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Grab a Partner - Part One

EA Partners Asia manager Sergio Salvador on piracy, misconceptions and cold calling development talent

One of the key strengths to the Electronic Arts organisation is its Partners division, which works with external developers to bring games to market.

Here, Sergio Salvador, manager at EA Partners in Asia explains how relationships are formed in the territory and where he believes the growth potential lies. How do you form relationships as EA Partners in Asia?
Sergio Salvador

Well, there are two things to that - two answers to the question. On the one hand, one of the things that we can bring on board as a publishing organisation is the fact that we have the largest publishing network in Asia. You can say the world as well, but one of the important parts of that "in the world" is the fact that we have 11 offices here in Asia - no other publishing company in the world can offer that level of publishing support.

Obviously the reason for that is because we rely on local knowledge to make the right decisions for every one of our countries. One of the things that surprised me when I moved from Europe to Asia was my preconception that Asia was more-or-less like Europe, but a bit bigger.

Then you arrive here and realise that the countries are much more different here in Asia, between them, than they are in Europe. You could almost say that countries in Europe are almost homogenous in comparison with countries in Asia.

That's one of the reasons why we realised we needed to have all that local knowledge, those eleven offices, and then there's the need to have someone centrally who can bridge the gap between those independent eleven 'local knowledges' if you like, with the more international perspective - which is really what our clients are more interested in.

I can't pretend to be an expert on the Taiwan market, or the Chinese market, or the South African market - which is also part of our region - and that's the reason why I have to rely on people who are based there, speak the language, understand the laws, to make sure that I have the right information and we're doing the work that our partners expect us to do. How long has it taken to set up that network?
Sergio Salvador

The first offices we had in the region were at the beginning of the 90s, so from that perspective it was quite early. If you think about EA being created in 1982, ten years later we already had some kind of presence here in Asia - so we had already realised the need to have that local knowledge.

The last office that we opened was a year or two ago in India. We have some people on the ground now there, but that's probably not going to be the end - it's an ongoing cycle, an ongoing expansion. I can't tell where it will end, but if we think there is the need to have more local presence in any particular country within the region, we will certainly be happy to look into it. When you look across the territory now, are you satisfied with the job that's being done?
Sergio Salvador

Definitely Asia is a region of the world that EA keeps very much in mind. A lot of things are happening here, and we know that in order to be a leading games company we absolutely need to be successful here in Asia.

A not very well-known fact regarding Asia is that in our last fiscal year the packaged goods organisation was actually the best-performing part of the whole of EA. You look at the numbers, and they're not particularly big overall, but it you look at the growth, it's massive. But conventional wisdom says that packaged goods in Asia isn't strong, so what do you attribute that growth to?
Sergio Salvador

That's probably to a certain extent an understatement. The thing about Asia is that one of the biggest challenges - not just for EA, but everyone faces - is the fact that there is widespread piracy. Pretty much every country in the region is trying to do things, both from EA and a government perspective, to turn that around.

But what is obvious is that the future will be in the online space. That's actually also very relevant to EA Partners - although from a Western perspective, looking at the Western EA Partners organisation, you think about console products, maybe PC products, but not necessarily about online.

But EA Partners in Asia shows the flexibility that EA acquires by looking at every single possibility in terms of working with external partners. So we look at microtransaction-based games, we look at MMOs, we look at mobile games - even if I wouldn't necessarily deal directly with that because we have a separate mobile division.

But we look at the whole range of different things, and different partners in every single space. You can probably see EA working with external partners on MMOs in the future - there's nothing in place at the moment, nothing to announce and I want to make that clear, but I'm looking at all possibilities. EA Partners in Asia is looking across all different spaces, not just packaged goods.

In packaged goods specifically, going back to my comment earlier that it was the best-performing unit across the whole of EA, EA Partners this year is going to be around 10 per cent of all EA revenues - which is a fairly acceptable number.

We're always looking for more partners to work with, we're always looking for talent - and there is a lot of that in Asia. Every single country that you visit in the region, you can find a number of studios that are starting to do some very interesting things - they're not necessarily at the worldwide quality level yet, but you can see that there is going to be that level at some point.

Especially in China, there's been a huge increase in quality in online games. 90 per cent of the games were what they call 2D, and now maybe 60 per cent of the games are 2D, and 40 per cent are what we understand as an MMO in the West - 3D-looking. When you talk about the best-performing division in terms of revenue - what are the titles that are bringing in that money?
Sergio Salvador

Well, actually the best-performing titles in Asia for EA Partners specifically - you'd be surprised, but actually the games that do well in the West, there's an understanding that maybe they won't do well in Asia. Maybe that's a misconception to a certain extent.

The Orange Box from Valve did incredibly well here in Asia - again if you look at just the numbers, without context, they don't look very impressive and are relatively small proportion by Western standards. So if you look at the countries with the highest console penetration - Japan or Australia, for example - is that where you're seeing the packaged goods sell well? Certainly better than China, at least.
Sergio Salvador

Well, you'd be surprised... I would, given that consoles are illegal there.
Sergio Salvador

Maybe not on console, but I think you'd be surprised, again. EA doesn't comment on numbers, so I can't give you details, but looking at PC it's not unusual to sell more units of a particular PC game in China than in Korea. Despite piracy?
Sergio Salvador

Despite piracy, because you're looking at a much, much bigger country and the fact that the retailers and distributors who work within China actually understand that they can use the packaged goods as a base to build their own businesses, and cover all the different layers of revenue-generating products - everything from packaged goods all the way to microtransactions and other MMOs. You mention that there's lots of talent - how do you identify they people you want to work with? Do they come to you, or do you seek them out?
Sergio Salvador

It's really a mix. The easiest thing is to ensure that the people who are there know that EA has a presence, and we're ready to see new products and talk to people. That's a relatively easy way to go about it, but obviously it's not the only channel - there's a more proactive approach that involves going out myself, getting leads, hearing about a particular studio working on a product, giving them a call - even a cold call sometimes helps, to find out if they're available for a chat.

So it's really a mix of different approaches. We want to think, no matter how EA is sometimes portrayed in the press, we are not too proud to actually go and knock on a door, or cold call - I certainly am not. If I get a contact from a particular studio that I'm interested in working with, I'll just pick up the phone.

Not in Japan though - you cannot do that there, it's better if you get an actual introduction. The cold call approach doesn't quite work. What sort of reception do you get when you make those calls? What's the awareness like when you talk to people?
Sergio Salvador

To be perfectly honest, normally I find interest in talking to us. The reason for that is even though ultimately our real job, if you will, is to work with external companies to take products to market, we don't do just that as EA Partners.

We're also happy to sit down and give opinion, and offer comments or even ideas for products that we see. At the end of the day, we do have knowledge of the markets, knowledge of the industry, and of the products - which we're happy to share with prospective partners.

Everybody's ultimate objective is to grow the gaming industry, because it follows that if you have a bigger pie, each slice is bigger. So everybody is happy.

Sometimes I just sit down with the studio, and even though I might tell them from the beginning that I don't think I'm the right partner for you, or this isn't the right product for our portfolio - but this is what I think you guys should be doing, and what I think your game could be doing in a different market, based on my experience in Asia and Europe.

I'm just happy to share information, no strings attached. That might sound a bit strange to some people sometimes, but ultimately that's part of my job, and part of the job of my colleagues in the US and Europe. Do you find that people are looking for advice on a pan-Asian level, or is it more of a global insight they're after?
Sergio Salvador

I think it's a little bit of everything. It's not easy to answer that with a simple, straight answer. Some studios that I meet with tell me from the very beginning that they're interested in our strength in the US and Europe - at which point I might decide to remove myself from the picture, because you don't want to meet me if I'm not adding any value, so I'll just put them in touch with my colleagues in the US and Europe.

Sergio Salvador is manager at EA Partners in Asia. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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