The road to XBOX ONE. Follow the journey

INTERVIEW: EA

Ben Parfitt
INTERVIEW: EA

EA features used to be, mostly, about EA. Not that long ago, when the publisher’s revenues hit the eight figure mark, an MCV interview with then CEO Larry Probst was headlined ‘The Billion Dollar Man’.

Such billing would, if run today, send the firm’s senior execs and watchful trans-Atlantic PR team into apoplectic meltdown.

Back then, of course, it seemed the obvious pitch. EA had bulked up so much and so quickly that its sheer size was (not quite literally) the elephant in the room. You couldn’t help but stare. And comment. And EA couldn’t help checking itself out in the media’s mirror now and again.

Now, though, despite the fact that it’s bigger and – in some proper, measurable ways – better than ever, size doesn’t seem to matter so much. EA has, to use daytime TV parlance, gotten over itself.

And interviews with the firm’s leaders tend to be about what it’s doing, not how it’s doing.

Mainly they’re about product – with some strategy stuff and a bit of industry overview thrown in. The light dusting of numbers – the market share, the chart placings, sell-throughs etc – usually come at the end. They’re the by-product, the full stop at the end of the sentence, not the subject.

For EA it’s not about where it’s at or even where it’s going, it’s about how it got here and what it learned along the way. If the word ‘journey’ hadn’t been turned toxic by a thousand reality TV contestants, it may well have been deployed round about now.

For the record, where EA is at today is what marketing and PR types would no doubt call ‘an interesting space’ in an otherwise non-descript area of wildest west London. It’s here that the publisher’s 2010 portfolio is being presented to retailers.

A few hours earlier, UK GM and VP Keith Ramsdale delivered some opening remarks to the assembled key accounts.

At the heart of his message was a degree of pride, not in EA’s achievements but in EA’s products; the products his audience have been selling for the last 12 months and the ones he hopes they’ll sell more of than ever between now and the end of the year.

In a makeshift canteen a little later, he recaps for MCV: “It was mainly about the quality bar and how that’s translated into performance – for them and for us. More than 20 of our franchises in the last fiscal year scored 80 per cent or over on Metacritic. I think that’s a meteoric sign of more attention and dedication to quality throughout the company and really proves that we’re delivering a better and better entertainment experience
to consumers.”

Ramsdale talks of five core sectors which are now viewed by EA as ongoing, constant businesses rather than a series of quite similar products: Football, Racing, Sims, Shooters and Fitness.

Some of these are comprised of many different brands, some revolve around a single IP – but, Ramsdale explains, they all have something in common.

“We consider them all to be year-round opportunities,” he says. “And that means year-round work with retail, year-round marketing and year-round communication with the communities – a key part of which is new content.”

Unlike a modern midfielder, it seems, EA’s games these days don’t go from box to box. The gaps are filled by marketing noise, retail promotions and by DLC.

That last element has, of course, been very much in the news lately. EA recently introduced a tactic of including a single-use only code with its games, enabling consumers to download extra content straight out of the box, but then charging subsequent owners of that disc $10 to access the same content. It’s a reward for buying new or punishment for buying pre-owned, depending on your standpoint and how highly you value the extra content.

And it’s attracted a lot of comment. Ramsdale is adamant, however, that the motivation behind the move is purely positive: “It’s all about the customer, about improving their experience. It’s not a defensive measure against pre-owned or piracy.”

It’s also reflective of a more general trend in the industry, he says, one that’s affecting hardware manufacturers as much as software publishers.

“All our jobs have changed, I think,” he says. “And that’s a sign of the business growing up and becoming a mature entertainment industry as much as anything. The approach is different. The platform holders’ job now is to educate consumers as to what their machines can do and to update via firmware. They don’t need to ship a new box.

“Essentially, of course, their job is still selling more units. Y’know, we want a PS3 and an Xbox 360 in every home, of course we do, but they’ll do that not necessarily by bringing out a new machine, but by continually updating and improving their established offering and making sure that message gets through to consumers.

“Meanwhile, our jobs have changed because, as I’ve said, we need to market and update our products year-round, where that’s credible, and we need to bring innovations that match and exploit the updates that are being driven through the consoles.”

These include, of course, Move and Natal for PS3 and Xbox 360. Ramsdale confirms that EA will have product ready for both new devices at launch, but that the firm won’t reveal its hand until E3.

It’s noticeable that most of the talk is of PS3 and Xbox 360 – and these are the formats that will benefit from the majority of EA’s products over the next 12 months. Ramsdale expects growth in both businesses, even if the overall market trend is flat or slight decline.

Wii’s still in the mix, of course, but “it’s less about Wii being in everything we do and more about deciding what we can do that appeals to the Wii’s audience”.

The very biggest games, of course, continue to appear on all three, a good recent example being FIFA World Cup which has topped the charts and outperformed expectations.

“We sold 100,000 units in the first week and 70,000 in the second week. The great unknown, of course, is how well England will do, and that obviously affects things greatly. What’s interesting is that FIFA ‘event SKUs’ are usually the worst reviewed, but this time World Cup is our best football game yet according to a lot of journalists.”

Another huge hit this year has been Battlefield: Bad Company 2, earmarked early on as an important product in EA’s fight to regain the FPS crown from Activision.

Ramsdale’s understandably pleased: “It’s been great. The press reaction has been focused largely on how good the multiplayer is. It’s now recognised as genre defining, and the way the market’s going, that’s key.

“Are we going to beat Modern Warfare sales this year with any single title? No. But do we have a long-term goal of taking more market share or possibly growing the market? Yes.”

Is he delighted that Infinity Ward seems to be imploding and that key former personnel are turning up at a new developer signed to EA? We’d be too polite to even ask.

And Ramsdale would be far too polite to answer. What he does say, tellingly, is that “we’re pretty much always positively paranoid about all our franchises”.

He knows market share is won through individual battles. And that each of those is more challenging, hard fought and worthy of focus than the end of term reports that tot them all up. He wants to win the league, but like all good managers, what he works hardest to win are matches.

Which is as good a time as any for some scores: Last year EA reclaimed its number one market share slot in the UK with 17 per cent. On a rolling 12 month basis, its market share is three per cent up and if you take the first four months of 2010 cummulatively compared to 2009, it’s five per cent up, from 13 to 18. It’s currently number one in the UK, Europe and the world.

Full stop.

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