Exclusive: A Frank chat with EA's Gibeau
15th Jun 2012 | 08:58
Electronic Arts Labels boss Frank Gibeau has command over some of the most lucrative and popular games franchises in the world.
But as he explained in our extensive E3 2012 interview, he has to be selective about which ones he chooses to revive and which classics need to stay in the vault for a bit longer.
EA's showcase at E3 was short on big surprises, with the publisher instead highlighting its roster of trusted franchises - and the likes of
Gibeau met with CVG to explain further the publisher's wider platform and software strategies. Part one of our interview is found below, with the second half arriving in the coming days.
How would you best describe EA's 2012 line-up?
Our line-up this fall is built around some big blockbusters. The first one I'd like to talk about is
So we're very excited with FIFA and Madden Football for the American market is getting a total makeover in terms of its physics. We're taking a lot of learning from FIFA actually and applying it to Madden. In Sports we also announced the licensing with the UFC. There's no product for this fall but we're very excited - that's big news for us. Obviously hockey and other sports are also going to be very good this year.
On the Games side we're very excited about Criterion's take on
It's a robust line-up and in our opinion reflective of the prominence of third-party games this year over platform holder exclusives. Do you think it's fair to say the spotlight's moved in 2012 to highlight publishers such as yourselves?
I think there's a lot of diversity coming from third-parties right now. When you get this far into a cycle - and we're in our sixth year - there's a lot of innovation that's happening within franchises. There aren't as many new IP releases just because of the nature of the market right now - it's much more about the big brands.
But in general I think Ubisoft's had a good E3 - they're showing some interesting and really innovative stuff and I think we've had a good show too. First-party is focussed on some hardware stuff that's going on right now like the Wii U, plus some other stuff that isn't being talked about at the show coming from the other guys.
But in general
Has this been an E3 very much representative of a console cycle coming to an end?
It's fairly natural, like with the PS2 to PS3 transition, and PSOne to PS2, that year before the big change. And the Wii U is really just the first opening act of the next-gen cycle shift. It doesn't mean the PS3 or 360 are going away; they're going to do really nice business because there's tens of millions of customers playing these things.
You're only really getting half a show this year. You're getting Wii U but you're not getting the other half of the story so it's a bit awkward. Within that context I think a lot of the third-parties definitely stand out and command more of the spotlight because it's a clear and more broad-based message.
EA has a lot of sequels planned for this year. Is it deemed too risky to put out a new IP at this stage of the console cycle?
One of the things I hear a lot about from the boards is 'there's not enough new IP coming' etc. If you're running a studio organization, the moment you stop creating new IP, your creative organization dies. Because you have to constantly innovate and try new ideas and people inside the organization want to do new things.
At the same time you do have a lot of brands with big hits that you can innovate within that can be very cool and very different in a year over year basis. So it's really about getting the right blend and getting the timing right for when you launch new IPs.
Back a few years ago when we were putting together the new EA Games label and EA was trying to reset a lot of its products, we tried a lot of new IPs;
The introduction of new hardware from the big three is going to allow us to reembark on a bunch of new IPs, because it's the better time to do it, because you can really explore new ideas and do different things.
In a market this massive, launching new IPs is very risky and it's a big investment to make these games. So it's a natural thing to see in this point in the cycle a little bit more emphasis on the knowns - the big properties and franchises - but in the new cycle you're going to see a lot of new IP from Electronic Arts.
You still seem to enjoy testing a risk every now and then with titles like SSX and Syndicate...
We tried a few of those this year and some of them were very successful. The other place that we try a lot of new IP introduction is in our social and free to play businesses. We'll experiment a fair bit with new IPs there, see if they take hold, learn and prototype things that can maybe make the leap to consoles.
Consoles is just one part of our total portfolio. We have a lot of businesses on social, mobile and desktop free to play like Battlefield Heroes and Need for Speed World. So we try and look at all the platforms and time that IP introduction.
Does the unusually long length of this console cycle make your job easier or harder?
It's an entertainment business. You have to surprise people and you have to take risks. If you don't, you die. So constantly trying to stay fresh from an entertainment standpoint is a difficult challenge. But it's something we try to do at EA and I think we have a better track record than most in being able to innovate and build franchises over time and introduce new ideas.
Like I said before, I'm a big believer in new IPs - it's the lifeblood of what we do. It's just a matter of being able to pick the right time and spot to bring them in and to make sure that when they do come in they're extremely high quality so they can really reach the widest possible audience.
EA's current hierarchy isn't afraid to point out how the company's changed since the old days of being branded 'evil EA' by some consumers. Those fears seem to have resurfaced following your move to focus on sequels this year. Can you reassure fans you're not returning to old ways?
It's certainly not at all how I'm approaching the job. I can tell you right now there's between three and five new IPs that we're working on that we're thinking about for the next-gen. Some of them might come to market, some of them might not.
It's really one of those things where I'm consciously looking at introducing new IPs into the portfolio over the next several years as the new hardware comes into the marketplace that we can refresh.
Right now if I was coming out with a brand new IP that nobody had ever heard of, it would be very difficult to get the mindshare of gamers. You might get really good press for introducing a new IP, but to sell a couple of million units to break even on it at this point in the cycle... discretion's the better part of valour, to hold it a little bit so you get a whole new market refresh and reset.
I care deeply about making sure that the games that we make are very high quality and yeah, it is a bit awkward sometimes when you say, 'I've got a bunch of sequels this year'. We do, but there's a lot of innovation inside of them. The way that you're playing Need for Speed this year has never been done before; that open world, fully connected, drop in, drop out gameplay has never been seen in a racing game before.
Medal of Honor is taking the Frostbite 2 tech a doing some really innovative things with gameplay like destruction and how you break through doors... that's all new. FIFA would drop away and die and PES would come back if we didn't innovate and change things.
The care might look the same but it drives differently and it's faster. That's what's the hardest part of the business sometimes; keeping the most dedicated customers out there that want you to constantly do new stuff in existing worlds, and at the same time introducing new worlds like we did a few years ago with Dead Space and Mirror's Edge.
From past chats it's clear you're very aware of EA's army of classic game franchises. The most recent reboots were SSX and Syndicate earlier this year. How have those games, if at all, changed your thoughts on how you should approach resurrecting IP?
I think there are a couple of things there. I think SSX was a very successful launch for us and there was some online innovation there that really showed why it made sense to bring that back. It's done well and you'll probably see more in the future. There are tonnes of IPs that I think about all the time like Command & Conquer and Sim City - which is a brand we've brought back after seven years.
Syndicate was something that we took a risk on. It didn't pay off - it didn't work, but in general it doesn't change my appetite for wanting to go look in the library and see what we have and maybe bring back some IPs for the next-generation. That's the nature of the business; some stuff works, some stuff doesn't.
Another theme at E3 was cross-screen gaming like Microsoft's Smart Glass, which you demoed with a Madden concept. Is that sort of idea something you're passionate about?
Absolutely. I think fundamentally what we used to do is put a single-player game on a disc and then send it to retail. Now we've transformed our company to think of games as services where you might be connecting with the experience but it's going to change and evolve over time. You can decide to be in that growth, or not, but you'll get a great experience with Mass Effect and then get all the online stuff you can do like FIFA Ultimate Team.
The next step in that evolution is to get it to you across multiple screens. Now in FIFA you'll build your rank in FIFA 12, bring it over to FIFA 13 without having to start over, and be able to play some components on your smart phone where you can check your Ultimate Team, level up or earn points, and then when you get home at night you can use them all in your game.
Giving you more access points in to FIFA at the times you want it throughout the day is something that customers have told us they really want and gamers are showing us they really like it in terms of their engagements. We put Ultimate Team on the web and on smart phones and we saw the amount of time people were spending on it went right through the roof. So we did a lot of research on it and figured out we could get it even further.
So that's more of what we're trying to do; move from packaged goods to games as services and then move those game services across multiple screens.
Because of EA's history of aggressively supporting hardware launches we've no doubt you've got plenty of Wii U games in the pipeline, but at E3 you only announced Mass Effect 3. Why have you seemingly opted to hold back?
It's a couple of things. We've got a couple of more games in development for Wii U and we'll have a bigger line-up for Wii U than we did on the Wii. It is the first next-generation platform coming out so we're really supporting it.
We're really interested in digital platforms and we're really interested in showing off our games when they're ready to be shown off in a big way. Just looking at E3 and where we're at, we wanted to hold our fire a little bit on a couple of the other games that we're working on. We'll have more announcements this summer on the rest of the Wii U line-up.
John Riccitiello said you're already launching the best game on Wii U in Mass Effect 3...
It got a good cheer at the press conference! I love Mass Effect and it got a great response. We'll do some new, unique things with it on the Wii U controller and the second screen that we're innovating on. You'll hear more later this summer.
You've announced a huge amount of Battlefield 3 DLC and of course the launch of the Premium service...
In FY12 we had a huge success with Battlefield 3. We were really pleased with how the product did and how it was received. If you look at the online statistics, people are as engaged with Battlefield 3 in June as they were back in January - there's a loyal fanbase that loves dropping in.
We launched a subscription service with EA Sports earlier and we learnt a lot from that, and then Call of Duty came out with its Elite service. We looked at what we were doing with Battlelog and the amount of content we were planning and we thought there was a way to package that together that would give our really loyal Battlefield fans great value for money.
They get it all for $50, but if you bought it all individually it's about $80. So we looked at different kinds of weapons and levels and obviously took a risk by announcing so many packs - we've basically announced five expansions. If you buy them, you're in the Battlefield business for a while in terms of keeping your fun going, and we're constantly innovating inside the game, clans and rent a server capabilities.
It's just the nature of games that as you move towards games as a service you tend to hold on to people longer. Certainly it's the case with FIFA, Sims and Battlefield and we're just responding to that and investing more aggressively in the content behind BF3, because we would love for those folks to continue to play that game for as long as possible... as long as they're happy.
Activision launched its subscription service on day one with Modern Warfare 3, where as you've waited until six months after release. Is it fair to say you've been careful to get it right?
To be honest with you, it wasn't ready at launch. We had the Strike at Karkand pack that came out and we used that to drive audience acquisition and gameplay, but we weren't really ready to announce Premium at that point and we wanted to see how the product did. We also added a bunch of stuff using the time that we had in-between.
We wanted to come out with the right thing. We didn't want to feel like we were gouging the customers by slapping a subscription on to something that they would expect anyway. That's why we had to go deeper into building more content than we were originally planning in order to be able to build out this service idea.
Crysis 3 is another big title for you from your partner Crytek. How ambitious is EA's Partners program going forward? A few years ago Partners titles would've been half of your line-up...
It was Rock band. A lot of plastic! (Laughs). We've changed it from being a distribution business for music games to titles that we really get behind, like in this case
Outside of consoles we have a unit called Chillingo, which is basically EA Partners for mobile. They signed Angry Birds years ago and they've got some really killer line-ups coming. So there's a very vibrant partner community out there and we're going to continue to invest in EA Partners.
On the subject of Insomniac, where is Overstrike? It's nowhere to be seen at E3.
We're very excited about Overstrike. It's a new IP and we want to make it the right game, so they're taking some extra time to nail the gameplay and the quality. It felt like we would stand out better later in the summer once we've hit some key milestones and we're able to show off more.
Dead Space has changed a lot since it first debuted. Can you explain the evolution of the series?
Dead Space was a new IP start for us that was very much squarely placed in the survival horror category when we first launched it and it had no online connectivity. But it was a super-high quality, rich experience.
What we've tried to do with each instalment is tell a different story about Isaac but at the same time bring in new features and ways to turn the game into a more connected experience. For example, in the second one we added the deathmatch multiplayer, but we found from fans that they loved the single-player but when they went online they felt it really didn't capture what Dead Space was about. I think it was well executed, but it wasn't a big hit with fans.
When we went into the research, we created a few prototypes around co-op. Because one of the insights that producer Steve Papoutsis had was that when you go to see a horror movie it's always more fun to go with somebody else. It's more fun to be scared together than by yourself. So we embraced that idea and we tried to open up the accessibility of the IP a little bit by adding a little bit more action, but not undermining the horror. We can't not be a horror game because that's what Dead Space is.
So with the addition of co-op and taking it to a planet and mostly away from space... we're pushing it in areas such as environment, co-op and at the same time we definitely do not want to piss off our fans by taking it too far from horror. We're very self aware of that - we listen to the fans and we hear them.
We're going to be releasing more assets over the coming months that show you how deep the horror is. It's definitely not getting away from gore or horror, but at the same time it's opening up to a larger audience by adding some elements. I think the Prometheus film launch is an interesting one because the appeal is much broader than a traditional space horror because of the casting and some of the imagery.
In general we're thinking about how we make this a more broadly appealing franchise, because ultimately you need to get to audience sizes of around five million to really continue to invest in an IP like Dead Space. Anything less than that and it becomes quite difficult financially given how expensive it is to make games and market them. We feel good about that growth but we have to be very paranoid about making sure we don't change the experience so much that we lose the fanbase.
We're guessing you're enthusiastic about reaching those audience goals with
Absolutely. I think it's going to be a great game and our biggest Dead Space.
Criterion has said it wants to get Need for Speed "back on its feet" following The Run. Is that a comment EA backs? Do you consider The Run a critical disappointment?
Absolutely. We're not happy with the reception that we got on Need for Speed: The Run. We tried a lot of new things; we added linear moments and action scenes between levels to try and spice it up... but frankly it just didn't come together to the level of quality that I wanted or that the Need for Speed team wanted. So we're going to try something different and Criterion is going to take a shot at innovating in that category.
I'm proud of The Run - I'm not trying to kick it to the curb. But I looked at it and I was like, 'I don't want a 60, I want an 80+'. That's important to me and you have to take it seriously and do something about it.
The game did well and there's a lot about it that we really liked and were impressed with, but ultimately we want to make 80-90 rated games and it was a bit of a shock to see how poorly received it was with some editorial groups and customers. We don't ignore that feedback, but we don't curl up into a ball and cry either. We try to do something about it. Criterion were always planned to be on this next one. Now it's the time to dial it up and go even bigger.
And does that mean changing the strategies behind the dual-studio setup and Black Box?
We're going to continue to pursue the dual strategy of alternating studios and that will always be the strategy, but we will optimise the business to maximise quality and to maximise what we need to do.
One of the running themes of E3 2012 has been developers jumping the gun a bit and showing off their next-gen technology. Was EA not tempted to showcase its future games and tech?
I didn't think it was the right time when we talked as a team. It's better to show something of substance. Gamers are smart and they'll figure out if what you're showing is a pre-rendered movie, they'll be able to diagnose and pick it apart. That's one of the things we did last year with the Battlefield 3 trailer - we very consciously put out a 14 minute sequence of gameplay because we wanted it to be a real experience that shows you what the game's like on PC.
Given our relationships with the NDAs and what's going on with the other parties, we felt like it wasn't the right time to come out with that stuff. We've already been doing a lot of work on that, but in general we want to keep our powder dry and get to a better place. It's also the reason why we're not necessarily showing off a lot of the Wii U games - because we want to get to a place where we can actually show off something really cool as opposed to doing something fake at a trade show.