EAâ??s leap of faith

EAâ??s leap of faith

By Rob Crossley

December 6th 2010 at 10:00AM

Can the publishing giant foster dev independence in a brutal market? We ask games label boss Frank Gibeau

It’s fair to say that the Electronic Arts enterprise was, until recently, a business fraught with short-termism. The publisher’s fixation on little more than the latest sales targets resulted in annualised Need For Speeds, and Harry Potters, and any other franchise that could be exploited to the point of saturation.

That all changed in 2007, when EA’s newly-appointed CEO John Riccitiello provoked a soul-searching examination of the firm’s business model. While annual updates to the FIFA and NFL titles were rarely questioned, Riccitiello said his company elsewhere had been “boring people to death” with sequel-abuse and brand-peddling.

But that wasn’t just the consumer whose patience had been tested. As Activision CEO Bobby Kotick insists, the world’s best developers don’t want to update car textures every hour of their day and overtime. Electronic Arts, Riccitiello said, had to champion new IP and creative autonomy to secure its future.

This long-term strategy of such scale and risk needed a degree of luck. EA’s bold new mission received little. It began just in time for the world’s biggest financial crisis of the last eighty years, while new and daring IP – from Mirror’s Edge to Dead Space – didn’t quite provide a kick-start. EA had lost money for 12 successive quarters after Riccitiello became CEO.

Today, Riccitiello’s mission to transform the company is being tested to the limit by shareholder obligations and a market in flux. At the pivot of this dangerous balancing act is EA Games label president Frank Gibeau – the studio boss overlooking much of the firm’s triple-A output.

Gibeau tells us he wants “to create the best games organisation in the world”. Develop sits down with him to outline how, and if, such a transformation is feasible in the modern game industry.

Taking into consideration what you’ve been saying about the importance of dev autonomy and, elsewhere, the need to add multiplayer to games, what if the Visceral team told you that multiplayer isn’t something that should be added to Dead Space? It’s not something completely unforeseeable, considering its genre.
Well, it’s not only about multiplayer, it’s about being connected. I firmly believe that the way the products we have are going they, need to be connected online. Multiplayer is one form of that.

Yes but, how would you respond if Visceral told you that Dead Space isn’t the type of game that should have multiplayer? It sounds like EA insists on some game elements, and I am wondering how that affects dev autonomy.
(PR manager: It’s more about educating the developers. Not on the creative side, but on the way people play games. Social media has really changed the way consumers look at entertainment. Everything’s more interconnected and 24-7 these days.)

Gibeau: So I don’t go up to every game team and ask – what is your deathmatch mode? [laughs] I look at how to make games a broader idea with online services.

I must go back to the question – John Riccitiello described development studios as “flowers in a hot house”, in that you change the temperature by a couple of degrees and all the flowers die. Do studios care if you tell them a game needs, for example, social networking elements?
No, it’s about collaboration – looking at being both critically acclaimed and commercially successful. It’s both, and I like to give studios a lot of creative autonomy, and that’s certainly proven by the types of games we’ve brought out over the last couple of years.

I mean, EA used to be against M-rated content. Go check out Dead Space [laughs]. It’s one of my core cultural studio values to allow developers to decide more on what they want to build. And a studio’s creative call needs to be balanced against a commercial imperative, and if you look at online these days – that’s the place to be.

Game makers, the really good ones, they want to make great games but they also want to make blockbusters. One of the things they need to do is balance that out – I have the right team to help them.

I volunteer you to speak to EA’s studio heads; they’ll tell you the same thing. They’re very comfortable moving the discussion towards how we make connected gameplay – be it co-operative or multiplayer or online services – as opposed to fire-and-forget, packaged goods only, single-player, 25-hours-and you’re out. I think that model is finished.

Online is where the innovation, and the action, is at.

My point was that you want to keep these studios creatively independent, but at the same time you have to insist on certain features, such as online. It’s the friction between those two that I was enquiring about.
Well you say ‘insist’, I say inspire. What I learned early on in my career was that, if you’re going to lead a creative team, you have to inspire people. They’re the ones living in the game.

I always found it a big problem when a game’s executive producer would come up to me and ask what I should do next. I would always respond that’s not my job. You’re job is to come up with the creative vision, mine is to edit and tweak so it’s a bigger commercial opportunity. I’m very clear about that.

Let’s move on. Are you trying to send a message across the industry by allowing studios to rename themselves and move away from the ‘EA location’ moniker?
Yes, absolutely. We’re respecting our studios, we’re giving them their own ethos, allowing them to break free of this corporate identity. And that actually helps me out as well. Allowing EA LA to rename itself Danger Close gives the studio a bit of an edge. I want them to be competitive; I want them to recruit their own teams.

And, I mean, how exciting a name is EA Redwood Shores?! … How about Visceral? Again, that was a name decided by the team itself, and all of a sudden it completely changed the dynamic of the studio.

Should we expect, in the end, that no studio will be named ‘EA Location’?
I don’t think all of them will be renamed, but if you look at the studios that I manage most have their own names now. There are a couple of places that still have an ‘EA location’ name, but we haven’t figured out an identity for them, or what they’re going to do.

And is this another kind of competition you’re having with other publishers? Is dev happiness something you need to be number-one at for competitive reasons?
Absolutely. This is a relatively small industry from a talent standpoint – there just are not that many producers or creative directors that know how to make big hits. We have to create an organisation and a culture that is, frankly, engaging for them. They are talent and we need to give them reasons to come to us.

EA Partners was, actually, one way we moved into this approach, because we want to attract the best and brightest developers in the world. And we will change our entire business practices, and we will change how we bring games to market based on who you are.

Epic, Crytek, Valve – we’ve really changed how we approached these studios, and we now have Insomniac and Respawn as partners.

Looking ahead into the next three years, we’re going to change a lot of ideas in regards to content delivery mechanisms. We’re going to try out new price-points, and we’re going to try free-to-play models within my group – things like we did with Battlefield 1943, which was a $10 XBLA game that did extremely well. So we’re going to focus more on content delivery models.

Does the Partners business model mean that EA will acquire less?
I’m not dying to add capacity, I’m very happy with the studios that we have and now I’m trying to optimise that and make it powerful.

In terms of our Partners programme, yeah we want it to grow. We want to continue to find great independent talent out there.

I’m obviously not going to say no to every single acquisition opportunity, because who knows what’s around the corner. But I think we have enough.

Finally, how close were you to signing a deal with Bungie?
I wouldn’t want to comment on that. That’s all in the past.