Electronic Arts is gearing up for a busy run-in to the year, and following the economic troubles and new IP that faced an uphill battle last year, EA Games president Frank Gibeau will be keen to see lessons learned from that experience.
Here he unpacks his thoughts about this year's line-up, why the company is better prepared overall, and why he thinks this generation of consoles is set to run through 2013, possibly beyond.
Q: It's been a turbulent 12 months for the industry - how is business for EA Games, and how do you feel about your position ramping up for a busy end of year?
Frank Gibeau: I feel really good, very bullish about where we're at. The line-up that we have is spectacular - it starts off at Christmas with Dragon Age, Brutal Legend and Need for Speed: Shift.
I really like what the team's done this year with Need for Speed, really trying to reset the quality and go in a new direction with the brand. And Brutal Legend was a nice add to the line-up - every year we want to try and release one or two new IPs, this year it's Dante's Inferno and Brutal Legend.
The industry really needs those fresh ideas coming in to rejuvenate things - it's always risky to do, and sometimes I wish I had more sequels, perennials, but we've got those too with Need for Speed and Mass Effect.
With those three at Christmas I feel really good at the start, and then Q4 we've got a spectacular line-up with Army of Two, Dante's Inferno, Mass Effect 2, Command & Conquer 4... then Battlefield: Bad Company is a killer.
I don't know if you've had chance to play the 1943 download game on Xbox Live? It's doing very well for us, it's a direct-to-consumer play, sold about a million units so far, and it's a perfect set-up for the next Bad Company.
So right now we feel like we went through a lot of pain, but we're coming out stronger, with very focused teams. The people that are with us are focused on the games, they really want to be there, they really believe in the company, in the brands they're building, the IPs they're building.
Actually I feel really good. I'm excited about this week [at Gamescom] because we get to see what 200,000 rabid fans think of our games - that's always kind of nerve-wracking at the same time as exciting, but overall I feel good.
Q: Brutal Legend is a bit of a rarity these day in a very serious games industry - a title which looks genuinely funny...
Frank Gibeau: That's why, when we first saw the project, we believed in it. Tim Schafer, with the history of all the games he's built, is spectacular, so when he added heavy metal and Jack Black to a very intricate game design I was sold from the minute I saw it - and very supportive of what Double Fine are trying to do.
One of the things you learn in this business is that the big hits don't look like anything else did before it - you get into these genre-breakers, like open worlds and Grand Theft Auto. I'm not saying it's going to be as big as that, but my view is that it injects humour, levity and a totally fresh take on the action category.
Everybody's got the heavy metal vibe, there's Lemmy, Ozzie Osbourne, all the bands in there - it's a unique combination of things that frankly the industry has been applauding. People really like it, and it plays great.
Q: It's been well-documented that bringing the game to market hasn't been straightforward, following the Activision legal wrangling - but it's important for the team to get it out there now?
Frank Gibeau: Without question, it's nice to have all the baggage behind us. Double Fine and EA have been committed partners with each other through the process and it's nice to see yourselves through that process and out the other side in really good shape.
There's nothing left to do now except finish polishing the game and get the marketing campaign nailed. We've been doing a good job of that so far on both fronts, and these last few weeks will be critical for us. We feel really good about what we're doing.
But you're right, it does feel really good that all that's behind us now, and we can just worry about the game.
Q: Dante's Inferno looks interesting as a new IP - is that going to be a tough one to sell? What's the response to that one been like?
Frank Gibeau: It's actually gone very well. It's gone, frankly, better than Dead Space went. I think Dante's Inferno has a much tighter position and consumer proposition than when we started with Dead Space.
I think when you look at Dante's Inferno you start with something that everybody has some knowledge of, which is Hell, and the idea that you go into Hell as a hero and fight demons... that's something that resonates with a lot of people.
So we found early on that the game, tied to the poem, had an interesting angle to it that allowed us to really step into the concept of going to Hell and fighting. What we've found so far - among them anger, lust, treachery, gluttony - everyone can relate to those things.
That makes it much easier to get the game built, but also the demand going. When you have a new IP, having that clear idea, a position statement, is what makes it a hit early on. So far what's worked for us on Dante's was being very focused on a clear character - Dante - and building out that character very early on, giving him clear characterisations like the scythe, the cross. He has clear gameplay moments, with having to absolve or punish... and then it's creating the world.
Everybody knows about the River Styx, the nine circles - it's just one of those things where people... vampires, zombies, Hell - there are certain perennial things that people gravitate to for great story-telling back-drops, and in Dante's that's been easily the thing that's worked.
The team is also very focused - it's a high quality team, with individuals that have a lot of experience in the action category. With that M-rated third-person action genre where Dead Space and Dante's resides - we also have other IPs that we're working on inside that category - it can be a very exciting category for the industry.
Q: Last year was tough for new IP - what lessons did you learn from Dead Space and Mirror's Edge?
Frank Gibeau: It's a great question - there are probably a couple of things I'd add to the context around Q3. There was a severe economic downturn, which caused a flight to quality... not just that but also frankly a flight to things you already knew. So Need For Speed, FIFA, Call of Duty, Madden - you had a good sense of what you were going to get.
If you look at the charts it wasn't just us, it was everybody - there was a complete polarisation of the market place. It was very brutal in the UK, with Woolworths and the other accounts going down - there was an incredible flight to known quality there, and in the US the same thing. So that made it harder.
The other two issues I believe: We didn't start early enough on our marketing. You have to build a fan base, you have to build it early and in a credible way, which means you've got to get your assets, your concept and demos out very early on - much earlier than you would with a sports of driving game. So we started our marketing two quarters earlier this year.
The second thing is that you've got to find the right windows. You can't just launch in the middle of November on top of everything else, so we brought in Brutal in October - it feels like we found a nice clean launch window there. We originally looked at putting Dante's out at Christmas, but it just didn't feel right in terms of the products that are coming, so we found a nice window in February where we think we can really stand out. It also gives the team a lot more polish time, and we want to make sure the team has that last three months to really make the game perfect.
So a combination of those three issues is giving me a sense that we're going to be much stronger this year, and in addition to that we've also looked at how much money we need to spend up front, at launch, how we sustain it, and then online.
Q: Do you feel the economic environment will be more positive?
Frank Gibeau: Yeah, France and Germany are looking pretty good. The US has got sectors that are doing very well. I'm actually one of the optimists on that front - I don't think it's going to look like last Christmas at all. Last Christmas was horrific, frankly.
Q: Well, it was still a big unknown - nobody knew how far, or deep, the recession would go at that point.
Frank Gibeau: That's the worst part, not knowing. I think people can now see the bottom, or they're standing at the bottom, and it's about the climb back. So I'm optimistic that you'll see a very healthy Christmas for Electronic Arts, and into Q4.
Q: Will spreading release dates out benefit the industry next year? Consumers are more likely to spend more money over a longer period if they are, wouldn't you say?
Frank Gibeau: I think that's fair, from the industry's point of view. I'm far more parochial about what we're doing - we're up about six or seven points in market share, and I don't really care that everybody else is down. I'm really pleased where we're at - and I think right now you're looking at tough comps, sure, with Metal Gear and GTA in that first quarter.
But also plastic's way down, so a lot of the music category stuff is not as robust as it's been, and it's unclear whether a lot of this peripheral activity that's happening is going to stick. USD 125, USD 115, USD 99 price points for these things - it appears to have gone soft right now in the market place.
But for standalone software titles that are high quality, from us? I feel good about it. I look at our first half, our Q2, I feel good about our company, our line-up. We're not as exposed to some of those other issues - year-on-year our Q4 is going to be very dramatic in terms of the titles released.
Q: Sony announced the PlayStation 3 Slim, and a new price point - is that something that you're pleased about?
Frank Gibeau: I think it's awesome. It's an old line, but it still rings true for us: "We make the ammunition for the hardware wars"'. So the lowest priced hardware possible is a good thing for us. We want to see as big and broad a base as possible, and the Sony hardware is a good piece of equipment.
Getting into that price point is just going to expand the market for us, especially in Europe. We have a lot of PS3 games, we're a good supporter of Sony, we believe in the platform. We've got a lot of PSP games coming, and frankly we also support the PlayStation Network with direct-to-consumer releases.
So we're strong, committed partners of Sony and I'm extremely excited about the Slim - I think it looks great. And the price point will be hot.
The good news is that we still have a lot of price points to go yet - Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony - which points to a longer cycle for hardware this time around. And again, for us it's great, because we don't have to go out and build a whole new set of engines for next-gen.
You've got really good proprietary engines, you've got Unreal, the CryEngine - a lot of really good middleware that will help keep this industry sustained all the way through 2012, 2013, maybe longer. People aren't dying for more HD - they're looking for peripherals, they're looking for online - which is all easy stuff to add to these platforms.
But you can't go beyond 1080p right now, that's the physical limit of the television, so there's no real reason for Sony or Microsoft to go there.
Q: While 3D is easily possible with this generation of consoles?
Frank Gibeau: Oh, yes, we've actually built some tech demos in 3D for Need For Speed: Shift and Burn Out, and I think that Natal is going to be pretty clever. We've got some of the workstations in the office, we're screwing around with some different things. It's pretty liberating to be in a controller-less environment.
It'll be a different kind of game, it won't be some of the things you'd traditionally expect, but between Natal, price point moves and online I'm feeling very bullish that the cycle's going to be a lot longer.
Frank Gibeau is president of EA Games. Interview by Phil Elliott.