The Electronic Arts of today is a very different one than the version that existed three years ago before Andrew Wilson took over as CEO. As spokespeople and executives have reminded us, the publisher has a player-first mentality now (which is why they set up EA Play apart from E3) and that same mentality puts an emphasis on creativity, letting developers do what they do best. In my conversation with Laura Miele during EA Play, the 20-year EA veteran who had recently been promoted to global publishing chief, told me that it's precisely this culture shift at EA that's led to the creation of a unique indie-driven program like EA Originals.
"This is one of my favorite programs we've done in a long time actually. To go a step further about EA's new culture and who EA is, we're currently led by a CEO who came from developing games, which has been a big shift again in that we are player-first, yes, but also, an incredibly game-centric, content-centric company as well now, which I really love. I started in the studios. I have a real love and passion for the creators. My husband was a producer on games and so I took it seriously. I think game creators are pretty incredible. I really, genuinely, believe that games are the highest form of entertainment. It's an incredibly fascinating, artful, complicated process to develop a game," Miele said.
"So it's not a tricky - oh, we get some revenue, they get profit. It's just all revenue and profit goes to the developer after [we recoup]"
"So the idea that developers are taken care of and developers are nurtured and encouraged to take risks and chances and that EA will give developers early on in their path the chance to succeed I think is spectacular. And it genuinely, genuinely comes from a place of us wanting more innovation and creativity in our industry, so EA is going to support that. How the program works is if the developer needs funding to finish a game and we need to help them market that game, as the game goes out on the marketplace, we recoup our investment and after that's recouped, all revenue and profit goes to the developer. So it's not a tricky - oh, we get some revenue, they get profit. It's just all revenue and profit goes to the developer after that."
It's a bold move for a company that has to answer to shareholders all the time - which is something former CEO John Riccitiello was somewhat hamstrung by - but EA is trading at its highest level in years now, and besides, the projects it will be backing (like Unravel or Fe) are not massive investments on the scale of a Battlefield.
"Some of the games, like a game that we announced and that you saw at our press conference, it's not a big investment on our part. The game sales will definitely cover the investment [in Fe]," Miele added.
IP ownership stays with the developer, too, while EA retains the partnership rights. The company isn't looking to do anything on a grand scale with EA Originals just yet. "Initially we're looking at maybe 2-3 this year. We'll see how it goes. We'll see where it leads us. This keeps us connected to the game development community, which I really love," said Miele.
Some developers have very little business or marketing knowledge, and while they might make a wonderful game, getting the game in front of the right audience can be a huge challenge. Naturally, getting EA's assistance would be a boon for any indie.
"I met with Klaus [Lyngeled of Zoink Games], the gentlemen who was on stage for us showing Fe, and he said that because we're going to help him fund the completion of the game, he's actually going to get to a more expansive game experience than he was going to be able to get to on his own. I think that helps him and it helps our player base as well. It helps the industry innovate and push on creativity," Miele noted. "I think it's a pretty positive program for all people involved. As far as EA goes, we have some great commercial programs. We have EA Access. We have a huge player base with Origin. So it's not something that people can just automatically get to. We have 300 million players in our database and in our network, so there's a lot we can do to help bring a game to market and raise visibility for a game within our commercial framework that we have."
"We took a risk on this. We zigged when the market was zagging in shooters"
The same culture shift that has pushed EA to start an initiative like EA Originals is also having an impact on its own IP and studios system. A year ago, Andrew Wilson commented that EA must strive to create an environment "where people feel safe taking risks at a creative level," and that "we have to start building new IP that might feel like a big risk today."
So how does EA measure its success against that goal? Miele said the proof is there, but it's unfortunately in a product slate that the publisher isn't prepared to announce yet. "I think we actually have made quite a bit of progress that we haven't publicly disclosed about what we're working on. So I feel like we've made the most progress in things that are going to be coming out in the future that we haven't talked about yet," she noted.
"I mean, Mirror's Edge, for us, was a creative risk and we revisited old IP but we really freshened it up. So we really saw that as a character-based action game for us that we stayed with. I think launching something and partnering with something such as Unravel was a big hit for us from an indie creativity perspective. But stay tuned because there's more ahead for us. Even some of the things that we're trying with brands like a Star Wars - I mean, we're creating new IP in that world as well. So we see that as being creative, pushing boundaries, innovating for us as a company. Some of our Star Wars experiences, I know we can't announce yet, but there will be new characters and new story lines, which will be part of Star Wars canon as it goes forward. So I think we believe that we're innovating and creating in important areas, particularly in the action category, that we're really proud of that we can talk about at a different time," she continued.
Speaking of Mirror's Edge, while reviews were pretty mixed, Miele said that the game is "definitely meeting our expectations... We are pretty happy to bring this character and this world to market. It's a big open world game, so we made a lot of evolution from the original experience and we're very proud of that. I also think that Mirror's Edge as a game IP - we talked earlier about the EA Originals, about having creative content, having a first person action game, having Faith and her story and character as a mix in the industry, is important for us. I think it's important for EA to continue to do all games, big and small, and I'm really proud that we stayed committed to bringing that game to market."
Of course, the biggest splash EA has made with existing IP recently is Battlefield 1, which took the FPS back to World War 1 while many competitors are utilizing futuristic settings. "We took a risk on this. We zigged when the market was zagging in shooters. It was something that, at the moment that we put out the press release, to get the fan response that we did, was incredibly gratifying and it was pretty thrilling to see how the market received the game in that way," Miele commented. "It made a lot of sense to us. When you think about the major pillars of a Battlefield game - big, large, epic scale battles, massive vehicles, super diverse gaming tactics. The WW1 backdrop was actually a perfect place for us to map those pillars to that setting. Andrew, I think, was quoted on our earnings call to say that WW1 started with people on horses and ended with people on tanks. The technology evolution of WW1 was fascinating..."
Battlefield 1 enjoyed having the most liked trailer on YouTube in direct contrast to Activision's Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare trailer, which had one of the most disliked trailers. Ex-CEO John Riccitiello was quite focused on the big Battlefield vs. Call of Duty competition in his day at EA, but Miele doesn't seem to worry about it as much. "I have always just thought that healthy competition in our industry is fun. We're a game industry... I genuinely believe that the more great content that our players have and that the industry has then the healthier the industry is and the better it all is. So I welcome the competitive challenge, but I also have a lot of respect for what our competitors do when new games come to market. I think it's just a fun competition and I think our fans and our players love to play it up. That's kind of the nature of our industry as the entertainment category that we're in," she said.
Another major win for EA has been the Lucasfilm Star Wars license. Star Wars Battlefront has already shipped over 14 million copies and the company has several more Star Wars titles planned in different genres. And with more Star Wars movies coming out in the years ahead, the marketing synergy is something any company would be jealous of.
"Star Wars has been a phenomenal business partnership for us. It truly has - and I think in ways that we didn't even anticipate when we originally signed the deal. One of the things I'll tell you is that I was on it when we signed the 10-year deal with Disney. I came on the business right then. The thing that has been so fulfilling and rewarding to us is that not only do we feel an obligation to this franchise and brand because we love it so much and we're such fans ourselves, but it was actually incredibly rewarding for our employees and our staff. They wanted to work on it. It actually helped us draw great talent into the company," explained Miele who previously served as GM on the Star Wars business at EA.
There have certainly been poor Star Wars games in the past, but when you have big-name talent like Jade Raymond, Amy Hennig and Stig Asmussen working on the franchise, chances are the experiences being created are going to be at a certain quality bar. Miele added that it's been incredibly rewarding for the new talent drawn into EA to not only work on Star Wars but to communicate with other developers on non-Star Wars projects.
"You have to think about what is the value and what is the meaning of this experience and how would you build an IP or an experience around that?"
Miele on VR
"[Jade's] incredibly experienced and [known] for her action and story and character development and she's influencing even other games that we have in our portfolio as well. Star Wars is not the only game that she's probably going to work on at some point. She's definitely going to look at new IP and she also can help us with other IP. I think the idea that Star Wars is something that we feel incredibly honored to be part of... It's been something that's really galvanizing for the company. So we're really proud of how this panned out. [Battlefront] is one of the best selling Star Wars games in the history of all Star Wars games and that's our first one... We're just getting started. So we feel like we have a great road ahead of us in this franchise."
EA has also leveraged the Star Wars brand to dip its toes into virtual reality, but don't expect the publisher to dive into the VR market just yet in the way that Ubisoft has. "We believe that the immersion of that experience and to change your gameplay in that significant of a way is really meaningful for the industry. We just think it's going to probably take a little bit longer for the install base and for the market to get to a place, from a business perspective, that will be meaningful for us. We think it's a few years away still but we're incredibly inspired and motivated by what the VR hardware teams are doing. We have labs and innovation teams developing for most of the platforms internally. So we actually have VR experiences within our company that are expressed on multiple platforms today," Miele said.
"The X-wing [VR experience is] a great immediate low-hanging fruit, first offering out of the marketplace. The projects that we have in our labs, some are new IP and some are entirely new experiences that would not have expressed themselves in gaming before a VR experience... You have to think about what is the value and what is the meaning of this experience and how would you build an IP or an experience around that?"
Once EA does take the VR plunge, Miele expects that we'll see a combination of new VR-specific IP and games that immerse you in EA's existing franchises. "I do think that there's new IP opportunity to be had. You're right. But I also think that there's just some known experiences for players to really be in the world of the brand that they love. That's what I love about VR is that you can be in a world like you have never been in it before. We don't have necessarily anything to announce for you as far as what we have, but if you think about some of the worlds that we've created, for players to be able to go experience that in a very real-time sort of way will be pretty exciting. There are games that I can think of where I would love to do that," she said.