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EA Mobile's Lincoln Wallen - Part 2

Following on from yesterday's first half of our interview with EA Mobile chief technical officer Lincoln Wallen, here is the second part of our discussion - covering topics ranging from EA's approach to distinguishing its mobile games from its console titles, to the attitudes of carriers and handset manufacturers to mobile gaming.

You can still read the first part of this interview, if you missed it yesterday - click here for the full feature. Looking at the software portfolios of EA Mobile and Jamdat, how has the integration process affected the development and release schedules of the two firms? Has it caused a lot of disruption?
Lincoln Wallen

There's inevitably a little bit of disruption, which we're facing and experiencing, but trying to minimise. That's just management time and focus; pure and simple. We're going through that, so there's a certain amount of... Well, I wouldn't say pain, but we're trying to keep that internal as much as possible, in terms of that distraction.

Hopefully, this will not impact the outward-facing elements such as release of titles - since clearly, that has a direct impact on the combined businesses' revenue. We're trying to keep to plan, and because the plans were so complementary, it's actually been a relatively straightforward task to, at least pro forma, conceive of what the combined operation will put to market over the next twelve months. We're already executing on that. EA Mobile titles, for the most part, tie in to existing franchises on other platforms. Are you aiming for a situation where FIFA 2007, for example, is launched on all the console and handheld platforms simultaneously with mobile, so that mobile just becomes another platform in the SKU plan? Or do you see it as being more distinct, with different titles based on the same franchises being launched on mobile?
Lincoln Wallen

I think both. The opportunity of bringing a mobile title to market within the window of the console and handheld products is obviously significant, because that's where the company concentrates its consumer-facing marketing. That's an opportunity, and mobile then reinforces and benefits from that broader communication of the brand and of the opportunity.

Secondly, we try very hard to make the mobile games mobile - and as such, they offer a different take on the franchise. It's consistent, but nevertheless different, and suitable for the platform that they're delivered to. We expect that to increasingly differentiate mobile as we go forward.

Thirdly, the consumers that buy console and PC games typically have a mobile phone. We're not talking about whether the consumer buys one or the other; they're both routes into the franchise. We recognise that, and therefore the offering somehow needs to make sense to the consumer as something that they engage in through multiple platforms, not just a single platform.

Finally, you have the opportunity for delivering product that reinforces and maintains the experience, or refreshes the experience, or introduces new aspects of the experience, "off cycle" so to speak. That's certainly something we're evaluating, and to some extent executing on already.

We see all of the above as different strategies, and it's also regionally specific. Europe is a much more consumer-driven environment; it's had direct consumer mechanisms like premium SMS for years, and I think that means that the marketing programmes around the titles are more market-significant than, say, in North America - where it's a very channel oriented market and there's a lot more flexibility in terms of launch cycles.

The channels themselves are another matter. Obviously the availability of operator channels and the willingness of partners to engage in product portfolios and launch titles month on month have to be taken into account - the capacity of the overall market to take titles. Do the shorter development cycles of mobile games help to facilitate the possibility of off-cycle launches?
Lincoln Wallen

Given that EA has pioneered and established the franchise model of game production, which sees more or less annual delivery to market and reinforcing of a particular franchise... Are mobile development and delivery cycles shorter than that? No. They're not. Both in terms of the months it takes to deploy and launch games with the carriers, and deploy them across the wide range of handsets, it doesn't leave you that much time within a cycle to actually build them.

It's challenging from day one. Smaller games does not necessarily mean less involved overall delivery to market. Do you see that as a major problem with the market - that despite your games being smaller, your overall time to delivery remains as long as it would with a console title?
Lincoln Wallen

Is it a problem? Well, obviously efficiency within that part of the operation is very important to overall performance, and to getting the product to the consumer. That's not that different from what has made EA strong in, say, Europe - being able to distribute product far and wide, and have it available at retailers on a launch day. That's a logistical exercise as well, and the company has mastered that. Really, in the digital space there are similar challenges.

So I wouldn't describe it as a problem - it's just important that we're extremely effective in that deployment process. It's a challenge, but it's also one of the factors that Jamdat brought to the table - it's a challenge that they had been facing for many years and successfully surmounting, with a mix of good personnel, tools and processes, which is one of the strongest parts of the Jamdat operation. You mentioned the need to differentiate mobile games from their console counterparts - but there's also a certain convergence between the two as mobile phones get better 3D capabilities and so on, so where is that differentiation really going to come from?
Lincoln Wallen

I think the fundamental thing is that this is not a technological issue at all. The fact that the terminals are becoming more 3D, that sounds like the media is becoming more similar - in a sense, of course, that's right, but in terms of the game and the experience, it's the form of consumption that the consumer operates or engages in on mobile, versus the form of consumption on console.

Broadly speaking, mobile consumption is extended in time, it's much shorter time periods, it's dip in, dip out. That's not what characterises a console experience. A console experience is extended, is intense, is totally consuming. You have to plan and locate yourself in a particular place to experience. With mobile you experience it at your convenience, and the consequence there is that the experience itself has got to reward very quickly - but in rewarding very quickly, the challenge is also to be able to connect those smaller experiences into something that is more extended, is more overarching, and makes the consumer feel that, ideally, they're playing FIFA all the time - every minute of every waking hour! Of course, they're not, but they should feel that there's a point in going into that game for a few minutes, and actually there's a point in going back.

I think that's the challenge - it's about the way the media is constructed. It's not primarily a technical issue, so whether it's 3D or not isn't really the issue. The issue is what is the game experience, what is the gameplay, and how does that balance between reward and longer term experience built up. Successful design in that area will lead to experiences the consumer will come back to again and again and again, and that, ultimately, equals consumer value. Something we've discussed in the past is the speed with which mobile handsets are moving towards the "next generation" of mobile game hardware - but it seems that in recent months, mobile handset manufacturers have gone off message on that to some extent. We've seen a transition very rapidly away from focusing on 3D hardware and good control mechanisms, towards video, GPS and other new areas. There just doesn't seem to be a lot out there that's focused on games - is that something that you find worrying as a leading publisher in the area?
Lincoln Wallen

I think that's a matter of perception. Remember that device portfolios have multi-year time cycles - and it also depends who you listen to. If you listen to the silicon guys, you're a number of years off market. If you listen to a handset manufacturer, you're perhaps one year away, or closer; then if you listen to an operator, it's immediate, in the market, what they're promoting today. The planning for those devices is over a number of years, so what you're seeing now is the result of planning that's been in place for some time, and the result of the planning of operators about the launching of new services such as music services and video services.

There is a natural marketing cycle that focuses on a number of media propositions - but then, I'd almost ask if there ever was a time when carriers promoted gaming. The handset manufacturers certainly did, a few years back in the wake of the launch of the N-Gage - most manufacturers had at least one handset which was heavily promoted as their gaming device, at that time.
Lincoln Wallen

Yes, but I think you need to watch the carriers. Most of the carriers have always been focused on what are mass-market types of media - so with everyone who's engaged in using their device in some way other than voice. Will they send texts? Will they take pictures? Will they listen to music? Will they watch TV? These are very universal services, and as such, are things that the operator has confidence that any consumer will recognise and be interested in.

Games, I think, are seen by operators as slightly more narrow than that - and therefore I think we'll see the popularity of games and the focus on games being much more steady through the years, whereas the other media initiatives will peak and trough. Who knows what's going to happen with video and TV. But yet that's a sector that the carriers have a really clear focus on at the moment, despite being an entirely unproven area. Nobody really knows if consumers want to watch videos on their phones, so doesn't it irk you that carriers are effectively neglecting sectors like gaming in order to concentrate on another, even more unproven, sector?
Lincoln Wallen

Obviously, we're keen to have operators focus, and market, and create value propositions around games as widely and as strongly and as consistently as possible. That said, certainly what we've observed in various markets is that the overall communication to the consumer about a rich media, multimedia experience draws in consumers that then prove to be extremely high spending - and also extremely discerning for premium content, which from our point of view feeds through into higher revenues and more revenue potential.

So, that broader multimedia, rich media message, when consistently delivered and delivered to the consumer with information about what devices they should have - an integrated end to end experience works, and games are a very important part of that communication. It's not about only games, but I think the video, the TV, the music and the games together represent a very strong proposition, and very strong from a game point of view.

It's not quite that we want games marketed at the expense of everything else, then; actually, no, I think we're as interested in broadening the demographic of people who play games on mobile phones as in increasing the amount of enjoyment that people get out of those games and therefore the amount of revenue that they might be willing to hand to us for providing that experience. Media in general is an important wrap-around for that delivery.

It's a little bit like saying that after all, consoles are played on the TV and the TV delivers many other services. That's actually important. PC games are played on PCs, and PCs deliver many other services - and that's not insignificant to the overall valuing of the games media, and I think that the same is true of mobile.

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