Labels boss Frank Gibeau on Battlefield, Respawn and new IP...
EA's Frank Gibeau is in charge of perhaps the biggest and most exciting portfolio of game franchises in the world.
As EA Games boss, he has helped grow an enviable roster of hits including Mass Effect, Dead Space and Battlefield: Bad Company, titles which ultimately helped propel the gaming giant to its position as No. 1 Western publisher for Q1 earlier this year.
In his new position as EA Labels president, Gibeau is in charge of arguably the company's most exciting line-up to date, with core stunners Battlefield 3, Star Wars: The Old Republic and Mass Effect 3 all ready to crash land into market.
It's easy to see why core gamers the world over are eager to hear what the affable, straight-talking exec has to say. Speaking to CVG at Gamescom last month, Gibeau shared his thoughts on EA's current portfolio and its future in new IP...
First of all, congratulations on your promotion from EA Games president to head of EA Labels...
I can't wait. It's going to be really fun and exciting. I'm about a week in! My new role is basically president of all the labels and so before I was running the Games label group and we had a pretty good run of success for the last couple of years. Now I'm going to start to partner and team up with the Play label and the Sims business, as well as the Sports guys.
Earlier in my career I worked on EA Sports so I'm very familiar with the franchises and the brand and how to help build it. So I'm really excited to be back on Sports again.
Now that you've gained access to those additional franchises should we expect any sweeping changes to your FIFAs and Mass Effects?
No. The company's doing really well right now. We've put out a string of really high quality games that our fans are really enjoying and having good experiences with, so I don't really seed any need for sweeping change. If anything we're going to try and figure out ways to accelerate our growth, continue to drive quality hard and really focus in on how we make our business more digital.
We're really focusing on the online businesses of Freemium and trying to get to a place where we can share more information and technology across the labels. Those are kind of my early short-term objectives.
How are you going to make sure the Sports, Games and BioWare labels don't become complacent in their successes and continue to innovate?
Well, that's my job! I'm very much a gamer, that's why I'm in the business. I love the product and I'm going to spend a lot of time on the road with the teams.
Battlefield 3 is one of the most anticipated games of 2011
We've got a whole new set of leaders running the labels; Ray Muzyka's stepped up and he's going to be running the BioWare label, Patrick Soderlund is taking over the Games label from my prior job, Andrew Wilson's now running Sports and Peter Moore's gone on to a new role as COO, while Lucy Bradshaw is the new [Sims] label lead.
With new leaders in there you don't typically have to worry about complacency or lack of new ideas and aggressiveness. Since we're all new in our roles we're all very excited.
EA just reported a profitable quarter. Does that represent a turning point for the company?
I think we're about six quarters in beating expectations. We had a very good fiscal fiscal year where we beat the street's expectations and Q1 was a good one for us. Right now what we're really having a lot of success with is our online revenues. We're guiding to over a billion dollars in online revenue this year which makes us one of three companies worldwide which actually has revenue of that scale and size from online and it continues to grow aggressively.
So our investors, shareholders and board are really excited about the trajectory of the company right now.
Of course the most exciting thing about EA's immediate future is the big clash between Battlefield and Call of Duty this Christmas - and the advertising is already everywhere. How important is ownership of the first-person shooter genre to EA?
We don't take things lightly. If we're going to go after a category, we intend to lead. We have a very big competitor there but they're going to get some competition this Christmas for the first time in a long time.
We're excited about and we're really proud of Battlefield 3. It's coming together very well and the quality and technology is something that you can just see on screen. The DICE guys have the pedigree of building some spectacular games. This Christmas we're definitely going to take market share in the FPS category from those guys.
Battlefield's going to be hard to dodge this Christmas
You've always had massive FPS brands. What's prevented you from ruling the roost in that area up until now?
There was a period of time when we did, and then we lost it. Now we're coming back to it. It just takes time and iteration to be able to build a business of that quality and scale. Last year we entered in with Bad Company 2, which is now past nine million unit sales and still selling very well, and Medal of Honor did quite nicely for us last year. Every year we're going to continue to build the business and grow it and do better as we look at our performance and going forward.
Those are stellar numbers and EA seems to be on the cusp of nailing the next mega-franchise - a Guitar Hero or World of Warcraft. How close do you think your are?
Well you know I think this year we're making some big bets. I would argue that nine million units is a pretty big franchise. FIFA does about 12 million and The Sims has done about 150 million... this Christmas is going to be a big Christmas for us with Star Wars, with Battlefield 3, FIFA 12 shipping in a couple of weeks, Need for Speed: The Run is going to be a great game for us... We feel like we're on the verge of breaking out with a couple of hits right there.
Of course EA hasn't been shy in its determination to come out top dog in the FPS battle. Is it realistic to expect Battlefield 3 to outsell the competition across three platforms?
We're all in. We're going for it. How you measure victory, I don't know. What I'm curious about is how the game is going to finish from a quality standpoint - I think it's going to be great. We're going to take share from them and I think we're going to grow the business significantly. We're going to give them competition for the first time that they haven't had.
Dead Space 2 has sold over 2 million copies
We like to think that we've got a pretty powerful game offer with the technology base that is brand new, next generation and should set new standards for what happens in FPS. Customers like competition, they like these kind of heavyweight fights so we're going for it.
There's been talk in the past about not burning out the Battlefield and Medal of Honor franchises with annual cycles, yet - dual brands aside - you seem to have adopted the same alternating studio model as your competitors. How is EA's approach to development and innovation different?
We're not doing it just in shooters - we also had Criterion build Need for Speed last year and we have Black Box doing The Run. I like to alternate studios because it keeps them sharp, keeps them fresh and it doesn't burn teams out because you can have guys who have to roll right under the game and only have ten months to make the next one.
So by alternating the studios it allows you to keep the teams fresh, focus on the technology and innovation as well as driving quality. We're taking a slightly different tack to what they are in terms of alternating the brand names - because we also think that Medal of Honor and Battlefield can stay fresh by offering something slightly different every year like that - and that's the different approach that we take.
And lurking in the background you've got that Respawn project. Have you started to think about where that would fit into your release plans without cannibalising one of your own FPS releases?
We haven't announced anything on the Respawn project at this point in terms of release date, but I can tell you that what we do in general with our EA Partners products and relationships is that we do collaborate with them a lot. It's: 'Here's our release calendar, here's where our tent poles are, yours would look great right here or right there." We help each other maximise sales without cannibalising each other.
EA says it's "looking at" classic franchises
EA's new IP burst a few years ago with Dead Space and Mirror's Edge. Though perhaps not as commercially successful as established titles, they are a popular topic in your press interviews. Does the runaway success of Battlefield and BioWare releases give you leverage to come out with more core original IPs in the future?
Yeah. We're always going to be in the new IP business. It's entertainment - we have to stay fresh and we've got to change with the times and stay ahead of the curve in terms of what people are anticipating and want.
We're always going to be building new IP and the mix that we have now is... you're right, we do have a lot more titles now that are proven, where as a few years ago we we're coming out with a lot of IPs because the cupboards were bare. We had been a licensed-oriented group. Of course I'm talking about the Games label at that time; it was Bond, Potter and Lord of the Rings. As those went away or diminished, we didn't have anything.
That's why we made that investment in a lot of new IPs, but I figure we'll probably be doing one to two new IPs a year as far out as I can see - and we always have new IPs in development. We go through a green light process and in technology development and gameplay development we're always looking at new, fresh ways at applying product.
And obviously EA has a goldmine of classic franchises sitting in the vault. What are your thoughts on bringing some of those back?
We've got 25 years of great IPs and I've worked on a few of them in my career like Road Rash and the Strike series. So I have a strong affinity for a lot of the things we've done in the past.
We kind of have a rule which is you've got to have a really good reason to bring something back - What can you do to it that makes it fresh and brings something new to the equation of the franchise? Like basically what we did with Medal of Honor when we brought it back; we looked at going after more modern themes... the war that's happening now as opposed to a historical war. That was the reason we brought Medal of Honor back.
EA Sports has announced FIFA 11 for Vita
But when we look at Road Rash, the Strike series or some of these other franchises we really challenge ourselves. We can't just put them on new tech with the same gameplay from ten years ago, we've got to have something new. That's the typical challenge that we have. We do have a couple of old franchises that we're looking at right now... re-imagining them and bringing them back.
EA's typically been an early adopter of new hardware and you've just announced FIFA for PlayStation Vita. Do you think Vita can survive in the same market 3DS seems to be struggling in at the moment?
I think that part of the video game business is tough right now because they have had some significant competition come in that was totally disruptive, and that was the smart phone. So as a publisher, if Vita is successful that's great and we'll make games on the Vita - but we'll also make games on smart phones. We're a big player there and we believe in the long term potential of the smart phone.
I think they've got a shot because they have some really unique innovation in the control scheme, the technology and the screen. It's got a lot of social features now so that you can actually communicate with your friends and be social. You can't ring them up by putting the device up to your ear but in general I think they've got most of the capabilities that you'd find in a smart phone, with some unique capabilities that make them stand out.
I don't think they're quite in the same boat as the 3DS... the 3DS was a really interesting piece of technology but I think there was some confusion over it and the title slate was a little different. I think Vita has a better chance because it has a stronger title slate at launch. PSP's had a great run in Europe as a device, it seems to have reached a much larger audience here than it did in North America. So I think they've got a good shot. We're going to publish a few games on it and see how it develops.
Old Republic’s release is “definitely” tied to the beta
EA really seems to be hitting its stride with current-gen games. When would you as a publisher like to see the next wave of console hardware arrive?
The way the business used to run where you had these big console transitions just isn't happening anymore. They're much longer, the online capabilities are making the way customers interact within the audience very different from when we went from PSOne to PS2. And so I think that big, abrupt change in consoles where we all pile in on top of each other and everything changes overnight is just gone.
There's a different dynamic in play here. One of the things that we like is that the technology is consistent, and we believe that there are still things that you can do on these systems... we haven't quite squeezed the last once of hardware horsepower out of these things, as you can see with Battlefield 3. Frostbite 2 technology coming in can do some really interesting things that nobody is able to do, and you see some great stuff coming from our competitors too.
I'd like to see the cycle last a little longer. I don't see consumers right now banging on the walls for a new platform. They seem to be very happy with their PS3s and 360s. They love the online connectivity, they have great communities and great libraries.
I like the fact that Nintendo's coming in with new hardware. That'll help really rev up their business for the HD side, which is where we're in a really good position. It's not secret that we didn't have big business on Wii. We have a very strong business on the highest gross platforms. Bringing them into the HD category is much more in our strike zone and we're very pleased to see them coming in.
It's hard for me to conceive what you would do on a PlayStation 4. The displays are already 1080p, you're already connected to the internet... I don't know what you think? You could make it faster, you could have more polys and you could up the graphics a little bit but at what cost?
It'll be interesting to see how the guys think about it in terms of the next generation but it seems to me that customers are happy, and we're happy to build games on them right now.
EA's very close to launching the big Star Wars MMO, The Old Republic. How can you be sure BioWare's game will be a success when a similar game in Star Wars Galaxies wasn't seen as one?
It's the entertainment business so there's always the chance that something won't work. But we've had two million people sign up for the beta test, all the consumer research... all the testing data of people actually playing the game and sending us feedback has been extremely positive, pre-orders have been very strong...
So I feel like we've got really strong demand built, there's strong interest in the universe, it's been a while since a big MMO came out and was a hit and BioWare has a great following. The fact that we can bring Star Wars fans in with the BioWare fans, we've got validation that the game's good... it's innovative.
It actually adds a lot of new things to the MMO category so that should help it stand out and be a very sticky design. But we're focussed on nailing that game and making it great. We think that we're on the right track.
How much are your launch plans tethered to that feedback from the beta? Would you consider pushing the game back if you found out it needed a bit more work?
We're driving towards a date, but the very issue you raised is why we're not announcing a date yet because you want to make sure that these services can last a decade.
You've got to have a great launch and as more and more user feedback comes in we make those polishing decisions on what we're going to get right and nail, and 'this needs more work, therefore how do we find the time and resources to make it more accessible or stickier?'
It is definitely tied to the beta test feedback that's ongoing and so far, so good. We feel good about the date that we're heading towards but you're right, you could have a Crazy Ivan show up in the September/October beta test and be like, 'wow, I've got to fix that'.
The other thing is, the technology of standing these things up and then getting all the server farms to work together, talk to one another, store character records... it's extraordinarily complex and so we want a very stable experience.
We don't want to happen to us what happened to WoW and a couple of other services where in the first week there were queues trying to get on to the servers, the entire service crashed - we don't want that to happen. So we need to nail and make sure that it's up 24/7 and it's high quality.
We're totally focused on quality, so whatever the beta test tells us is what will be the determining variable on when we will hit.