INTERVIEW: MCV talks to EA COO Peter Moore about a market in transition, the future of discs and his costly Bejeweled habit...
Thanks to gruelling media training, most senior games industry execs have been groomed to never say anything off message.
Every comment, for most publishers, is on-brand with little hint of personality. And when they do mention family or their personal life, it can feel like a contrived attempt to humanise their products.
Interview Peter Moore, however, and the anecdotes often are just that. Whether he’s telling you about his garage full of old Xbox games (naturally – he ran the platform for four years), the fact he’s been playing a lot of the Jeopardy iPad game (which isn’t one of EA’s titles), or the running equipment he’s buying on Amazon – it’s all too inconsequential to be part of some attempt to shape whatever narrative MCV will write after interviewing him.
So when we tell you the following, understand that Moore offered up details without any shame or purpose: the chief operating officer of Electronic Arts is hooked on one of the company’s own free-to-play games, Bejeweled Blitz.
“I have spent around $160 dollars in that game – that’s a hundred quid. And you know what? I think it’s money well spent.”
He’s confessed this to other journalists, however did he really have to share that he waits until “the servers are reset on a Tuesday night and that’s when I go on and, for just a minute, I am on top of the leaderboard”? Or that he’d rather hand over cash for virtual items that “improve my reputation to my Facebook friends” than buy tickets to the cinema?
Probably not. But conveniently, it is all relevant to EA’s business. Moore is proof that the publisher’s pursuit of a huge digital business makes sense. “Games have turned from a one-off event to services,” explains Moore. “They are around the clock week-in, week-out, like with Bejeweled. It’s our job to provide 365 days of a game like, say, Need for Speed.”
Both Moore personally and EA in general have regularly gone on record to say a digital tipping point will change the games business.
How can they be so confident in this change when consumer spending is at its lowest?
“Because there’s more of them, that’s the key. The ultimate goal for us is that everybody is a gamer.”
We asked Moore to explain what that means for the whole EA business – and the rest of us.
There’s a lot of talk from EA about digital revenues becoming the majority of your business. Even if discs go away, will there still be a $60 experience to sell?
It’s like in movies. There are indie movies that cost a million dollars to make, and then there’s The Avengers. You can sit down and watch a documentary at home or go to the movies, and there’s everything in between. Games are no different. You just have to get your mix right.
Ultimately, though, we will be doing discs if people want them. If consumers say in emerging markets that their broadband isn't fast enough for a 20 gigabyte game, or they still like their discs, then fine – we'll have it on disc for them. We simply react to what consumers want and where they want to be.
Let’s not misunderstand this. Our forecast this year is to also do $2.6bn in packaged goods. The tipping point will come, but it’s not that packaged is going away, it’s that digital is going up.
And don’t forget that with a new generation of consoles coming up, packaged goods will get a rebirth.
But if there’s a point in the future where Battlefield 6 is download-only on console and PC, what is the point of playing that versus Battlefield Play4Free?
Well you’ll do that as well. The point is to be everywhere. So there will be a £40 console game, but there will be an iPhone experience and a PC experience too. There is always a big opportunity for a Battlefield or a FIFA. If you have ‘Battlefield 6’, with detailed maps as far as the eye can see and hundreds of soldiers, that doesn’t cost a few bucks to make.
Having that classic triple-A investment alongside the digital and free-to-play interests gives you an edge over certain new digital games firms on social networks.
Well, those guys have an issue to figure out – if you’re a ‘free to play company’ you have to move those people around because, customers will get tired or they move on. I don’t care how good your games are, people will get bored if all you offer is the same thing.
Some people at other publishers are still learning about this new market, and the transition has surprised them.
That’s because they refuse to admit that people will ever get tired of their games, like even I admit I do of our games. It’s all about how well you message people and talk to the people you are selling games to. That also keeps the marketing money in the industry – we spend a lot of that budget internally, rather than give it to some TV station.
EA has also had to restructure and reposition itself a few times in this generation. Is that upheaval over?
Well you hope so every time you say it, but you have to keep saying it. We’re a publically traded company, there are people with billions invested in our business and they are worried about video games because they only see NPD or Chart-Track numbers. They look at those numbers and think we are in trouble because the digital side of the market, where all the growth is, doesn’t have visible metrics. So that’s why every quarter we have to keep saying what our digital revenues are.
They are saying ‘The market is cratering! Sell your EA stock! Sell your Activision stock! Sell your Ubisoft stock!’ But, no, wait a minute – it’s a classic transition, and the growth is not measured yet. The growth is so new and direct to consumer that companies like Nielsen have not figured out how to measure it yet. That’s why every quarter we try and give as much data as we can. But you have to keep saying it over and over again.
If there was a solution and a way to track this across the industry, would EA be involved?
No, because we built our own system. It’s called Nucleus [EA’s cross-platform community system].
So the value is in what you can say about your customers, not what you can contribute to a bigger picture?
Well, if you want independent companies to report on how many digital downloads there are we have to all agree to feed our data in. And we try to get the data out that we can – we said when we had done one million Battlefield 3’s on Origin. But the problem is you then have to do it for every company, territory, every platform, for every game… every day. There are some services that track app data or social networks, but all they tell you is that the shopping mall is busy – it doesn’t tell you who has their wallets out.
So should we ignore the call for a digital chart?
Well, no. But look at it this way: we are the most open about our digital data in our earnings call. We put a number on how many games are coming from us, we say what our revenues are. But it’s such a competitive market. When I took the COO post we realised that you have to really, really wait to announce a game, especially in the social/mobile area. Because your competitors can get to market with a similar game – as it’s a replicable industry – relatively quickly. There’s a lot of stuff you have to keep to your chest until the last minute. In the console world we are used to building the hype up to day one, and building excitement, but in mobile it’s almost the opposite.
Console releases also, by their very nature demand the involvement of the format-holder.
Yep, and with a Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo you need devkits, and lots of planning. You sit down with Mr Xbox and explain your game, and then plan a launch window, maybe get some marketing support and secure their approval. Those businesses are very good at that, but it’s just not a part of the story in social/mobile.
Is that why EA has invested so much in its platform-agnostic digital platforms?
Here’s our thinking: for many gamers, a month from the release of a game, they will move on. I will move on and look for something else. The key is that we have to move you on, learn about you, and move you on to something of ours. And it might be something completely different of ours. If you crank up Bejeweled for instance, we do a lot of in-game recommendations from our internal network. ‘Would you like to play Plants vs Zombies?’ And we have the biggest internal network to do that, and recommendation algorithms to do that, to ensure that people keep playing every day, and that they keep playing our stuff.
Are the console manufacturers ready for that approach?
I don’t know if they are ready for that with free-to-play, but they are all very intelligent people, and they are all gamers, so they can see it happening. So we are looking forward to Wii U, and then our friends at Sony and Microsoft will at one point be talking about the future and we look forward to learning more with them.
The future is billions of people playing games, a lot of it is direct to consumer, and they will be playing games that last 60 seconds to 60 hours, costing from free to $60. I could play Mass Effect, or go and play Bejeweled Blitz briefly while I wait for the kettle to boil.
They really got to you with Bejeweled Blitz, huh?
They really did. I am trying to crack the code. I’m hooked. I know it’s just a swipe game – but that shows how well made it is. It’s competitive and compelling. And let me tell you, we don’t get reimbursed for what we spend playing our own games at EA. That’s my money, and it feels like it has been worth it.