EA Partners has played a huge part in what’s been a quietly dramatic turnaround for Electronic Arts of late – both in its intentions, and in the public and critical perception of the enormous publisher. Offering distribution and production support to third-party studios without demanding IP ownership or assimilation into the EA mass in return, it’s resulted in projects from the likes of Valve and Crytek. Not to mention upcoming titles from Respawn and Insomniac...
At this year's GamesCom gathering in Cologne, GamesIndustry.biz sat down with EAP’s affable boss David DeMartini to talk how game budget are changing, big versus small projects, the importance of review scores, Respawn – and the ongoing troubles at one-time partner studio Realtime Worlds.
Q:How’s GamesCom going for you this year – has it been useful?
David DeMartini:It’s been great. I had a chance to walk out there. This show in particular is very much like going to Disneyland and seeing which are the most popular rides. 30,000 people have an opportunity to vote with their feet right now, much like they vote with their dollars once the game has shipped, with regard to "I’ve got a limited amount of time, there a lines everywhere, which is the line that I’m most interested in sitting in." So you really do get a good perspective just by walking around and seeing that people are really buzzin’ about that game or buzzin’ about this game. It’s funny over the course of days to see, as particular games get more and more buzz, the line gets bigger. So it’s kind of interesting to watch the trends.
Q:It’s quite evocative of the industry in general at the moment – so many demands for consumers’ time and entertainment. Are you feeling more of a squeeze there with your titles?
David DeMartini:There’s a lot of games out there, yeah. But that’s where they turn to people like yourselves. Consumers are so much more informed. Before you occasionally used to be able to slide a clunker out there and still do well, but now people are so informed by the various outlets that I don’t think anybody makes an uninformed purchase anymore. More and more pressure I think to sign only the best because when you put them out there… Games with pedigree, in my business anyway, making investments in various studios and stuff, the best predictor of future success is past success.
So when you turn to the likes of Epic or Valve or Crytek or Harmonix, those kinds of studios, you kind of go in with a leg up. Those are teams that know what they’re doing. I’m not saying game-making is ever easy no matter who it is, but when you’ve got the DNA that has shown you know previously how to do it you tap into that DNA when you run into the rough patches.
Q:How worried do your developers seem about the budgets they’re working with in this kind of climate?
David DeMartini:In my area you kind of worry about the budget before you sign the deal, and then the budget is kind of what the budget is and the developers are really adept at a…. I’ll never tell a developer how much their game will cost. They’ll bring it to me and then I’ll evaluate whether or not it makes sense from a business standpoint with regards to the potential of the idea. If they happen to make a lot of money based on that budget, great for them. If they come up short and have to cover some of it – y’know, they’ll be smarter the next time they do it. That’s kind of the approach that we take to it.
But I think budgets for games have actually peaked and are starting to move in the reverse direction again. I don’t think there’s any one right budget for any game. It kind of depends on how big the idea is and what the team needs to be able to make a 90%-rated game with the idea that they’re working on.
Q:How far backwards do you think budgets might reverse? EA seem to be doing pretty well with Playfish making smaller games, after all.
David DeMartini:There’s different ways to make games. I mean, I’ve been doing this for 12 years in the industry and there’s cycles, internal development, now we go offshore, now we come onshore, we’re back… there’s no one way to do this. There’s no one way to the finish line, you just need to make sure that you pick a path that’s going to get you there.
Q:How has Partners evolved over the last year or so given all this change?
David DeMartini:The core business model that we always go after is quality and value. Always seeking teams that have had a long-standing history of success, and then always looking for the next emerging group that is going to bust out and potentially be the next Valve or Insomniac. I mean, Valve wasn’t Valve overnight and Insomniac wasn’t Insomniac overnight. They had to start somewhere. They had to kind of emerge. So we’re always looking for the emerging stuff as well.
We’ve got a program that we call Arthouse that has Deathspank from Hothead, Shank from Klei Entertainment. A couple of downloadable PSN, XBLA games – one’s doing incredibly well, and Shank’s about to release next week. So in the downloadable games market those are a couple of very strong emerging companies that may well say "gee, now I want to take my IP to the main console, do you want to do that?" And based on success at a lower level, that might be the next step for them.
Q:How big a part of your partnership plans is that – nurturing a team with a download title but intending to make it more mainstream once the awareness is out there?
David DeMartini:They could ever emerge that way or … the thing is it’s always interesting in the industry when teams break out. They could have a history of 70 or 80-rated games, and then suddenly they get a 90. And you kind of wonder , alright, what changed? It’s always an interesting case study, because generally what it’ll be is a new creative force came in and joined a team that had good technology and good process, but they were lacking that creative leader. Or it was a creative leader who got hooked up with a really strong chief technology officer who controlled the creative leader and got that result. But teams don’t usually make leaps without some kind of dramatic change. It’s kind of like a football team in the UK – it had a lot of good pieces, but they finally got that centre midfielder that is able to distribute and bring the best out of the strikers. That one guy really can make a big difference on some of these teams.
Q:What’s the balance on smaller devs versus larger projects in the Partners scheme?
David DeMartini:We try not to go in with any specific formula. What we try and do, you don’t want to look at things like a portfolio, because when you look at things like that you kind of go "well two aren’t going to do that well, one’s going to do okay, and two are going to break out." And I don’t wanna go in with a predisposition of "those are the two that aren’t going to do okay." You just evaluate every opportunity on its own merit and you make the right decision for that specific opportunity. They tend to sort themselves out and fall into a scatter diagram. But I want all hits. I want to defy the odds, and I want every one of the EAP games to be hugely successful.
Q:Can you give any insight on the current state of play with the Insomniac and Respawn titles? Is there a timeframe for when we’ll hear more?
David DeMartini:Well, on the Respawn front, Vince and Jason were starting from ground zero – no office, no computers, no desks, no chairs… They had to really create all that foundation. So once they did that, they started hiring up a team, and since they hired up the team they’ve been talking about a lot of different ideas. When they get one that they’re all incredibly excited about, I’m sure they’re going to bring it to us, and we’ll talk through it, and that’ll be the one they go with.
Q:So they really don’t have their project locked yet?
David DeMartini:No. No. It’s still at the creative stage. And, er, with Insomniac, different story. That is an incredibly mature team that has a 90-rated pedigree for a long, long history of titles. They’ve got an idea that is really, really clever and well thought-through, all the way through a prototyping phase, all the way with some customer feedback on it already. So they’re pretty far down the path, and hopefully in the near future we’ll have some stuff to talk about there.
Q:Less cheerfully, how are you feeling about what’s going on with Realtime Worlds at the moment?
David DeMartini:I feel really bad about that. Everybody kinda looked at it and said "oh, you know, the game wasn't as good as it should have been" but they certainly didn't set out to make a game that wasn't as good as it should have been. Just so people understand, 3-400 people are now going to be working somewhere else, have their lives uprooted, their families are in a bit of turmoil right now as they try and catch on with another games company. It's just sad all the way around. It's not great for the industry either because the team gets tarnished, the game gets tarnished, customers aren't exactly delighted with the experience that they got. And it's an idea that had such tremendous promise, didn't have an opportunity to get to the finish line that everyone had hoped. It's just unfortunate the way it worked out.
Q:Did you guys have any sense earlier on that it might not work out how you hoped?
David DeMartini:Y'know, we were having a lot of discussions with them about where we thought the title was, at least advising them so that they could make a decision on... but everybody thinks that they should have just hung onto it for a longer time. But there was 300-400 people that worked there, and 300-400 people cost a lot on a monthly basis and I don't know the specifics of their situation but you need to have financial backing in order to have your enterprise up and running so it certainly wasn't our decision. So I feel bad for David, I feel bad for everybody on that team. It's not the outcome that they wanted.
People are still buying it and people are still enjoying it like I said, just from the Metacritic scores and stuff, it's not quite the game that everybody expected it to be. It's got some elements in there that are probably worth the money, the customisation, the character creation capability – unparalleled. There's nothing as good as what they put out there.
Q:Was there more EA could have done?
David DeMartini:I don't think so. We do all different kinds of deals; that one in particular was a distribution deal, we weren't involved in the production, we were much more involved in getting the game out in the channel. We're not really involved in the back end either, so in that particular case I'd say not really, just because we didn't have anybody on the ground, we didn't really have an active production role in the title. We did suggest that where it landed from a review score standpoint was where we thought it was going to land from a review score standpoint. But I guess there's so many factors that go into a decision that it's hard to speculate on. I imagine they think they could have done some things differently at this point, but hindsight's always 20-20.
Q:How are you feeling about MMOs as a result of this and what’s gone on in that sector generally lately?
David DeMartini:It's a really hard category to make a game. You spend tens of millions of dollars and then you hope the idea… well, that's a lot of risk. But I think Star Wars [The Old Republic] is going to be enormous; I think Star wars is the next big thing. Actually I'm highly confident that when that releases it’ll bring on a whole other wave to the category, and I think people are looking for something else besides World of WarCraft to kind of reinvigorate the category. The guys at Blizzard have done a great job with WarCraft and a great job of sustaining WarCraft, but after this period of time I think people are looking for a new thing within the category to kind of reinvigorate it.
Q:I noticed that you talk a lot about games’ review scores. How absolute a benchmark is that for you, from a business standpoint? Would you stick by a game or a dev that didn’t score too well on average?
David DeMartini:Sometimes on new IPs, new IP gets scored a little more harshly than an established franchise. We’ve got a sense out there that sometimes designers or ideas are plus five or minus five designers or ideas. Sometimes the scores are a little artificially high because [reviewers] really have a liking for that designer or that team.
Q:There’s also audience expectancy and issues of deflating hype.
David DeMartini:Yeah, there’s audience expectancy, the audience is going to want to like it. But I mean, we certainly don’t discount Metacritic. I think [the media] plays an incredibly important role in informing consumers. We may occasionally have a healthy disagreement about the quality of something. I’m still bitter about the first Godfather that I worked on – 78 per cent was about five points lower than I actually think it deserved. But they always rewarded me on Tiger [Woods PGA Tour] with 90-rated games, so I guess it all evens out.
David DeMartini is group general manager of EA Partners. Interview by Alec Meer.