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Interview: EA's DeMartini Talks Origin's Place In The Digital Frontier

In the wake of Electronic Arts' announcement of Origin, its new digital platform offering, company exec David DeMartini illuminates the publisher's view on the digital platform space.
In the wake of Electronic Arts' announcement of Origin, its new digital platform offering, company exec David DeMartini tells Gamasutra making a foray into a new space is much more difficult than it looks, and says the company's well-prepared to answer the biggest question industry-watchers may have about the endeavor: Why build a new walled garden when EA already partners closely with platforms like Steam? "You have a lot greater control over enhancing the gameplay experience across your entire product line when you're able to bring a service like this into the marketplace," he tells us. "It has the commerce component, but then more importantly, it has an ever-growing feature set on the social side, and it also allows you to have connectivity to things like mobile." DeMartini says the days leading up to the Origin announcement were full steam ahead, painting a picture of midnight oil efforts to make sure everything launched smoothly. It's easy to extrapolate that EA felt the need to illustrate, in the week of Activision's widely-publicized announcement of the Elite service around Call of Duty, that it, too, was interested in providing an online social and commerce environment for users of its products. But Origin's timing was "completely independent of that," DeMartini asserts. "I think what we're talking about is something that spans our entire IP portfolio as compared to any kind of announcement that might be specific to the franchise." Yet the online platform space, and what role EA hopes to play in it, is still something of a new frontier for everyone involved, he believes, especially as there are services like Steam who've already captured a significant audience. In what ways is there room for new networking and distribution services in the marketplace? "Whenever you're heading down a path and you're doing something similar to what others have done before you, I think what you do is you work towards parity," DeMartini suggests, asked about Steam in particular. "And then it really comes down to a matter of how effectively you execute against the features you implement," he continues. "What unique twist are you able to do in conjunction with the 30-35 great IP that you release every year that makes the service that you're offering have that special secret sauce that people are going to be attracted to?" Origin as of now is "only the initial stake in the ground with where we're going to go with the social feature set," he explains. He feels the company has the opportunity to start early with a number of unique features on the commerce side, offering exclusive features and deals for users of the platform. "And then on the social side, I think it's a story that's going to be told over time as we integrate more and more closely with our game team." The major third-party publishers are flocking to offer digital platforms around their brands or key IP. Given that many users will already have an Xbox Live or PlayStation Network account, Steam, Facebook, Twitter or any combination of such services and beyond, how many platform accounts will they want to hold? Will users simply gravitate toward the path of least resistance, or the platform that offers the most connectivity? "Is 'too much choice' too much choice, might be the shorter version of that question," says DeMartini. "I'd point to a couple of things: I'm on Facebook and I'm on LinkedIn, and they're both social sites, but they both have their specific purposes. If there were eight more of those, would I want to extend my profile out to eight more? Maybe not, but certainly the ones that have the deepest reach within my gaming sphere are the ones I would be willing to invest the time in." EA feels its product lineup, and what it sees as multiplatform leadership -- in addition to cross-platform integration and further social features -- "really allow people to enjoy their experience more together." In DeMartini's view, "It's like when TV was moving in the cable direction; you had HBO, Showtime, Starz, and you might say, 'how many cable services are too many?' But it was limited by the quality of the execution and how much value they were actually bringing to the table." "It's not like you can't continue to buy products from retail or other digital distributors," he adds. "We're providing people with choice, and trying to entice them towards it based on the fact it doesn't cost anything." And although the role each game publisher should be playing in the digital space may remain to be seen in terms of specifics -- "nobody has a crystal ball," notes DeMartini -- EA would rather be out in front than to watch and wait and risk being left behind, a decision that was disastrous for movie DVD retailers in the wake of the Netflix revolution. "When you're faced with a situation where you don't have a crystal ball, you have to look at other industries that are kind of like yours and see their path of evolution, and learn some lessons from their evolution," says DeMartini. "If you look at music and video, they've both evolved down a path that's ultimately led them more in the direction of subscription or direct-to-consumer. Rather than being victimized as some of those companies were by not reacting proactively enough, I think the initiatives that John [Riccitiello, EA CEO] has pushed over the last several years have ideally positioned us to take advantage of this new wave." The only wrong way to think of it is as a split decision between one mode or another, or between physical and retail, he suggests. "A lot of what I read in the gaming space talks about it like it's cowboys and Indians, or black or white, winner-loser. I've seen things posted about Direct2Drive versus Steam... it doesn't have to be just one," DeMartini says. "You don't have to either just enjoy one company, or just one video game; it's a big industry."

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