One of the hot topics for most publishers in the past year has been how to take advantage of the fantastic sales of the Nintendo Wii console, but most third parties have struggled to contend with the Japan-based company's strong first party foothold.
During the recent GDC Paris event, GamesIndustry.biz spent some time with EA Sports' executive producer David McCarthy, to chat about how to cater for new gaming audiences and what the company has learned so far about designing for the Wii - and the Wiimote.
Q: How do you characterise the opportunities available as the industry has changed in the past couple of years?
David McCarthy: I think, from an EA Sports perspective, the thing that stands out most for us is that it's not a homogenous market any more. Our traditional fanbase for years - and I've been with EA Sports basically my whole time at EA, so eleven years now - from the start there was a pretty well-defined target market for us. Males aged 18-34...I was one of them, and I understood exactly how to make games for them.
What I think is obvious today is that the market is a lot broader than that - you've got second-generation gaming, you've got more women in gaming than ever before, you've got Baby Boomers who have got a lot of time on their hands and you've got 'casual' gamers who play in an entirely different way than the traditional sports consumer.
For us in Sports that means that we've still got to do things well and innovate for that core audience that's always gravitated to our stuff, but we've actually got to create entirely new experiences and ways to speak to those audiences I just mentioned who are actually the large majority of growth in the market just now.
Q: What lessons do you learn from the success of things like Wii Sports?
David McCarthy: Wii Sports was undoubtedly a game-changer, and it's been really interesting for us this past year to talk specifically to consumers in North America and Europe about how the sports experience is different on the Wii - or how it's different on the Wii than other platforms.
What we've learned through all of this - and it's probably common sense - but what we've learned is that it really comes down to two things in terms of what appeals for sports in general on the Wii. The first is that it's an incredibly social device versus the other consoles that were out there before, so from a sports perspective people want to play these games together. They want to get off the couch and involve all the members of the family, or whoever comes over, regardless of their ability level - they want to be able to share that experience with everybody they know, and in many ways I think it's replaced the traditional board game.
I think the other interesting thing is that it's created new ways to play sports, so there's the obvious fit of intuitive gestures of the golf swing in Tiger Woods, or throwing the ball in Madden - but it's just opened up a lot of new design possibilities for us to play sports differently.
And honestly, for somebody that's been in sports this long, those are two really interesting challenges to design for. How do we create a social experience?
Because largely even though we've gone very heavy with online play on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, largely our games are built as solitary experiences, and the design challenge is a heck of a lot different on the Wii.
I think Wii Sports set the stage for that, but I think there is tons of potential to blow out in those key directions of social play and intuitive, immersive gameplay.
Q: It's interesting - the concept of 'social' has come full circle for videogames from the early days of the arcades, and it's interesting that it's taken the path it has.
David McCarthy: I know what you're saying, in the old days you used to play Pong with your friends. And not to get too philosophical, but maybe we've forgotten the beauty of that family dynamic of getting together in the living room, and I think it's wonderful that we have the Wii platform as a basis for that now.
Q: There are also the 'casual' areas within the other next-gen consoles - Xbox Live Arcade, the PlayStation Network, even WiiWare - what do you see as the opportunities there? It's not necessarily the same audience playing an XBLA title as playing a Wii title?
David McCarthy: It comes down to ownership of the hardware, and who is buying those machines. Between North America and Europe that's obviously different, and I think they're at different spots in their life cycle too. So PlayStation 3 probably still in the early-adopter phase, Xbox 360 kind of moving to that secondary phase, at least in North America.
I think the advantage of things like the online stores is that you have a chance to deliver a lot of chunkable content in that, so when we talk about casual gamers at a broad level, I think we make the mistake of categorising them as maybe less sophisticated or less involved, and that's entirely wrong.
Often the constraint for casual gamers is their time and I think those mediums offer us an interesting opportunity from a sports perspective to deliver bite-sized pieces of gameplay that are as authentic as you would expect from EA Sports, collectively as deep as any packaged goods that you might find, but on their own are things that fit really well into smaller time segments for people.
I think that's a different thing to what we're doing on the Wii with our packaged goods, but I think it's an opportunity for us to pursue as well.
Q: Time is certainly one thing, but there's a social perception of what gaming involves - particularly when you look at controller technology. What level of importance do you assign to that accessibility of control mechanisms with things like the Wiimote?
David McCarthy: I think the challenge for us at EA Sports is that the traditional controllers have almost become our own worst enemy - because we want to get as much control as we can to the player. Obviously a key pillar at EA Sports is our authenticity, and that means we want as many moves in there as possible.
What that's unfortunately meant is that as the hardware allows us to do more and more, in terms of animation and visuals, we start piling in more and more moves - you get to the point where you have this button map...I faced this with the NHL Hockey team the other day, we had a simple mechanic to map to the controller, and we had nothing left - we'd used every single button configuration and combination, and I was blown away.
I think for the Wii, the interesting thing that we've learned over the past year is that philosophy of trying to give something for everybody in terms of the different types of move you can do, is actually the wrong strategy.
What we did very early on with some of our Wii titles is try to find a gesture for everything, and in a lot of cases we were forcing it - and that with this different audience is not a winning strategy, because it feels forced, and the beauty of that control scheme is that when you get something that mimics a real-life gesture like a golf swing it's extremely intuitive and easy to do.
So what we've actually done this year with our All Play line-up on the Wii for EA Sports is taken a lot of stuff out that can just be done with a simple button press and leave it at that.
Then with other stuff that used to be on gestures and felt a little more forced, we've made them context-sensitive. The best example of that I can give is Madden Football - last year you'd run with the ball, and depending on whether you wanted to do a spin move away from a defender, or do a power move, or jump over them - it would be a different gesture for each of those things.
There's really no good reason to do that, other than traditionally it's what we would do - have a different button press or a different combination for everything. Now it's just context-sensitive, so I'm running with the ball, I approach the defender coming at me, so what's the most logical thing to do? I try and weave out of the way.
So it will decide for you what the most intelligent move to pull off in this situation is, to get around this defender. And then just leave the gestures to the most intuitive, logical stuff - throwing a ball, that's it.
Really for us, design-wise for this new audience, it gets down to not forcing it, focusing on things that are intuitive, and to a large extent simplifying without giving away that richness of stuff that we've already developed at EA Sports.
Q: Do you find there's much crossover between audiences on the traditional platforms and the Wii platform?
David McCarthy: They are very different audiences, and we found that - like it or not from a development perspective - we have to build these things from the ground up for the most part. So we'll get in trouble and make bad design decisions if we don't approach it that way.
Whether it's new IP that we have in development - and we have two Wii-exclusive IPs in development right now - or the All Play stuff, they pretty well function as separate teams. There's some shared stuff in terms of the sensibilities, the game AI to be there, you want that game presentation to an extent to be similar. But after that they branch off, and those All Play products, like FIFA - it plays differently on the Wii, not just in terms of gesture-base gameplay, but different game modes, it looks different, the flow is a lot different - and they're even packaged differently, because we're speaking to an entirely difference audience to a large extent.
Q: That marketing aspect is really interesting - Nintendo, for example, has much less of a need to use traditional specialist marketing channels, and go with Nicole Kidman and the like. Do you follow suit on that aspect?
David McCarthy: We do have to market it differently, you're right. I think the key thing for us is first and foremost we need to come across as less intimidating. EA Sports has built up a reputation over the years as, you know, if it's in the game "It's in the game", or "I'm better than you and I can prove it" - those are not necessarily things that resonate with people who are spending their hard-earned money on Wii games.
For us the key is to show almost a lighter side, take ourselves a little less seriously, show that we're all-inclusive. Because the things are in the product there, but if you don't communicate it through the right channels then nobody gets it.
But we did learn something in product though - last year we did our Family Play control scheme that was in some games, and that was an interesting learning experience because what we did is we had our full nunchuk experience, then we had the Wii remote only where the CPU does the motion for you and all you have to do is just gestures.
I think we made the incorrect assumption that dumb-down and you'll get the consumer. And that's not correct - what you need to do is welcome them into the experience and them ramp them up, and we hadn't done an effective job at that.
So what would happen is that you'd come in on the Family Play scheme, you'd be able to do a move or two, have instant success - but then there was a 20-foot wall to get to the next slot. This year we've done a much better job of ramping in levels, and it's not just the controls themselves, it's also assists that go on underneath the hood - so as they get better and better, we start to take those training wheels off more and more.
So it's really a two-part process - it's speaking to them differently on the shelf and in the press, but it's also giving them a much more well-rounded experience within the software once they get their hands on it.
Q: Nintendo's brand is pretty family-friendly because of its history - do you think it's a tougher job for traditional games companies to appeal to those new audiences?
David McCarthy: It is, but I think if we're smart about it there are ways to deal with that. If you look at the second-generation thing there's a generation largely of dads who grew up on EA Sports that have a chance to share that experience with their kids.
If we don't give them an obvious way to do that, we've failed them and they'll gravitate to something else. So I think our All Play stuff is critical there. And I think with casual stuff, there's an increasing number of women playing - we can create specific experiences, specific sports, specific game types that speak to those audiences more directly - and maybe don't speak to our traditional base at all, but we're convinced it's worth investing in IP that will speak to those audiences.
We have to catch up quickly - we don't have the advantage of already being in that space. But I think we can do it - the beauty of sports is that it's universal. It has so many things that transcend boundaries, age, all that stuff, that the key is you don't want to just create one representation of sports, which is uber-competitive and ultra-deep.
As long as you present different experiences and connections to sports, you can win with those audiences as well.
Q: Most people that play sports in real life don't participate at that high a level, after all...
David McCarthy: Yeah, they do it for different reasons as well - some do it for socialising, some do it to get in shape, some do it just for the sheer joy of accomplishment. It's not all about necessarily that ultra-pro-competition.
Q: Though there's aspiration there, of course.
David McCarthy: Absolutely, and there's aspiration for different reasons. We're dabbling in all of those spaces, I mean, fitness is really intriguing because that's an entirely different way to look at sports - as is the social thing.
Q: On a different note, now the new label structure has had time to bed in, how have you found that?
David McCarthy: For us in Sports obviously the advantage is that we rally more as an entire team now. So we've spent a lot of time collectively getting on the same page to figure out as a standalone business almost, what do we need to do to win?
I think it's given us more focus, it's given us a rallying cry to see that our destiny is really in our own hands here - and Sports is under attack to a large extent, so how do we get together and figure out how to tackle that problem?
That's probably the biggest advantage of the label thing - it's now clear, we now know what our mission is, who we are as an organisation, and we're more integrated as development and marketing to try and make that happen. But there's still a good hill to climb with it, that's for sure.
David McCarthy is executive producer at EA Sports. Interview by Phil Elliott.