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EA's faring well in the social race, but there's still a long way to go

Gamasutra catches up with EA COO Peter Moore to talk about the surprising strides the company has made in the digital space, and the complex challenges that lie ahead.
It seems hard to remember a time when physical software sales were responsible for nearly all of the game industry's relevant numbers. But once those numbers began to plateau and then contract, console video game publishers have by necessity had to start thinking about digital revenue. Among them, the most aggressive and vocal about this transition has arguably been Electronic Arts. "We were like prophets in those days," jokes recently-promoted COO Peter Moore, sitting down with Gamasutra at the company's recent showcase in New York City. Even if that had truly been the case, it hasn't necessarily been an easy transition for the publisher. EA has historically enjoyed a massive global footprint in traditional publishing, but found itself as bereft as anyone at the rapid advent of new free-to-play business models, explosive App Stores and deep social integration. But given time, it seems possible to maintain some optimism: On the heels of some organizational layoffs -- and despite the departure of key EAi head Barry Cottle for Zynga's shores -- the publisher recently reported $1 billion in digital revenue during 2011, which includes $100 million in revenue for the Origin platform alone. Rapidly, EA has become a company with significant clout in the online, mobile and social space -- and like other major players, with that status comes the potential to pave new innovations. Even if, as Moore acknowledges, the shape of the digital landscape is different than EA could have anticipated when it dove in. That dive was not a choice. According to the longtime exec, all of EA's employees are familiar with the analogy of the "burning platform," where the company had to make a dive into uncharted waters or be consumed. "Four years ago... [EA CEO John] Riccitiello brought us all in, and the first slide in his PowerPoint presentation was an oil rig. And the second slide was the oil rig exploding," Moore recalls. "The idea was we as a company could either... burn to death -- some publishers have chosen to do that -- or dive in." So while, for example, four years ago the company might not have been able to have foreseen the acquisitions of PopCap and Playfish, which have filled much-needed strategic gaps for the publisher, "we've never been afraid of making an acquisition when we felt it was important," says Moore. These days, it's far less relevant to discuss the social, mobile and casual spaces as separate spheres. "They're starting to merge," Moore says. "We're seeing them as a singular platform. Our mission statement is to build the world's best digital playground... and our ability to be able to deliver that requires us to not worry about a piece of hardware, but ultimately to build platforms." PopCap and Playfish go much of the distance toward that goal, Moore believes. The company's been pleased with the performance of Playfish's The Sims Social on Facebook -- "a tremendous success for the company," in Moore's words, that "proved that a really well-known and recognized IP on the Facebook platform will be a real success." Our critique of The Sims Social found that there was as much missed opportunity as quality success, though -- the game was the strongest piece of evidence yet that notification-oriented (ultimately monetization-oriented) business models as pioneered by Zynga were still the Facebook space's dominant paradigm, and that extremely asynchronous play continued to keep actual "social" elements and meaningful interaction between friends out of the experience, a shame for a game that so finely imported the attention to character and personality that fans expect from The Sims brand. "I just bought my Dove shower soap [in the game]," says Moore -- there are numerous opportunities for real-world brand deals in The Sims Social. Another partner is coffee chain Dunkin' Donuts, which according to Moore is "delighted, because we over-delivered on the numbers." "It's relevant! I actually use Dove soap at home!" enthuses Moore. Yet he recognizes that there are bigger iterative advances that need making in the social space at large. "I think what you're going to see over the next six to 12 months is almost going to be Facebook gaming 2.0," he muses. "Right now, it's mostly asynchronous gameplay... I can't visit you in realtime in The Sims Social, you don't know all the silly things we do, it's mostly a one-way experience. I'd love to leave you a note; all I can do is leave you that 'Peter visited' type thing." "There's nothing I can do that is personal," he concedes. "But how cool would it be if I'm 'there' and you say, 'there's a TV show on'... and we watch TV together? That's my vision of when you think how social network games need to evolve. I think eventually someone's going to get there, and hopefully it's us," Moore concludes.

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