For years, EA Partners operated as a relatively quiet division of publishing behemoth Electronic Arts, releasing externally-developed titles that received less visible support and attention than EA's own fully-owned projects enjoyed.
Over the last eighteen months, EAP has undergone something of a renaissance, putting the group more out in the open than it ever has been. Top-down directives from recently-appointed CEO John Riccitiello have stressed new degrees of studio autonomy throughout the organization -- policies that have allowed EA Partners to attract top-shelf independent developers who historically would have balked at the idea of partnering with the megalithic publisher.
Last year, it released The Orange Box from notoriously independent Valve, Rock Band from Harmonix Music Systems, and Crysis from Crytek -- but also the less successful Hellgate: London from now-all-but-defunct Flagship Studios. The 2008 lineup also includes sequels to Rock Band and Crysis, and Valve's Left 4 Dead. Looking forward, EAP boasts id's Rage as well as freshly revealed deals with Epic Games and Painkiller creator People Can Fly, plus Grasshopper Manufacture and Shinji Mikami.
Gamasutra sat down for an in-depth interview with group general manager DeMartini to discuss the recent deals as well as EAP's overall philosophy, its understanding that not all development must originate from EA, its Metacritic scores compared to EA's internal projects, and where Hellgate: London went wrong.
How did you actually end up with the Grasshopper deal?
David DeMartini: EAP is a worldwide organization, and over the course of the 18 months when the new leadership team has been in place, we really set an objective for ourselves to start looking in parts of the world that maybe we had not paid enough attention to. We specifically focused on going to Eastern Europe, and Japan, and India, to try and see what development talent was available in those regions that EAP might be able to partner with.
We were at the Tokyo Game Show last year, and we were also at the Gstar show in Korea. We started attending things we had previously not attended in such large numbers, and we obviously had a tremendous number of meetings with many developers.
Obviously, Mikami comes with no need for any kind of introduction. Suda we knew from Killer7 and his other games. CAA [Creative Artists Agency] also got involved -- Seamus [Blackley] from CAA had been talking with some of our biz dev people.
We approached it from two different directions: one was from our additional exposure in Tokyo, and also through CAA. By the time we approached it from those two angles, and heard Suda's pitch about the game concept and Mikami's pitch about the game concept, we were very excited, and it led to a bigger relationship.
Q Entertainment, Tetsuya's Mizuguchi's studio, was also involved in brokering that, right?
DD: I don't know that I'd necessarily say "brokering" it, but doing business for a U.S. company in Japan is very complicated. What Q? brings us is some minimization of complexity and reduction of risk.
What kind of risk?
DD: Certainly, some design issues come around translation issues, and us not being aligned around design, and what Q? is providing is some level of design clarification and partnership. It's really a three-way relationship with ourselves, Q?, and Grasshopper.
I imagine that leads to a different kind of relationship than with most EA Partners.
DD: It's not any different than it would be if they were in Colorado as compared to them being in Tokyo. We use the same methodologies, the same milestone schedules. Our production team is equally involved. The travel is a bit longer.
Sometimes, communicating exactly the methodology is slightly more challenging, but when you've got two dedicated partners who want to make something successful, both sides are willing to meet each other in the middle. That's what we've been able to do with Mikami and Suda.
Mikami has obviously had huge commercial successes. Suda, while his games have been well-appreciated for their creativity, hasn't had games with explosive sales. Was that a worry for you?
DD: I think your analysis is absolutely correct. We think the stuff that Grasshopper and Suda have done is incredibly innovative; it's very well received by the press. With regards to sales, I think they've done okay. They certainly haven't done blockbuster sales like Mikami has.
But when you lay on top of that Mikami's sensibilities for the mass market, and Grasshopper and Suda and Q?'s desire to have a breakout hit, combined with our own team's sensibility about what would work in North America, what would work in Europe, I think that's the ideal way to bring those entities together to have the kind of blockbuster hit that Mikami had with [Resident Evil 4].
I assume Grasshopper doesn't have the bandwidth to do four platform versions in-house. Are you guys handling any porting like you did for Valve on PS3?
DD: Grasshopper is very capable with regards to platforms. They've currently got one of the platforms subbed out to another developer, but they're handling the rest of them -- Grasshopper and Q? in combination.
Is that the Wii version?
DD: Um --
EA PR: I don't think we have detail on that stuff yet.
Regarding Eastern Europe and India, are there studios you're actually talking to about partnering with? How do you go about looking?
DD: There are studios all over the world we're talking to. It's opening another door, and we're looking for creative relationships all around the world. I wouldn't say those areas are previously excluded, but I don't think we approached them with as much creativity as we needed to considering they're largely emerging development markets.
I think in the last 12 to 18 months we've taken a new look at that, and I think that's part of the entire rebirth of EAP: looking through doors we maybe previously weren't looking through to see what opportunities do exist.
We're only 50 or 60 people, but we work within a 7,000-person organization. We get to leverage the strength and reach of EA with so many offices in so many countries. It's not always my people who find the developer or find the next great idea. Maybe it's somebody in the Singapore office who gets wind of a developer and comes out and does the first visit.
I really don't care where we find it, I don't care who finds it, as long as somebody from EA turns us on to a great new developer. I don't care if we get credit for it; I don't care who gets credit for it, as long as a great game gets published under the EA label.
And what exactly has happened in the last 12 to 18 months?
DD: That's kind of tied to when I took over EAP, but honestly it is very much tied to [CEO] John [Riccitiello]'s return to Electronic Arts, and EAP moving under Frank Gibeau, who's the head of the EA Games label. Those two gentlemen know as much about developing video games and creative talent as any two executives in the industry for anybody combined.
They've opened the door with regards to ways to developing creative talent. Obviously, we want to develop a lot of creative IP internally, but that's not the only place that IP gets created. There is always an opportunity and an opening for the most creative people in the industry -- whether they work for Electronic Arts, or they're partners -- to be part of EA, and take advantage of EA's global publishing and distribution.
What have you tried to individually bring to the group?
DD: The key thing is that every partner brings a tremendous amount to the table. All EAP is trying to do is see where we can assist. In some cases, someone might need a PS3 port. In other cases, they might need help sourcing out the PS2. They might need one of my development directors to help with process.
Just like us as human beings, we have certain things we do great, and other things where someone else is maybe better. What we try to do is assess a situation. If it's on rails and everything's great, we sit in the back seat and make sure the publishing and distribution go great.
If somebody runs into trouble, we play off of the partner, and try to have the resources available either within EAP or the greater EA to assist in the way they think they need to be assisted.
I think it's that more modest [approach of] EA being in the back seat, rather than with our hands on the wheel, that has brought partners like id and Epic who five years ago said, "EA isn't a company that I want to work with." Now they're out in front of the bandwagon saying, "EA isn't like what we heard them to be."
Providing service when asked is a rather subtle change, but it's a rather significant change for the fiercely independent development organizations that are the best in the industry.
When I spoke with [Epic president] Mike Capps, he said EA works "checklist-style" -- where they tell you which services they want, and you provide them. Valve told me similar things, indicating they leave most of those boxes un-checked.
DD: Yep. (laughs)
How accurate is that metaphor?
DD: We don't necessarily hand them a menu and wait for them to check boxes, but we do have rather mature and sophisticated processes. We more or less step in where our partners indicate they need some assistance. Where our partners don't need assistance, we're not going to try and get in the way, because that's rather inefficient.
It's that "bull in a china shop" versus "delicately walking through a china shop" nuance that represents what the new EAP is attempting to be: high-level customer service where the customer is asking for service.
If somebody every five minutes comes up to you and says, "Can I clear that tray? You want me to clear your tray?," the service gets to a certain level. It's like, "Look, I don't need you to clear the tray. I'll tell you when I need you to clear the tray." So if you want, we wait for you to finish the meal, then we come and ask you.
It's a strange metaphor, but it's just not imposing yourself when you don't need to be imposing yourself into a situation.
So is that a problem with executives at EA who are not accustomed to that kind of mentality? Because historically, that's a change.
DD: Those who would not be named at this point? (laughs)
What I'd equate it to is that there's one steering wheel and two front seats. Three years ago, EA always had to have their hand firmly on the wheel, and in many cases on the driver's seat. Now, we're far more comfortable sitting in the passenger seat, ready to lend a hand so you can adjust your glasses.
It's a difference that is represented by John's and Frank's leadership, and it's a philosophical thing that carries throughout the whole EAP organization. I think it's also having a very mature team of game-savvy experts who work worldwide in EAP, and the quality of those individuals is fantastic, maybe even relative historically.
We've continued to add people with more and more game experience, with the ability to judge those situations in terms of when to get involved, and when to back off. What I want to have is a strong team of people who can come in and consult with our partners, and have the maturity to know when to step in rather than step on a bunch of toes.
While I've talked to several studios that indicated EA is hands-off if requested, those are studios that are already quite successful, so there's less risk operating that way. Is it really more of a sliding scale where you appraise studios individually?
DD: Well, it's based on the assessment we make of any studio. Those are certainly studios each with a long successful history with other partners, and certainly their work stands on its own merit.
With regards to how much we step in -- whether it's a highly-successful studio with a long history, or a very creative studio with not as long a history -- we're trying to take a more modest approach, and not force ourselves upon the studio, but to try and demonstrate a value add by virtue of the decades of experience the people in EAP have.
It's more or less the partner wanting to hear what we have to say, rather than, because we're funding a project, us forcing our opinion on a prospective partner. Obviously, we're not going to let any partner go sideways, but it's really them wanting the participation based on the value we bring.
But, for example, Flagship and Hellgate: London did basically implode. Should you have stepped in more?
DD: Yeah, I mean... We're certainly sad with the results for Flagship and what's happened with Hellgate, because at the time we signed it, we were trying to get involved in a very complicated relationship between Namco and Flagship. We were coming late to the party, and trying to do whatever we could to sprinkle the game magic on the project and get it headed in the right direction.
Flagship Studios' Hellgate: London
I think that's an example where all three parties had the best interest of the game in mind, and sometimes the game doesn't work out. Hellgate is still an incredible concept. The guys who worked on it spent thousands of hours trying to make that concept work, and sometimes we just don't see something. Sometimes, we just didn't take enough time. Sometimes, things don't work out the way you expect.
It's kind of like a film with all big stars -- on the script, it should be successful, but the movie doesn't turn out as good as everybody hoped. That's why EAP takes a portfolio approach with its games. You have to place a lot of bets, and hope for a lot of hits.
Were you actually funding it, or were you just marketing and distributing, or what?
DD: We were co-publishing with Namco. I'm not going to dodge a bullet -- we had people who were actively working with them on the title. We thought it would have been slightly higher quality than it turned out to be, and I think the problem with the game was that by the time it got really good, we were four to six months post-release. That was too late; we'd lost the fanbase.
It was strictly an issue of the gameplay and game quality needing to be higher at the start. Unfortunately, Flagship was in a situation where they weren't in a position to hold the game any longer, and the situation kind of took over.
Bill Roper said this week that there were conversations about EA acquiring the studio. Was that a serious discussion?
DD: I can't really comment on any kind of acquisition conversation. I know I wasn't involved in any of them.
EA paid upwards of $800 million for BioWare and Pandemic -- I know that isn't really your department, but how do you make the call as to whether to just publish a company's game or try and make the plunge of taking it over?
DD: Well, they are different departments, but it's one EA. We totally respect an organization's desire to remain independent. If they're delivering high-quality products, we're just interested through the EA Partners program with regards to publishing and distribution.
If, during the course of that relationship, the partner demonstrates an interest in being part of the EA family because the experience is so positive, then other discussions could take place.
It's something that evolves organically based on both parties saying, "Wow, we like the way this is working. Maybe a closer fit would be more appropriate." We completely respect organizations like Valve and Epic who have stayed independent but do great things, just like id does.
Have you looked at some of the apparently-discarded Activision titles that fell by the wayside after the merger, like Double Fine's Brutal Legend or Ghostbusters from Terminal Reality?
DD: Are some of those available?! (laughs)
Now, having had this conversation with me for thirty-eight minutes, you certainly couldn't believe that, if there were an opportunity, we wouldn't take a look at that opportunity based on any situation.
We certainly read your site, and some of the observations you guys make with regards with what people are planning to publish and what they're not planning to publish, and that occasionally presents an opportunity to us.
Like I said, if there's a great creative team -- or a couple of great creative teams -- that have product that need to be published, we certainly might be their partner.
BioWare's Mass Effect
After I played the PC version of Mass Effect, I noticed the credits had a number of EA Partners, rather than EA Games, names. That was after BioWare was acquired. Was that a transitional thing?
DD: We helped them in a little bit. As they were new to EA, we talked to [studio co-founders] Ray [Muzyka] and Greg [Zeschuk] and offered some of our resources, because we were so familiar with helping external teams. They were an external team becoming an internal team, and we thought it would be an easy way to help EA out and help welcome that team to the EA family.
Just to clarify very quickly, that game was completely developed by the BioWare team. [Ed. note: Demiurge Studios also handled the PC port and enhancement work.] They did all the heavy lifting. The EAP staff was helping with localization and process-related things.
How much of what you do is full publishing and funding, and how much is purely distribution?
DD: It's all over the board. It's very much a portfolio approach we're managing. It's also based on what great game makes itself available in what fiscal year. Rock Band showed up last year, and that delivered a tremendous amount of revenue, and that skews us heavily towards distribution and co-publishing, especially in conjunction with The Orange Box.
In a year where we're releasing Crysis and an Epic game and an id game and the Grasshopper game, then that could skew us more towards a publishing model than a distribution model. It's very fluid, and it's really based on the opportunities.
We don't look to have any particular mix of co-pub versus dev/pub versus distribution. We're just looking to do any deal that is additive to the bottom line at Electronic Arts, and to publish the highest-quality games that the industry sees.
How cognizant are you of how the company is perceived? It seems like the tide of gamer opinion might be starting to change, in part due to the perception of how EA treats studios now versus historically.
DD: I feel like it's a specific responsibility of each of the 50 or 60 individuals that are part of EAP to get out there within the community -- not only the independent development community, but at shows with consumers, to demonstrate to gamers that the quality of the game is the most important thing. It's a philosphy that John and Frank have brought to EA in general.
It's not so much, "We want to make a lot of money, so let's make a good game," it's, "We're going to make the best game we possibly can make." Whether internally or by an independent studio, it doesn't matter. Any time we put a game into the market, we're going to try and maximize the quality, so the game player's experience is stellar. Ultimately, it helps the bottom line.
That subtle nuance, from "We're making money" to "We're making great games," many of us strongly believe will lead to greater profitability, but most importantly it will lead to greater player satisfaction. That in and of itself will lead to greater profitability down the road.
How do EA Partners titles perform relative to the larger EA catalogue?
DD: The average Metacritic for the EAP titles was higher than EA's overall average Metacritic last year. Obviously, [that's] buoyed by great titles like Rock Band, The Orange Box, and Crytek's Crysis -- those three titles were all 90+ rated titles. We had a huge string of good fortune with some of the best partners in the industry.
With regards to sales, we were delighted by how all the EAP properties did. The notable exceptions would probably be Ninja Reflex and Hellgate: London.
One thing I would add -- we don't really distinguish between EA Partners titles or EA internal titles. Through the sales, distribution, and publishing organizations, it's an EA title. The quality titles get the attention.
What we look for from an independent developer is exactly what we're looking for from an internal team. The hot properties get all the heat. Fortunately, we had a lot of EAP titles being a lot of the hot properties, and we certainly hope that to continue in the future based on the lineup of partners we have.
Analyst Todd Greenwald of Signal Hill criticized EA Partners this week by saying it harms the perception of EA by implying that EA has to go elsewhere to get top-shelf development; also, it causes concern for shareholders because external development has lower profit margins than internal development. How do you respond to that?
DD: Yeah, that's crazy talk! That's crazy talk. It's very interesting. When we do a deal with an independent developer, we are held to the same level of accountability on our deals that internal teams are held to.
Obviously, if it's owned IP, we have an opportunity to have higher margins, but on the stuff that's not owned IP, we still have responsibility [for] profits we need to deliver to the company. Distribution deals are an entirely different animal, but I believe they are still helpful to delivering the earnings that our shareholders come to expect.
You know, with regards to not being able to develop enough of our own hit IP, which is why we need to go outside, I just think it's an acknowledgement that there's a huge gaming community of developers who can create quality IP. Some of it comes from EA's internal teams, some comes from external teams.
EA Redwood Shores' Dead Space
We're going to look everywhere for the best gaming ideas, and the best game developers in the world. If they happen to be from EA, great, and we've got plenty of those -- Mirror's Edge, Dead Space, and a lot of the new IP we're creating internally -- but likewise we haven't cornered the market on the brightest people in the industry.
We try to, but there are a lot of other really smart people who have a lot of great game design ideas. Sometimes, they think differently than we do at EA, and why should we not give them the same benefit our internal teams get by being able to publish and distribute through the best publisher and distributor in the industry?
That's all we're acknowledging. It's a recognition that it all doesn't have to be created here. It can be created here, and it can be created there.
You're admitting the reality that there are other developers out there making games that aren't EA.
DD: Well, the thing is, for id and Epic and all these companies -- when EA wasn't publishing those companies, somebody else was. You all recognized them as great games. If they're making great games and they'd like to work with the best publisher in the world, we are more than happy to work out a deal.
We're fortunate that some of the best in the industry have seen that change, and acknowledged it by wanting to work with us. We're incredibly proud to be mentioned with those companies.