Q&A: EA Sports tackles Xbox Live Marketplace

EA vice president of online commerce, Chip Lange, talks about the direction EA Sports is taking with downloadable content on Xbox Live Marketplace.

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Microsoft's Xbox Live Marketplace has proven itself to be a welcome addition to the next generation of gaming. The online store is a place where publishers can dish out new maps, missions, or vehicles for games and make a pretty penny on the side. But how can sports games, many of which don't have missions, vehicles, and battlegrounds, take advantage of the service?

Earlier today, Electronic Arts revealed its first batch of downloadable content for Madden NFL 07 and NCAA Football 07 that emphasizes the company's new approach to sports-related downloads. Gamers can now purchase video strategy guides and classic stadiums for the football games, and EA promises more content for its entire line of athletically inclined titles.

GameSpot sat down with Chip Lange, EA's vice president of online commerce, to discuss how the world's biggest producer of sports games is taking on the challenge of sports-related Marketplace content.

GameSpot: Can you explain the current mindset that EA Sports has going into downloadable content?

Chip Lange: Sure. The mindset is we love it. We're all big fans of it. We're all huge users of the Marketplace and are excited about the type of creative offerings and opportunities it brings for us to be able to get new stuff to customers to keep the game experience fresh and exciting over the life of the product. So if there's a key message here, it's EA Sports and EA are embracing this whole method of distribution of content to customers. And the pipeline's starting to open up.

And myself being a gamer, it's exciting to hear. The stuff that we're going to be releasing this week is just the start. [Our approach] is like most publishers, just about every game that's on the Marketplace starts with a little bit of stuff, and then over time stuff just keeps coming and coming and coming. And that's what you're going to see here. We'll put some [items] up this week, and that'll be a good start. And what I believe is going to happen, and I'm certainly driving this here at EA with the studios, is there's going to be an open pipeline of content that's going to be flowing on our products that customers can get up there, check out stuff, see what hits their particular fan interest, and pull it down. We haven't had that ability before because the disks have all been locked on their platforms. So this is a real creative opportunity that we're now starting to embrace.

GS: Price points of Marketplace content have always been kind of up in the air. I guess everyone is still trying to figure out how much to charge for what. How did you settle on your price points?

CL: We did a real thorough price analysis of every piece of content that's on the Marketplace right now. And we put it on to a big analytical pricing sheet and compared all the different types of content, quantity, and different price points, and landed at our pricing that way. I can imagine it's probably one of the more thorough pieces of price analytics that have been done on the Marketplace today. We worked closely with Microsoft on it. Those guys have got some great instincts on it. We showed them the content, and that's where we ended up. It was a combination of analytics of what the Marketplace is supporting right now, talking to the Microsoft guys, and considering the franchises that we're doing this with. These are some of the most premium franchises in the business.

GS: Gamers are going to pay $3.75 apiece for classic stadiums. What are they going to get with that download?

Brett Farve and the Los Angeles Coliseum--classic football icons.
Brett Farve and the Los Angeles Coliseum--classic football icons.

CL: Well, I don't know if you've gone into the 360 version of Madden this year and seen the stadiums, but I think the stadium changes the way that you feel about the game. I was playing somebody online a couple nights ago, and we played in Tampa with the stadium with the big ship in it. If you're a Tampa fan, you want to see that. And so you're going to have that same level of experience re-created for some of these classic stadiums--some may or may not be around anymore. They're not stadiums that people are playing in. But if you're a fan of the old-school LA Rams, you know where they played, and I want to show those--I want to fly those colors when I'm playing the Rams. And you'll get the same level of visual fidelity that you get on the stadiums in the game now, but you'll get them for stadiums that certain fans of certain teams don't have the ability to play in the game right now, and we'll be piping that type of stuff through to them.

GS: What about the video strategy guides created by VG Sports? How many will be made for each game, and are they going to be aimed at beginners? Are they going to be aimed at veterans?

CL: It's a pretty good mix of range from beginner to advanced. I think every gamer's going to find something in there that's going to make them better. Right now, we're announcing four for Madden, and they cover the primary aspects of the game. And we're going to be continuing these for all of our sports games, and we'll see what the response is from customers on them. They're about five or six minutes long, and they cover passing, running, pass defense, run defense. I've watched them. They made me a better Madden gamer. You wouldn't know it by my online record, but the goal in the creative design with the VG Sports guys was [the videos] can't be an instructional "how to play the game" video. It has to be a "watch this video to get better, and you have a better chance of beating your buddy across the street."

GS: I also saw that there will be new modes that are going to be available. Can you elaborate on that at all?

CL: I don't have specifics on modes, but it's covering a variety of different types of content that the studio's looking into. We'll be doing all these different things, and quite frankly, we've got a big meeting up in Canada next week to talk more about what the next six-month rollout strategy looks like. Modes are something we're looking at. Different uniforms. Different stadiums. Strategy guides. And quite frankly, there's a bunch of other more out-of-the-box ideas that we're looking at right now that I'll keep you in the loop on as we start to tighten those up. The best news for me is that we're spending a bunch of time thinking about this, and we're just getting started with what we can do here.

GS: Certain downloads, they're aimed at specific markets or fans, like the Rams classic stadium. How's EA going to balance the line between appealing to hardcore fans of a team and making content that appeals to everybody? Doesn't it make more sense to try and hit the entire market with a download?

CL: The answer is yes. But what I find is so much of in the Madden fan base--you talk to just about any Madden gamer, and we saw this with the gamer picks and themes that we put up on the Marketplace last year--people love to fly their colors. So going after the more broad-based market, that's our strategy, but the way that you do that with a game like Madden is by letting people identify with their local sports fan appreciation. And that's where the different type of content really comes into play. So if I'm a Niner fan, I'm going to want to be able to fly my Niner colors. And if I'm a Rams fan, I want to be able to fly my LA Rams colors. And if I'm a Seahawks fan, I want to play in the old Seahawks stadium. Those are things that you just can't do a mainstream solution for because the NFL is a collection of individual local fan groups.

GS: When I think about sports game downloads, I'm thinking about new cars in racing games or courses in golf games or boxers in Fight Night. But these sports are so broad that adding content that reflects the current state of the sport in the real world is fairly easy. But football, NHL, NBA games--they're pretty much all-encompassing out of the box. So besides legendary players and throwback stadiums, what kind of current content, things that can be applied to this season, can fans of Madden, NHL, and NBA Live expect?

CL: I don't have anything I can tell you about today, but the technology on the Xbox 360 has now enabled us to look at the products in a different light. We look at these as living products now. We don't close the book on them after we release it. These are now dynamic products that can be updated with what's happening in the world of sports. Let's say there's some new online gaming strategy that's happening in NCAA Football that people are finding successful to win games. We'll go do a new strategy guide that can reflect that. If something happens in the sport that really feels like it needs to be represented in the game, we've never had an avenue to get there, but now we've got an avenue and we're showcasing that we're supporting the distribution platform. I don't have content to announce to you today, but I would be looking at all the different pieces of the recipe and going, "Hey, wow. Those are starting to feel like the right direction for me as a sports fan and as a sports gamer to get fired up about."

GS: Does that mean maybe regular roster updates will be part of the equation here?

CL: Well, we do regular roster updates now. We've done them on the Xbox, the PS2, and we continue to do them on the 360.

GS: And they're all free. Is that correct?

CL: Yeah.

GS: In terms of the long-term, do you have any projections for revenue from downloadable content?

CL: It's too early right now. My most important initiative right now is starting to get an understanding of the Marketplace, the dynamics, and starting to get the studios to build into their content pipelines postfinal content release. So that to me--that's been the big win this year. Once we start understanding how the market looks and reacts to this type of content, we'll get a better projection idea. So I don't have anything right now.

GS: And looking at the other platforms, PlayStation 3 and the Wii, can we expect similar initiatives on those?

CL: Well, we will figure out the right way to get the right product for the right platform. Right now, I think the online plans for those platforms are still being solidified. And if postrelease content becomes a key component of those platforms' release strategies, there's no company in the world better to address it than EA.

Not as much LA smog back in the 1980s.
Not as much LA smog back in the 1980s.

GS: Five years down the line, how do you see EA Sports represented on Marketplace?

CL: I think we've got the most exciting content, the most diverse lineup of content, and the content that most accurately reflects what the sports fan hungers for. That's what I've always prided myself on. I've been working in the EA Sports business for a long time and have been really in tune with the passions of the local sports fan. So I want to figure out 25 really exciting ways to make a Philadelphia Eagles fan's experience in our game that much cooler.

GS: Even as a Niners fan, you're willing to do that?

CL: I'm willing to do it. And I can't wait to find 10 ways which I can fly my Niners flag even higher. Even after last week.

GS: EA sponsored organized tournaments--is there any plan to do premium tournaments down the line where people may pay a fee and get some sort of substantial prize?

CL: I think there are multiple tiers of tournament strategies that need to get rolled out over the next 12 months. And I think there's going to be consumer demand for a higher--what's the right way to describe it?--a way for us to get a higher level of game integrity. And if we were to do some type of a paid tournament, which I don't think we've got formally planned right now but it's certainly something we're looking at, where we could, in exchange for a financial entry fee, deliver a higher-fidelity tournament with higher integrity, I think there's a demand for that in the market. I also think there's a demand for just more EA community tournament type things. And you've seen some of that with the Madden Challenge. Customers clearly want to show who's the best Madden gamer, and it's in our passions to be able to showcase and make superstars out of those people.

GS: I know there's some demand for this, but fantasy sports leagues--when are they going to be fully integrated into EA Sports games? Something where you can draft your team, play with 12 buddies, and have Madden set that up for you?

CL: What really needed to happen was the online penetration rates of the consoles needed to get there. And with only 10 or 20 percent of the consoles connected [to the Internet] on the old-generation boxes, it didn't make a lot of sense for us to really push that feature. I think Microsoft's latest number was 60 percent [connected]. All of a sudden, different ways in which you can get your fantasy information become things that we're starting to pay much higher attention to. So I'd look for that over the next one to two years, for that to begin to be much more deeply integrated into the core experience.

I was literally checking my fantasy stats about 45 minutes ago on easports.com. I think the Web experience has gotten to a point now where it's as good as anything that's out there. And now what we do is we figure out how to extend it to different platforms that are connected online.

GS: Cool. And last question, currently the Niners are 3 1/2 over the Raiders. Who've you got in that game?

CL: I got the Niners. But I plan on flying those colors every week.

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