Knowing down the road that something needs to sit on what you've already made, means you have to put some foundations down.
What people are confused about is they think DLC is secretly on the disc, and that it's somehow unlocked when we say.
I'd like to talk about Unravel, an idiosyncratic indie game that EA is putting its weight behind. What was the idea behind signing it?
It was less about strategy; I'd like to think about it more a commitment to do something that is good for gamers. We wanted to help a very small studio, that needed resources, that needed a home, that needed technology.
Patrick Soderlund [vice president of EA Studios] met with [Unravel creator] Martin Sahlin, and believed in his vision for the game. I'm the person responsible for publishing and selling it, and personally I think it'll sell very well.
If it makes us some money, great, if it doesn't, great, we will have still brought a game to market that a lot of people are going to thoroughly enjoy.
I think publishing Unravel is going to be a learning process for EA too. Supporting an indie game will give EA insight into their commercial potential, for example.
Yeah sure, and this is not your FIFA or Battlefield consumer, although I suspect a bunch of those people will buy it. It's a classic platform game, solving challenges as you go, and it looks gorgeous.
Do you want to publish more indie games at EA?
Well, you know, we publish thousands of indie games a year through a company called Chillingo. They're a great company, and mobile is such an important part of the future of gaming.
Of course, I was specifically asking about console indie games.
I know you were and I immediately changed the subject. [Laughs]
Aha, thought you'd done that.
We're always looking at opportunities for games that are worth our time and effort. But the truth is that there are far fewer of them than you think there are. Console games are not cheap to manufacture, so if you're self-funded [it's difficult].
We have a lot of studios, and we plan out three or four years in advance on what we're working on, what our portfolio is looking like, and new IP is of course very important to us. If opportunities arrive from outside that, great.
Like any well-run company, we know what our people are doing, and they know what they are doing. I can look at fiscal 17/18 and off the top of my head tell you what EA's games look like in two Christmas holidays from now, and that's important for our own discipline. But, for things like Unravel, we're always on the lookout.
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You recently announced that you have hired Jade Raymond, who is widely respected for helping cultivate the Assassin's Creed franchise. What was the vision behind hiring her, and opening a new studio, Motive, for her to lead?
Sure, I've known Jade for many years, and the hiring started with her pinging me on Facebook and saying, "hey, I'm thinking of a new start in my career." I had worked with her at Xbox, and we had great success together working on Assassin's Creed.
We love her, and her ability to bring fresh thinking to our company, especially when you think about the storytelling potential in teaming her up with Amy Hennig [former Naughty Dog writer, now at EA].
Jade is going to head up Motive in Montreal, that's where her family wants to live, so we decided to build a studio around her. We already have a great presence in Montreal with BioWare, and we love Montreal as a development hub, so it wasn't a difficult decision for us. Jade is also going to help us build new IP, and also, she's also going to take control of Visceral in Redwood Shores.
You're betting so much on her. Surely that will invite a lot of pressure.
Well I wouldn't say pressure. We're a big company. There is some pressure, yes, but the company isn't going to live and die by what Jade does. EA is a great place for where Jade's career is at right now; she has a great vision for what she believes the future of IP is. She is great at bringing the best out of development teams. She manages classic, high quality, triple-A projects with big budgets, and brings them in on time and on quality.
Bringing in female talent is very important to the company. Jade and Amy are a year, or two, out from their project deadlines right now. It's a great pipeline of games, and a testament to the way EA thinks about hiring women into senior development and management positions.
"Between when a dev team starts work on a game, and when it finishes, the world becomes a different place."Peter Moore
Are you looking to hire more well-known developers like Jade?
Well I don't know if we're looking. It's more about, if they come along, we grab them. There's not a huge amount of talent out there, available, right now.
Interesting. There is of course Hideo Kojima, who is expected to leave Konami shortly. Would he be someone you would like to work with?
I've always liked Kojima-san. I got on with him during my days at Microsoft. I just think... what's going on there... I just think both of them should kiss and make up.
From my experience, and I've spent a lot of time working in Japan, I think that Konami and Kojima will figure it out. Those kinds of business relationships [in Japan] are typically for life, and Kojima is such an important part in what has gone on there.
Clearly, they're at a rocky stage in their marriage. But you could take what is said about [Kojima Productions], about a game not adhering to budgets, about a game not being ready, and you could apply that to a lot of people.
Yes, any game that isn't iterative in nature the way an EA Sports game is, or any series that doesn't ship every single year... those things can go on forever. Ever. There needs to be an agreement between the publisher and developer to make sure that both parties understand when the game is supposed to ship, and what it's supposed to be.
But with regards to Kojima and Konami, they'll kiss and make up. They'll be fine.
You mentioned EA Sports, which is something I wanted to discuss. Your franchises, such as FIFA, are so iterative that it would be good to get a sense of where you think they are heading. What lies in their long-term future?
FIFA is already there, and Madden is already getting to that stage, where these games are live services. When I joined EA, eight years ago, the dev team would deliver a game, take a few weeks off, and then off we go again. Today, the game never ends. With things like Ultimate Team, these games have no off-season.
I see a slight conflict in what you're describing; EA is driving towards to continually evolving its sports games, but at the same time it switches attention to an entirely new iteration every year. Now of course, it seems like it would be commercial madness to stop selling new boxes of FIFA every year, but EA is essentially heading towards that dilemma. Do you foresee a future where a baseline FIFA game is updated with new season data every year?
Well that has always been nirvana, especially for sports games, and maybe one day that will happen. But I think there is still a thirst for a great, brand-new boxed game.
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I want to switch to Star Wars Battlefront. Surely yourself, and the rest of the EA executive team, must be kicking yourselves for not including a single-player campaign?
Well, you never kick yourself about these things. You make a decision, years out, and you plan for what the world looks like when a game ships in two or three years. That's about the intuitiveness about the executive producer, and his or her vision for the game.
Between when a dev team starts work on a game, and when it finishes, the world becomes a different place. I remember when we started work on Star Wars: The Old Republic; at the time, the model to go for was subscription. By the time we had the game ready, the model to go for wasn't subscriptions. That's why we had to stop the game, and rebuilt it as a free-to-play title with microtransactions, but even then there were some people who said they wanted to keep their subscriptions.
I totally understand that you have to think ahead when planning games. I was more thinking about Battlefront with more crude algebra, in that, triple-A games with single-player traditionally sell better than those with multiplayer.
So, there's two phenomena with that statement. The first is that yes, you might be right. The second is that very few people actually play the single-player on these kinds of games. That's what the data points to.
Let's switch to EA Access, which a lot of people think offers a good deal.
I think it offers a great deal.
Do you still want to see EA Access on PlayStation 4?
Doesn't matter. It's on Xbox One, and those customers love it. We have analytics on everything these days, and subscriber satisfaction rates are through the roof. EA Access customers get to play more, because of the Vault, they get to play early, ahead of general release date, and they get to pay less because of the discounts it offers.
So, consumers love it. It's doing well. If you expand to another console, business will be even better, right?
But it's not. It's on Xbox One.
I'm curious about what you're saying. Is this part of a deal with Microsoft now?
It's on Xbox One-
[Interrupting] Do you want to talk about this?
Well Sony talked about it, ask them [laughs]. There's not much left for me to say.
I'll move on. Battlefield Hardline had a strong launch, especially considering the time of the year that it shipped. I think people did notice that the player count dropped a little after launch, perhaps a little more sharply than you would have liked.
I don't know if it was sharper than we would have liked. We've just delivered new content that will help people re-engage. People come back to games when there's a reason to come back. People don't play the same games every day. I can tell you our engagement levels are where we thought they would be.
I think one of the challenges was we missed the holiday window, we shipped in March, what happens then is you enter the summer months and--we have decades of data to back this up--people just play less games. It's normal for game engagement to drop off a bit.
But we're happy with Hardline. Very happy.