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Interview: Frank Gibeau on EA's Expanding Focus In The PC Space

EA's Frank Gibeau talks to Gamasutra about the company's position in the casual Facebook gaming market, the renewed focus on PC releases and the increasing dabblings in the freemium business model.
Some publishers are focusing primarily on the online market these days. Others see mobile as the wave of the future. Plenty are chasing the social network audience. And some are sticking doggedly with the traditional game space. At Electronic Arts, they're covering their bets. Over the past several years, the company has stuck its thumb into a number of new pies with a goal of ensuring that it's prepared for whatever twists the industry takes in the years to come. Frank Gibeau, president of the EA Games label, says he thinks it's a strategy that will ultimately result in EA once again becoming the industry's top publisher. “I really feel good about where we are at EA these days,” says Gibeau. “There’s a lot of transition going on in this industry and we’re really well positioned for that. … We feel like we’re on the offensive. We’re moving from a fire-and-forget packaged goods model to an online services model.” In January, EA (via its Playfish division) was the second biggest developer of Facebook games, with nearly 6.6 million daily average users. That was far distant from Zynga's commanding 57 million DAU lead, but puts it well ahead of companies like Disney (which is essentially betting the farm on social games moving forward). The company also generated income from two of the iPhone's top grossing apps in 2010 - Angry Birds and Tetris. (Retail revenues, though, have declined.) That's expanding the customer base – but Gibeau says the company is also finding that many players are buying IP multiple times through multiple platforms. “What we’re finding is our customers are consuming our IPs across multiple devices,” he says. “What we’ve been orienting our company towards is creating IP universes that can exist across those platforms.” Part of the plan to continue the turnaround is a renewed focus on the PC. Facebook games certainly are a part of this, but the looming release of Star Wars: The Old Republic is an even bigger leap of faith. "The user base is gigantic," he says. "PC retail may be a big problem, but PC downloads are awesome. … The margins are much better and we don’t have any rules in terms of first party approvals. From our perspective, it's an extremely healthy platform. … It's totally conceivable it will become our biggest platform." Gibeau says EA is also increasingly dabbling in the freemium business model on the PC, given how successful it has been in China. "If you look at the way people play in Asia, PC is the model," he says. "I think that free to play model is coming to the west in a big way." While EA is looking to expand its focus, it's also looking to lure back gun-shy investors, who have punished the stock in recent years for under performing titles and missed results. Investors might have gotten tired of the pace of the company's turnaround, but Gibeau says it was critical to take the time to get things right – and he suspects the worst is over on Wall Street. “We will get the stock price back,” he says. “Our earnings are up. We’re on our way back. … If we hadn’t made the changes we did, if we had just kept iterating game after game, we would be irrelevant and in far worse shape than we are now.” Don't count EA out of the console space, of course. The company plans an aggressive slate of titles, says Gibeau, for both this generation and the next, something the company is starting to think about at this point. “What’s interesting is the displays are maxed out already,” he notes. “Once you get to 1080p, it’s not about increasing resolution. Obviously, more computing horsepower is nice, but to be honest, the Xbox 360 and PS3 still have a lot of horsepower that hasn’t been tapped. I really think the next innovation is in the input device, but even more importantly, what will the online experience be like?”

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