As always, Q4 will be a blockbuster season for EA. Kicking off this year’s festivities this Friday is FIFA 18, which will then be followed by Need for Speed Payback on November 10th and Star Wars: Battlefront II a week later on November 17th.
However, even though these triple-A physical releases remain of prime importance for EA, the increasing value of the company’s digital content and live components means that a successful stint at retail is no longer the be all and end all for the publisher’s bottom line. When EA published its financial results for Q1 at beginning of August, for example, digital sales represented 60 per cent of the publisher’s total net revenue. What’s more, digital sales were up 27 per cent year-on-year.
Naturally, FIFA has been instrumental to this growth, but Mass Effect: Andromeda, which released in March, and Battlefield 1, which launched back in October last year, have also played a huge part in this evolution, with the latter’s first expansion, They Shall Not Pass, having released in March and the second one, In the Name of the Tsar, which launched yesterday.
As we meet with EA’s EVP of global publishing Laura Miele (pictured above) at Gamescom, the publisher also announced a new competitive mode for Battlefield 1, which is currently in closed alpha. With so much new digital content on the way, it’s allowed the publisher to build a bigger and stronger community around the game, which has become a priority for EA across all its titles, Miele tells us.
“We have over 21m players in our Battlefield 1 community right now,” she says. “We also look at it as Battlefield as a franchise, so Battlefield 1 is one very important offering right now – our biggest offering within the franchise – but we’ve always considered the community in a very whole way and we want to offer as many options and gameplay styles as we can. It wasn’t as if we were starting from ground zero and launched Battlefield 1 and had to start building it up. We were actually able to flow our community into the Battlefield 1 experience and we are continuing to fight for engagement every day and we earn our players’ time – that’s how we think about it.
“We launched the game last October and have not slept a day since. We really are seeing the largest engagement the Battlefield franchise has ever seen. When we look at it overall as a franchise, we’re at our height of engagement right now, and we’re not going to stop here.”
In order to keep the community engaged for as long as possible, EA has also experimented with including them in the development process, with Miele saying the company sees its connection with players “as a solid consistent thread that we never want to break.” Indeed, giving them a voice in the firm’s roadmap for a title has been key in maintaining that relationship.
We’re seeing the largest engagement the Battlefield franchise has ever seen.
Laura Miele, EA
“I really see it as a golden era of gaming right now, where players are at the centre of our business strategies, our game design and our execution,” she enthuses. “Internally at EA, we now measure player sentiment and player engagement over dollars or units or sales. Players’ happiness, their net promoter score, is the primary success metric for the company now. It’s no longer revenue, it’s how many players are playing the game.
"We have really taken a really significant shift in motivating our teams to keep players engaged and in the content for longer. When you do that, you listen to players more, you respond to players and develop programs like Battlefield [Incursions], the competitive gaming mode. We had players in our studio helped us create this mode, and that’s why I think it’s a golden era for players, because they have such a strong voice in what we are creating.”
The launch of a new mode like Incursions, and the fact that players were involved in its inception, also demonstrates that live games are now so much more than just DLC.
“DLC is a component of that package but there are game services, there are community chats with the producers and the developers, there are events and content dropping daily, a fun little weapon that comes out as well as maybe a large map or an entirely new game mode,” Miele believes.
“We see it as programming content, and DLC is a piece of it, but there is so much more that we offer players as it relates to engagement. We want them to connect with each other, to connect with their friends, to connect with our game developers, and we want to surprise them with little presents. We look at it as daily, weekly, monthly, seasonal kind of programming across the board.”
YOU SHALL NOT PASS
Despite a jam-packed portfolio of live games that all offer very different experiences, from The Sims to Madden, FIFA or Star Wars Battlefront, Miele tells us that EA’s core strategy and vision for live services “remain the same.”
“We want to stay connected and keep that thread full with the player, whether they’re a Sims player, a FIFA player or a Battlefield player,” she says. “Our motivation is to keep players playing and keep them engaged in our games. How we fulfil that promise differs from game to game, of course, but they all have incredibly robust live services actually.
“In the case of The Sims, Sims 4 launched over three years ago and we have more players and more engagement with that game than we ever had. We just came out of a cycle; we’ve been putting a ton of content in the community and we’ve seen our engagement numbers and our unique player numbers higher than they were around launch.”
Players’ happiness, is the primary success metric for the company now. It’s no longer revenue, it’s how many players are playing the game.
Laura Miele, EA
A good example of the different ways EA can fulfil that promise of keeping players engaged is its policy regarding Season Passes. Battlefield 1 launched with a Season Pass, but the firm decided to drop it for the upcoming Star Wars Battlefront II, making all DLC free for its entire player base.
“The core motivation behind that is when a player purchases a Season Pass, there’s a certain segment of your community that plays that Season Pass, but it’s still only just a percentage of the community that can enjoy it and play together. Our goal and motivation is to keep the community together on the same maps as much as possible,” Miele explains.
“So we decided to evolve and adapt our business model to keep the community as vibrant and as large as possible and to allow players to have as many game options to all play at one time.
“It also allows us to adapt to how players are playing the game. We don’t set the plan. For a premium pass, we would set the plan for our expansion packs before the main game would even ship, right? Now, we’re really able to adapt and respond to the community. So I would say keeping the community together and adapting and responding to how people are playing the game is a big win for us and for our players as we move forwards in our online services.”
READY TO LAUNCH
The shift to live games means that launch sales aren’t quite the make-or-break momenet they used to be for the biggest titles publishers. Back in November last year, for instance, Ubisoft’s VP of live operations Anne Blondel supported this idea when she told MCV that Week One sales are still very important for the firm, “but not critical.”
At EA, Miele says launch sales are still vital for building a vibrant community of players. “We want to engage players as early on in the experiences as we can, and I think when you launch a game like FIFA, you want a lot of players in that community so it feels populated and energetic. So that is our primarily motivation.
“We are seeing a different tail on the life cycles of our games because of live services. You keep players engaged for a longer period of time, so the tail of your game extends. I think that launching big is important because you want a robust, populated community, and thencreating live services and dropping lots of content and keeping players engaged extends the tail of your game.”
LIVE AND KICKING
EA’s emphasis on live games and the company’s new success metrics “has shifted the entire company,” Miele continues, but does this mean EA will stop investing in more traditional, shorter, offline experiences?
“There’s room for all different types of game experiences, but, yes, we are certainly investing significantly in large game live services,” says Miele. “But I do think there’s a place for things like our EA Originals like A Way Out and Fe. We’re creative entertainers, so we need to prioritise that as well, so there is a balance in how we provide content to our players.
“I believe we’re incredibly fortunate and in an incredibly unique place when you think about how many hours players spend with our content and our games. We have the most diverse set of live services as a game company, and the exciting thing about it is that we’re just beginning. I think modes such Battlefield’s Incursions are going to take our services and engagement to a new place, which I’m incredibly excited about.”