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EA Originals: "We are moving away from niche"

EA’s indie games label is now publishing AAA games from major teams, so what does that mean for smaller titles?

EA probably hopes we'll open this article by talking about It Takes Two.

It is the biggest game from EA's ever-growing indie label, EA Originals. It has picked up numerous awards and has just surpassed 10 million sales worldwide.

But we'd much rather talk about Knockout City, an altogether different EA Originals title created by Velan Studios. has followed the story of that game – an online dodgeball title – ever since EA and Velan announced their partnership back in 2019. Knockout City was revealed during a Nintendo Direct and PlayStation State of Play in early 2021 and was launched to much fanfare and plenty of positive reviews a few months later.

But it struggled, and after a few months, Velan realised that Knockout City needed to be a free-to-play game. This was a problem. The partnership Velan had with EA simply didn't work if the game didn't carry an up-front fee.

If you were hoping for drama, you'll be disappointed. Although EA had never encountered a situation like this before, the publisher simply worked out a way to tear up the agreement and hand the publishing duties to Velan. It was complicated because it involved things such as user migration and privacy. But the two sides worked on it and 12 months later, Knockout City was self-published and free-to-play. (Unfortunately, last week Velan announced the game will shut down in June).

"It really is partner first with EA," Velan boss Guha Bala told us last year. "It can't be economics last (laughs), but it is partner first. I am really appreciative of the effort. It's not an easy thing to unravel a deal and put it into a totally new context."

Knockout City didn't work out for EA and Velan, but the relationship ended on very good terms

The reason that story is important, is because when developers look at potential publishing partners, it is easy to focus on the successful case studies. So that's stories like Curve with Human Fall Flat, or Team17 and Overcooked, or Tiny Build with Hello Neighbor. But just as important is how these companies behave when things don't go to plan.

"That is something I am hugely proud of, that relationship we have with all of our partners, regardless of how things worked out," says Jeff Gamon, general manager of EA Partners, which oversees the Originals label. "With [Velan founders] Guha and Karthik, I am still very close to them. Every step of the way we were by their side. Completely transparent. These things are built in collaboration from day one."

We last caught up with EA Originals properly in 2019. Back then, the team had primarily been working on smaller, more niche, more art-house indie projects like Unravel and Fe. What's more, EA wasn't profiting from the division at all. It was proudly telling everyone that it was sharing 100% of the profits with the developers. The headline we ran at the time was how such a concept flew in the face of EA's 'bad guy' reputation. That angle proved controversial with gamers, but there was truth to it. EA Originals seemed like a genuinely good thing.

Today, EA Originals doesn't look quite so altruistic. The label has been a significant success for Electronic Arts, not least with the aforementioned multi-million-selling blockbuster It Takes Two. But it's also not some niche publisher of indie art-house games anymore. During The Game Awards last year, EA Originals revealed Immortals of Aveum, which is a magic shooter from a new AAA developer set-up by former Call of Duty alumni Bret Robbins.

The label's next game is even less indie. It's an action RPG called Wild Hearts that is developed by Omega Force, which is owned by the publicly traded Koei Tecmo.

"We've discovered a desire for bigger, better and more innovative titles that complement the EA portfolio," Gamon says. "So where we started off with smaller, indie games. We are now graduating to independently-created games of all shapes and sizes and scope and budget. We are moving away from niche, and towards bold and audacious. And we are attracting a lot of positive sentiment from press and consumers. We are riding high on the success of It Takes Two, but even the other titles we've released in our history have been critically very well received.

"We trade on our reputation. I think EA Originals is unique in the industry in the way that we partner with studios. Everything that we do is in collaboration with the studios we work with. We open the doors to all the resources and talent that any of our internal studios have, and channel that into our partner studios. All the while, we shield them from the bigger EA corporation, and make sure to protect their creative freedom."

"We are still partnering -- and we have one or two in the pipeline -- on smaller games as well"

What studios might want from EA can vary. Some of the companies it is partnering with have their own marketing functions, for instance, and might want to retain that connection with the players. In the case of Velan, EA's experience with live service games is what drew that developer to the company.

"The opportunity is there for any small or large partner studios to access the same resources as our internal studios," Gamon says. "It's like a menu. It depends what they want and when they need it."

The result of these bigger partnerships means that the deals aren't quite as generous as the ones it was offering smaller creators four years ago. Yet, Gamon says that EA Originals hasn't completely abandoned its roots.

"We are making games of a bigger scale, but we are also still partnering -- and we have one or two in the pipeline -- on smaller games as well. Those fundamental values still stand. The structure of any deal is completely bespoke."

EA says it has 600 million players to put these games in front of, but Gamon says that it works both ways, and that the titles they're looking at are about expanding EA's audience, too. He talks about looking for innovative games that 'move genres on.'

It Takes Two is EA Originals' biggest success so far, with 10 million sales

Yet it is a challenging and confusing time for the business right now. The market is tricky to predict, and there's a concern that gamers are being pickier about what they invest in. Gamon acknowledges that it is a 'tricky time', but says you can have something that's new and challenging that still has mass appeal. And there are business models, such as the subscription service EA Play (which all EA titles eventually end up in) that can help games reach audiences who are more discerning.

"Subscription is certainly a good way to get your game into a lot of people's hands," he says. "[The games we publish] are often fresh and different, and so a consumer may not want to make that investment to discover how great that is. So a subscription is that low barrier to entry that will get these innovative products into player's hands. Which obviously via EA Play, will happen with our titles anyway."

Gamon says that EA Originals is all about the partnership, and that usually extends beyond just a single game. It's no accident that three of the developers the company has partnered with – Coldwood, Hazelight and Zoink – have all released multiple games under the label.

"That's still our guiding principle, with an ambition to move on from our first partnership to the next one. We are not just invested from a business sense, but we're emotionally invested, as well. So the relationship between EA and our partner studios are extremely close. We always want to grow and move on to the next adventure together."

Yet how close could those partnerships become? It's worth noting that EA Originals is run by EA Partners, which is a division that has existed for quite some time within the company. Respawn was an EA Partners studio during the release of the first two Titanfall games, before the developer was fully acquired by EA. Now that EA Originals is working with bigger teams on bigger games – games that don't look quite so out-of-place on an EA release schedule – is it an aim to turn some of these partners into fully owned EA teams?

Gamon pauses. "As I say, we want to go on the journey together. And like any relationship, who knows where it will end up? It's certainly not the opening gambit that we have in any conversation with a new partnership. Obviously with Respawn, that was a great success and the vindication of that kind-of relationship building."

He concludes: "We are almost a victim of our own success with EA Originals. EA Partners is the business group, and we used to publish under EA Games, or even sometimes EA Partners... we have never stopped looking for bigger partnerships. Like the Respawns of the world, which have proved to be a great success. EA Originals became a bit consuming as a group, because it was a great thing to be doing and we were getting a lot of positive sentiment and support for the games that we were making. But we have never stopped searching for that next big thing, either. Sometimes it takes time to find those."

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Christopher Dring avatar
Christopher Dring: Chris is a 17-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who
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