EA may have changed business models out of bleak necessity (not enough money), but its speed and success in adapting to the online age makes everything appear hatched from a secret master plan.
The once enfeebled games publisher now has serious interests in mobile and social games – two sectors currently colliding with each other – and last night it announced the $750 million acquisition of casual games giant PopCap.
In regards to its old-fashioned triple-A titles (remember?) EA is applying online and social elements to everything that arrives at retail.
The transformation has been distressing at times (hundreds of redundancies), but EA could be setting the course for every super-tanker-sized publisher in the business.
Andrew Wilson, the senior vice president of worldwide development at EA Sports, explains to Develop the company’s deeper psychological examination of entertainment in the online age, and why the company had to adapt fast.
Your talk at the Develop Conference is entitled ‘Moving the Goalposts – Bringing Social Experiences to all Game Platforms’, tell us a bit more about what you want to discuss and why.
What we realised is the concept of ‘Social Gaming’ is one of the four key pillars of the sports games experience.
The first is ‘Fulfil Sporting Dreams’, the next is ‘Re-enact Reality’, the third is ‘Compete with my Friends’, and the fourth is ‘Social Interaction’.
The concept of social has actually been here for a while. On the first PlayStation games, social was about friends competing on the couch. Today it’s very much about interacting online. My talk is about evolving our games in order to adapt to that change.
What we at EA realised, during that evolution from the living-room to online, was that there was more to it than meets the eye.
For human beings the most important thing is ourselves and our own identity. As a company, we built a cross-platform identity system for players where people could express themselves from whichever platform they were playing on.
It’s human nature that, when we meet new people, the first thing we do is subconsciously compare ourselves to that person. You know, are they taller than me? Are they shorter? Are they more attractive? Are they smarter? Are they richer? That’s the social component we have – and that’s what Facebook has utilised extremely well, to give people a chance to fulfil that human need online.
That’s why game companies are now building around your identity, with achievements and trophies, names and scores. This is how games can share and compare with people in the game world.
For us, that’s what the term social gaming is all about.
As someone with an obvious interest in human nature – and a job that focuses on these aspects – has EA ever put you on sociology and psychology study courses?
Actually no, but I’ve had two great learning experiences about the frailty of the human condition. One was sociology and psychology classes at university, and the second was when I had the great fortune of owning and working at an Italian restaurant that served 250 people every day. Someone who I worked with there was a psychology graduate too. You learn a lot about people in that situation.
Humans are an amazing species, and for the first time games companies are being allowed to utilise our own social urges.
What about money? How does this understanding help a business?
Well, I think the old adage ‘keeping up with the Jones’s’ has withstood the test of time for a reason. There are always going to be people in any social space that are ahead of the competition because of their time spent or money invested, and what we’re doing now is about our desire to keep up.
How we monetise that is the next piece of the puzzle. You have connection, you have identity, you have status, and next you’ll have a rich economy by which people can better their position as they work with each other and compare with each other.
It’s not a negative attribute, it’s a positive one. It’s what makes the world go around.
Do you feel that’s where the rest of the games industry is heading; installing social components to remain relevant and monetising at a later date?
I think the world is going this way. You see this in music, you see it in travel, you see it everywhere – when I travel somewhere I see if any of my friends have been there and if they recommend anywhere to go.
I think the entire world is going this way.
I saw a documentary recently where one family from one neighbourhood was given all these amazing items from marketing firms, and the film looked at how the rest of the neighbourhood bought the same things to keep up.
Okay, it wasn’t a very god film in the end, but the idea was fascinating. That very social interaction is what drives monetisation. What we’re seeing online is part of a consumer conscience that was already there.
Would you say it’s true that the decision to push hard on social has not come from the developers themselves but from executive management teams?
No I would say this desire doesn’t originate from management nor developers. I think it comes from consumers.
We’ve been doing research across our sports franchises for over a decade. Every study that we do shows that social interaction highly placed in the pecking order of consumer wishes – usually in the top four. All we’re doing is facilitating social that is meaningful today. As I said, before this was people around the couch, today in our time-starved world, social is now asynchronous.
EA Canada builds hugely lucrative products for the company but, as a studio, it isn’t as well represented or vocal as, say, Irrational Games or BioWare or even Infinity Ward. Is there an intention to keep the people in the background, behind the products?
Oh no, there’s no intention. FIFA is EA’s biggest product, and certainly is one of the biggest products in the world.
I think that studio is filled with people so passionate about what they do. It’s not about them, it’s about the game. And that studio wins critical acclaim every year and I think it satisfies them, I think they feel pretty good about that. I had the pleasure of working directly there for several years and what struck me was the absolute passion the development team has for building great games.
I agree the team doesn’t get the press that the likes the BioWares do, but I think their product obviously get a huge amount of press attention.
Five years ago, Pro Evo was considered the premier football game and it’s not controversial to say that FIFA has surpassed it. What affect has that had on the studio; its motivations and morale?
I has changed the studio environment a little, and the one thing that’s always there is this huge sense of responsibility.
Pro Evo in all honesty is still a great game, but our team took on a massive responsibility five years ago to rise above. No matter what we’ve accomplished, the team still has that sense of responsibility even today.
How many British developers does EA Canada have on-site, proportionally?
I can’t say, but I will say we have lots of British developers at EA Canada. They have a passion for football that is near unmatched, though I would say that some Argentine staff we have who are little crazier about the game.
We look for passion first, and we have geniuses at EA Canada. These are people that are building human AI and intricate animations; I always go in there and feel a bit silly.
Does EA Canada take advantage of tax breaks?
EA has many studios that takes advantage of game tax breaks and EA Canada is certainly one of them.
The tax breaks facilitate greater investment in projects, and makes the whole process that little bit more comfortable. We’d make huge investments regardless, but tax breaks makes the whole process easier – I wouldn’t say a lot easier, but we appreciate the government support at all the studios where we get it.
How much was rising development costs a factor in the decision to introduce EA’s Online Pass system?
What’s changed in our industry is that we’ve moved away from the “build it, launch it, forget it” development process. This social interaction across all platforms requires a 24/7 365-day service, and to provide that level of service is a cost in itself.
We’re looking to invest in the future, and that’s where the solution of Online Pass came from. Sure, at the start we had questions about the Online Pass, but now we completely get it.
Our policy is to invest much more in online, and what we’ve seen at EA Canada, at Tiburon, and frankly at every EA Studio for the last five years is consistently increased online gaming spend in development, design, live service and deployment.
I wouldn’t say Online Pass is the sole reason why we’re able to make that investment, but it’s certainly part of our recognition that our service is changing.
I did want clarification on EA Sports restructuring, because there was mixed messages in the press and we’re unsure why the group had altered its structure.
Well the big change to our industry, in that everything has become online-focused, is very important.
So we looked at how these online services operate, and we discussed how we could change things since the process was no longer a “milestone-to-milestone” launch. This is a “launch-live-launch-live” service model that runs 365 days per year.
When we look at the structure we had, we didn’t believe it was well positioned for the future. The super-studio concept was built on the old offline game model, so we sat down with the entire management team and said, okay, if we had a blank slate today, how would we build EA’s organisational structure. What would a studio structure look like if it had to work with a 24/7 online service that allowed customers to play, connect and share across all platforms?
So that’s what we restructured to was a set of strategic business units that was smaller, more agile, more focused and more able to deliver an unbelievable online experience.
There were of course still things that needed to be consistent across that group. There’s an underlying technological infrastructure, an underlying identity system, and we formed a group around those core initiatives.
But EA Sports did lose key management during this process. Was that in reaction to the changes?
No I don’t think so. I’ve had the great fortune of working in this company for a great number of years and I think people make judgement based on their desires in life, their family, their work – so we see people move in and out every year.
What we’ve done with the restructure is provide great opportunity, and a number of great people have come in because of that.