Q&A: EA Games prez on wielding Warhammer, policing 'Sporn'

In the second half of GameSpot's interview, Frank Gibeau talks about his WOW habit, refusing to green-light single-player games, the Wii, the next Medal of Honor, and the possibility of a Black comeback.

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Last month at the E3 Media & Business Summit, EA president John Riccitiello casually shattered the wall of secrecy surrounding BioWare's Knights of the Old Republic massively multiplayer online role-paying game. Unfortunately, his lieutenant, EA Games president Frank Gibeau, is more disciplined when it comes to speaking the press. In the second section of a two-part interview, the affable executive deflected any questions about the KOTOR MMORPG with a polite "no comment" and a brief laugh.

But just because Gibeau was tight-lipped about the BioWare Austin-Lucasarts collaboration didn't mean he didn't want to talk about MMORPGs. That's because the executive will be overseeing two massively multiplayer launches in the next two years: Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning on September 18, and The Game Which Will Not Be Spoken Of in 2009. Both games are aiming to lure away some of the near-12 million subscribers of World of Warcraft--a game Gibeau himself has played extensively.

Indeed, online gaming as a whole is central to EA's strategy. In two weeks, the company will launch Spore, Sims creator Will Wright's highly ambitious evolution-civilization-space-exploration simulation. The game takes user-created content to a whole new level, letting players create their own race of creatures and upload them to EA's servers, where they can wander into other players' games. Unsurprisingly, the Spore Creature Creator's dizzying array of options has led to the spawning of thousands of X-rated monsters since its release in June.

How will EA keep kids from inadvertently encountering rampaging penisauruses and genitaliarachnids? What will it take to take a bite out of WOW's massive user base? What's going on with the Medal of Honor series? Is Black coming back? GameSpot sat down with Gibeau to get some answers...again.

GameSpot: So the launch of Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is fast approaching. What groundwork are you laying to take on World of Warcraft?

Frank Gibeau: Well let me back up and say that core to the strategy of the company--and very specifically our label--is that we want to be online with everything we do. I'm no longer green-lighting games that are single-player only, even console products. They have to have deep online modes because that's where our fans are spending a lot of time and, frankly, that's where a lot of the value in the IPs we create can really take hold.

We already have two operating MMOs. We launched a game called Ultima Online in 1997, back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, and that's still in business. It's still got hundreds of thousands of subscribers. Then there's Dark Age of Camelot, which we picked up when we bought Mythic; we also have a situation where we have well over 100,000 subscribers. Both are highly profitable, but they're old world.

The new world happened when WOW shipped. I've got three level-70 WOW characters, and a couple [level] 65s. I've put a lot of hours into it. I love the universe, I love the game. Anything that Blizzard makes, I really dig, and I really respect what they've done. They came in with a design that broke open an entire new market. Madden did that a long time ago for sports games, and the Sims did that for the people-creation games, and Doom a long time ago for shooters.

There's always that ultimate killer app that comes out and creates a mass-market opportunity, and WOW is that for the MMO category. And what they've done is create millions and millions of players who are now comfortable with the way MMOs play, they're comfortable with the models, and they're looking for more.

Our job is to go after that new market and really grow a business. If it's a situation where you're directly competing with WOW, so be it. The key is to make sure that your product is different from theirs and bring something fresh to the equation. Something that fans will find exciting, and we think we have that in Warhammer. It's also important for us to come out with new concepts and different IPs.

GS: An IP based on a popular science-fiction franchise, perhaps?

FG: No comment [laughs]. So, we look at the models in Asia, where there are bigger games than WOW. Now, no MMO is bigger than WOW globally, but the market is growing here in North America. And it's not just with high-end MMOs. You've got a lot of lighter titles like Runescape and, hell, even Club Penguin is a bit of an MMO.

So I see it as much more diverse market than simply, "I must beat WOW." I thank WOW for a great few hundred hours of gameplay as well as making a market. But we're gonna compete there and we're going to succeed there in a lot of different ways by coming at it from a lot of different angles. I see it as a very lucrative, long-term part of our business.

One other thing, the MMO space is a great place to design games. You can come up with some really killer universes and experiences there, and a lot of my teams are really fired up about not only doing it on the PC, but also on consoles.

GS: So you think a console MMOG would be viable?

FG: It can be, yeah. You can get a mix of different price points and levels of content. You could put one set on the shippable version and have a lot more you pay for on the back end, which you could buy in a microtransaction manner versus a subscription. Now I think this console cycle is going to have a very long life, if you look at the PS3 and how strong the Wii has come on. I think this is going to be a really big, long cycle and I think there's a lot of room to innovate through that connected console with different price points and methods of delivering content. I mean, look what we're doing with Burnout--we're delivering an entire, full game directly to your PS3. If you play that, you know it's got a fairly robust online mode.

GS: Now you mentioned the Wii...

FG: In general, I think the talent inside the EA Games label is really excited about two things: The Nintendo Wii and the online opportunities connected consoles afford. That's where I see a lot of our bets going right now. I'm trying to dramatically improve and expand our Wii development, and think you're starting to see that with Skate It and some of the other titles.

GS: Well it seems like some of those bets haven't paid off as well as you've hoped. I mean you guys hyped Boom Blox pretty heavily, but it was only kind of a hit, selling under a half-million copies...

FG: I think it's done well. It's just a different curve. When you look at Boom Blox or Cooking Mama, they have a different sales curve that what you'd expect with a day-one event. Different types of games, such as puzzle games and more casual games, have flatter, longer curves, and stuff like licensed movie games and even shooters are much sharper and they spike differently.

For our label, the Wii is important, and we're building quite a few games for it. We've expanded development for it. We believe that as the market expands on the Wii, there's going to be a large segment of that market that are going to be core gamers that want to have traditional experiences with the Wii innovation tied in. And we've made games like that. Medal of Honor [Heroes II] was very successful for us, we've got Need for Speed, and Skate It coming out.

GS: Now you mentioned Medal of Honor. Over the past few years with Call of Duty, Activision, and Infinity Ward have reinvented the World War II shooter genre that Medal of Honor basically created back in 1999. Now, they've taken the series to new heights by bringing into the modern era with Call of Duty 4, which outsold Medal of Honor: Airborne many times over. Do you foresee a similar transformation in store for the Medal of Honor series?

FG: [Pauses] We're definitely looking at Medal of Honor, and we're working on some ideas against that franchise. I've worked on Medal of Honor from the very first game, so I know when it was spectacular and when it wasn't so spectacular. So we have some ideas about how we're going to bring that back and really compete there.

This is a really good example of where we created a category--World War II shooters--and someone else--Call of Duty--came in and did a really great job of taking over that market. But the cool thing about technology is that you do have this ebb and flow between categories and key franchises, and you'll hear more about Medal of Honor in the future. I can guarantee you that.

GS: So it will be a modern military shooter?

FG: [Laughs, shaking head] Well, right now, we are very proud of Battlefield: Bad Company. If you look at the multiplayer piece of that game by itself, the online stats are just amazing. There are tens of thousands of people playing today right now, and have been every day since launch. It's our first 85 game on Metacritic, and it's our first single-player experience built by [Swedish developer] DICE. In the shooter category, if you line up the EA guys we've got with [EA Partners] Epic, Valve, id, and Crytek and our properties like Medal of Honor, Battlefield, and if you go back a few years, Black, there's a great stable of shooter franchises in our group.

GS: I remember a few years back during an EA earnings call you guys said there would be a new Black...

FG: I've got nothing to announce there.

GS: So, "no comment" again, eh?

FG: [Laughs] Well, I can speak more generally. Am I looking at it? Absolutely. But the most important thing to look at when you bring something back is whether or not there's a reason to bring it back. Road Rash is example of a franchise which everyone and their grandmother has said, "Hey, you've got to bring this back!" But when you sit down and try and think up a new concept, you've got to add something fresh to the equation as opposed to bringing back the old formula. That's typically how we challenge ourselves, because that's what we need to do to blow the fan base away.

GS: Now we've talked a lot about original IP. Now I'd like to know what's going on with your licensed IPs, specifically the Batman film license. There have been rumors that a Dark Knight game was in development at Pandemic but it stalled. Is that the case?

FG: In terms of licensed IP, in our label, we want to strike the right balance [of] licensed and wholly owned. In the past, it had heavily been weighted to licenses, much to the [detriment] of our new IP development. What we tried to do was flip that, because frankly, the guys in our studios want to build their own IPs. And they're pretty good at it. And in the online world, it's good to wholly own it, so you don't run into license restrictors which effectively make you pay rent for the IP. If you get the balance right, you end up having on one side a few really powerful licenses, like The Simpsons, Godfather, and Lord of the Rings. On the other side, you've got a whole bunch of original IPs like Spore, Battlefield, Need for Speed, and Medal of Honor.

The thing I've learned while running this portfolio is that you need to strike that balance, because these games aren't getting any cheaper to make. And you also have to have that long tail with the online connection to kick up the business a notch or two. So going forward, we're going to be very strategic when picking our licenses, and very good partners to the people on the other end of those licenses. But we're going to be very fickle.

GS: OK. Now regarding the Dark Knight game...

FG: We have nothing specific to announce today on that.

GS: Now I recently read that Will Wright was talking about the possibility of a Spore TV show or movie...

FG: In my old job as general manager of North American publishing, we launched a show called the Madden Nation on ESPN, and we had unbelievable ratings. [The next season will air this fall--ed.] What we found was that gamers want to see more of the universes and the worlds and stories and even the players of gaming. So what we thought about now, more strategically than we did in the past, was how we take what we have and bring it into other media forms. In the case of Dead Space, we've got an animated feature that'll be on air this fall, and we've got a comic book that we're doing.

In terms of Spore, we've got a ton of feelers from film and television and others that we're evaluating. It has to be very high quality, though. We don't make a lot of money off these things, and if you just dump a bunch of garbage out there, you could risk killing the IP. What matters most to us is the IP in an interactive form, but if it makes sense and it's a high-quality organization, we'll partner with them to make a movie or to do a television show. I can tell you there are multiple properties inside our label which are attracting interest. In the interview, I think Will was just talking about some of the feelers that we've had.

GS: Well, after it bought the Tom Clancy brand, Ubisoft said that it wants to go into the business of making films and television shows itself. It even bought the special effects company that worked on 300. You guys, however, are still doing limited projects with other media partners. Do you see EA expanding into other forms of media more than it does now?

FG: I do. But I think having two or three great projects is better than having seven or eight average ones. So when you look at the IPs that we have like Spore, there's clearly something else we can do with those.

GS: How high are your expectations for Spore?

FG: Well, it's like opening a movie or a Broadway show, you never really know until the box office comes in. So until you see the results, you just try and keep your head down and try and look at how to get the demand going. Is the game good enough? Are we going to make our dates? Are the ads running? So I sweat the details all the way up to the 11th hour, and then I like to see what my day ones [sales] are. So my answer is I'm not going to give you an answer, since I don't ever make forecasts. [Laughs.]

GS: Nice riposte. Now one of things you must know about is the large number of X-rated, anatomically correct "Sporn" creatures that have been made with the Spore Creature Creator. Are you guys cracking down on that?

FG: Ah, sporn. Well, we have filters and parental controls, so if people are of age, they can see it if they want to see it. On our servers, we've got very vigorous controls and are going to keep it out. But you can create whatever you want and upload it to YouTube. That's the beauty of Spore, in a way--it goes where your creativity takes you, and isn't limited to a game design. Basically, publishing Spore is like selling crayons. What you draw with them, I can't help.

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