It would be understandable if staunch Liverpool fan and EA Sports boss Peter Moore isn’t desperately keen to talk football.
It’s the week after his beloved Reds have lost at home to Blackpool (hot on the heels of a defeat to, wait for it, Rotheram in the Carling Cup). The papers are full of the Anfield crisis. So, maybe he’d prefer to chat about the NFL, the NBA. Golf, perhaps. The weather, even.
Tough. Because Liverpool hitting their Blackpool rock bottom coincided with EA Sports’ FIFA franchise hitting new heights.
FIFA 11 was released on September 28th in the US and October 2nd in Europe. In that time it sold 2.6 million units, 29 per cent up on last year, and there were 11.3 million online game sessions.
Moore purrs: “That’s unprecedented. And this isn’t a game that took years and years to develop, like Halo Reach, this is something the team continues to crank on an annual basis.
“We knew we were going to be up, but we were pleasantly surprised at how much we were up, especially in a challenging market right now. These are just stunning numbers.”
They’re also a pretty emphatic answer to the question of what happens to FIFA when there’s a World Cup version of the game crammed into the schedule.
“I wondered that as well, because this is my first go round in a World Cup year. I thought maybe our customers could get all footballed out. But my team were very confident.
“They said that what happens is that the World Cup game introduces the franchise to an even bigger slice of the mass market. They use it as an on-ramp to a full blown FIFA game in the fall.
“We can check all the way back to the Mexico World Cup in ’86 and see the pattern: ship a World Cup game, watch sales of the main game go up a few months later.”
Another World Cup effect might be Moore’s rather surprising suggestion that the US could be FIFA 11’s most successful territory.
“The UK’s got off to a great start but the US has got good legs and the strong showing from the US team at the World Cup is helping. The numbers were pretty close last year and I think that’s a pretty interesting side bet this year.”
FIFA 11 is also another critical success story. There may not have been a 29 per cent hike in review scores, but even if it’s a plateau, then it’s flattening out in a good place.
Moore is certainly pretty happy – with the odd caveat: “I watch quality like a hawk and jump on all the feedback. And without calling out names there are a couple of places that I care about which have ranked the game lower than last year, which has surprised and disappointed me. We take the reviews very much to heart.”
Generally though, he’s been pleased with the reaction and picks out some of the elements that have garnered praise: “We’ve obviously added features like Personality Plus, 11 Vs 11, playing as the goalkeeper, and so on. But I think just as importantly the team has focused on tuning and polishing the existing elements, getting the passing mechanism spot on.
“The FIFA team deserve a lot of praise. But they’re an amazing bunch when it comes to self-deprecation, almost self-flagellation. When they do their presentations, they say ‘Here are the things we like, and here are the 50 things we want to improve and the 50 things we wish we could have done’.
“I love that about them, but I also think they should cut themselves some slack, because let’s face it they’ve done a fantastic job.”
The resurrection of FIFA, even though it was seeded before his arrival has, you sense, been at or close to the top of Moore’s to do list since he arrived at EA Sports. He and the team were determined to ramp up quality and certain that increased commercial success would follow.
Moore generously credits a “ballsy” decision to build a new engine five or so years ago as the starting point but has subsequently overseen a culture that demands investment in the people, facilities and technology required to do keep improving – and a culture that pays more attention to its critics and customers than ever before.
A by-product of all this has been a sustained and reasonably emphatic superiority over FIFA’s great rival franchise, Pro Evo – the one that used to be considered the connoisseurs’ choice.
Moore rejects the idea that there is now clear green grass between the two, and obviously retains a healthy respect for the brand.
“Our FIFA dev team certainly never thinks of them as being in the rear view mirror. Seabass [PES exec producer Shingo Takatsuka] and the team in Japan are an excellent outfit and they were a really strong leader in this space just four or five years ago, so they’re not a team to be trifled with. We take the competition seriously, we enjoy it and they make our job a lot more fun.
“This year, the last time I looked, we were, I think maybe seven or eight Metacritic points ahead of them, which is pleasing, but no, there’s no question of relaxing or feeling comfortable – that’s just not in our nature.”
As well as the lead in quality and sales volumes, Moore highlights another factor on FIFA’s side: networked gaming and community momentum: "The sticky factor of online being strong helps enormously. That’s the challenge PES faces right now, because if you and your mates are all buying FIFA and you all play online (and we’re at an 80 per cent connect rate now) it makes it more difficult for the second place guy to disrupt that.
You want to play with your mates, you want to play online, and if your mates have got a different game you’re the odd man out.” It’s a numbers game, essentially, turning FIFA almost into a new kind of platform.
Further encouragement to play and stay online has come in the form of the Online Pass code that comes in the box and unlocks extra digital content – providing you buy a new rather than second hand copy of the game.
It’s a tactic that has provoked some debate, but Moore believes the arguments have died down and that the benefits are clear. “As we speak, because the game’s only just come out, pretty much everyone that owns FIFA, is getting extra digital content simply for registering their code.
“Going forward, anyone that doesn’t have that code, as you know, we ask them for $10 to open up this huge world that we’re literally spending millions and millions of dollars building. I think Online Pass is just there now, the monstrous majority of people buying the games are getting something for free that they weren’t getting last year. People see it as a plus, I think."
Another new ingredient in the FIFA mix this year is FIFA Superstars, the Facebook version of the game and the first product created by Playfish since it was acquired by EA in a deal worth up to $400 million late last year.
It has just hit 4.3m Monthly Average Users (MAUs) and Moore is pleased with the new member of the FIFA family – as well as realistic about the business model.
“The business model’s simple: you accept that the vast majority of users will never pay you a penny and you learn to be cool with that.
“Plus you get people like me who want deeper engagement, and can’t sit still waiting for their three daily match credits or whatever, so we pay to accelerate our gameplay and create better teams, and that’s nice but it’s not really the point.
“What you are now starting to see is some linkage between FIFA Superstars and unlocking some features in FIFA 11. It’s baby steps towards persistence and presence for a full FIFA eco system.And that, obviously, is where the franchise, just like the sport, is heading:
“Football for most of us is pretty constant. This year there was, what, a 15 day off season. And even then we were thinking about it and reading about it. That’s the space football occupies in our lives and that’s how we’ve got to look at it.
“We need to provide that persistent world, maybe sometimes powered by discs, maybe on social networks, or the cloud or whatever. That’s’ the team’s vision, that no matter where you are or what you’re using, there’s a FIFA experience to be had, it all links together, it lifts your level up and identifies your status.
“Personally I still think there’ll be discs five years from now. One of the great things about FIFA is that it does permeate pretty much every corner of the world and there will be countries that don’t have the broadband infrastructure that we’re used to.
“It’s why we invested in PC as well. It’s the one genre where we can see growth in Eastern Europe – and the broadband infrastructure and console penetration just isn’t there, but they love to play on their PCs. And there’s still a model that justifies us spending a lot of money and putting PC discs out into the market.
“But generally yes, of course, I think there will come a time when FIFA is less a disc that you wait for in late September/early October, and more something that we provide 365 days a year.
“There will be beats and cadences where we ship something here and ship something there and that may be physical and it may be digital.
“It will reflect football. It’s always with us, it’s always changing, it peaks sometimes, but it’s 365 days a year, 24/7 and completely global.
“In a few years time I expect to have less of a team developing and as many if not more doing live operations.”
Who knows, by then, Liverpool may even have a decent side again.