It’s a cliché to liken EA Sports to a real sports team. But it’s easy to see why we do.
And it’s not just because their studio has a gym, football pitch and basketball court. Nor is it because many of its staff look more like professional athletes than your stereotypical programmer.
It’s because of their drive to be the best. And no matter how many awards they win or games they sell, they’re constantly trying to do better.
But that’s not always been the case.
EA Sports stumbled its way onto Xbox 360 and PS3. Without decent tech or a plan, the development teams churned out some pretty disappointing games. And the label was forced to rebuild FIFA, then Madden, then NHL. Meanwhile, games like NBA never recovered and were scrapped entirely.
That’s why EA Sports is terrified about next-gen. After years of getting it right with FIFA and Madden, could the arrival of PS4 and Xbox One derail its run of form? Could the new Pro Evolution Soccer engine surpass the new FIFA one?
Here, EA Sports boss Andrew Wilson tells MCV why he’s ready for next gen, what needs to happen before it supports Wii U again and what’s wrong with Facebook.
What did you make of E3 this year?
I had an absolute ball. Because there was an energy at the show that we haven’t had for a couple of years. And that’s pretty special. It’s a good show. There’s a lot of things that people can get grumpy about, but at its very core, it’s about the games. And it’s good stuff. We do a press conference every year, over the last couple of years it has been a little softer, but I felt our press conference this year was really good. I think the software showed up, and I walked the show floor and I thought this stuff is good. I am a creator, and when we feel we’ve made something great, and there’s an energy back in the air around our industry and around gaming, it’s pretty cool. We’ve got back to making games.
What is EA Sports’ mission for the next generation of consoles?
We have a couple of things that are immediately in our sights. One is, not to screw up. We were here last generation and we screwed up. We must not lose the investment we have made to make great sports games. Don’t let all of the ancillary fluff get in the road of making great games on these new platforms.
Objective two is to get basketball back in the game. Because it’s not been at the level of quality that the rest of our portfolio is at.
Objective three is to give UFC a launch like it has never seen. When I look at the last generation, Fight Night became a platform-defining title. Because nothing demonstrated the visual power and fidelity of control of those consoles like two guys in a ring punching each other. UFC is a next generation platform-defining fighting experience. And we have got to live up to that.
And objective number four is, as we head intothe second phase of this new generation, is to have a roadmap to ensure the continued innovation of our games, like we have had over the last four years.
FIFA has got better and sold more each year as your teams mastered the tech. Are you worried next gen could derail your run of form?
A new generation is an inflection point. And that’s why I say our number one objective is not to screw up. You can get distracted by things. You can fall foul of new tech. You can not plan appropriately.
We’ve established our new engine, EA Sports Ignite, in advance so that we’re prepared. We are more focused than ever, especially more so than last generation. And we have teams now that are stronger than anything we had back then. Next-gen can be a positive or negative inflection point. And we are engineering it so it will be a positive one.
You mention your new engine there. Why should we be excited?
One of the things that hurt us at the start over this last generation is that we didn’t have strong tech. And a lot of games suffered for a very long time because of that. NBA suffered for literally the entire cycle. On FIFA, we re-wrote the game right away. Madden we re-wrote half-way through the cycle. So we knew we had to anticipate further out and be solid on technology. And over the last couple of years we’ve been thinking about what comes next
With Ignite we have a single rendering engine across our entire portfolio, which we’ve never had. A single physics engine, a single animation engine, audio, art pipelines, all across our entire portfolio.
But EA?Sports Ignite is also about a process where all the innovation the various teams create go back into the base technology at the end of each year, so each year they start with collectively advanced base tech.
Before, what would happen was the FIFA team would build something, share it with the NHL guys, and then FIFA would go on their track, and NHL would go on theirs. The teams never came back together. So you never got the collective benefit of this aggregate investment in technology and development.
Now, all the innovation our teams create go back into that base tech. And for us that is phenomenal. For gamers that means by years two or three of this generation the multiplier effect of what is going to happen in the quality, size and immersion of these games, is going to be profound. And for developers it means each time they get more advanced technology. No other entity is able to deliver that level of progressive innovation by virtue that nobody has the capability in sports to invest like we do.
This is not a fluff thing. It is a real initiative to make sure that we are delivering the best games. When we look back, we have done some cool stuff. But I look at the way we treat different features in different games, and it could have been better if we had this base level of architecture. And we want to be better.
"A new generation is an inflection point. And that’s why our number one objective is not to screw up. You can get distracted by things."
- Andrew Wilson, EA Sports
UFC is your next big sports play. Are there other rapidly growing sports that you have your eye on?
I keep an eye on a lot of sports. Some not so rapidly growing. I watch the Tour De France, surfing, cricket, things that the rest of the world would never give a mention to. We have a lot on our plate at the moment, and we are happy with what we have. The big question I always get is baseball. I think I have had it in every interview since I took on this job. There is a market for baseball but there is a series of barriers right now that preclude us from being in that business. But we never say never. If you think about the future and the evolution of business models, who knows, maybe I will get to build a surfing game.
Cricket is a big sport right now, particularly in emerging markets. Why not make a game for that sector, even if it’s a mobile title?
We have looked at that. A cricket game really needs the sub-continent to make it viable. And there is a series of barriers with respect to the economics, infrastructure, the disparity of mobile devices and services there. At the point that comes together, absolutely we’ll do a cricket game. I started my career building cricket games. I’ve not built one for a long time, and when I look back at them, they weren’t all that great. So maybe a reinvention there at some time in the future.
Why do you think EA Sports has yet to crack the social and mobile space like you have on consoles?
Social, as it relates to Facebook, is not a focus for us anymore. We didn’t do great there. I am not sure if that was because we built the wrong game or if because Facebook gamers were looking for a different kind of experience, or some combination of those things. Either way, that space has been in fairly stark decline, and we’ve decided not to focus on that.
However, we have a very strong focus on mobile. FIFA went No.1 in 40 app stores around the world at launch. FIFA World Class Soccer on mobile on GREE and DeNA in Japan was No.1 last year. I look at the work we are doing on the products to come, and I think we are very well positioned for mobile. There are some design shifts that we’ve made over the last few years that are starting to manifest themselves now and making for cool mobile games. You design a mobile game different to a console game, and it took a while to get our heads around that.
"I made games on Facebook because I thought people were there that wanted to play them. Then it became apparent to me that either I had the wrong game or they weren’t there."
- Andrew Wilson, EA Sports
I looked for EA Sports in the sports brand rankings this year, and it seems you've slipped down the list. Is growing the EA Sports brand outside of gaming still an important goal for you?
It’s not an objective for us. Our objective is to make great games. That is what we do. We get ranked in various different lists at various different times by virtue of the impact we have on the world given our reach in the games we make. As individuals, as a collective, as a brand, as products, we move up and down various social and media rankings around brands and sports brands and games brands. At the end of the day that’s just a by-product of what is happening around us. We don’t strive for that. And every now and then that triggers a ranking and every now and then that changes. And we are ok with it.
The important thing for us is that I look at our FIFA game, and it grows. And people play it more. We have record online plays six months from launch. That tells me we are not just making great games, we are making games that people are playing for a long time and getting great value from.
What needs to happen before you’re back on board with Wii U?
I build for a userbase. I made games on Facebook because I thought people were there that wanted to play them. Then it became apparent to me that either I had the wrong game or they weren’t there. We had a strong offering on Wii U at launch. The platform hasn’t had the take-up. Our games hasn’t had the take-up we’d have liked. So at this moment we are not focused there. Now they could do a range of things that might change that situation, and we’d never count them out. And should there be a sizeable gamer base there in the future, we would build games for Wii U. But for us it’s less about building for a platform, and more about building for a group of gamers on a platform where they are. And sports gamers weren’t there.
Last year EA Sports didn’t make a Euro game on disc, you instead produced DLC for FIFA to tie-in with the tournament. Did it work? Will you do it for the World Cup?
It was a little ahead of its time quite frankly. We didn’t get the take-up that we thought we would get. We may have got the value proposition a little off. But the feedback we got was: “Guys, great idea. We glad that you tried it. You didn’t get it perfect and here are some recommendations.” We have to learn from that and figure out when to do that again. I think the World Cup presents a possible opportunity to evaluate that, but we don’t have plans yet.
How has Ultimate Team changed how you make games?
Ultimate Team, for many, many people, whether they spend money or not, is the way they now play FIFA. It is a social concept, there’s economy, the ability to buy, play and trade, there’s an RPG component, you get longetivity, meaning and it’s tied to the real world of sport. It’s actually changed the way people play FIFA, and we have now launched Ultimate Team in Madden and hockey, and I’d expect we’d launch it in basketball as well. And that’s because it really is a different way to play and has really resonated with people.
It’s like what fantasy did for watching sports. As a Chelsea fan I wasn’t just following Chelsea players, because I had a fantasy team I was following other teams as well. Ultimate team has changed how you play FIFA. Some people are saying ‘that’s the only way I want to play FIFA now.’ So we rolled this out to other properties. And the Ultimate Teams in these products are at a different stage of their lifecycle and maturity. But we are already seeing the same amount of energy around there as we are in FIFA.
Is there a way for retailers to help make Ultimate Team go any broader? Ultimate Team is not a simple concept.
FIFA Ultimate Team won’t be for everyone. When I think about the next generation of consoles, I think we have a better way to surface all of the things that we make. Most people who play our games play one area of our games. We spent millions on developing these products, and people play a fraction of that. For us, what we are doing around Gen-4, in addition to what we do around pre-sale offers at retail, is we are changing the pathing and how the front end of our games work. So that they are more dynamic, to surface more ways to play. For me, it is not just about surfacing Ultimate Team – although that will be part of the strategy because those who get into it love it. It is also about surfacing all the other things we do, like head-to-head seasons. Because people play the same way because they always have.
Until iTunes I only ever listened to Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin and The Doors. And I would walk into a music store and I would buy the latest album of those artists. Baring in mind, they are all compilation albums at this point. There is no new content. Until iTunes came around, and I started seeing different things surface based on my purchase history and I thought ‘ok, I’ll give it a try.’ People are inherently adverse to change, and if they found something they love, the want to stick with it. So what we want to do is build dynamic front ends in all our new games, that will surface things that perhaps you haven’t tried but might like to, or things that your friends are playing that you might be interested in, or things that are the most played things in the overall network – like the top ten lists on iTunes. That’s kinda how we have started thinking about it. That, in combination with retail being able to offer pre-sale offers around Ultimate Team, is helping us surface all of the great content that we make.
What are you doing to celebrate 25 years of Madden and 20 years of FIFA?
Transition time for developers is a challenging time. It’s a time of commitment, dedicated, intestinal fortitude and you have to have the constitution to make it through. At some point we will stop, take a breath, and celebrate our history and our legacy. We will take a moment of celebration, but it will be a short moment, because we really believe this is day one of the future.