A publisher as big as Electronic Arts is constantly juggling the needs of the present with the opportunities of the future, investing in the next big things while taking care not to neglect the money maker du jour. While EA has historically had no shortage of executives focused on the present, it recently identified a need to have someone devoting full-time attention to some of those longer-term initiatives, so amid an executive shuffle in April, it named Matt Bilbey its new executive vice president of strategic growth.
Bilbey spoke about his new role--and EA's assessment of a slate of potential growth areas--with GamesIndustry.biz at E3 in June. One of those areas, on-demand game streaming, was a frequent topic of discussion at the show given EA and Microsoft had both just announced their intention to launch streaming services. However, this is an idea that has been tried numerous times before, and there are still some non-trivial issues. When asked about why things would be different for streaming this time around, Bilbey said it's largely a matter of timing.
"The main challenge I believe has been service infrastructure, the bandwidth you need to deliver that opportunity on scale," Bilbey said. "And today, that is still a challenge. But I think over the next year to two years, that barrier will drop. Not for everyone, but for a lot of people. Bandwidth capabilities will go up so the business model around streaming a game becomes more viable.
"If you buy into a streaming solution and the experience is laggy half the time, you're going to stop and not do it again, which is the challenge some of the companies previously had. I think there's now a solution where we can deliver on the promise, and we're working with a lot of the companies who create the server infrastructure, and there are a lot of innovative solutions from a lot of big companies we're working with that will actually allow us to bring this to life.
"I don't think it's a case of 'Will it or won't it?' It will happen. It's just [a question of] when."
Developing the technology to stream games to players is only part of the puzzle. Beyond just offering its audience a new way to play games, Bilbey said EA needs to better understand how and why they play. To that end, Bilbey said the company relatively recently introduced a telemetry identity solution consistent across their entire catalog. So now they can track player habits down to an individual level, seeing not only how one person might jump back and forth between FIFA and Battlefield, but whether they're struggling at any aspect of the games in particular.
"By having this across our entire catalog, it allows us to curate their experience, to not start offering them trials when they're deep into a single-player mode on something else," Bilbey said. "So that's a big part of what we talk about internally as our 'player network.' It's the value proposition we can use to ensure they get the most value out of the game they're playing."
"In five years time, people will still have [consoles], I imagine, just out of retro [sentiment]. They look good. But in 10 years, they will be in one of the other devices you have"
That's obviously a key part of the company's plans for the Origin digital storefront, but Bilbey expects it to open up opportunities across various EA services once the company combines it with its work on artificial intelligence and machine learning.
"Distribution of smart TVs is huge. If we're able to put an application on that smart TV, whether its Origin or Access, you buy into that subscription or a la carte--a family offering similar to Netflix in that sense--then we're actually able to use the understanding of how you're playing those games to recommend other games within that portfolio to you, whether that's family games, core games, depending on your age, depending on how you like to play.
"There's definitely an opportunity we have there that we don't talk about, about how we could create your entertainment experience. I'd like to think as well there's insight we will get out of how those people are playing games, when they're playing, how long they're playing for, who they're playing with, that will arguably write the concept for your next game."
The idea of a high quality streaming game service that can be offered through nearly ubiquitous smart TV tech arguably has some dire implications for the console model as it stands today, an idea which is not lost on Bilbey.
"The console makers are smart groups," he said. "I think they'll find new roles that consoles can play in people's lives. And it could be that the console actually exists in the smart TV. Or the next PlayStation just exists on your phone, and that then pushes the experience to all the different screens you have access to. The console as it exists today, and your TV... In five years time, people will still have them, I imagine, just out of retro [sentiment]. They look good. But in 10 years, they will be in one of the other devices you have."
Whatever the future loses in terms of traditional hardware models, Bilbey is hopeful it will be more than offset by benefits in non-traditional software.
"We talk to our game teams about how this world of subscription and streaming will change how we make games," he said. "And it's pretty exciting how you think about getting the insight of how people are playing and when they're playing. I think it will unlock a lot of creativity around smaller games, longer games, just being able to try new games that don't have to be 90% Metacritic rated, built for four years and totally polished. You can actually release things into the environment that allow people to play with them and give feedback on them.
There will still be the big hit games, but I think there will be a lot of smaller games, which again is similar to how people consume [other media], whether it's movies, TV shows, music, reading material... I think that's going to unlock a new energy within our industry that's pretty motivating."
While Bilbey is high on many of the "strategic growth" areas that most large publishers have identified--China and esports, for example--his tone on virtual reality and augmented reality is more measured.
"I think its time is yet to come, but there will be a future," Bilbey said of VR specifically. "Just the nature of the size of the headsets, the tethered [requirement] has meant accessibility is a challenge, but the reality of technology is that it's going to get smaller and wireless. I believe, and Andrew [Wilson] shares a similar view is that the role VR and AR can play for us as game makers is that it will probably take us beyond traditional gaming, even into education, for example."
Gaming concepts like progression through leveling up and recognizing players' achievements are very similar to how educational systems work, and he expects AR and VR companies to rely on lessons from game developers as they seek to gamify many daily activities. He brought up the idea of geocaching, an activity he pursues with his children as a way of getting them more outdoor activity. In five years or so, he could see AR providing those outings with a host of game-like trappings, from popular settings and characters to finding a virtual treasure chest at the end of the journey, with in-game items players can bring back to use.
"If we're able to give accessibility and a level of creation within our games for kids or adults to create their own content, I think that's probably a bigger opportunity over the next 10 years than us saying we're going to do a PvZ movie"
"There's a lot of inspirational thought around the application of it related to gaming that I think goes beyond gaming as we know it today," Bilbey admitted, "but I think that's where we're at for the moment: aspirational thinking rather than delivering on that promise."
Transmedia efforts are another area where EA may be looking at things a bit differently from the rest of the industry. While other publishers are actively pursuing feature films and Netflix shows based on their big franchises, it doesn't sound like a major emphasis for EA.
"We dipped our toe in the water a few times with that one over the years, Need for Speed being the most recent," Bilbey said. "There are benefits to it. I think it's going to start playing a much bigger role than it has done in the past. The notion of a Plants vs. Zombies game coming out and being supported by a pan-entertainment strategy, whether it's TV or movie, that leverages the same content that our games have with the quality and fidelity as good as a Pixar movie in many senses... I think with the right area with the right audience, there will be a role. When it comes to my children, most of the content they're consuming is actually user-generated content on YouTube Kids."
"I think more and more, that will happen. Working with [EA chief design officer] Patrick [Söderlund] and his team, if we're able to give accessibility and a level of creation within our games for kids or adults to create their own content, I think that's probably a bigger opportunity over the next 10 years than us saying we're going to do a PvZ movie. That will inspire a completely new generation or demographic into gaming, who will want to create rather than play and compete. And [EA chief technology officer] Ken Moss and his team are looking at how we can continue to evolve Frostbite to allow that creation opportunity for our games."
Finally, there are loot boxes like the FIFA Ultimate Team player packs that have powered a chunk of EA's strategic growth over the last decade. With the practice under increasing scrutiny and the Belgian Gaming Commission finding FIFA and other games' loot box systems in breach of the law, does EA see a threat to that aspect of the business?
"I believe what we're working through with those specific groups at the moment is an education," Bilbey said in reference to international regulatory agencies. "Not meant in a patronizing way, but just helping them understand how we design the games and the notion of choice and our commitment to making the games fair and fun. We learned a lot from Star Wars: Battlefront."
The Star Wars: Battlefront 2 controversy, wherein the game's approach to loot boxes was so criticized that the publisher pulled them on the eve of launch, was a learning moment for the company that he hopes will prevent that sort of scene from repeating with future EA games.
"I ran a team internally with Patrick post-Battlefront to actually redesign our game development framework and testing platforms to ensure we're giving our game teams the right guidance--we'll call it an EA moral compass--at the beginning of development so that we're designing our live service early, we're testing it early, testing it with gamers who are giving us feedback so we ensure those pillars of fairness, value, and fun are true," Bilbey said.