Electronic Arts was responsible for one of the definitive moments of Gamescom. Not at its own press conference, not during an interview that went on in its giant press area, but during the Microsoft conference when it revealed that all European pre-orders of the Xbox One would receive a free copy on FIFA 14. Has EA chosen its side in the console launch war?
Speaking to GamesIndustry International EA's COO Peter Moore denies the charge of favouritism, explains that free-to-play isn't the devil, and describes how the company is preparing for the logistical nightmares that simultaneous console launches present for publishers.
Q: What are your priorities as the launch of the new consoles get closer?
Peter Moore:Now the picture is becoming clearer each day with dates, it's still a little piecemeal, but dates, countries, we need quantities. A company like ourselves we need to figure out where the numbers are going so we can deploy our marketing resources accordingly. But you were at the press conference yesterday, you saw the games, we feel like we're in a great position to really nail the launch with the big franchises.
"Not everybody's going to get next-gen. Everybody thinks they will, but very few will"
We're still looking at the conundrum of how do you get consumers still to remember current gen is there? And everyone's excited about this big shiny object that's a next-gen console but hello, we've got some stuff here and so that's a little bit of a challenge for my teams in the field, because not everybody's going to get next-gen. Everybody thinks they will, but very few will, so it's the classic conundrum of the transition - the interest starts to wane in the current generation, and at the same time the next-gen, they just can't make enough for the demand.
So we as publishers have to manage that and bridge that gap and get people still to pay attention to a very vibrant, powerful community called Xbox 360s and PS3s, tens of millions of each. And then at the same time you're doing two separate ad campaigns for things like FIFA and you want to make sure that we get people excited but not so excited they forget the other thing. It's a classic transitional thing that those of us in the publishing world have to worry about.
Q: And this is the first time the two consoles have launched so closely...
Peter Moore:Almost simultaneously. The challenge is more for the retailers and we have to work with them and Microsoft and Sony have to work with them and if they're literally within a week or two weeks of each other it's not easy for retailers to manage their retail presence, what do do they focus on, hardware takes up a lot of room in stores and back rooms, what are their allotments? And so it becomes a real challenge for retail and we have to work with retail to make sure we can help.
But our titles have to flow in for 360, PS3, PS4, Xbox One, all have to be merchandised correctly. Manufacturing becomes an issue, because they're both on Blu-ray. So things that gamers don't have to worry about but we have to worry about is getting the flow of manufacturing right, getting the quantities right, making sure everything is at retail. Depending on which goes first they may want to change the store to focus on the new console coming out, I mean it's just what we do. That's the work we do, that's the business that we're in.
But to your point this is precedent setting, it has never happened this way. There's always been a period of time, a sorbet between consoles, that has cleansed the palate and allowed us to move on. It might be a week, who knows? Microsoft needs to cough up the date.
Q: EA seems to have developed, and obviously you personally have, a very close relationship with Microsoft. What are the advantages for you in that?
Peter Moore:We have relationships with both companies that go back many many years, so I think that what you saw yesterday was, just from a phasing perspective, you saw a little bit more of the Microsoft stuff. We have a lot of partnership opportunities with Sony, with the PlayStation 4, which we have done for many many years, that maybe we should start talking more about.
"Microsoft, particularly in Europe, feels it needs to catch up a little bit with the PlayStation brand"
But it may have seemed that way, I don't think that we're favouring one over the other, we love them both dearly. It's important to the publishing community that both are very successful and I think they will be very successful. I think the gamers, the fanboys, I'm an Xbox guy, I'm a PlayStation guy, they're going to make their choices. I see a lot of talk about people who are going to try to get both.
Microsoft has been very aggressive with us, as had Sony, we're a very powerful publisher obviously, that has the ability to deliver great content and makes a difference on their platforms, and they want to make sure they get that.
Q: One of those partnerships has been the free copy of FIFA for every pre-ordered Xbox One, that seems to be breaking the rules to give away your biggest seller?
Peter Moore:There are rules? We look at opportunities to put as many copies of FIFA into consumers' hands as we possibly can. We're very proud of that game, we're very proud of the fact that it's not just a game that you play off a disc but the digital services, FIFA Ultimate Team, in particular is important to us, so the more consumers that own FIFA the better opportunity we have to interact with them, to be able to offer services to them, so it's worked out well.
Microsoft, particularly in Europe, feels it needs to catch up a little bit with the PlayStation brand and this is one way to do it. You take soccer and you add Europe to the mix and then you bring it together. And I suspect as well Microsoft is looking at ways to add value, as I'm sure Sony is here to make the price points feel a little bit more of a bargain. We sat down a while back and talked about this and that's how it happened.
Q: How important is the arrival of free-to-play on consoles for EA?
Peter Moore:Free-to-play does a very simple thing, it just brings more people into gaming. We've knocked down the barrier to price because it's free, everybody has got a device that they can play it on so there's no reason not to. It brings more and more consumers that we then can engage with, but you've also got to be comfortable with the fact that the great majority of those people are not going to pay you a cent. Not a red penny. And you have to be comfortable with that. Which we are.
But if you're playing PvZ 2 you can see that nice balance. I have not been, and I'm maybe not as deep into it yet, I don't feel like I'm being pushed. There's no pinch points, I know I'm going to buy a lot of plant food as I get through the levels, I just... it's the best thing that ever happened to me, to get that plant food. When you get into the panic situations... But then again I can grind and do that, the glowing zombies that you kill give you some plant food, I think that PvZ 2 is a game that I think is well balanced, nicely tuned, if you don't want to spend money it's still a lot of fun, if you really want to progress through the game and get deep into the game, spend some money, buy some plant food, the choice is yours.
Q: People perhaps just need to accept that free-to-play is here to stay now...
Peter Moore:I watch the debate that goes on on your site and your sister site about free-to-play and it's just... and then some voices of reason kick, actually because of our Popcap conversation which you guys reported on and it went pretty deep in the comments and then you had people come in and say 'look, it's just a business model,' because it's like the Satan spawn to some people and it's the end of the world because games are free-to-play. And then you get some voices of reason - it's just yet another business model, it's bringing more people into gaming, it's a way that publishers can continue to build a growth strategy in a world of turmoil and disruption that is our industry right now.
"It's like the Satan spawn to some people and it's the end of the world because games are free-to-play"
People can shout about [free-to-play] all they like, there are hundreds of millions of people taking advantage of the fact that they wouldn't have considered themselves gamers a while back, and you can thank games like Angry Birds a few years ago, PvZ came in where as tablets exploded and smartphones exploded... people aren't going to pay $10, $15, $20 when you have a free-to-play game on there and I think that brought people in, that funnel now gets wider. And we as an industry should be so much happier that more people are playing games.
Q: Do we need to find a different way to do free-to-play on consoles? Online is either very hardcore, or very casual, console players are a different audience.
Peter Moore:I think you're going to have to. You look at games and console is a different experience. You're sat back on the couch, 10 feet away from the TV, using a controller so you need to have your wallet - press A to buy or whatever, it's got to be pretty simple, but I think you're right. I think there's got to be something that feels more relevant to a lean back, 10 foot experience that has a game controller rather than a keyboard or a touch screen. Otherwise it just feels like it's gimmicky, it's maybe redeployed from a different platform, it's just not going to work on consoles.
And it has to be right as well because also one of the things with console gaming is you sit down, you get comfortable and you're going to go for an hour, two hours. If the free-to-play on the consoles in constantly stopping, having to play with your buttons and triggers to buy something or whatever, that's going to get really old, really quick.
Q: How do you feel about the next-generation's focus on the independent developers? Is there any way you can be a part of that as a big publisher?
Peter Moore:We own a company called Chillingo, we're very proud to have them up in Macclesfield, of all places, that deals almost exclusively with indies. That's what they do. And every now and again a game will come through - they discovered Angry Birds, they discovered a little company called Rovio that was on the Chillingo platform and every now and again something will come through that's innovative and really redefines what that type of gaming is.
"If three guys in a garage are able to do better than we are we the resources that we have then that's our fault"
At the console level, and both Sony and Microsoft in the last few days have been talking about indies and self-publishing, I think its complementary, if three guys in a garage are able to do better than we are we the resources that we have then that's our fault. But they might do something very cool, very different, remember like LittleBigPlanet came out for PS3 a few years ago? And everybody said - that wasn't an indie game because it was a decent sized studio - but they needed a publisher and Sony loved it, Sony bought into it, it became one of its first creative type games, it was very cute, so you're going to have those things come through.
We don't see it as a threat, I think it's complementary, it gives us an opportunity to see talent, maybe we can nurture that talent, maybe they need publishing help which we do very well, I like them. If they're providing great, innovative, different game experiences for gamers it's all good.
Q: EA has made a habit of acquiring successful studios, is that still part of the plan in these more costly, transitional times?
Peter Moore:Absolutely, it's been a tradition for 20 years.
There's less and less though of the independent developer that can afford, without a publisher already locked in, to develop games. So we're seeing less of that, but we are doing, and this is something Chillingo does very well, looking at the mobile space. We're seeing tonnes and tonnes of innovation in the mobile space. More and more people who might have been working on big console titles seem to be moving over to mobile development.
So Chillingo again does that service for us, we've got business folks there that manage tonnes of content coming through and every now and again they spot a game and say 'this is a lot of fun.' And then they get that in front of Apple, they get that in front of Google and get it as a featured app or whatever. And that's what Chillingo does very well.
Q: With such expansion in mobile and free-to-play, is AAA still the core of your business?
Peter Moore:Core, what we call our high-def business, is still the lion's share of our revenue this year. We will sell a lot of discs, the demise of the packaged goods is grossly overstated, with the console cycle coming up again and refreshing that gives us the opportunity to actually grow our packaged goods business.
But fast on the heels is mobile, free-to-play. The mobile business is just on a growth spurt for us because we've got great games, Simpsons: Tapped Out, Real Racing 3, Plants Vs Zombies 2, three great games that make a difference. Free-to-play is going to be our entry into some markets where we've never had a lot of success, we've just announced Brazil and Russia for FIFA World. You've got the free-to-play publishing group which currently sits in Stockholm right now, and then you've got the great brands that we have, particularly with FIFA, then it's a good recipe to go in finally with some real relevance for a Brazilian or a Chinese consumer - we've just done a deal with Tencent for FIFA in China.
So yeah, I think the free-to-play market is going to be a growing market, you've just got to figure out where it sits from a mobile perspective. When we talk free-to-play we typically talk out of the browser, but now the free-to-play model is most ubiquitous in mobile and we don't do premium mobile anymore, everything is free-to-play.
Q: How is the PC market working for you these days? Still have some big PC only IP like Sims, and you have the Origin service...
Peter Moore:We've been the number one PC games publisher forever, we've never walked away from the PC. Sims has been a part of that, our shooters have been a part of that, some of our sports games, FIFA on the PC, Command and Conquer, Ultima is still running somewhere, so you have enough presence on there and it's been very powerful, it's the roots of the company. The company was built on the Apple 2 and the Amiga PC, and has never stepped away from PC gaming ever since
We enjoy the PC platform, it's an open platform, you don't have to ask anyone's permission, we can deliver updates and patches as fast and as frequently as we like, it's a great platform for us, we've always done well on PC.
"The demise of the packaged goods is grossly overstated"
Q: You mentioned the Sims franchise, you've announced just Sims 4, what it is about that series that has such longevity?
Peter Moore:It's pretty simple, The Sims as a community has been there since the get go with us. And the idea of Simming Life, which was Will Wright's vision for it, I think gets you deeper inside a game experience than playing a Battlefield, playing a sports game, because those things happen and then you put the controller down and they're gone. With Sims you're always thinking about your Sims. What's happening there, what you've built, the relationships the Sims are having and it's persistently going on.
We touched on something when Will did the original Sims and we've been able to keep that alive and innovate, the expansion packs are a very important part of that otherwise you get bored, but then you get a new expansion pack and off you go. I just think the level of engagement with The Sims is higher than anything I've ever seen in games before. Even shooters.
Q: Can we expect any more big announcements before the consoles launch in November?
Peter Moore:Well we need to deliver the games now. We've hyped them enough at both E3 and here, we've done a nice job in getting a lot of excitement, now the teams go back and now it's heads down. You certainly know when Sony's launching so you've got one delivery date there, because it gets very chaotic. Particularly the launch of a console, you've got to get it in line for disc manufacture, you've got to get in line for cert and submission, the QA resources have got to be there because now everything is coming down to the finish.
Now you know where the finish line is, so in Sony's case it's the 15th and the 29th, and you need to make sure that you're ready. A lot of panic, you've got this operational time to when you go theoretically final to then you deliver it, first time going through this generation, through cert and submission, all different processes than we've probably had before, yeah, it's head down and go time now. We have to deliver.