In the opening keynote of the Develop Conference, Andrew Wilson, EA Sports' senior vice president of worldwide development, outlined the company's bold digital strategy for the multi-million selling FIFA franchise. With the launch of FIFA 12 this autumn the company will introduce Football Club, a persistent online service that unites the real world of football with the one created by the franchise. Players will have a consistent online identity that will link every version of FIFA on every platform, feeding their performance back into a central hub.
In this interview, we talk to Wilson about the implications these ideas have for the EA Sports portfolio, FIFA's steady evolution into a persistent online service, and the obstacles that must be overcome to affect that change.
Q: In your keynote at Develop, you spoke about how quickly the market has changed over the last two or three years. How long have concepts like Football Club and a consistent identity for the user been in place?
Andrew Wilson: Only around the last five years. The reality is that when we started the rewrite of FIFA - and I had the great fortune of leading that team at that time, when we started that rewrite we asked ourselves where we thought we'd be a decade from now. If we could create the perfect football experience, what would that look like? The first stage of that was the idea of eleven players against eleven players online in a real FIFA World Cup. That was the first phase of development, and we got there by FIFA 10, FIFA 11. The very next phase was developing a world that was really more like an MMORPG, that was always with you, where you had a unique ID with persistence and progression across platforms and across years. You had ever-changing dynamic content wrapped up in a rich economy. That's the phase we've been on since then, but EA as a company started to invest in the online infrastructure and architecture that would facilitate that game experience about five years ago.
Q: You just mentioned the idea of a perfect football game. When you push gameplay towards simulation route there will be a point where it becomes tough to add to the play experience without hurting it. Will this social, persistent layer be the focus of innovation in the future?
Andrew Wilson: I think we have two dreams, and certainly I have two dreams, and I'm busy rallying the teams around them at FIFA and for every product that we make. And we've had some dreams come true that we never thought would, that changing technology has facilitated.
Through technology we'll be able to put full control of the game experience in the hand of the consumer
Andrew Wilson, EA Sports
So when I think what technology is going to provide us with in the future I have two big dreams: one that I think will come true, and one that I think won't. The one that I think will come true is that through technology we'll be able to put full control of the game experience in the hand of the consumer; that they govern what we build, how we build it, what they play and how they play it. I think that's the shift, and we get much better data now than we ever did before, through online connectivity, that allows us to fine-tune the experience to their demands.
The second dream is that what I do in my FIFA game actually affects the real world. I would love it if I played well with Chelsea on Friday night, that they play better on Sunday. I don't think that one happens, but the first one does.
Q: But in order to realise that goal, don't you need a more stable gameplay experience to build around? Historically, updates in a franchise like FIFA have been gameplay driven, but this is all focused on the service and the features in that extra layer.
Andrew Wilson: I think that's probably true. One of the things that I never underestimate any more is the power of technology, and how we can use that to achieve things that previously were impossible. The things we're doing today on PlayStation 3 we never thought we could do on the PlayStation 2 because we never thought we'd have the processing power to do them. The granularity and the finesse in the game now is largely a result of increased processing power, so when I think about the future and ask, Can we make a better game? I don't know, but technology will certainly help.
Our focus is going to be on how gamers consume the experience we build, but at the same time we'll be using available technology to make it the best gameplay experience possible.
Q: You're bringing established brands into these new areas and finding ways to keep people playing, but it's not a given that the average FIFA player wants an actual football game on their phone or on Facebook. How did you define the ways to extend the franchise?
Andrew Wilson: The short answer is consumer feedback. The level of data we're getting from the close to 70 or 80 per cent of console gamers that are connected, and the 100 per cent of PC, mobile and social gamers drives the course that we're on. We put something out, and if there's take up we know we're going in the right direction, if there's not we go a different direction. The cycle of change and the clock-speed at which we operate has fundamentally shifted, and that helps us stay ahead of the curve and make sure these experiences make sense on their platform.
Q: The consistent user identity across all platforms must be a helpful leg-up in getting consumers to warm to new ideas.
Andrew Wilson: Absolutely. We look at Facebook at its very core, and a lot of people use Facebook as the answer to social games. I don't think Facebook is the answer to social games, but I do think it has taught us something inherently clever, and that is the notion of a single ID. Imagine logging on to your PC and uploading data to Facebook, but when you want to look at that on your mobile phone you have to upload it again. It's just foreign.
Most people that have entered the industry in the Facebook era would see the notion that you have separate identities across separate platforms as absurd. We take that and we say, if it's absurd for your Facebook profile it's absurd for your gaming profile, and so how do we build around that?
There will come a time where the consumer is simply not prepared to pay $60 up-front for a game
Andrew Wilson, EA Sports
Q: FIFA seems to be the focal point of this new strategy. I assume it doesn't end there.
Andrew Wilson: Absolutely not. FIFA is our biggest, so we invest heavily there. It's our most global, so we have the most diverse user-base. So often it leads from the front, but not always. There are things we did with Fight Night Champion's story mode, things we've done with NCAA Football with online franchise and dynasty sim. FIFA's not always first, but in this connected instance it's leading from the front, and you're definitely going to see this across the entire portfolio.
Q: Does that go beyond EA Sports? Any game with a competitive element could support this kind of service - Battlefield, for instance.
Andrew Wilson: Every game has some level of competition. It's generally you against the CPU or other people, so absolutely it's a company-wide strategy.
Q: In your talk you stressed that a year is "an epoch" in the current industry, yet your sports franchises are still driven by annual, disc-based updates. With this digital strategy in mind, and the services you'll be rolling out this autumn, at what point do annual updates start to feel like a contradiction to that?
Andrew Wilson: I think the consumer is going to tell us that. I think the most convenient way for the consumer to get 7GB worth of FIFA these days is still to buy it on a disc. That will change. I think that Football Club this year is turning the FIFA you buy on a disc into a live service that changes every day and every week that you play. Over time, based on consumer feedback, those chunks that we deliver on that day-to-day, week-to-week basis are going to get bigger, and the releases that we do on an annual basis are going to get smaller, and ultimately you end up in a place where we are delivering a true, consumer-driven live digital service. We're building architecture and infrastructure to facilitate a time when the pipes into consumer homes are big enough to move that kind of data around.
Q: Are the only things preventing this shift from happening now outside of EA's purview?
Andrew Wilson: I think there are two things at play. The first is the business model. There will come a time where the consumer is simply not prepared to pay $60 up-front for a game anymore, the same way they have said that for movies and music and television. That's one thing. And then I think, you're right, it's the global infrastructure that facilitates the shift. As soon as technology provides a viable alternative to a disc, then that process will change.
Q: How rapid is that change going to be? Based on the last few years, the pace of progress can increase exponentially.
Andrew Wilson: That's definitely the case. I live in the Bay Area, in Silicon Valley, so maybe I'm not the best test case, but the speeds I have coming into my house now are pretty astronomical. I would digitally download games today. I don't think the planet is quite at that stage, but there are pockets that will drive that transformation.