Electronic Arts’ Q1 line-up looked suspiciously like most other publishers’ Q4 line-up: Dead Space 2, Bulletstorm, Fight Night Champion, Mass Effect 2 on PlayStation 3, Dragon Age II, Crysis 2, The Sims Medieval, Shift 2: Unleashed and Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters.
That’s eight top ten hits, including three number ones. Be honest, you’d settle for that, wouldn’t you?
Then, last week, it kicked off Q2 with the release of Portal 2. It’s almost like cheating.
Except it isn’t, of course, it’s a distillation of several key elements of EA’s core corporate strategy: concentrating on fewer but bigger brands (see ‘Less is more’ graph on page 20), a fierce dedication to quality, and a commitment to working with the world’s best studios to champion cutting edge content.
Also due this quarter are Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 and Alice: Madness Returns.
Both are based around children’s books that have spawned hit movies, but the similarities pretty much end there. Potter is an EA perennial, developed internally and aimed squarely at the mainstream. Alice is from the mind of American McGee and will never be mentioned anywhere, in any context, without use of the word ‘dark’.
Again, they quite neatly represent key elements of the EA ethos. The firm deals with blockbuster brands, which it nurtures carefully and works hard to keep fresh. It also looks to the leftfield and courts critical acclaim as avowedly as it chases commercial success. Well, nearly.
UK marketing director Stuart Lang is convinced that EA’s less-is-more model has already paid dividends in both areas: “From a development and publishing point of view it means that we can channel more resources, in terms of time, personnel and funding, into making those gaming experiences as good as they can be.
“The other key element that informs the idea of fewer but bigger is that we’ve moved on from a fire and forget philosophy. You don’t just ship a product and you’re done. There’s an ongoing digital relationship that requires post-launch content and constant community engagement.
“That means it makes more sense to focus on fewer brands and make sure you fully support them, through and beyond the launch period.”
It’s certainly true that a publisher’s efforts now plateau rather than peak at launch – and that the very biggest titles are now year-round propositions.
Lang picks out some of what he calls EA’s focus brands. “FIFA, clearly, is a big priority. We’ve made huge strides from a digital perspective, as well as continuing to bring in new customers through the boxed product.
“As a business we work hard to engage with football fans all year, and to deliver the best possible service to the community on a 24/7 basis.
“Sims, of course, is a huge cross-platform phenomenon for us and we make the content as relevant as possible to customers at a variety of touch points. I think it was the number one app game last year, so it’s huge on Apple formats, and clearly huge on PC, plus we over-delivered on console formats with The Sims 3, plus we’ve got some great content initiatives that will surprise people this year and beyond.
“In RPGs we’ve had great success with Dragon Age II. Mass Effect 2 has received a raft of awards, including Best Game from BAFTA, the Metacritic score is insanely high and the anticipation levels for Mass Effect 3 are huge.
“Star Wars is clearly another big priority. Our view is that there is no more compelling proposition in the MMO space than the Star Wars brand combined with the brilliance of BioWare.
“With Need For Speed I think we’ve got something special in the form of Autolog. I think that’s genuinely innovative and has broken new ground in terms of social play – and arguably not just in the racing sphere. I think it can be influential across other categories without a doubt.
FIRST PERSON PROSPECTS
“In the FPS space we’ve got several big brands, but Battlefield 3 is obviously a priority. Last year we doubled our market share from eight to 16 per cent in the UK, and we did that mainly through Battlefield: Bad Company 2, which we launched back in March and was a tremendous success.
“It certainly exceeded our expectations – same deal with Medal of Honour, to be honest.
“This year we’ve already had Crysis 2 and Bulletstorm. You put them all together and I think it’s an enviable portfolio.”
Enviable unless you’re Activision, possibly. Because put them all together and their sales are still dwarfed by the Call of Duty juggernaut.
It’s interesting that EA doesn’t apply its less is more philosophy to this particular genre. It has four or five franchises that it rotates and aims at slightly different audiences, with plenty of crossover. It hasn’t selected one, behind which it could gather all its guns and shoot for the top spot.
Instead it seems happy (well, accepting) for CoD to be the number one individual title, but for its cluster bomb of brands to overhaul it as a group.
That said, Lang states that Battlefield 3 is “our champion brand this year” – and when its hoves into view this Q4, it will certainly seem like a massive release and a credible challenger.
Away from the firm’s core, killer IPs, Lang is also keen to stress that EA continues to think more radically than you’d expect for a multi-billion dollar entertainment corporation, and work with indie developers, sometimes on big boxed products, sometimes on free-to-play offerings.
“We cannot neglect new IP, new genres, new talent and new opportunities. And I think that particularly with our EA Partners division we’re working with some exceptionally talented developers.
“We’ve been partnered with Valve for a number of years now, and Portal 2 is a massive priority for us. Shadows of the Damned (Xbox 360, PS3 – June 24th), from Suda 51 and Shinji Mikami is undeniably punk rock. It’s certainly going to raise some eyebrows and you would not expect anything else from those guys.
“Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (Xbox 360, PS3, PC – 2012) is an extremely high quality RPG and Alice, from American McGee is just exceptional. I think these are very compelling experiences that complement the existing portfolio.”
THE NEW EA
They are also evidence that EA is staying true to its ethos of exploring the margins of gaming as well as occupying the heart of the mainstream. When John Riccitiello returned as CEO, the company elevated product quality to the top of its agenda and that meant leaving room for original content within a line-up of gilt-edged franchises – all of which were also subjected to intense programmes of overhaul and improvement.
“If you look at the shift in EA over the past few years, it’s pretty profound. Our reputation and credibility amongst the key, influential gaming audience is important to us. It wasn’t great so it was vital that we went back and addressed it.
“We have done that, and the results are there for all to see. We’re immensely proud of our games and our reputation – and we absolutely don’t compromise.”