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Peter Moore on the Strategy of Sports

Sega and Microsoft veteran Peter Moore now heads up Electronic Arts' EA Sports division, and talks in-depth to Gamasutra about the expansion into more casual titles, the status of the label's perennials, and lots more.

Running Electronic Arts' key EA Sports division, home to Madden, FIFA, Tiger Woods and a host of other titles, has to be one of the higher pressure jobs in the industry -- not least as issues like motion control begin to come to the fore. After all, what's more mainstream than sports?

It's no surprise, then, that Sega and Microsoft veteran and high-profile game industry figure Peter Moore, who joined EA in 2007 as the president of the EA Sports label, has plenty to say about this -- and other major issues.

As the head of the division relied upon to deliver profits year-in and year-out, Moore understands both pressure and caution. Here you'll find a discussion of what sports are relevant, how those decisions are made and the necessity of localization in marketing and game content.

Most importantly, you'll also discover how the division hopes to expand its audience reach through user-created content and new offshoots, like EA Sports Active, the exercise game which has been EA Sports' most successful Wii launch yet.

I was thinking about how there are some more physical offerings now in the video game space; what do you think is appealing about sports electronically vs. physically for people -- versus actually going and doing it?

Peter Moore: I think they are very complementary. One of the things that we typically have always prided ourselves upon in the last decade and a half of EA Sports brand is creating sports fans. Creating interest early on, when in some instances people are really too young to go out and play the game.

You look at how many people will credit their love of football, both out there and playing it as well as the love of it as a fan, to Madden. To actually having picked up Madden in their younger days. When you took to gamers who have been around for a while and have been playing EA Sports games for a decade, you know that there is a very strong linkage between playing the virtual game and playing the real game. And I think that just one complements the other.


EA Sports' Madden NFL 10

What do you think about Project Natal, or the new PlayStation 3 motion controller? How are these going to affect EA Sports?

PM: I think they are going to impact us very positively. Anything that uses motion and movement -- obviously sports is incredibly a part of that. We have seen both Natal and the motion controller from Sony several months ago, so we're already, in both instances, looking at opportunities to bring our licensed product [and] our fitness product, to these new controller mechanisms. I can't think about anybody better positioned than us to do that.

If you think about everything everybody's always wanted to do with a sports video game, so much of the feedback you get is, "I just wish I could" -- as we're starting to do -- "punch and something reacts." So you think of Fight Night: Round 4, for example, if it were in a first-person mode it would be very very cool. So those are the things we're starting to look at. Huge opportunity for us.

I would assume that EA is going to take a closer look at which properties will fit that experience now -- because perhaps Madden wasn't as suited to the Wii in that implementation as it could have been, whereas Fight Night for Natal is probably quite a good fit.

PM: Yeah, something like Fight Night. You think of MMA coming up, of course, and what we'd be able to do there. You think of both tennis and golf, as two sports where you're swinging, in some respect, and what we could do there that would be fun and unique. Like I say, anything that requires motion -- just about all of our games do, obviously. I think there's an opportunity.

I was thinking about how fanatical sports fans can be and they all obviously have their own ideas what these famous players are actually like and what they can do. How do you reconcile statistics against perception and feeling of how a player should be?

PM: We try -- whether it's player ratings, the attributes we put in the players -- we try and get it as close to real life. Now, both the players and their fans have different views of what player ratings should be. Just to take Madden [with] speed, you look at some of the quarterback ratings.

But there's so much data that we use, real data, that goes into actually creating the player ratings. We usually release our ratings in around the draft time, as they drafted players this year we put the ratings in there. It's focal. Every year we got calls from a player that says "I'm faster than that!" or "I've got better hands than that!" It's just the nature of the beast.

We take the data and our teams figure out what the ratings are and we try and make it as objective as we can. We try to eliminate a lot of the subjectivity. Otherwise you'd see some of the favorite teams from the development team, looking a lot better than teams they don't support. So, we keep a close eye on that.

Yeah, it seems like it's got to be quite difficult to remove yourself from your personal interests.

PM: Well, you have to. Like I say, the teams have access to a lot of data that provides the input that they can [use to] do the ratings.

It's actually one of the only real instances in games where I can think of possibly developer preference potentially coming into conflict with anything.

PM: There's enough Philadelphia Eagles fans, and what have you, on the team that you just keep a very close eye on what they're doing. But no, I don't think we've ever seen any bias that is a personal bias in there. It's very objective, as I say.


Talking about players in the NFL and in these disputes and things -- how do you insulate the team from these kinds of issues? Obviously with the NFL players complaining they're not getting royalties or something like that, it's questionable whether that is the NFL not paying them out or whether that's your responsibility.

PM: As you know, what you're referring to is a lawsuit by the retired players of the NFLPA. Actually we were not involved in the suit. So, nothing really to comment there but you know, a settlement's been made and I assume we've moved on.

Does Madden, the game franchise, change as he retires?

PM: Probably gets better, because now John is home, in the Bay Area, where we're headquartered. And in fact our team is there with him right now. He has a production company in the East Bay and I'm spending more time with him because he's not traveling anymore.

You know, he would, this time of year, start thinking about cranking his bus up for the Hall of Fame game and we'd lose him then for the rest of the season because he doesn't fly. But that's not going to happen this year, so we get to spend more time with him.

Obviously our license rights for his name continue for quite a while, so it will always be Madden, I would hope. And actually it improves our interactions with him.

The kind of morbid thing I was realizing is that he's not going to be around forever and it's going to be a difficult thing for a series that makes it past his...

PM: His demise?

Yes, sorry to say so.

PM: I don't know. If you said to me that once I'm gone there's a video game that lives on with my name, there's certainly achievements with my name on already, so it might be a fitting legacy. I don't think anymore that people would think it would be weird if when ultimately he's no longer with us that the game carries on. Madden 40 or Madden 50 or whatever that would be. I don't think so.

With MMA, are you actually able to bring UFC fighters into it, since the license is elsewhere?

PM: We are looking obviously at every fighter that we can, that we feel is applicable from a quality level and then analyzing their image rights, and if they're available and we want them -- then we'll get them. If they're not then we'll move on to the next fighter.

Okay. Because I would really like Lyoto Machida to be in there.

PM: Machida? A great fighter. There's plenty of great fighters that have their image rights, and we'll start announcing fighters pretty soon.

When do you decide if a sport is viable to actually do a game on? Is it the numbers of fans required? Well, take volleyball: is that not really big enough to stand on its own?

PM: You do a couple of things. You look at the addressable market size; how many players, how many fans who have indicated through research that they would buy a game. And then you look at how well it governed.

Now volleyball is a great example. Do you really need to go get an AVP license to do a volleyball game? Do you need real volleyball players to do a really good [game]? When I was at Microsoft, DOA Xtreme Volleyball sold extremely well with made-up people.

So the question you do is, what is the addressable market, what is the opportunity cost, what sport do I have to pull my guys off to go do something else, and is it a profitable venture for the company. Because we're not in the business of doing the sport just because we like it, we're in the business of creating capital so we can invest the following year and do more sports and doing them better.


EA Sports' Cricket 07

I think that the cricket experiment happened before you were there.

PM: Yes. Last time we did cricket it was shipped in 2006 I think but the number was 07.

Can you foresee specific market oriented titles? Because that's obviously more for the UK and India that you might try that.

PM: Yeah, I mean cricket is always interesting because of the impact. It gives you a seasonal impact anywhere the Union Jack flew over the empire. India becomes even more strategically important for cricket, even than the UK. We do phenomenal business in the UK with a lot of stuff other than cricket. Cricket is the only thing that's really going to sell in India, so we constantly looking at that.

India is still a ways away from having a really solid infrastructure. There's no real huge console market. It's a difficult market. Maybe there's a mobile phone application that you start with, but yeah, we're constantly looking at cricket and figuring out what to do there.


I've been wondering just what is the boundary of the definition of "sport" for EA Sports. Because I mean you can extend it to personal fitness, certainly.

PM: As we've already done.

Right. How far can you go?

PM: You always look at how elastic your brand is. The problem is you're going to stretch it and if you stop pulling it at the edge it's going to break, right? You're going to do something that's going to damage your brand.

We really look to fitness -- which was a major departure for us in what we'd ever done in the past decade and a half -- but felt the EA Sports brand played very well there. And we'll continue to look at other places where we think we can add value but not to the extent where we're going to jeopardize the value of our brand. So, it's what you call "elasticity". How far it will go before you have to let go and get it back again.

Like the sort of fantasy-footballesque modes coming up in new Madden and Football Managers and these sorts of things. Those wind up almost being a sports RPG.

PM: That's exactly what they are. Because your role is general manager and it's a little bit of a departure from twitch-based games where you're simply playing as the individual players of the team. More popular, as you know, in Europe than over here. Things like Champ Manager and what have you.

We do have a Football Manager game in Europe that sells well, that's managed out of Germany. And it just plays into the types of games those folks want over there. Americans, for whatever reason, [are] less interested in the management and want to play.

Though they do like fantasy football specifically.

PM: Sure. Fantasy football's relatively light. I mean you pick your team, you do some trading. There's a real commitment to a full management game.

But having said that, online franchise mode is exactly that. For Madden you've got to go get your team, take care of your team, do all of the management of that. And the reaction to our announcement has been phenomenal.

The reason I was talking about cricket or maybe something like rugby, is it seems like, in terms of EA wanting to make new sports fans, there are some sports out there that are just bizarrely interesting. Like sepak takraw down in Southeast Asia. It's basically volleyball but you can only kick. And they've a rattan ball and everyone's doing bicycle kicks to spike and stuff. It's just nuts and it looks amazing. Is there a point when some kind of sports oddities make sense for you?

PM: You look at, I call them compendium game, where you throw six or eight games in there, different sports that maybe don't quite justify their own stand-alone... It's like concert festivals, right? There's the big stadium bands that can carry it on their own and then there's the "we've got to get eight bands together for people to show up". I guess you could say things like Carnival Games worked last year, which are even wider than that.

But still, to get it on an EA Sports level of quality there's still a multimillion dollar cost of even doing [it]. You know, I've been asked this question a couple of times. "Do you even think of packaging together six or so second tier sports?" Lacrosse, field hockey. Things like that that are popular sports regionally that couldn't justify the development cost, the marketing cost of a stand-alone game -- but if you package them all in, and you got some license around them, is there a stick-based compendium of games?

Yeah, I mean we're always looking at that, but it's got to make fiscal sense. The thing you always have to remember, Brandon, is I got to pull a team away from doing something to do that. It's not easy. It's an opportunity cost. "Okay, we're not going to do NHL to the level we need it to because we're going to do Lacrosse." Probably not too smart.

How much regional specialization actually makes sense? I'm thinking of -- obviously for different markets you have a different guy on the cover. But other than that, is there more that you can or want to do for specific markets?

PM: Not within the code. I mean we do obviously localize the games. And we certainly localize our marketing, particularly for -- the more passionate the game the more localized you have to be marketing. FIFA has 16 different cover combinations.

You know, you're not going to sell very well if you put a French guy on the cover in the UK. You're not going to sell well in Holland if you put a German guy on the cover. So you've got to figure out for what local markets, who are our best players here.

We started to do the same in NCAA Football now where different players, trying to regionalize, even in the US. Here's a ACC, here's a player from the SEC, and allowing retailers to have different cover options. So, yeah, -- but at some point there is a law of diminishing returns with that stuff. It costs you more money than the upswing in sales. So you just have to be careful how you do that.

I heard a talk at GDC Europe from, I guess he was the head of localization for all of EA's operations in Europe, and he was talking about the hundreds of hours of voice that you have to redo, and finding specific commentators for the proper region.

PM: FIFA is a great example. The number of different commentators we have to get in to localize the game into a myriad of different languages, all of whom have to lay down voice tracks and then have that localized. Our localization efforts out of Madrid, where our operation center is, is monstrous.


Talking about building from scratch. Some people in the development community criticize Madden for not necessarily evolving and then the team comes back and says, "No, we build it up from scratch each time." To me though, that seems crazy.

PM: To be clear, I have never heard somebody say we build from scratch, because that's not true. That would be crazy. You know, "throw away all the code!" No. There's a core engine, there is a lot of digital art.

We are going to use going to use Candlestick Park from last year. Unless there's fundamental structural changes, of course we reuse art. You're constantly tweaking your character models but, yeah I'm sure the team has never said we build from scratch.

It's probably a question of semantics, then.

PM: Yeah, I mean there's a lot of new features go in that cost millions of dollars. What we're doing with Pro-Tak this year is new physics, which is a core part of the engine. But I'm sure they've never said that. We do not. I mean it would be, to your point, it would be crazy just to throw it all away and start all over again.

I find very interesting the college experiment that you were doing, releasing Team Builder beforehand. Do you foresee -- I mean obviously you must -- a value add, that people are going to start building their team beforehand and they're actually going to be able communicate this into their game?

PM: Exactly. It's sucking you into the game before a game is done. It's having you create assets that you're going to load into the game when it's ready, and obviously when you think about you're going to spend time building your team, from our point of view, from a sheer business point of view, you're more likely to buy the game, right?

You've gone online, you've invested, you've built your team, you've customized it, you've created your stadium, you've dropped your logo on the 50-yard line, you're ready to go. I think there's a better chance of you buying the game then to import your team because there's nothing you can do online except build the team. I mean, the key is, you go there and you actually play it once you get the game.

So yeah, it's a very interesting "experiment", if you will. It's the ultimate demo. It also gives you a little piece of the game in advance but again, without buying the game, it's worthless.


EA Sports' NCAA Football 10

It seems like with people talking about media 2.0 or whatever, that's definitely an instance of that happening. Do you have to be signed up for XNA or something like that to actually get it in?

PM: No, you'll need what we call a Nucleus ID, which is an EA ID, and you sign in to the site and then you build in ... I haven't done the import yet, my assumption is you do it through your GamerTag. And there'll be a button in the game.

I think it's also interesting in that, to me it shows that with the NFL, people are invested in these teams and these players for years and years -- but with college you're probably more invested in the school you went to, and maybe your rivalry but don't necessarily know the names of the people as much because they change so quickly. It seems like that's a much more natural place for a team creator.

PM: Well, it is. And there's like six times the number of teams that play collegiate football than there are in the NFL, if not 10 times. One of the things that we've always had challenges is I used to get letters like, "I go to Franklin & Marshall and it's not in NCAA Football, why not?" Well, here's your opportunity to take your small college and have them go play Michigan. Or have them go play Ohio State or USC. And our consumers have been clamoring for more teams.

The team says, look we can only put so many teams in this thing but let's give them an editing tool to build their own team. And you know, obviously you can import assets in there to create your team.

But you know, I lived in New England long enough to know all those New England small colleges in there that would have loved to -- Colby, Bowdoin -- no way we could get to them in NCAA, but now you can create them pretty easily. You went to Bowdoin? You can now play USC.

It would be interesting if these could be shared and put into their own leagues.

PM: Well you certainly can do that. If I remember right, you can play your team against other people in an online dynasty mode. So you and I can actually play against each other's team. It gets a little messier -- you just can't go out and play any other team because the shared asset issue is a little messier, but you can certainly build a franchise and the three of us could go put our teams to play against each other within a little dynasty.


Considering that the exercise franchise has been the best -- well, I call it a franchise even though it's only one so far, but --

PM: Platform, we like to call it!

Platform, there we go -- has been the most successful Wii launch for EA. How far do you foresee that going?

PM: Obviously we're going to continue to drive it until the consumer gets tired of exercising, ultimately. It's something we look at, that Wii Fit has started and we intend to take to the next level and continue to drive it. We announced the expansion pack. And you know darn well that come 2010 we'll be looking in how we continue to get more variety, more challenges, different looks about how you can get fitter, and we're going to keep driving this until the consumer gets bored, I guess.

It seems like that's kind of a different strategy than EA Sports may take in general because usually it's, "Okay, we have a new version each year." Whereas with exercise, obviously, Wii Fit, it's valuable because it's Wii Fit and you just buy Wii Fit and that's it. So this may need to have a longer shelf life.

PM: Yeah, think of it more like Rock Band, updating software. You've got stuff, you've got a core pack. Once you've got your resistance strap and your leg strap and your resistance band, then what innovative new exercises can I provide you?

Are there new peripherals that might be cool, that we could do? All that stuff. The team's thinking all of that through. We're excited right now that we've got a three-year plan that will take us through this, so we're good to go.

And Natal seems like one of the possibly best fits for that sort of experience.

PM: Yeah, I think when you think of Natal...

Although it doesn't have the feedback you get from having a device.

PM: The challenge with gesture control is, yeah, "Do you need something?" That's always the thing, we've looked at these things for many years; do you actually need something to counter-balance your movement -- as we all do, typically in a golf game? You need a club or a racket or a baseball bat. Do you need that?

And we're constantly evaluating that and I think what you've got to do, for Natal in particular, is come up with unique experiences that feel natural without something being held or something on your body. And that's going to be the key for making successful software for that.

We have easy ways of getting demographic reports and playtesting and things like that for traditional sports games, because really understand that. But for exercise without weights and machines there isn't as much of that experience inherent in most people's minds. Has that been at all challenging? Wii Fit kind of opened the door a bit but...

PM: No, I think we saw a huge opportunity. We built a very innovative program around having the remote control attached to your body, the nunchuk in the pouch. We did a lot of user testing, out of Vancouver. Made sure we had people who wanted to exercise come in. Tweaked and tweaked and tweaked. Got the strap right, got the personalization levels right, built the journal.

And then we're seeing tremendous usability reports from -- I just go to Amazon.com and I click on EA Sports Active and then it's a very powerful feedback tool in there, if you've ever used Amazon. I'll just sit there -- I haven't been on this morning but it was still cranking out at 9.4 out of 10, 200-300 reviews deep and that's a pretty darn good score. That's a 94% rated, from a user point of view.

But I love reading what they like and what they don't like. We're learning a lot from that. It's not the normal place we go to find out about our game, we're not going to Kotaku or Operation Sports on this one. We're going to Amazon.

It's a very different space in many ways, the Wii because you can't rely on consumer-oriented game publications, you've got to go to Ladies' Home Journal, or something like that.

PM: The thing is with the Wii, it seems to be, for the gaming sites, it's the last platform they review. It takes time to get an actual review score. I would pretty much guarantee that just about every Wii game ships without a Metacritic rating because they haven't got around to it or they're not interested in reviewing it.

And there's some multi million unit Wii games selling that are low 70s in review, right? So what truly is the value of a review on a Wii game? Now yes, you still want to get the best possible review score you can get but I think it's less critical to the success of a game on the Wii than it maybe is on Xbox 360 or PS3.

And maybe simply the review doesn't come from the traditional source. You know on the Apple App Store, reader reviews and the number of stars is probably more important.

PM: I absolutely guarantee you, the thing we're watching most closely now is things like Amazon. I'll go look at women's magazines that have powerful websites. And we look at what we call "mommy bloggers", that's where those people go for their information. They are not going to Metacritic. They don't know Metacritic exists.

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