EA's acquisition of PopCap offered yet more proof of the company's commitment to growing its digital business on the largest scale. However, that also translates to the products, and today EA Sports launches Season Ticket, a subscription-based digital service that adds a layer of exclusive benefits to the retail offerings of its core franchises.
In this interview, we talk to EA Sports president Peter Moore about the thinking behind Season Ticket, the success of Ultimate Team, and the "hard lessons" company's need to learn to survive the transition to digital.
Q:With EA Sports games, half the audience is already paying an annual subscription for Xbox Live. Do you anticipate more resistance from that side of the audience?
Peter Moore:Look, this is a program that's additive and supplementary to your core experience. It's not something that, if you don't subscribe to it, all of a sudden is less than optimal. We are very clear on that. There are people who will just say, 'Look, I don't believe in paying extra for content or access,' and that's perfectly fine, but my e-mail box over the last few years has been full of requests saying, 'How do I get the game early. I spend a lot of money with you guys, how can I get a discount like I can with some other kind of, if you will, retailer – and I'm putting quotes around that.
The work on the infrastructure and the global billing systems and everything we had to put in place to make this a reality - working with first parties, working with our licensors – has not been inconsequential work. But this is early days. The program will continue to evolve over the years as we learn more about what the consumer wants. Every time you ask for money for something there's going to be resistance, but it's important that everybody understands that this is aimed at the core consumer.
Q:There seem to be a few fringe benefits here, because EA's focus on digital implies that it sees things like downloading full games and paying yearly subscriptions for services as a part of the future. Season Ticket includes elements of that. Does that figure in your thinking?
Peter Moore:Not right now. The idea is that we're allowing people early access to the game, but the focus then is that you still need to go to retail. We're partnering with retailers to drive this program, so we see it as very complementary to the usual process. We have very strong relationships with retailers and that's not going to change. The digital element of what we do has been strong, and you've seen John Riccitiello talking about a billion dollar digital business, but most of our business starts with the purchase of a disc at retail, and this is no different. All of this comes off a disc, and that disc is bought at retail.
Q:Agreed, but you mentioned the evolution of the program. Where do you see it going? Let's just say that consumer uptake meets your expectations. What happens next with all of this?
Peter Moore:I think we need to continue to invest in digital content that enhances the experience, but at the same time we need to be very clear that it doesn't take away from the core experience you can buy at retail. I've got to continue to make investments and apply R&D resources, as we did with FIFA Ultimate Team, which didn't even exist three years ago, and is a very important part of the FIFA experience. We put a lot of people on that and invested many, many millions of dollars to make it all work, and I talk to consumers all over the world and they all love it.
This is very much, as we like to call it, a "crawl, walk, run", and we're in the crawl stage
Peter Moore, EA Sports
Seven or eight months on from launch we look at the telemetry on the [FIFA] servers: how many people are playing on day one, then how many people are playing if you will on day 200, and unlike most games where it drops off radically, the addition of Ultimate Team three seasons ago has changed that curve radically.
Q:The success of Ultimate Team is impressive. Did it exceed expectations?
Peter Moore:Well, if we look back at when I first saw ultimate team presented to me, we had a small team that said we love to play as Liverpool and Manchester united and Chelsea, but we'd love the ability to change out the left full back or go out and get another striker and build my own team, as if I'm the manager – the dream team concept, which we all think about, particularly now as the transfer market is heating up... It's every football fan's fantasy, and we built a feature around that which is now one of the most successful pieces of DLC in the industry. I'm very proud for the value it provides.
Q:I talked to the FIFA team recently, and they all seemed interested in bringing the FIFA experience closer to that of being a real football fan. You have that with Ultimate Team, with EA Sports Football Club, but the key to it all is persistence. Sports games logically work as persistent, subs-based experiences, and there's great creative opportunities in that space that are somewhat limited by the need to meet a yearly, physical offering.
Peter Moore:Well, there will still be a physical offering, because it's a massive game with 15,000 players, 750 clubs, nearly 400 licenses embedded in there. This is not a thin client by any means. At the same time, our goal with Ultimate Team and Season Ticket is to then be additive on top of that in a purely digital sense.
But yes, persistence is going to be very important. It's a word we've used consistently over the past six to nine months. We believe if you're playing FIFA 12 you should be able to carry all of that over to FIFA 13, and from a pure business perspective it's good business for us, because we want to make you even more loyal to what we have to offer, and not make you start all over again, which technically hasn't been easy to do – recognising purchases, entitlements, achievements, and carrying those from game to game.
It hasn't been easy, but we're now getting all of that figured out. This is very much, as we like to call it, a "crawl, walk, run" and we're in the crawl stage. But we think the ability – and we'll see what the reaction is when we launch Season Ticket – to figure out how to provide extra services to the consumer, to allow them to, as we say, play early, play more, play better, is going to be interesting.
Q:In terms of its digital strategy and the risks the company is taking, EA is really out ahead of other major publishers, and EA Sports is at the tip of that. Does it surprise you that others aren't preparing for the future in the same way?
Peter Moore:I totally agree. I can't speak for other companies and their views on the future of the industry, but having lived through music and now, in my world, very rarely seeing a movie on a disc any more...the future is digital. I think the benefit that we have is that our retailers – move retailers, movie rental retailers, music distributors – have learned the lessons, the hard lessons, of refusing to embrace the impending future of digital and what the consumer will be looking for.
I think the good news is that [game] retailers have embraced it - and I'm thinking particularly of Gamestop who are going to be our retail-marketing partner – and have found ways to actually play with this business model, enhance the model for the consumer, and make it easier for the consumer to be digital.
I'm proud of what we've done at the company, and we'll continue to invest enormously, as we have done since the day I arrived, in building infrastructure, building customer service layers that allow us to work directly with our consumers at the same time as working with retailers. It's a fine balancing act right now as people still consume most of their content by buying it on a disc at retail, but they're looking for extras and it's our job to provide that. It's a digital future, and EA has every intention of being the leader as we go forward into that world.