“It was a really strong line-up but... they’re just so hard to like.”
That was one industry analyst speaking to MCV moments after EA closed its E3 2015 press event.
Yes, it was heavy on the marketing slogans, and granted, perhaps a bit too much time/not enough time (delete where appropriate) was spent talking to football legend Pele.
But with Star Wars, Mass Effect, Mirror’s Edge, Need for Speed and FIFA, this was one of EA’s strongest ever E3 showings. Wasn’t it?
“It was our best conference ever,” insists EA COO Peter Moore. “We knew this was our best line-up for many, many years, and we set out to prove that.”
He continued: “There will be some people we will never win over. When I tweet, there will always be someone that will play into whatever they feel will get them the most attention, and being pleasant to EA is not one of those things.
“We are a big publisher and I am fond of the expression that the tallest trees catch the most wind. There are things that we have done over the years that gamers have taken umbrage too - sometimes rightly and, bluntly, most of the times wrongly. But you do have to look in the mirror and say: ‘What can we do differently to enable some change.’”
And change it has. After winning The Consumerist’s ‘worst company in America’ poll two years running in 2012 and 2013, EA has been on a mission to improve its reputation, including its standing amongst the core games community.
“We have taken this mantra of players first,” explains Moore. “It is not just a tagline, it is not just something I will slap on the wall outside of my office. Every meeting we have, we ask: ‘But is that players first?’ We have to make a lot of decisions about content and how it flows and user experiences, and we are a business, too, so we have to make money and pay our employees. We just need to figure out how to do that but do it in a players first manner. And I’d like to think you’re seeing the fruits of that now.”
"If we make some money out of Unravel, great.
If not... fine. We brought a great game to market
and made one development team’s dream come true."
Peter Moore, EA
‘Players First’ is not a unique or original concept – we’ve heard the phrase in countless different ways repeated by many other businesses.
The concept is simple: do what the gamers are asking for, not what the shareholders are demanding. And EA’s E3 line-up seemed like a direct answer to any gamer complaint.
Take Star Wars. The firm could have just hired a developer to knock-out a tie-in to the upcoming The Force Awakens movie, but instead it is getting its most acclaimed first-person shooter developer, DICE, to build a new game in the fan-favourite Star Wars: Battlefront franchise. There’s barely a mention of the new Star Wars movie. It’s a contrast to the last time a new Star Wars trilogy came about - 1999’s The Phantom Menace was accompanied by six games that directly tied into the film, but with questionable quality.
“That’s not what we do anymore,” says Moore. “We are a superior medium. We can tell stories better than any direct movie, which is linear with passive engagement from the viewer. We take great pride in the fact that you are playing your Star Wars fantasy. When I got in this industry, yeah we were a little inferior to films and we felt that the game had to be built around the movie to succeed. That is not the case anymore and games should stand alone.”
Battlefront could well prove to be the biggest game launch of 2015 (“I can’t think of a game right now, and I am biased obviously, that has more buzz and anticipation,” says Moore). The game arrives a good time ahead of the new Star Wars movie (Battlefront is out November 20th; The Force Awakens is due December 18th), which will certainly boost its potential earnings.
But what if the game isn’t quite ready? Last year EA intended to launch Battlefield: Hardline at Christmas, but the game wasn’t up to scratch, so the publisher delayed it out of the festive window. It was evidence of its ‘players first’ attitude. But could they realistically do it again with Battlefront? Would EA dare miss the launch of the movie?
“Yes, because you can’t ship it if it doesn’t work or the quality level isn’t right,” Moore says. “You just bite the bullet. Trust me, shipping Battlefield: Hardline in March was not the easiest thing to do from a business perspective, but it was absolutely the right thing to do from a ‘players first’ perspective. We would have no compunction, no hesitation whatsoever, that if something was to go wrong with Star Wars Battlefront – if it wasn’t right – we would just push it. But that’s not going to happen.”
More proof of EA’s new-found willingness to put the gamer ahead of its share price can be seen with Need for Speed.
Typically one of the firm’s more lucrative franchises, EA decided to not release a Need for Speed last year to give its developers more time to make a better title. That ‘better’ game was unveiled at E3, and it certainly looked like it had benefitted from that extra development time.
“Give a game a year off, and you can see it is time well spent,” says Moore. “That franchise needed a breather and a fresh look.
“As we did Rivals and Most Wanted... the racing genre flattened out. When I got into this industry there was Gran Turismo, and when I was at Microsoft we built Forza to compete with that and we had Project Gotham Racing. EA had Need for Speed and Burnout. There were rally games like Colin McCrae, and when I was at Sega we had Sega Rally. But all of a sudden the genre got stale. EA has been at the forefront of driving games and we are not afraid to say to a team: ‘Go give it a fresh think and take a couple of years to figure it out’.”
Can Need for Speed return to being annualised? Moore is yet to be convinced.
“I don’t know if it will be, it’s an interesting question. We will see how this game goes. You can only bring it out annually if you can come up with real fresh ideas. It is the same thing we’ve been going through with golf. It is golf... is there enough innovation and creativity that you can go in there with and do something different every year?”
Perhaps the biggest example, though, of EA listening to its fans is the mere existence of a new Mirror’s Edge game.
The original Mirror’s Edge was loved by fans, but commercially – in the words of Peter Moore – “it probably did ok”. At a time when publishers are more selective on what they release, developing a major sequel to a seven-year-old game that ‘did ok’ is unlikely – or at least carries a huge amount of risk. But the fans wanted it, the studio wanted to build it, so EA said yes.
“Do I think Mirror’s Edge Catalyst has better legs than the first? You bet I do,” says Moore, pointing to the huge promotion EA has given the game at E3.
“We have given the team years to get it done. It has all the ingredients. It has had time enough away from its predecessor to come up with a fresh look. You have a great villain, a powerful female lead, a great story and innovative gameplay with this first person parkour – no guns – experience... gamers wanted it, we are doing it. As a company built to be profitable, we hope to make profit on it, but it was one of those where the studio wanted to bring it back.”
"If something went wrong with Battlefront
we would just push it. But that’s not
going to happen."
Peter Moore, EA
To infer that profitability was only a secondary thought when green lighting Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is quiet a powerful thing for an EA exec to suggest.
And it’s not the only time he did so, either. During our interview we brought up the game Unravel – a unique independently-developed platformer featuring a character made of yarn. It was quite unlike anything else in EA’s E3 line-up.
“If we make some money out of it, great,” says Moore. “If not... fine. We brought a great game to market and made one development team’s dream come true.”
We’ve spoken a lot about EA trying to improve its consumer reputation, but taking risks on IP like Mirror’s Edge and Unravel is something that will improve its industry standing, too. The firm is clearly on stronger financial footing, and it’s using that to support new talent and empower establish creators. (It has just hired Assassin’s Creed co-creator Jade Raymond to help on multiple projects, for example.)
This is a different sounding EA, too. During our chat, Moore didn’t criticise its competitors, there was no bullish statement about wanting to crush Call of Duty or destroy Pro Evolution Soccer. He even answered one question by talking up the achievements of rival racer Project CARS.
This was still a confident EA, but it wasn’t an aggressive one. And that was reflected in its games, as well. There wasn’t a single 18-rated title on display at the firm’s booth.
Nevertheless, to its more vociferous critics, EA will always be the big bad.
Is the publisher’s mission to change that perception bound to succeed? Perhaps not completely, but at least it wasn’t named ‘the worst company in America’ this year. Progress is being made.
And although EA may be ‘hard to like,’ as our analyst pointedly said, its games – Star Wars, Mass Effect, Mirror’s Edge and so on – are not.
Which to any other games business in the world, would be more than enough.
PETER MOORE VS THE SEXISTS
In May, EA announced that FIFA 16 would feature national women football teams for the first time.
EA Sports told MCV a few weeks later that the response had been ‘overwhelmingly positive’, but that wasn’t completely true. There were a few ‘fans’ that took offence to women being playable in the game. EA COO Peter Moore even retweeted one of them who said that he wasn’t buying the game anymore because of the inclusion.
“That was the only one I felt comfortable retweeting,” he said. “There was a lot worse stuff than that. For us on social media, we are used to that. I just felt we needed to stop that sort of thing right there and then and celebrate the fact that we have 12 women’s teams in FIFA 16. I don’t know if you caught the Women’s World Cup, but it’s good football. I’ve been watching it for years and years and my daughters play it. When I was growing up, girls never played football, but that has changed radically now. And the crowds that we got for the Women’s World Cup were just huge.”