Late last year, Frank Gibeau switched roles at Electronic Arts, moving from president of the PC and console-focused EA Labels to be the executive vice president of EA Mobile. Speaking with GamesIndustry International at E3 last month, Gibeau said he was enticed by the vast opportunity for growth in the mobile world, and the chance to shape the publisher's efforts in the space.
"One of the things I enjoy doing is building new groups, new teams and taking on cool missions," Gibeau said. "The idea was that EA is known as a console company, and for our PC business. We're not particularly well known for our mobile efforts, and I thought it would be an awesome challenge to go in and marshal all the talent and assets of EA and, frankly, build a mobile game company."
It might sound a little odd to hear Gibeau speaking of building a mobile game company at EA. After all, he described EA as "the king of the premium business model" in the mobile world not too long ago, when the company was topping charts with $7 apps like The Sims 3 or raking it in with paid offerings like Tetris, Monopoly, or Scrabble.
"Two years ago, we were number one on feature phones with the premium business model. Smart devices come in, freemium comes in, and we're rebuilding our business."
"Two years ago, we were number one on feature phones with the premium business model," Gibeau said. "Smart devices come in, freemium comes in, and we're rebuilding our business. I think we've successfully gotten back into position and we see a lot of opportunity to grow the business going forward, but if you had talked to me about two years ago and tried to speculate there would be a company called Supercell with that much share and that many games, we wouldn't even have come close."
Gibeau expects that pace of upheaval to continue in the mobile market, but some things seem set in stone. For example, Gibeau is so convinced that the days of premium apps are done, he has EA Mobile working exclusively on freemium these days.
"If you look at how Asia operates, premium just doesn't exist as a business model for interactive games, whether it's on PC or mobile devices. If you look at the opportunity set, if you're thinking globally, you want to go freemium so you can capture the widest possible audience in Japan, Korea, China, and so on... With premium games, you just don't get the downloads you do with a free game. It's better to get as many people into your experience and trying it. If they connect with it, that's great, then you can carry them for very long periods of time. With premium, given that there are so many free offerings out there, it's very difficult to break through."
Unfortunately for EA, its prior expertise is only so relevant in the new mobile marketplace. Its decades of work on PCs and consoles translated well to premium apps that didn't require constant updating, but Gibeau said running live services is a very different task - one EA needs to get better at.
"Our challenge frankly is just mastering the freemium live service component of what's happening in mobile," Gibeau said. "That's where we're spending a lot of our time right now. We think we have the right IP. We have the right talent. We've got great production values. Our scores from users are pretty high. It's really about being able to be as good as Supercell, King, Gungho, or some of these other companies at sustained live services for long periods of time. We have a couple games that are doing really well on that front, like The Simpsons, Sims Freeplay, and Real Racing, but in general I think that's where we need to spend most of our time."
"I don't think we did a particularly good job marketing it or talking to fans about their expectations for what Dungeon Keeper was going to be or ultimately should be."
As Gibeau mentioned, EA has already had some successes on that front, but its record isn't exactly unblemished. The company launched a freemium reboot of Dungeon Keeper earlier this year and the game was heavily criticized for its aggressive monetization approach. In May, EA shuttered original developer Mythic.
"Dungeon Keeper suffered from a few things," Gibeau said. "I don't think we did a particularly good job marketing it or talking to fans about their expectations for what Dungeon Keeper was going to be or ultimately should be. Brands ultimately have a certain amount of permission that you can make changes to, and I think we might have innovated too much or tried some different things that people just weren't ready for. Or, frankly, were not in tune with what the brand would have allowed us to do. We like the idea that you can bring back a brand at EA and express it in a new way. We've had some successes on that front, but in the case of Dungeon Keeper, that just didn't connect with an audience for a variety of reasons."
The Dungeon Keeper reboot wasn't successful, but EA continues to keep the game up and running, having passed the live service responsibilities to another studio. It's not because the company is hoping for a turnaround story so much as it's just one more adaptation to running games with a live service model.
"If you watch some of the things we've been doing over the last eight or nine months, we've made a commitment to players," Gibeau said. "We're sincere and committed to that. So when you bring in a group of people to Dungeon Keeper and you serve them, create a live service, a relationship and a connection, you just can't pull the rug out from under them. That's just not fair. We can sustain the Dungeon Keeper business at its level for a very long time. We have a committed group of people who are playing the game and enjoying it. So our view is going to be that we'll keep Dungeon Keeper going as long as there's a committed and connected audience to that game. Are we going to sequel it? Probably not. [Laughs] But we don't want to just shut stuff off and walk away. You can't do that in a live service environment."
Much like EA's institutional experience, there's only so much of Gibeau's past in the console and PC core gaming world that is directly relevant to today's mobile space. But as the segment grows out of what he calls the "two guys in a garage" stage, EA's organizational expertise will be increasingly beneficial.
"[T]his is like black and white movies with no sound at this point, in terms of the type of games we've created. We're just starting to break through on the really big ideas..."
"These teams are starting to become fairly sizeable," Gibeau said, "and the teams and investment going into these games is starting to become much greater. Now they're much, much less than you see on the console side, but there's a certain rigor and discipline in approach from a technology and talent standpoint that's very applicable... If you look at these devices, they will refresh their hardware and their computing power multiple times before you see a PlayStation 5. And as you see that hardware get increasing power and capability on GPU and CPU levels, our technology that we set up for gen 4 will be very applicable there. We're going to be building technologies like Frostbite that operate on mobile devices so we can create richer, more immersive experiences on mobile."
Even if mobile blockbusters like Candy Crush Saga aren't exactly pushing the hardware, Gibeau said there's still a need for all that extra horsepower. With the increased capabilities of multitasking on phones, he sees plenty of room for improvement before the industry runs up against diminishing returns on the CPU and GPU front. He likens today's mobile titles to late-generation PS2 games, with PS3 and Xbox 360-level games just around the corner.
"As it relates to games, this is like black and white movies with no sound at this point, in terms of the type of games we've created," Gibeau said. "We're just starting to break through on the really big ideas is my personal view. If you look at games like Clash of Clans, Real Racing, even Candy Crush, they're breaking through in new ways and spawning all types of new products that are opening up creativity and opportunities here. So I think computing power is just something we'll continue to leverage."
The best part for Gibeau is that the hard work of convincing people to buy these more powerful devices isn't falling solely on the shoulders of game developers.
"The beauty of it is it's not a single-use device," Gibeau said, "so people will be upgrading them for a better camera, better video capability, different form factor, different user inputs, as a wearable... I think there's so much pressure from an innovation standpoint between Samsung, Apple, Google, and Windows coming in, that they'll continue to one up each other and there will be a very vibrant refresh cycle for a very long period of time. The screens get better, the computing power gets better, and I don't have to worry about just games doing it like we were in the console business. Those were pretty much just games consoles; these are multi-use devices. And the beauty of it is there will be lots of different types of applications coming in and pushing that upgrade path."