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Interview: EAi's Cottle Talks Firemint Buy, Developing For 'Fragmented' Mobile Space

EAi executive vice president and GM Barry Cottle talks to Gamasutra about the group's brand-new Firemint buy, and the trend the group sees in the social and mobile space that favors small creative shops.
Electronic Arts recently bought up Melbourne-based Flight Control and Real Racing developer Firemint, and the studio will become part of the company's EA Interactive business. The studio falls under the stewardship of EAi executive VP and GM Barry Cottle, who tells Gamasutra that the group sees a social and mobile acquisition trend that favors small creative shoppes. When it comes to EAi's goals, the division says its leadership goals in the rapidly-burgeoning space have been built on three tentpoles it sees as essential to success there: high quality, speed of development and scale -- addressing multiple platforms in a sector that's more nuanced and fragmented than it often appears. Cottle says that the company was drawn to Firemint after its own success in the original IP department, looking at the extensibility of EA brands like Dead Space, NBA Jam and The Sims. "One of the things we do really well is taking our existing brands and building great gameplay that resonates on a handset," asserts Cottle. "Whether it's phone, Kindle or iPad we do a really good job of translating our franchises." "We see in this iOS space -- in addition to our core franchises that we want to continue to bring to market... there's a lot of great independent developers bringing cool games that were basically built with mobile in mind, taking advantage of what mobile brings to the table," Cottle adds. Strong new properties inherently built for the mobile platform can help break through the massive population of apps that forms a high barrier to entry for many companies, he says. Titles like Angry Birds, Cut The Rope and Firemint's games exemplify this in Cottle's view -- and now EA owns the former two games' publisher, Chillingo, in addition to Firemint. "We bought Chillingo last quarter to basically build a relationship with hundreds of independent third-party developers out there, and we're able to work with these folks and publish really cool original IP into the marketplace through Chillingo," says Cottle. "But there are shops out there we see where the motivations align and there's a great cultural fit, and Firemint was one of those for us," he adds. "It brings that creative talent -- and particularly, that kind of mobile-centric talent, so we can begin to develop our brands in the marketplace." This tactic is an overall industry trend in Cottle's view. "The net is that this marketplace is full of great talented third-parties, and I think... a strong publisher relationship is getting more and more important as this world starts to fragment and there's a need to have a larger scale backend." EAi will collaborate with work-for-hire studios, but it'll also look at acquisitions of smaller creative teams like Firemint, says Cottle, when the company likes both the talent and its IP. In return, he says EA has the infrastructure to scale across multiple platforms and to join new ones, like the Sony Xperia, quickly. With the Firemint acquisition, EAi gets that studio's 60-person team, its IP and its promising projects in development. The team "really knows and understand the space, and to marry that to a publishing and distribution machine -- we think the combination of those two things is pretty powerful," says Cottle. The deal provides the opportunity to ask an increasingly-important question: In a crowded app market where consumers often react to known brands, how powerful do those continue to be, and how can a new IP break through? "Clearly brands help, but it's gameplay itself... clearly brands will always break through the chaos and will have an advantage," says Cottle. "But there are games that resonate in the marketplace, and there's that whole notion that in addition to the app store 'shelf space', you have... people are beginning relationships directly with consumers. Your friends, your social graph, is also becoming a shelf space," he suggests. And with several editions of iOS -- a "stack", where Android is "even more fragmented" in his view -- Cottle sees an advantage in covering as many handsets as possible when thinking of top 10 apps. "It's how many units you're downloading overall, how many dollars -- scale does help you have a competitive edge. You build your brands and your relationship with consumers, you create your own network of games, and distribution management becomes an advantage." "Clearly, great quality is always at the top of the pyramid... if you build a really viral game that people love, it's going to break through. We act as kind of the front end, and we're starting to show that we recognize you as the user across all these different platforms." In the initial time frame, expect to see Firemint IP being built out across other platforms, says Cottle. And the Firemint team will also bring new IP into the mobile space: "One of our existing IP may resonate with [Firemint], but our full intention was that the premise under which we did this acquisition was really about marrying their creative studio talent with our publishing machine -- and so that means them continuing to create really cool IP while we're blowing it out across all the different platforms."

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