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Catching Up With EA Partners: David DeMartini On Biz, Alice, More

Electronic Arts' third-party division EA Partners has signed up Grasshopper Manufacture and now American McGee's Spicy Horse for an Alice sequel - so where now? Gamasutra talks to David DeMartini...

Electronic Arts' EA Partners division, which distributes and markets games by third party companies and sometimes co-funds their development, continues to be one of the key elements of the firm's overall business.

While the allegedly disappointing sales of Mirror's Edge and Dead Space -- both internally-developed EA games -- got a lot of ink this past fall, the company's surprisingly big success story -- albeit at lower royalty rates -- was Valve's Left 4 Dead, an EA Partners-distributed product.

The firm has also signed a number of other high-profile publishing deals, for example with Epic and its People Can Fly studio (Painkiller), plus Grasshopper Manufacture (No More Heroes) for an 'action horror' game.  Previously published EAP games include the Rock Band series, Valve's The Orange Box, and Crytek's Crysis.

Gamasutra recently had the chance to speak with David DeMartini, the group general manager for EA Partners, shortly after the company announced a sequel to Alice, the 2000 cult title from the now-independent American McGee. 

Here, DeMartini outlines the path that EAP is walking in its company's overall profile, and discusses the vicissitudes of working with external studios in an economic -- and sometimes creative -- climate that's less than comfortable for anyone.

How much is EA Partners growing as a proportion of EA's overall portfolio? Even just a few years ago it wasn't nearly as visible as it now just in terms of volume of projects as well as the notoriety of the projects themselves.

David DeMartini: I think that there is very much a renaissance within the EAP based on the leadership of Electronic Arts. John Riccitiello and Frank Gibeau are very, very pro-independent development.

As we grew, our group has been fortunate enough to be given the green light to go to all corners of the world to try and find the most talented individuals and teams to be able to work with.

That's just incredibly enabling for the team. We are delighted as hell to be able to contribute in any way possible. That said, at the same time, the EA internal teams have continued to raise the bar with regard to the innovation and the quality level that they have delivered.

It very much isn't an issue of internal development versus external development. We are looking for great quality wherever it comes from. It matters less whether it's developed internally or externally, than that we achieve the quality goals that we set.


EA/Valve's Left 4 Dead

With the industry's current financial trends, which are partially the exterior recession but partially other issues more specific to individual publishers and developers, independent studios have been seeing a lot of trouble. Has that impacted EA Partners at all?

DD: Quite honestly, because EA is one of the strongest companies in the industry, we are still out there actively looking for partnerships. People know that when you are looking at options, in this kind of a climate, there is bound to be a consolidation.

There is consolidation at the publisher level. There's consolidation of viable independents that are no longer in business. There's definitely an environment where independents are striving to survive -- you definitely want to get through this period so that you can get to the other side.

And I think the way you get to the other side is by partnering with the strongest partners. I am very proud to represent -- maybe it's a biased opinion -- what I think is the strongest partner of independent development that exists.

I think that a lot of the independent game companies would love to be working with us, and that makes our job a little bit easier.


When he spoke at DICE, John Riccitiello was pretty frank towards the end of his keynote. He referred to the current economic situation as, in some ways, a blessing in disguise in that it forces all areas of the industry to reevaluate what is actually necessary and feasible. He talked about how heavily that has affected EA; how much has that impacted Partners?

DD: We went through the same level of scrutiny that the rest of the company did. Again, it's less about internal or external. It's more what's tracking, what's good, and when they're going to deliver the innovation and quality that customers are looking for.

It is slightly more challenging within the EAP portfolio, because we're making commitments to other independent game developers. They're putting people's lives in a certain direction to work on a certain game. We certainly can't be willy-nilly in any decisions that we make.

That said, we need to be as robust in our ongoing evaluation of the progress that we are making on our games as the internal teams are on the evaluation that they're making on their games.

Not every game that you start do you have to finish. You're probably being slightly irresponsible to finish one that maybe you should not finish -- whether it's internal or external.

How long-term is EAP strategy at any given time? I can see where EA, like any large company, could really set up some meaningful long-term strategy based on wholly-owned property and the complete knowledge over what all internal studios are doing.

But then you have EAP, with guys like Tim Schafer and American McGee, whose games have their name on the box and whose studios own their own content. How far can you afford to look? Does that ever make shareholders uneasy? You can't count on what those guys will do for their next game, or where the property will go.

DD: That's a really great question. It certainly is a consideration in a business like EAP. You could try and build things in a contract that say we have equal rights or things of that nature, but less so.

What is most important, I've found, is if you do a great job with a partner, the odds are very high that when they do the next version of that game or when they do a new game, they will want to be your partner again.

You can try and tie things up with contracts and legal stuff. But the best way to create a bond between entities is by doing a great job for each other.

We have examples of that with Valve. We've done several projects with Crytek. Some of the new partners will be going at it for the first time with somebody like Epic or somebody like id.

Really, the flexibility of how we operate and the quality of what we do should really stand on its own merit. I think we'll get a continuing business with these partners.

Would you say EA learned some lessons with some of its acquisitions in the '90s? There were a number of studios that were picked up and either shut down or just kind of dissolved into the larger organization and lost their identity. John Riccitiello has alluded to this as well.

DD: You know, the model has slid all around in the 11 years that I've been doing this. I've seen it go heavy internal, I've seen it go heavy external.

I think, interestingly enough after 11 years, what we've proven is that there is no one model. What we have also proven is quality and innovation always win.

Whether it's independently developed or internally developed, it doesn't matter. Customers respond to greatness. What you really need to do, whether it's internal or external, is aspire to deliver stuff that's great. That is the language that the customers universally speak and respond to.


The original Alice game was released the better part of a decade ago. That's a relatively long gap for a franchise in the games industry. How did this deal come about?

DD: Yeah, it was right around nine years ago. I was about two years into the company.

One of the things that we do in EA Partners -- sometimes your greatest form of innovation is looking at properties that you have done some really great work on in the past, and trying to reimagine those.

As we looked at our entire lineup of property, this was one that always bubbled to the surface as a game that was viewed as highly innovative, high quality, really pushing the envelope.

To have an opportunity to work on the game again with American was just a really great opportunity for us.

He was highly interested in the opportunity, and we were certainly interested in having him continue to take this game to the next level. It was just an obvious connection.

Was it assumed that Spicy Horse would be the developer?

DD: Yeah. We didn't imagine American stepping out of his studio and doing it. It was American and the studio teamwork around it. [Veteran game producer and writer] R.J. Berg was involved in the first title, and he is working with American and Spicy Horse.

There's a lot of additional energy behind this thing, and synergy behind it, in addition to American, in terms of the people involved getting involved in it again. American has done a really good job of keeping people he was close to still close to him in his ventures.

They've had an opportunity to work together even over a longer period of time. When they have a familiarity with each other, that certainly reduces the risk of any project, and increases the likelihood of great innovation and high quality.


American McGee's Alice

American McGee has an unusual game history. After his id Software days, he immediately had his name on the box, and then he had a few "American McGee Presents" credits. That hasn't always guaranteed the game is of a certain level of quality, but his name has more outward presence than most game designers' names -- this industry isn't as big on that kind of crediting as is, say, film. EA Partners does seem more willing to engage in that, however.

DD: Yeah. On the point that some of his stuff has been outstanding, and other stuff may be not as well received, I would point to Steven Spielberg or any other great director of a film and say that some of their movies have won Oscars and others have been a little more pedestrian.

Making games is really hard. And making great games is really, really hard. Just when you think you have the right recipe, sometimes something jumps up and bites you. It's a perfect storm of a publisher coming together with the creative talent and the IP that allows us to be innovative and deliver something that customers are blown away by.

We very much think we have that same opportunity with Double Fine and Tim Schafer. We think we have that same opportunity with what we are doing with American. And as of right now, we are extraordinarily positive and hopeful that it's all going to come together.

Is there any possibility that there could be a bump in the road along the way? Sure, as there is with any game.

But that's why we are working closely together with American to make sure that we get the level of innovation that we are looking for in there and that we hit those levels of quality. And from talking to him, he couldn't be more excited about the challenge of trying to return the franchise to the level that we had back in 2000.

How much is Spicy Horse operating autonomously? I know that among EA Partners studios, there is a spectrum of proximity to EA oversight, depending on various factors.

DD: Yeah. There really is no model. In the last two years, we've made it a specific challenge for ourselves to try and adapt to the partner. In this particular case, we are in the high breed model.

We are going to be involved, but we are not going to be over there every week in his back pocket. In a "driving the car" analogy, we are going to be sitting in the back seat trying to provide advice and give any guidance that we possibly can to help make this as good as it can be.

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