Q&A: EA Games' Frank Gibeau, pt. 1
In the first of two interviews, the president of Electronic Arts' most gamer-centric label talks about wooing Grasshopper, landing Epic, and letting internal studios run wild.
At its Studio Showcase last week, Electronic Arts showed off a wide array of its upcoming games. It also sent shockwaves through the game industry by revealing publishing deals with two major independent developers: Grasshopper Manufacture, maverick designer Goichi Suda's Japanese studio, and Epic Games, maker of Unreal Tournament III and the forthcoming Gears of War 2.
Both deals were sealed under the publisher's EA Partners program. So far such high-profile studios as Valve, Harmonix, and--just last month--id Software have signed on to the initiative, which lets developers retain their independence while tapping EA's vast technical, publishing, marketing, and distribution resources.
Though it's directly managed by David DeMartini, the EA Partners program is overseen by Frank Gibeau, president of EA Games. As head of one of EA's four publishing labels, Gibeau is responsible for every noncasual, nonsports, and non-Sims game EA releases. He oversees an empire of development talent, including such marquee operations as BioWare, Criterion, Digital Illusions CE (DICE), Mythic, and Pandemic.
He's also in charge of development at EA's own studios, including the Command & Conquerors at EALA and the Dead Space morticians at EA Redwood Shores. Also under Gibeau's purview is EA Maxis, which has shifted from Sims to Will Wright's latest labor of love, the recently gold Spore.
Gibeau took the reins when EA quadrificated itself in June 2007, five months after John Riccitiello retook the position of CEO. Prior to Riccitiello's restoration, Gibeau had been a vice president of marketing for EA under Larry Probst, an era in which EA had a poor reputation among developers sacrificing game quality to hit financial deadlines.
As evidenced by the recent spate of EA Partners deals and the friendly $860 million buyout of BioWare/Pandemic last year, EA has changed. In the first of a two-part interview, Gibeau sat down with GameSpot to explain the company's new approach and the rewards it has reaped. He also reveals how an American company managed to land a worldwide publishing deal for the next game from Japanese superstar Suda Shinji Mikami, cocreator of the Resident Evil series.
GameSpot: This is EA Partners' first deal with a Japanese developer. Why did it take so long?
Frank Gibeau: I think it was kind of happenstance. Here, you have two great creators, Suda and Mikami, who wanted to get into a greater global market. And you have a company like Electronic Arts, which has grown to a place where we can reach the global audience. We're at that point now. About a year ago when John [Riccitiello] came back, at EA Partners we put our foot on the accelerator. We're flippin' it; we're customer- and partner-oriented. If you look at the collection we have--id, Epic, Valve, Harmonix, and now Suda and Mikami--that shows you we're being very partner-first in terms of how we're really understanding their needs and tailoring deals to match what they want.
GS: When I spoke with Carmack at E3 2008, he said you guys basically offer an a la carte service for developers.
FG: Right. That was kind of the shift. Before, it was a very different kind of style. Now, I've been much more plug and play. We ask our partners, "You need this? You don't need that? You need to use some EA resources to help you with a particular issue?" We've been very much more progressive and custom in terms of how we put the deals together.
In terms of Suda and Mikami, going multiplatform was very important, and EA has the resources to help them do that. For EA, as a Western company, Japan has been a difficult market to understand and operate in at times. Suda and Mikami are clearly the best of the best in that market, and the fact we could partner with the best of the best in that market really helps us understand the risk profile of bringing a Japanese game out.
GS: Now you mentioned "risk profile." Obviously, Mikami's Resident Evil series has produced a number of massive hits like Resident Evil 4. However, Suda's games have been cult favorites in the West but weren't huge mainstream hits. Do you foresee this upcoming game as being in the same vein as Killer7 and No More Heroes, or will it be more tailored to a mass audience?
FG: Well I think we haven't really gone full course yet on the game. What we've found so far that's been very engaging and positive from our perspective is that they've been very collaborative. They wanted us involved in the early creative decisions that they're making and getting feedback. That doesn't mean the game is designed by committee. They just want to tap our expertise and experience; they're asking us, "How do you think this would look, taste, feel to a consumer?" So we're helping to give that type of partner feedback, and as we start to develop the game, that will weave its way into the creative process.
But I mean, they are really going after a big idea here. They are going after a product that we believe can be globally successful. The fact he has a real hardcore cult following is great from our perspective, because it's a place to build from. And if we're smart about how we market it and position it, I think we can reach a much bigger market.
GS: So you'd consider this a global title, not a Japan-centric title?
FG: Oh, without question. We definitely see it as Asia, Europe, and North America.
GS: Now in terms of the Epic deal, how did that come about? I mean, it seems like every major independent shooter developer--Valve, id, and now Epic--has done a deal with you.
FG: You know David DiMartini and his team do a real good job building relationships with people, even if we're in business with them or not. So we're always in the mix when something like the Epic/People Can Fly deal comes up because of how we've shifted EAP. Of all the things we've done inside my label for the past year, year and a half, I'd say EAP has just gone crazy. Developers are saying, "Hey, they're not the evil empire..."
GS: Those were Carmack's exact words.
FG: Well there you go. We've excised the baggage the EA name brings. We've gotten rid of it. Word gets out when you have Valve, Harmonix, and Crytek saying, "These guys aren't so bad, actually. In fact, all the stuff we heard about before we haven't seen, and we're selling more than ever before." Stuff like that gets around the development community, and performance is what creates business deals. And it's our performance, we believe, is what is allowing us to bring these deals together. At the same time, we do have relationships. We are a user of the Unreal Engine, so Epic wasn't unknown to EA prior to this deal.
GS: You mentioned the shift in culture. I saw John Riccitiello's presentation at the D.I.C.E. Summit, in which he discussed the new "city-state" model of studio management EA is using. Previously, though, EA was notorious for implementing strict milestones, working their employees very hard, and just generally having a very heavy managerial hand. How much freedom do the EA Studios now have?
FG: I think it starts when John and I got together on where we were going to take the label. I looked at what we had, and we had a very top-down organization, where we told people what to do, told them when to do it, and gave them strict milestones. Frankly, quality wasn't the same priority as schedule date.
So when I looked at that equation, I just thought, "Well, that's just upside down." What was most important to me, and what I had learned over my career at EA, and frankly what I knew from being a hardcore gamer, is that when you think of Call of Duty 4, you think of Infinity Ward. When you think of World of Warcraft, you think of Blizzard. When you think of Battlefield, you think of DICE. When you think of Spore, you think of Maxis. You didn't think of the conglomerate, you didn't think of the corporation. You think of the development team.
So what I saw inside the EA organization was a lot of talent and a lot of ideas that were just being stifled by the organization and the way it was being led. So the first move that we made was going from highly centralized to completely decentralized. We flipped these studios out and gave them the creative and cultural autonomy to build the game that they want to build at the quality that they want to build them at. Now it's hard to manage all that against your Wall Street expectations and such. But, frankly Wall Street isn't as important at times as getting to great games, because great games will create financial performance. It's not the other way around.
GS: So it's EA's position that even if it means sacrificing profits in the short term, quality games will ultimately pay big dividends?
FG: Ultimately, long-term sustained profitability is our goal at levels we've produced in the past or better. Operationally, that's the goal. However, if you take a franchise you've been working on for two or three years, and you take all the millions of dollars you've spent, and the hundreds of hours people have put into it, and you put it out too early to make a quarter, that game doesn't become a sustainable franchise that you can make money on long-term. So for me, the biggest goal was to crack that code and come up with an organizational design which could allow really smart talented people like Alex Ward at Criterion to make the right decisions for their games. That delivers the greatest quality.
GS: So you're the mayor of the city-state model, then?
FG: My job is to figure out where they're all landing. I'm not the mayor. I feel more like a conductor at a symphony. I'm not playing an instrument; I'm just looking at what the strings and horns are doing, and I have a sheet of music that everyone's bought into.
Check back next week to hear Gibeau's thoughts on policing X-rated "Sporn" creatures, reinventing the Godfather series, and taking on World of Warcraft with Warhammer Online--among other massively multiplayer projects.
[UPDATE] Part two of GameSpot's interview with Frank Gibeau is now available.