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EA's Evolution: Free DLC, neural networks and (maybe) VR

Electronic Arts' Laura Miele explains the publisher's changing approach to live operations as well as lukewarm support for VR and Switch

The idea of "games-as-a-service" is nothing new to Electronic Arts. But just as the games themselves change and grow over time, EA's approach to games-as-a-service has also evolved.

For example, 2015's Star Wars Battlefront followed the Season Pass template, where players paid money for access to new game modes, multiplayer maps, weapons, and characters. One of the big headlines of last week's EA Play event before E3 was that the upcoming Star Wars Battlefront 2 was ditching that approach, making such upgrades free for all players.

Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz on the last day of EA Play, EA executive VP of global publishing Laura Miele said the shift was prompted by complaints about how the Season Pass structure fractured the player base.

"I don't believe the things we're doing this year are the things we're going to be doing two to three years from now"

"One of the most important foundations of live services is that we have a big responsibility in curating a social experience for people. It's our job to make sure people can have great experiences," Miele said. "When we saw the premium service actually cut the community off, and you had a smaller subset of people in their own place with their own maps, we knew that probably wasn't a healthy thing for the overall community. It definitely has caused us to think differently about how we provide the best playground, the best framework for our services, then respond to the needs and upgrades and progressions while people are in the experience."

While Miele didn't rule out the Season Pass model in future EA titles, she did say the insight pulled from the first Battlefront was an important one to be considered across the catalog. Even if a return to the Season Pass model seems unlikely, though, the entire point of games-as-a-service is listening to what the players want and evolving in response.

"I don't believe the things we're doing this year are the things we're going to be doing two to three years from now," Miele said. "We're going to evolve and listen to players and respond to them. And fundamentally, that's what games-as-a-service really means.

"We will curate and create the best frameworks we possibly can for players to have the best experiences, but those will evolve. How we show up and the content we provide and the features we create are going to change... I would never claim or state or even want us to be doing the same things in a couple years. We're setting the table to be so much more progressive and provide exciting experiences for players that they are going to have a bigger hand in. And that's going to go fast for us."

Miele pointed to three big changes in EA over the past few years. The first was CEO Andrew Wilson explicitly organizing the company culture around the idea of putting the players first.

"It wasn't something that was hard for our culture to shift to, because all the way up to the executive team the company is made up of players and gamers," Miele said. "So I think that part came easily as a core value and a culture beacon for the teams."

Second, the company has changed the way it categorizes its players.

"We're entertainment and this is a very creative place. It's not going to be 'solved' with deep learning and AI and metrics"

"In the old days in the industry, we used to look at players as a sports gamer on Xbox, or a shooter player on PlayStation," Miele said. "But from my own gaming habits and my family's and looking around at people at EA, that's not how people play. No one of us would have fit into any of those categories exclusively, so we embarked on a whole new way to think about our players and the marketplace."

Now EA groups its player base by core motivation. Are they playing for a deeply competitive experience? Do they just want to escape into a new world? Or are they perhaps socially driven, preferring a cooperative experience they can share with friends?

"When you can shift a company to consider players through that filter, you can create really great experiences for them," Miele said. "You can create amazing connections and not have a checklist. If we can sit down with a development team and say, 'We want to create the most fantastical escape for a player,' that's a different conversation than, 'Hey, this competitive game had five maps and four modes, what does our checklist look like?' You come from a different place."

Finally, and perhaps most critically, the company is looking to take advantage of its massive global footprint to help pull lessons from all the data it tracks around its playerbase and use it to connect with them, adding a human element to the process of data mining.

"We can have petabytes of data, but if we don't have the meaningful insights sitting on the ground in China, in Poland, in the US and Canada, we're not going to create anything meaningful for the players," Miele said, adding, "We're entertainment and this is a very creative place. It's not going to be 'solved' with deep learning and AI and metrics. We have that human emotion in place that is very important, and that I think EA is particularly strong in. It's been one of the biggest evolutions for us in the last three years under Andrew's leadership."

That's not to say EA is turning its nose up at the potential of machine learning, artificial intelligence and the like. To the contrary, it just established EA Seed, a research and development division led by Patrick Soderlund that will focus on how those types of tech could benefit EA.

"They're exploring technology and innovation outside of gaming, and making connections about what it will mean for gamers and our entertainment experiences in the future. Things such as neural networks, deep learning, virtual humans, metaverse, creating alternative worlds that maybe multiple games and experiences can fit within. The idea he's carved out and ring-fenced is a team that is allowed to think wildly differently about not just gaming but the world at large.

"VR will be an incredible step change at some point in the industry. It's something that's immersive and engaging, and it will continue to evolve. We need to see a larger install base."

"Yes, the game industry's going to change wildly in the next five years relative to the last 45, but so is civilization. The society we sit in and exist in is going to be very, very different in five years. And we have to think about that, and think in a futuristic way to understand what EA's place and gaming's place is within that.

"Having a group of people who aren't worried about how we're making a game that's releasing in a year or two, or worried about the live services content, and they're just free to think and be wildly provocative about player experiences. I love the safety in that, and I love the idea that maybe eight out of ten of their ideas won't work, but the one or two that do will be magic for players. I love that we've organized ourselves and Patrick is prioritizing that, because it will transcend gaming. I think it's going to impact how people consume entertainment."

That sounds a bit like the predictions that have been thrown around for virtual reality. And while EA has dabbled in the field with last year's free Rogue One: X-Wing VR Mission add-on for Star Wars Battlefront, it has yet to announce any sort of VR follow-up, monetized or otherwise. However, Miele insisted the company still believes in VR's long-term potential.

"VR will be an incredible step change at some point in the industry," Miele said. "It's something that's immersive and engaging, and it will continue to evolve. We need to see a larger install base, and I also think the industry--and EA is part of that--will continue to work on engaging experiences. We continue to work on it internally. We're watching the marketplace and install base and technology evolution of the hardware providers. We believe in it, but we need the market to grow."

Market size might also explain the company's limited support for the Nintendo Switch to date. EA was uncharacteristically absent from the launch of the platform, and so far has announced just one title for the system: FIFA 18.

"FIFA is the largest game in the business, so the offering and expansive footprint FIFA has around the globe will help connect Switch hardware to gamers as well," Miele said. "So I think it's a strong mutual partnership with Nintendo. We love the mobility of the Switch and I think the content they've put out is really strong on it so far. We're going to continue to watch how the hardware does. We are exploring other products. We are looking at other IP and what the technology connections need to be for that."

FIFA 18 doesn't use the Frostbite engine that powers its Xbox One and PlayStation 4 counterparts, but Miele dismissed the notion that EA's Switch support is hampered by the hardware's limited horsepower.

"There are technical differences, yes, but I think most importantly there are player differences," Miele said. "When you have a game you're playing on the go, it's a different interface, different experience, different features, and different flow I think, then it would be if you're playing on the sticks in your living room on a TV. So that design consideration always has to be taking place for our players.

"We never want to do just a direct port of something; we want to have a meaningful experience on the hardware. So it's tech and design and user flow that we're considering as we're looking at future titles."

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