Of Electronic Arts’ four game divisions, Frank Gibeau’s EA Games wing is the one most rooted in company origins of narrative-led action, puzzle and strategy games.
Those founding titles, built for systems like the Atari 8-bit and Commodore 64, were the first tentative steps in what became a games publishing empire upon which the sun never set.
Perhaps it’s a sign of the games industry as a whole, then, that the EA Games division is no longer the reliable bread-earner the way EA’s core products were in the nineties and early noughties.
It is today a division fraught with risk, walking the roads of the industry’s most ultra-competitive and dangerous neighbourhoods. The EA Games label certainly doesn’t bring stable revenues the way the EA Sims or EA Sports brands do – yet ironically, it’s the area in which EA has made sweeping improvements in the quality of its brands.
“Entertainment is a risky business. So is technology,” says Frank Gibeau, the man positioned at the fountainhead of the EA Games division.
“Both together, entertainment and technology, is a business that deals with a lot of risk,” he says at the beginning of a candid interview with Develop.
In the first part of our Q&A, we talk to Gibeau about the changes he’s implemented across the division since 2007, and the lessons learnt along the way.
When you inherited the EA Games Label, what issue needed your most immediate attention?
Quality. We were shipping games that weren’t very good, that were late, and at the same time we had a cultural problem at the company that was creating problems with quality. Those three things have been my focus – I want to create the best games organisation in the world.
Two years ago, when I took over the organisation, quality was in the low-70s, we had a lot of franchises and many of them weren’t healthy. Need For Speed was sliding in quality, Medal Of Honor barely existed, and when I came in, it was apparent to me that the best studios in the world have their own cultures, and not a lot of ours had that.
Look at DICE, look at Blizzard, look at BioWare – these groups have their own distinct workplace culture and development ethos. We have to foster that. We have to decentralise the studios – creating what we call city-states, where developers have their own creative autonomy and their own business. And we have to give developers more time to put the polish into games to make them great.
I want to have the best development organisation in the world, and that’s measured by the risks we take creatively, the quality we deliver inside of the products, and the commitments we make to the company. That’s not something that can be done overnight; it takes two years to build a quality game, and now I think our strategy is becoming vindicated.
I take it that the key element to that strategy is how the developer interacts with the publisher – an issue which is being debated more than ever.
Of course, and at EA we don’t think of publishing and development as separate. We see the whole operation as collaborative. As the president of the EA Games label I’m managing all of these different studios around the world, and at the same time I’m managing the consumer marketing for those teams, and I consider it all the same. They sit embedded with each other.
Something I learned early on as product manager is that you need a shared sweat-equity with the development teams in order to have their respect. And vice-versa. If the developers are pulling all-nighters and are in crunch mode, and the marketing guy is playing tennis with his girlfriend, that doesn’t build a very good dynamic.
And by the way, I don’t get much sleep myself [laughs]. The EA Games label has studios from all around the world so there’s always something landing in my inbox. I completely appreciate it when developers actually want to crunch to make a game work well, it’s their inspiration. But crunch shouldn’t be forced on developers – they have to make that choice to work extra hours.
From a cultural standpoint, at EA publishing and development is now considered one and the same in terms of equality and everyone working together as a team.
At the same time, I look at publishing’s role as answering the question of how to make a game better. Publishers do that through consumer feedback, research resources, and providing data so developers can make the right choices during a project.
In practical terms, are you talking about advising, giving feedback, or issuing orders?
It’s a mixture of the first two, there’s certain things that publishing owns, and there’s certain things that development owns.
When I look at positioning a product, when I look at pricing and forecasts, ultimately the publishing owns that. But ultimately, the creative aspects are owned by the developers.
Publishers can’t get involved in some committee-style development process, otherwise you end up demoralising studios and make bad games. Development people are unique and special. Publishers have to recognise that, and they need to put them in a situation that fosters their creativity, allowing them to take risks, and providing support where need be.
But ultimately publishing owns the strategy to generate demand – how to get people excited by the game, and what price and retail strategy you come to.
I like to have a tension between the two, in a kind of check and balance system. And I think at EA today, we’ve figured out how to strike that balance to the point where our developers don’t blame publishing, and our publishers don’t blame development, if things go wrong. Everyone feels like they’re in the same team.
We’re now releasing some pretty great games, and I think that this is down to our new philosophy. That’s exactly what’s happened with Crysis 2, which hasn’t been pushed for a Christmas release. If you want to make a hit, you have to give a game time to get to quality. The days of licensed-based, 75-rated games copies are dead like the dinosaur.
No more James Bonds, then?
No, absolutely not. We dumped that licence because we felt like we needed to own more intellectual property, and we don’t like where James Bond is going with all the creative limitations on it. The percentage royalties you have to pay the licensors are going the wrong way for publishers. The margins are being squeezed. And, to top it all off, the movie-game business is falling apart.
Considering the total amount of money we have to spend on those types of James Bond games, and the total amount of man-hours we had to put into them, we thought; hell, let’s work on our own IP. The guys who made James Bond games for us, well yeah, they went on and made Dead Space.
And look where we are now; what would you rather publish, retail and play – the latest James Bond or Dead Space 2?
Apologies in advance for questioning some genuinely bold risks taken with two innovative games like Dead Space and Mirror’s Edge, but neither had stellar sales the way James Bond used to have for you. Isn’t the idea here to publish a game that sells as well as the old Bond games did?
Well both of those games had some degree of success but they didn’t quite meet our expectations, for sure. I think the reasons why, in both cases, are very different.
What I learned from Mirror’s Edge is that you have to execute, you have to spend more time on a game to ensure it’s polished, and you need to have the depth and persistence of an online game.
First-person parkour across buildings is fun, but to be blunt, Mirror’s Edge’s’ execution fell short.
There were issues with the learning curve, the difficulty, the narrative, and then there was no multiplayer either. The key learning from us was that if you’re going to be bold with that kind of concept, you need to take it as far as it can go in development.
Dead Space was different. It made money for us, but didn’t hit expectations. We felt like we had an IP that struck a chord, and one that hit quality, but again it missed multiplayer modes. So when we re-worked Dead Space, we looked at how to make it a better idea, how do we make the story more engrossing, how do we build Isaac as a character, how do we make this game a success online.
But one thing I will say is that we won’t give up on those IPs. A new idea obviously has a lot of risk attached to it, but if you get it all right it can be huge.