The many faces of EA: Nick Earl, EAi

In the final part of our four interview with Electronic Arts bosses, EA Interactive VP Nick Earl discusses how mobile and social is shaping the future of the publisher

Where does EA?Interactive fit in with the wider EA business?
We’ve got six labels: EA Sports, EA Games, Bioware, Maxis, PopCap and EAi – but we’re actually going to change our name to All Play.

All six have some amount of mobile and social going on. PopCap and EAi are the two most invested and EAi shrink wraps nothing, we have no physical goods.

If you look at EA Sports with their franchises like FIFA, they span out across multiple devices and that’s a concept that we really believe in. We look to take franchises and make them so you can play to some degree any time, anywhere, on any device.
EAi does pure social/mobile but we aim for the mass casual audience. We go out to the soccer mums, to the people who don’t necessarily have a console, but play games like Scrabble, Tetris, Sims Free Play or something like that. We’re the tip of the spear for EA in terms of building the technology, figuring out the process and how to work with the audience that’s playing on phones and tablets, and then we share that knowledge with the other labels.

Casual ad-based games portal Pogo is part of your label. How is that progressing?
That is in the process of being modernised with a new social graph and for new devices, because there is something magical about a system where you earn medals and move up in the hierarchy inside of that world. It’s very tournament oriented so we’re bringing that over to social.

Nick Earl’s EA Interactive division is in charge of games such as Monopoly and The Simpsons on mobile and social platforms

How does Playfish fit into EAi?
With Playfish we gave two of their studios our biggest IPs. We gave The Sims to the London studio and we gave SimCity to the Beijing studio. In the latest reorganisation we moved those two studios under the Maxis label because Maxis are the world experts on The Sims and SimCity.

So we split Playfish’s five studios, three stayed with me and two went to Maxis. We haven’t talked a lot about our organisation. I think people are fatigued by the amount of reworks that has gone on within EA. I sense that this latest rework is the right one. There’s a spirited collaboration and partnership across labels now.

How do most of your mobile and social games generate money?
In the past, it’s been one-time payment for a download. But the future is not about that, the future is freemium where you download or free and you can grind your way through completion without paying anything. But a decent number of people will convert to paying and they may not pay a lot but most will pay more than you’d think.

How far can freemium infiltrate the games industry, do you think? Is it just for casual games?
I think about this question a lot. I don’t know if freemium gets to console but I do know that humans like free stuff. I also know humans will pay for something if they’ve tried it and liked it. I’ve wondered myself, if freemium expands beyond the tablet, Facebook and smartphones, and out into consoles? I don’t think it’s impossible for that to happen.

EA’s mobile games were shown away from the E3 show floor. Why?
Just because we were not on the floor does not mean that we don’t take this as seriously as our console stuff. The digital side does not deliver the same revenue as the console business but it’s the fastest growing part of the company. We did $1.2bn in digital revenue last year and we’re expecting to do $1.7bn this year. There are very few companies that are in the $1bn club for digital.

EA’s E3 press conference did largely focus on your core games. Do you see a time when it’s a mobile game that opens the show for EA?
Yes I absolutely do. My sense is that next year we will see a different press conference in terms of the diet of products being offered. My sense is that we will have big mobile/social hits under our belts by then and we’ll have a confidence about what we’re doing. We’ll have a tech structure to be able to support data-rich games with high daily average users. I think we will not be worried about graphics not being of Battlefield 3 standard, and it’s so much more about the accessibility, portability and game mechanic of what a mobile game can offer. We’ll want to show that to the world. My sense is that next year, that happens.
Maybe in five years, mobile and social will have its own show, I don’t know. The way we look at it is that mobile and social is an inherently compatible part to the rest of the business and that’s why we try to take our franchises and span them out across all devices. From that perspective I would say that mobile and social will just creep across and be a normal part of a demonstration than say an Xbox 360 or a PS3.

Are tablet gamers different to smartphone gamers?
They definitely differ. People who play on a tablet play for longer and they tend to be more core. The phone is the most portable device, it’s with you all the time. Everybody at E3 had a smartphone on them. Not everyone carried a tablet with them. Those that have one, it’s maybe in the office or on the couch.

One of the metaphors I use is ‘snacks’ which is playing games on your phone. A ‘heavy snack’ is playing a longer game on a tablet and a ‘full meal’ is console gaming.

Is there a rise in core gamers coming into mobile?
Yes, and that’s why EA Sports, EA Games, Bioware and Maxis are making mobile and socia games. We believe core fans want to play on mobile and social. They’re different from the?EAi customer, which are truly casual in nature and play games like Scrabble.

How does, say, the Mass Effect iOS game perform compared to your casual-only titles?
The likes of Angry Birds are bigger than the core games right now. I think the core games are going to start to grow in popularity. Need for Speed and Mass Effect have done well. We’re seeing engagement go up in franchises which are across multiple devices. The lifetime value of that customer is way higher than what it used to be when the only chance for monetising was a $60 boxed game.

What’s the secret to promoting mobile and social games?
A lot of the promotion happens in the environment, so being on the App Store feature list is a way to promote it. We do launch marketing, but a lot of the marketing happens within the game through virality and that’s a big part of how to design these games. You want them to be inherently social and you want to be able to put hooks in them. Say, we’re friends on Facebook and I’m playing Scrabble, I can hit one button and create a game with you. That is a form of marketing because if you don’t have it and you get the invite from me you will download it.

The other part is to have some sort of ubiquitous, acquisition funnel that brings people in and knows who they are, who their friends are and what kind of games they are into and puts that offering in front of them. It’s sort of like a clothing store where you get the clerk size you up and says let’s try these clothes.

Guiding you to the things you will respond to is what our digital platform is hopefully going to do. You come in through whatever means, whether it’s your PC, or phone, or Origin, and it knows who you are, what kind of games you play, how often you game, who your friends are and what they’re playing. It’s able to intelligently get you to a game.

Click here for our interview with EA Sports boss Andrew Wilson.

Click here to read our chat with EA Games chief Laura Miele

And click here to hear what EA Origin boss David Demartini thinks

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