INTERVIEW: Andrew Wilson, EA Sports

Michael French
INTERVIEW: Andrew Wilson, EA Sports

The new EA Sports president has an ambitious plan to have all the label’s games run as connected cross-platform experiences. But, he tells Michael French, that means some tough decisions for retailers, publishers and console manufacturers

During your Develop conference keynote last month you said customers had lost interest in going to games retailers. You stopped short of predicting their demise, but do you think retailers are fighting a losing battle?
Here’s the thing. I look at Apple –it has created an amazing retail experience. With the Apple Stores the company created an unbelievable retail experience.

So I think the challenge for retail in the entertainment industry or the interactive entertainment industry is ‘What is that experience?’ There are still ways to answer that – and I think retail will still exist for many, many years to come. Maybe forever. But I think it exists in a different format. I am not Nostradamus of interactive entertainment but I have looked at what companies have been able to do with retail experiences and why we still go to stores. I think [what Apple’s done] is what retail has to replicate in our industry. Because right now in games retail there are games on a shelf, you buy one, you walk out. It really is a transaction experience, not a retail experience.

Has that been applied to the EA Sports store that you’ve opened in the US?
We’re looking at a couple of branded experiences. Our focus there isn’t necessarily about selling games, but giving people the opportunity to experience what we make in a retail environment.

A lot of what I’m talking about ties into wider issues about how human beings are changing socially in the online age. The single greatest challenge for us as human beings is to give someone else control of our destiny, and that’s what the industry needs to start doing, by giving customers more input and control and more options. As game makers, that’s what we’re doing and that’s as scary as anything that I’ve ever encountered. Retailers face the same challenge. How can they give control to the consumer and still have a viable future? We don’t know the answer, but here’s the catch-22: if you don’t give the control, you can guarantee you don’t have a viable future.

The new EA Sports Season Ticket does that by offering content early.
I think what consumers have told us through music, film and television is that the model where they pay a subscription for an all-you-can-eat buffet of entertainment content is a model that they gravitate towards. So when we look at what we do at EA Sports, and at what we do at EA in general, the notion that we have to let the consumer decide is a sound way of thinking.

What about the consoles? Do they face the situation retail does?
Console creators are facing the same dilemma: How do they evolve at internet speed to deliver consumer experiences that are on-demand? I think XBLA and PSN have done a great job with delivering different experiences at different price points.
So if anyone says there’s no evolution there, that view is fundamentally flawed – consoles have been driving this as well. They get it, it’s not like EA’s the smart one and they’re not, they see it as well. But it is a challenge. The symbiotic relationship that exists between game maker, console maker, retailer and consumer… that continues, but I think that the relationship is just different.

Can a large company like EA, with a yearly calendar of games like FIFA to keep pumping out, move at that ‘internet speed’? How do you push that thinking into your development teams?
It’s an incredible challenge for us. At EA Sports we have typically been the fastest movers in all of EA and now there are consumers that are moving exponentially faster than us. So we are doing our best to indoctrinate our people, helping them increase their clock speed, and bring in new talent that has lived at this speed who can help spread that message.

Based on what we’ve seen with FIFA on Facebook, FIFA Ultimate Team and our other online projects, plus where we see it going with iPhone, I know we are now living day-to-day at that speed. Had you asked me whether that was possible a couple of years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to give you an answer. Is it possible today for EA Sports to exist at internet speed? Yes, because we’re doing it today. We respond to consumers and speak to them at a real speed.

What about the rest of the games industry – is that moving at internet speed?
Our organisation, led by John Riccitiello, is moving quickly and he has been driving the ‘increase your clock speed’ message for years now.

But do I see some folks in other parts of the industry resting on their laurels and hoping that their gamers are going to line up indefinitely to buy $60 games on discs? Yeah, I see that.

What happens to them if they don’t speed up?
We’ve seen the answer before. We saw a music industry try and force people to continue to go to HMV and Virgin Megastore and buy 17 songs on a disc when they only wanted three, and we saw what the consumer did in response. In music consumers took technology into their own hands and almost destroyed the music industry entirely. So that’s what happens. If the consumer wants to go in a direction and you try to force them not to, they will find technology that facilitates that direction.

JOIN THE CLUB

EA Sports is beefing up online support for FIFA with FIFA Football Club. EA Sports president Andrew Wilson says the service introduces two key elements to the best-selling franchise.

“First: it’s about turning a disc based environment into a live service that no longer is static and no longer is bound by what you’ve got on a disc,” he tells MCV. “It drives ever changing dynamic experiences based on what happens in the real world of football.

“The second thing is it facilitates a greater relationship with your team and drives how you operate with your friends based on that relationship. It’s tied to the real world, so you and your friends operate in an ever changing environment that is as real for you as watching Chelsea vs Man City at the weekend.”

But can it help sell more games? Wilson says: “Football Club  provides an ecosystem where it’s no longer just about just FIFA 12. It’s about the opportunity for consumers to play through FIFA 12 on console, to play through FIFA on Facebook, to play through FIFA on the iPhone – whatever that manifestation is – and  everything they do creates value and progress for them in that world. They can buy in to at a different times and  places, in a manner and fashion that makes sense for them. We give them the control.”

EA SPORTS: THE ONLINE VISION

EA Sports shifts more boxed games than any mid-sized publisher. But label president Andrew Wilson has designs on making all of its games 100 per cent network oriented by turning them into cross-platform services that can be accessed through Facebook and mobile.

But that’s all on the assumption that FIFA players want to go from console to Facebook and back. Do they?

Yes, explains Wilson: “Based on our research, EA Sports HD gamers have a higher incidence of smartphone usage, a higher incidence of digital media usage and a higher incidence of Facebook usage than most other categories. So they’re there. The reality is that right now they’re playing other things on those platforms. So it’s up to us to deliver a great experience that adds value to who they are in the console world.”

What about the vast audience of casual players?

“There are 200m that play on Facebook today. Will they ever move to the HD or Super HD experience? That we don’t know. But gamers evolved. 30 years ago, a tennis video game was two lines and a dot, and in time we demanded more. So when I look at the 200m who only play on Facebook today, it’s reasonable to believe that at least some of them too will evolve to a point where they will want to do more than trade cards or harvest crops.”

But that does mean manufacturers need to evolve too, adds Wilson: “I think that there is always going to be a desire for what we term today as HD gaming. But is it still going to be your 60 inch television? Do you need a console box for it? Will it be holograms? That experience is going to exist, but the real test for console makers, TV makers and the people that make these high-end pieces of hardwear is, what is the manifestation of that HD performance in the future?”

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Tags: interview , ea sports , andrew wilson

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