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EA Partners' David DeMartini

On APB, Respawn, Metacritic and changing budgets for the industry

EA Partners has played a huge part in what’s been a quietly dramatic turnaround for Electronic Arts of late – both in its intentions, and in the public and critical perception of the enormous publisher. Offering distribution and production support to third-party studios without demanding IP ownership or assimilation into the EA mass in return, it’s resulted in projects from the likes of Valve and Crytek. Not to mention upcoming titles from Respawn and Insomniac...

At this year's GamesCom gathering in Cologne, GamesIndustry.biz sat down with EAP’s affable boss David DeMartini to talk how game budget are changing, big versus small projects, the importance of review scores, Respawn – and the ongoing troubles at one-time partner studio Realtime Worlds.

GamesIndustry.bizHow’s GamesCom going for you this year – has it been useful?
David DeMartini

It’s been great. I had a chance to walk out there. This show in particular is very much like going to Disneyland and seeing which are the most popular rides. 30,000 people have an opportunity to vote with their feet right now, much like they vote with their dollars once the game has shipped, with regard to "I’ve got a limited amount of time, there a lines everywhere, which is the line that I’m most interested in sitting in." So you really do get a good perspective just by walking around and seeing that people are really buzzin’ about that game or buzzin’ about this game. It’s funny over the course of days to see, as particular games get more and more buzz, the line gets bigger. So it’s kind of interesting to watch the trends.

GamesIndustry.bizIt’s quite evocative of the industry in general at the moment – so many demands for consumers’ time and entertainment. Are you feeling more of a squeeze there with your titles?
David DeMartini

There’s a lot of games out there, yeah. But that’s where they turn to people like yourselves. Consumers are so much more informed. Before you occasionally used to be able to slide a clunker out there and still do well, but now people are so informed by the various outlets that I don’t think anybody makes an uninformed purchase anymore. More and more pressure I think to sign only the best because when you put them out there… Games with pedigree, in my business anyway, making investments in various studios and stuff, the best predictor of future success is past success.

So when you turn to the likes of Epic or Valve or Crytek or Harmonix, those kinds of studios, you kind of go in with a leg up. Those are teams that know what they’re doing. I’m not saying game-making is ever easy no matter who it is, but when you’ve got the DNA that has shown you know previously how to do it you tap into that DNA when you run into the rough patches.

GamesIndustry.bizHow worried do your developers seem about the budgets they’re working with in this kind of climate?
David DeMartini

In my area you kind of worry about the budget before you sign the deal, and then the budget is kind of what the budget is and the developers are really adept at a…. I’ll never tell a developer how much their game will cost. They’ll bring it to me and then I’ll evaluate whether or not it makes sense from a business standpoint with regards to the potential of the idea. If they happen to make a lot of money based on that budget, great for them. If they come up short and have to cover some of it – y’know, they’ll be smarter the next time they do it. That’s kind of the approach that we take to it.

But I think budgets for games have actually peaked and are starting to move in the reverse direction again. I don’t think there’s any one right budget for any game. It kind of depends on how big the idea is and what the team needs to be able to make a 90%-rated game with the idea that they’re working on.

GamesIndustry.bizHow far backwards do you think budgets might reverse? EA seem to be doing pretty well with Playfish making smaller games, after all.
David DeMartini

There’s different ways to make games. I mean, I’ve been doing this for 12 years in the industry and there’s cycles, internal development, now we go offshore, now we come onshore, we’re back… there’s no one way to do this. There’s no one way to the finish line, you just need to make sure that you pick a path that’s going to get you there.

GamesIndustry.bizHow has Partners evolved over the last year or so given all this change?
David DeMartini

The core business model that we always go after is quality and value. Always seeking teams that have had a long-standing history of success, and then always looking for the next emerging group that is going to bust out and potentially be the next Valve or Insomniac. I mean, Valve wasn’t Valve overnight and Insomniac wasn’t Insomniac overnight. They had to start somewhere. They had to kind of emerge. So we’re always looking for the emerging stuff as well.

We’ve got a program that we call Arthouse that has Deathspank from Hothead, Shank from Klei Entertainment. A couple of downloadable PSN, XBLA games – one’s doing incredibly well, and Shank’s about to release next week. So in the downloadable games market those are a couple of very strong emerging companies that may well say "gee, now I want to take my IP to the main console, do you want to do that?" And based on success at a lower level, that might be the next step for them.

GamesIndustry.bizHow big a part of your partnership plans is that – nurturing a team with a download title but intending to make it more mainstream once the awareness is out there?
David DeMartini

They could ever emerge that way or … the thing is it’s always interesting in the industry when teams break out. They could have a history of 70 or 80-rated games, and then suddenly they get a 90. And you kind of wonder , alright, what changed? It’s always an interesting case study, because generally what it’ll be is a new creative force came in and joined a team that had good technology and good process, but they were lacking that creative leader. Or it was a creative leader who got hooked up with a really strong chief technology officer who controlled the creative leader and got that result. But teams don’t usually make leaps without some kind of dramatic change. It’s kind of like a football team in the UK – it had a lot of good pieces, but they finally got that centre midfielder that is able to distribute and bring the best out of the strikers. That one guy really can make a big difference on some of these teams.

GamesIndustry.bizWhat’s the balance on smaller devs versus larger projects in the Partners scheme?
David DeMartini

We try not to go in with any specific formula. What we try and do, you don’t want to look at things like a portfolio, because when you look at things like that you kind of go "well two aren’t going to do that well, one’s going to do okay, and two are going to break out." And I don’t wanna go in with a predisposition of "those are the two that aren’t going to do okay." You just evaluate every opportunity on its own merit and you make the right decision for that specific opportunity. They tend to sort themselves out and fall into a scatter diagram. But I want all hits. I want to defy the odds, and I want every one of the EAP games to be hugely successful.

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Alec Meer

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A 10-year veteran of scribbling about video games, Alec primarily writes for Rock, Paper, Shotgun, but given any opportunity he will escape his keyboard and mouse ghetto to write about any and all formats.

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