State of Play: Electronic Arts
EA's top executives on Origin, FIFA and how to turn an oil tanker
Second place can be a fine motivator. You're up there with the pack leaders, knowing you can go toe-to-toe with the best on a good day, but you're also motivated by your fiercest competitor, shaving off those few extra milliseconds, raking in a couple of thousand more points, or in this case, banking those few extra millions.
For Electronic Arts - so long the untouchable 'Evil Empire' in the games industry's top spot - the slip to second came hard, but brought a much needed rethinking of policy. Lambasted for many years by gamers as a label based on quantity rather than quality, full of throwaway IP and uninspired sequels, EA was in need of a return to winning form.
Today, the publisher is still in second place to Activision as the world's biggest console publisher. However, it's also in second place to Zynga as the biggest Facebook developer, is winning the increasingly heated battle for mobile supremacy and is launching a challenge to Steam with the advent of its Origin online download service.
With Battlefield shaping up to take a chunk of Call of Duty's incredible market share and Star Wars: the Old Republic eyeing World of Warcraft's subscriber base jealously, EA isn't shy about its ambition. Smart acquisitions have contributed greatly to growth, particularly PlayFish and PopCap, but internal attitudes have been revolutionised, too, enhancing co-operation and resource sharing.
Much of this is thanks to the leadership of John Riccitiello, who has embraced digital delivery, casual markets and games-as-service more quickly than many of his peers, broadening EA's remit whilst refocusing its IP catalogue into more profitable areas.
However, his bullish, more aggressive approach has made him some enemies as well as friends. Most notable of those is Eric Hirschberg of Activision, who called his rival's banter over the forthcoming conflict between Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3 'mudslinging', and detrimental to the industry.
We're still picking those fights, so it's not like we're trying to be everywhere and everything to everybody.
Jens Uwe Intat - Head of EA Europe
There's perhaps a touch of hypocrisy from Activision in that statement, but anyone who can get under the skin of a runaway market leader enough to promote a public response must be a troubling spot on their radar.
Amongst the other EA executives Riccitiello is well respected. EA Play head Lucy Bradshaw says he's responsible for "digital delivery, really refocusing our portfolio of games, making sure that we're introducing these with the unique opportunity that EA has, across multiple platforms," and "making sure that there's quality there in our AAA franchise releases. Making sure we're being wise about A&R - how we're bringing in new companies to bring new experience."
But he's not doing it on his own. Alongside Bradshaw, who has seen her division's latest take on The Sims franchise, Sims Social, reach 50 million monthly average users, EA has been led from the front by figures such as Frank Gibeau, Peter Moore and European chief Jens Uwe Intat.
Speaking to GamesIndustry.biz at Gamescom earlier this year, Intat explained the change in EA's strategy, stressing that the company is aware of the danger of over-stretching.
"We're still picking those fights, so it's not like we're trying to be everywhere and everything to everybody," says Intat.
"I think one of the major focus areas in the last couple of years is focusing more on the number of franchises which we really push hard. It's still several, and we're still trying to balance between extending existing IP - FIFA 12 for example we're offering on 12 different platforms - and creating new IP, which we still occasionally do, but we don't do as crazily as we used to.
"I use 'crazily' as my own personal opinion, but I think a couple of years back we just over did it. Everything was on growth, everybody thought we could do everything, so did we. We made that mistake, but the bad thing is not making mistakes, it's only bad if you don't learn from them."
Peter Moore, in his new position as chief operating officer, also makes it clear that ambition is not being allowed to run rampant.
"We're a global business," Moore explains. "We're 8000 people, we're a publicly traded company that has revenues close to $4 billion. We know what we need to do to grow our business.
"You'll see us getting behind maybe five or six big titles this year, when we would get behind 30 titles three years ago... We've not been shy about making acquisitions when we couldn't build organically. In the last two years Playfish and PopCap have been pretty sizeable purchases, which, from our perspective, you look at some of the valuations where we live, in Silicon Valley, and every day they look like great deals."
In terms of the key battles, it's certainly the FPS arena which is making the most waves, with Moore and Intat both saying that they "expect to take market share" from Activision this year, and continue to do so down the line. Beyond that, though, some of the aggression fades, particularly when comparisons are made between Steam and Origin.
"I don't even know if Steam Vs. Origin is a proper battle, I would rephrase that a little," Intat opines.
"I would say that we're introducing Origin as our consumer relationship platform. We want to build a platform that allows consumers to have the best experience you could ever had with EA games. It's going to be one of the offerings that consumers can use. There's a space for Steam, there's a space for Origin, there's a space for third party etailers. Both pure etailers and traditional retailers that are entering the digital distribution space.
"I think in that space that competition will create superior experiences for the consumer and there's space for more than one player.
"Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying it's not a competitor to Steam, I'm just saying that there's more people out there than just Steam and Origin. While with Battlefield and Call of Duty, it's really just about those two, that's the difference."
Moore sees the service going further, becoming a social network in its own right, retro-engineering the success of Facebook gaming bear hug to turn the communities of games into a wider reaching circle.
"It will absolutely become a social network," says Moore. "I'm already using it every day to see what friends are doing, to understand what coming from EA, plus you'll see announcements over the next few weeks of third-parties coming on board and having their content becoming available. We love the fact that we can deal directly with our consumers."
EA products will also continue to appear on other download services, and in fact Steam itself, with the recent withdrawals purely the result of some of Valve's policies on patching and updating, we were told by Moore, who reiterated Intat's portrayal of Origin's market position.
"I'm not sure we're taking them on," the ex-EA Sports head explains, "we're a great compliment to that business.
"We want to be able to support our customer directly. If there are opportunities to do that, then we'll do that. If Valve, through Steam are willing to allow us to do that, then there are no issues whatsoever. In the instances where you're not seeing a game on Steam, it's primarily because we can't deal directly with our consumer to resolve issues and do things we want to be able to do."
For two companies which have collaborated so closely in the past, direct competition could be seen as something of a souring of the relationship, but the EA executives consulted played down any perceived schism between the two corporations.
"Valve is run by very clever people, and I would say that's also true for Electronic Arts, we're all good business people," Intat says.
Valve is run by very clever people, and I would say that's also true for Electronic Arts, we're all good business people.
Jens Uwe Intat, Head of EA Europe
"So, Valve, when they're looking for distribution for their products, looking at which publisher could actually do that, then I think we're the best publisher on the planet, both in Europe and North America.
"We have a long history of distributing Valve products and I think for every title they will look for who will do the best job. There's no strain on that relationship because we're competing in one space. We're basically competing and working with a lot of people. Every first party manufacturer is a partner of ours when we're distributing their product, and a competitor of ours with their own software. I think, as an industry, we're pretty good at competing and co-operating at the same time."
Whilst that might not harmonise particularly well with EA's current stance on market leading FPS games, internal co-operation and harmony seems to be a cornerstone of the new EA, and much of that in embodied in the growing concept of company wide technology drives.
Cross pollination of internally developed technology is already in evidence with the transition of the ANT animation system to Battlefield 3 from the EA Sports titles and the propagation of Autolog, but it's the Frostbite 2 Engine, applauded by Moore and Intat alike as "the best" in class, which has perhaps the greatest potential impact for the publisher.
"We've kind of seen this before with what we've done with FIFA," says Moore. "It was only four years ago that Pro-Evo and FIFA were fighting it out. That's not to say we don't still have a battle with Pro-Evo, but the numbers speak for themselves on market share.
"We made an investment in a brand new engine to match a new generation, Konami did not. You can look at what we've done with Frostbite now as the engine for Battlefield...We are going to take market share. Activision happen to be in the way. It's not like we're targeting anybody. We want to be more dominant, like we used to be with Medal of Honor, focused on what we need to do with the FPS category."
By sharing technologies internally - allowing specialist teams to focus on their key areas and product needs, but then distributing that tech to other areas - EA is leveraging its team size and resources, whilst remaining product-focused and nimble. But sharing tech doesn't mean that individual studio identity is being crushed. That, says Bradshaw, is key to success and happy employees.
"One thing I've always appreciated about EA's senior management is that they do respect the culture that each one of the studios and groups that come to EA has," says the EA Play Label boss.
"That makes for a stronger portfolio and a more interesting point of view. I think there's a lot of sharing of information and collaboration, a very strong drive towards a relationship. Some of the tools we have as a team to drive that direct to consumer relationship, be it community, or distribution or DLC activities, it's about those strengths and experiences combining to make EA stronger."
That synergy, of central identity and individual freedom results in a model closer to a republic than the Evil Empire of old, and although the influences of the central government undoubtedly control the output of outlying regions like BioWare, the house of the Doctors is just as likely to learn from Playfish as it is the board.
By spreading its bets across a number of disciplines, EA invites a Jack of All label, but also inures itself against the shrinkage of any of those markets, allowing a fluid move into more emergent areas. So is the Redwood behemoth preparing for another financial crisis?
"Well we've made investment," says Moore. "Companies that truly believe, and I don't think EA as a company does believe we're about to go into a double dip recession, hang on to their money on their balance sheet as a bit of a war chest to see them through rough times.
"We're seeing a growth business. I think the key in tough times is that you've got to offer the consumer more opportunities to buy content at a cheaper price. Even though we're theoretically in recessionary times, iPads are selling at a breakneck record, smartphones are setting records, the console business goes up and down depending on what month it is."
Intat is less certain.
"If you look at what happened in recessions in the past and try to correlate, I would actually try to warn you against trying to make a conclusion, because you never know what might have happened without a recession," says the European head.
"The underlying progress of our industry, which is the attractiveness of games and the attractiveness of hardware platforms, but mainly the games, is driving the industry much more than economic factors.
"If you have a total recession it might have an impact on people actually buying consoles, new consoles. But having said that, there are so many other devices out there that people can play on that I'm not actually really sure whether recession would be a good or a bad thing. I don't know."
Ambition tempered by some inherited humility and bolstered by showmanship seems like an apt precis of where the company sees itself heading - a laudable goal. But can a leopard really change its spots? Peter Moore would certainly like you to think so.
We see games as a 365 days of the year live operations experience. It's no longer launch and leave, no longer the dev team getting there then throwing it over the fence and going on holiday for 3 weeks and comes back and starts all over again.
Peter Moore, Chief Operating Officer
"We see games as a 365 days of the year live operations experience. Whether it's a sports game, or a shooter like Battlefield 3, or Star Wars as an MMO. It's no longer launch and leave, no longer the dev team getting there then throwing it over the fence and going on holiday for 3 weeks and comes back and starts all over again.
"When we look at how we're structured and a little bit even at my level here with the recent restructure - it's for this digital age. The dev teams are the same way. We're as likely now to be hiring biz analysts on a dev team as we are a programmer.
"People will look at what's going on every hour of every day, with telemetry from people such as yourself who might be playing FIFA - their job is to figure out what people want, and give it to them - and not give it to them next month in a patch but the following day.
"In the 12 years that I've been in this industry, gaming has changed radically at every level - from a development perspective, from a marketing perspective, distribution channels, everything. And it's all focused around the consumer at the centre rather than what a publisher like us needs to do to drive our business, because the consumer is now in charge, that's what online has done for this industry."
But then he would say that, wouldn't he?