EA: "We haven't always been great listeners, but we're getting better"
CEO Andrew Wilson sees EA Access as key to meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse audience
By his own admission, Andrew Wilson still “geeks out” at EA's press conferences, despite his position as the company's CEO demanding that he take centre stage. When we meet after the Gamescom media briefing, he enthuses in great detail and at considerable length about a FIFA 15 video demonstrating the capabilities of the new game's goalkeepers. What that team has accomplished since he ascended to executive level, Wilson says, never fails to make him smile.
And Wilson has spent his first year in charge identifying the ways to spread that enthusiasm to EA's customers. That hasn't always resulted in success, of course: with Battlefield 4 the company stumbled once again on the unpredictable landscape of online gaming, and with EA Access it met with resistance from Sony on the grounds of value. In this interview, Wilson discusses both of these issues, and outlines EA's renewed dedication to listening to its customers and following wherever that might lead.
Q: The last time we spoke you were still with EA Sports, and you've had a promotion since then - quite a big one, in fact. You're coming up on a year as CEO now. Have we started to see evidence of the mark you wanted to make on the company?
AW: I think...no, I know that I didn't approach this role thinking about making a mark or leaving a legacy. It wasn't personal in nature. I took on the role because of how I feel about the company. This company has been very good to me and my family over the years, I loved the people I worked with inside the company and I loved the games we made together.
"Financial return is an outcome, but it shouldn't be the objective. We've made a lot of decisions based on that over the last 12 months"
As I worked in the company in a variety of different roles, it became apparent to me that in some areas we'd lost our way a little bit. When I came in [as CEO] I really wanted to bring to the forefront the things that I thought made the company great, things that had delivered for us over the years. That really meant building this foundation of 'player first'. I get that there are things we have to think about: we're a big company, we're a public company, we have shareholders, we have 8,000 people working for us. But all of that is for nothing unless you deliver for your number one constituency: the players. Without that, it's for nothing.
Q: So the idea that the CEO is stuck trying to serve two masters, the shareholder and the customer, that isn't how you see it, then?
AW: Financial return is an outcome, but it shouldn't be the objective. Financial return is what happens when you achieve the right objectives. We've made a lot of decisions based on that over the last 12 months. We are engaging with our player-base more regularly, through more platforms to ensure that we're doing what they want, and to make sure that we're listening to them when we're doing something that they don't want. It's as much about eliminating what doesn't inspire or entertain as it is about the stuff that does.
Q: Is that how we should think about the problems that Battlefield 4 faced? You've publicly addressed the complaints already, but was that just a consequence of trying to deliver on an ambitious objective?
AW: If I promised you that nothing would ever go wrong [on future projects], that would be very disingenuous of me. The reality is that we come to work every day and challenge ourselves and our teams to do creative and innovative things. What I can say, however, is that living up to that commitment to engagement and action I mentioned before means that we will make tough decisions in service of the player.
Titanfall for Xbox 360 was coming in hot, it needed a few more weeks, and we moved it out of the fiscal year to get a great game. I don't think we would have done that before. Need for Speed is a franchise we've released every year for 17 years - it's as sure a thing as FIFA. But the team said that they couldn't do what we challenged them to do in a year. It wasn't possible, so for the first time in 17 years we decided not to launch a Need For Speed.
More recently, Battlefield: Hardline, moving out of the holiday quarter would traditionally be seen as catastrophic in this industry.
Q: Particularly that franchise. Battlefield 3 and 4 were both holiday releases.
AW: Yes, but it was the feedback. We brought gamers in earlier, we let them play the beta earlier. And the beta was very stable, so we'd solved a bunch of the problems that existed in Battlefield 4. But what people said to us was, 'This is pretty cool, but we think you should go deeper. We want more out of this.' So we've given the team more time. That's a tough decision to make, and it has a financial impact in the near-term, but long-term, for the player and the franchise, that's the right decision.
Q: Do you see EA Access in the same way? You're the first publisher to pull the trigger on something like this on console. I remember a talk you gave at the Develop conference a few years back, where you held up services like Netflix as a model for the games industry to emulate. Was this idea in your mind all the way back then?
AW: It's not completely the same, but yes. But, again, I wouldn't take credit for that programme in its entirety. I've been involved in that programme, but we've got a great team that's been looking at challenging the standard by which certain people access products. It's early days - we launched it yesterday - but for what it's worth all the positive intent is there. It will evolve, but what we've come to understand - and what I believed back then - is that this concept of, 'I want to give you an amount of money each month that makes sense, and for that I want a bunch of cool stuff', we want to live up to that.
Does that mean people will stop paying $60 for games? No, but there's a big part of the population for whom that [EA Access] is the right context, that's the right way for them to engage with games.
"There's a big part of the population for whom EA Access is the right context, that's the right way for them to engage with games"
Q: And potentially it's a way for people who wouldn't ordinarily play, say, Madden to get acquainted with the franchise. For a lot of people, FIFA and Battlefield would be enough to justify for the annual fee, and anything else is a bonus.
AW: Yes, but there will be many different types of players. For some people that will be how they want to play all content, for others it will form some part of it. There'll be others who might use it just to trial games. Again, the price point is low enough that it's pretty cool as a trial mechanism. We want to build a service that players can use in a way that makes sense to them.
Q: It gives the catalogue longevity, too, which is something that the games industry hasn't been particularly good at.
AW: EA makes great games. Stuff that we made ten years ago is still good, and so in ten years time the games we're making now will still be good.
Q: It's early days, as you point out, but even in the near term are you planning to grow the selection on EA Access, to be additive?
AW: Absolutely. We wanted to launch it at a point where we could put things into the catalogue, into The Vault, and it would have value. We thought that four [games] was the minimum for the price-point, but we want to get to a place where you could play any number of games for that price-point. Over time, the value will just get better and better and better, in much the same way that Netflix does. When I started subscribing to Netflix, there was no House Of Cards, there was no Orange Is The New Black - there is now.
Q: I have been surprised at my preference for buying games digitally in the generation so far. I thought it would take a bit more time.
AW: Convenience is a wonderful thing.
Q: Is that sort of behaviour behind the decision to get EA Access out there now, this year? Is that transition happening faster than you expected?
AW: No. Listen, we - and certainly myself - have matured in the understanding over the years about how people consume content, irrespective of the industry. One of the stats that I hear frequently is that 40 per cent of music is still bought on CD. Now, I haven't bought a CD in 14 years. I've bought vinyl, by the way, a bunch in the last 14 years, so I consume media in different ways through different business models based on what I'm looking for. The way my view has evolved, I'm a bit like you: I haven't bought a disc for my PS4 or my Xbox One; I click a button and it turns up, and that's good for me. But that doesn't mean that everyone wants it the same way. I've moved from a belief that there will be one access model to rule them all, to the belief that our objective as a company is to provide access to our entertainment in ways that make sense to the growing population of players.
Q: Services like EA Access to make sense in the context of this generation, which seems to largely about choice, whether that's variety of games, how you want to buy, how you want communicate with other players. The experience is very open now.
AW: One of the things that we're learning as we make the digital transformation is that we don't need to guess what players want any more. For the longest time we had to guess, and the first opportunity to find out whether you got it right or not was when you saw the game on the shelf. Now, we're getting better at listening. We haven't always been great listeners, but we're getting better, and what that's telling us is that people want choice. They want to be able to choose what's right for them at a given moment in time. There isn't a one-size-fits-all any longer. We've got to build a core platform, game engines and games that facilitate that.
Q: Are you concerned that Access will alter your customer's perception of value? FIFA 14 is still a game that can be played all year whether the new one is out or not. That $60 has got to feel like a better decision than before, surely.
"We thought that four games was the minimum for the price-point, but we want to get to a place where you could play any number of games for that price-point"
AW: It doesn't matter whether you spend a $1, $10 or $100,000, as long as you're getting value from what you've spent then you'll feel good about that. EA Access feels like tremendous value, and whether you continue to feel good about paying whatever it is for a frontline product comes down to our ability to to deliver value.
The commitment that we're making to those frontline products is that they will be bigger, more engaging, service oriented, with new and dynamic content every time you log in. People are now playing FIFA and Battlefield all year round. When I started a game would get played for four weeks, and then it was on to the next one. The value that we deliver today, we have games that can be the only thing you play for an entire year.
Q: Certain products have started to feel out of time to me. I won't mention the name, but I bought a game digitally that cost the same amount as, for example, FIFA, and it took me six or seven hours to finish and that was it. I felt cheated in a way that I wouldn't have with the exact same game at this point in the last generation.
AW: That understanding of value is really, really important, and I'm trying to push that into the organisation - irrespective of business model. Back in the day it was all about delivering $60 of value; now, I want to deliver $1 of value if you want to spend $1, I want to deliver $10 of value if you want to spend $10. I want to deliver value on your investment and on your investment of time. As you get older you realise that time is the most important resource. Part of your issue with that other game is that it took six hours, and you didn't feel the value returned. We should think about the investment of money, but also the investment of time.
Q: You've mentioned the value of EA Access several times, and obviously Sony came out and disagreed on that point. For now, at least, Access won't be available to PlayStation customers. Was that disappointing, particularly with the reason Sony gave?
AW: What I can say is that we launched it yesterday. We believed when we launched it that it was great value, and gamers, for the most part, have fed back that it's great value. We're going to continue to put things into that service that make it even better value. It will evolve and go through lots of permutations over time as we listen and learn from players who engage with it. My hope is that we can deliver that kind of service to many millions of players for years to come.