Bing Gordon is at the helm of the most powerful third party game developer and publisher in the world, with hands firmly at 10 and 2. As the chief creative officer and an executive VP at Electronic Arts, the man has a lot on his plate, but his vision for the company and its direction is amazingly straightforward.
EA is really trying to bring its original IP to bear, with Army of Two, the new Spielberg project, Boom Boom Rocket, and others. This is a pivotal time for the game industry, and so too for gaming’s 500 pound gorilla.
In this expansive interview, Gordon spoke about the huge investment that is Spore, which will take years to recoup (but will be worth it, he promises!), the increasing financial and creative expense of licenses, why EA didn’t support the Dreamcast, the result of the Renderware middleware purchase, and his three level 60+ priests in World of Warcraft.
What is coming of EA's push for original IP?
William "Bing" Gordon: There's a lot going on. When you walk around the company now, there's at least one new thing going on at every location. In some cases, there are multiple things. It's kind of exciting. It feels like a pretty rich vein of stuff. It's invigorating, and we like it.
Is it returning the kind of results that you were hoping for?
WG: It's too early to tell. It's always more predictable to make money off of milking a franchise than making a new one. We need to make new ones a little faster than we lose old ones, so the big push for us is to make new franchises that we wholly own more possible. You get something like The Sims once a decade.
I hope Spore is as big as The Sims, and hope Army of Two is as big as Medal of Honor. I'm also excited about getting Command & Conquer back. Even the new Medal of Honor is pretty exciting. I'm excited about The Simpsons, Boom Boom Rocket, and some of the new stuff we're doing on Pogo.
The highly anticipated dual role action game Army of Two
How important do you see Spore being to EA's future?
WG: If it's as big as The Sims, [it will be very important]. The Sims gave us a three-year financial lift and created a new division for us. The Sims is as important for us as Madden or FIFA, so one of those is always good.
It's the hardest thing that anyone at EA has ever tried, by a lot. Even for somebody like Will Wright, there's so many moving parts that it's hard for him to fully imagine the end result. For two decades, we've made games where we could mostly imagine the end result before we started, but in Spore, we ended up imagining the possibility space and then designing within it for a long time.
With Spore, we're trying to learn how to take socialization and customization in games to the next level, where customization starts having animation, not just meshes and textures. We're trying to cover new content in various kinds of evolution. We're trying to figure out new ways to make mini-products in the game. When we did The Sims for the first time, we strictly tried to make it a massive single-player [experience]. Customizing everything was new. There's the photo album feature that turned out to be wildly important. That got invented at beta.
Spore has more innovations than The Sims did. So, Spore is important because it might create a new division for EA, but for sure what it's doing is getting our feet wet in trying to do a Web 2.0 game.
When you say "mini-products", what do you mean?
WG: Before The Sims, the law of expansion packs was that if you had a big hit, you'd make one expansion pack, sell it to 20-30 percent of the customer base, and then you were done. When we did the first expansion pack, even Will said, "Why bother? It's a stupid idea. It'll never work." The first one, Livin' Large, was not that great. We learned by the second and third one that not only did we need new objects, but we needed to do new NPCs, and new C++ code for new gameplay. The expansion packs became something that nobody imagined when we first started.
That was really risky at the time, and we're trying to do even more with Spore. We're trying to give users the ability to make what heretofore would be considered an expansion pack.
Is it going to take a lot for Spore to become profitable, given the million-year development time?
WG: Yeah, it needs to sell in the millions and last a few years to pay back the investment. But you know, we were probably going to spend the money on something. It might as well be on Spore!
Is licensed IP getting too expensive to be worthwhile?
WG: It's expensive in two ways. We do a lot with sports. A long time ago, the only money stream for sports teams was attendance. Then came TV. That changed sports. Athletes kept getting more and more expensive, so they had to invent new revenue sources. They did merchandising, and in-arena advertising. Nike invented a whole new revenue stream for athletes.
I think what happened with sports is that as the cost base of entertainment gets more expensive, they find people to pass it along to. In video games, the licensor has someone to pass it off to. I think that's temporary. Ten years from now, we're going to see more IP that's co-developed on multiple formats, including interactive. But right now, the interactive and non-interactive people don't even speak the same language to co-develop.
So one part is financial, but the other part is creative. One of the things that you find with development people is that after awhile, they get bummed out by having to live within the constraints of the licensor. The licensor says things like, "You can't shoot my hero in the back," or "You have to have water in half the levels," or "You can't put any licenses in your game that I don't have a personal deal with." It's like, ugh!
It's very difficult to find licenses where the licensor wants to be a co-developer. With Harry Potter, for instance, J.K. Rowling fell in love with the early work and created new material just for the games. Some of the sports coaches we work with give us new insights into what's going on in the league every year, so that they can keep their inspiration new to the team. Some of the licensors not only get more expensive, but they reduce inspiration. It becomes harder and harder to get teams to want to work on them. So there's two costs, and both get worse over time.
EA's adaptation of the book and feature film Harry Potter and the order of the Phoenix
Is co-development what's happening with the Spielberg project?
WG: Yeah. The guys who did The Matrix also tried to co-develop a game with us. They were thinking about an interactive and a non-interactive version going down parallel paths. The movie business learned this a long time ago. With Saturday Night Fever, they started developing the soundtrack and the movie in parallel, and Star Wars is famous for trying to develop toys and the movie in parallel. It happened in music, it happened with toys, and to some degree it happened with theme parks, but it hasn't really happened with the interactive element yet.
The reason it hasn't happened yet is because the people who make movies, by and large, don't play games. That will start to change as there's more successful movie makers who have grown up on Nintendo. They had to be in junior high school in 1987, or younger. When those people start making successful movies, we're going to see more and more convergence.
I assume that's not the case with Spielberg himself.
WG: Actually, Spielberg, Lucas, and Zemeckis were early adopters of digital in movies, so they're kind of adult onset digital media people.
So would you point to that as the poster child of co-development?
WG: I think the poster child of co-development is going to be something that defines a new product category. One of the things we've learned over the years is that when new consumer behavior happens or new hardware happens, it's really useful to try and invent killer apps.
We thought interactive movies might be a killer app. We thought The Sims might be a killer app. Those are really hard to predict. You can predict when it might be possible to make something that looks like it, but it's hard to tell what's going to be killer. I never would've predicted that Madden would be a killer app on the Sega Genesis in Europe, for example.
One of the things I admire about Nintendo is that Miyamoto tries for his products to have new social purpose. They talk about blue ocean theory, about making stuff where nobody else goes. That was the good thing about The Sims. Other hall-of-fame designers said, "You're trying to do a people game, Will? People games never work." We had in the company the guy who was a producer on Little Computer People from Activision in the '80s, and he was wildly disappointed in it, and he was pretty sure that The Sims would never work. So doing stuff that a lot of people think is a bad idea can be good.
It seems like EA is sort of in a position to take big risks, but then again the bigger company you are, the harder it is to take a big risk. Although Spore is obviously a big risk.
WG: I think the limitation on taking big risks is not on the company side. To some degree, it's the financial stability. EA's biggest risk in its history was building games for the Sega Genesis when we didn't have a license. We reverse engineered it, but at the time we convinced ourselves that if we didn't do that, we were going to be out of business. When you're facing death, you can take risks.
Do you have any friends who never fail at anything? I'd bet they'd rather have a lot of small successes than some failures and a big success. That success personality tends to be attracted to ongoing, successful organizations. Somebody for whom a small failure is disastrous tends not to go for big successes. It's more of a question of when you get into an organization that can afford to take risks but is dominated by success personalities, you tend not to see innovation.
What would you say is the case with EA?
WG: I think EA has been taking a lot of risks. EA is under-credited for its innovation and risk-taking. Once upon a time, with Madden, we got told by retailers, "You can't sequel a sports game." With Ultima Online, we got told by retailers, "You can't charge a subscription for a world game. If you charge a subscription, we won't carry it." Then we did Majestic, and even on Pogo, we got told that you can't charge a subscription for casual.
Retailers are getting somewhat less important over the years, though.
WG: Well, if not retailers, think about it as business people. [It happened] even when talking to customers about what they want. All the normal business practices of trying to predict missed the big surprises.
You keep mentioning the Sega Genesis, and I felt it was a shame that EA ended up not supporting the Dreamcast.
WG: We lost confidence in Sega. With the Dreamcast, we told them two things: you should be an in-the-box online system, and you should use a 3D chip that we understand. They said, "We can't afford to be online, and we'll get back to you on the 3D chip." They ended up using an unusual, non-industry standard, not well-supported chip. It was something that nobody in EA had ever touched.
They knew we had no experience with it and no belief in it. Then with online, they said "no," then they said "maybe," then they said "no." They wobbled all over the place, and we lost confidence in them. At the same time, we knew that the PS2 was coming. I loved the Genesis. The Genesis was EA's first video game system that we supported, and you always remember your first.
What made EA move away from the rockstar image that was fostered in the early days?
WG: Games in the early days were made by one to three people. Everybody who worked on our first eight games was in the picture. Three or four years later, we had the Genesis games developed by twenty people, and we kind of lost interest in promoting just a single person.
So it was a matter of size?
WG: At the time, we hated giving it up, but the teams kind of rebelled against it. We didn't really want one outsized ego to deal with. The users also got to the point where they were less interested in who one creative person was, and wanted to know more about the game.
It seems now that there are sort of spokespersons for games. People are getting interested in names again, like "This is Will Wright's game."
WG: In the business press, what you see is that CEOs become spokesmodels for their companies. It's really convenient to try and talk about a 5,000-person company as if it's one person. Then you get egos and practices that lead to bad press about CEO pay and ethics lately. In sports, there's some teams that seem like "Shaquille O'Neal's team," where it's all about one player. In hockey, a well-organized team can beat a team with a couple of superstars again and again. We just thought that we want to promote the work, rather than a star, because there's too many negative things about stars.
But the press likes stars. It's easier to talk about. One of the things that happens in traditional media is that they're all marketed on stars. It's actually a weakness of games. If you talk about the star, the star doesn't scale to the user experience of the game as much as they do to performance media. If you like Mick Jagger, even if he has a hoarse voice one night, you still see him dance and gyrate and [you're satisfied with the experience]. But if you've got Sid Meier making a buggy game, you're like, "Screw this!"
What made you guys take up the Unreal engine? What happened with Renderware?
WG: Renderware didn't get the next-gen parts that we needed. We actually underestimated Epic early on. They told us, "We're going to do this, this, and this," and we thought, "Eh, it's going to be kind of hard." We also overestimated our team, then we looked up three months, six months, and nine months later and said, "Whoops, we underestimated Epic. Again. And overestimated our own team." We had a couple of teams that were waiting on Renderware. We probably stuck with it too long.
So are you still using that stuff, or are those guys just mostly a dev house now?
WG: Mostly a dev house.
A long time ago, it was mentioned that EA could possibly buy Ubisoft. Is that still something that is possible?
WG: I think everybody is for sale. I think in general, successful intellectual properties in all media are undervalued, especially in our media. There's been a lot of acquisitions, but the thing about acquisitions is that the only time it works is if you've got an intellectual property that can succeed without the people, or if the people have a ten-year career path that they're interested in at EA.
We acquired Distinctive Software, and the principals there ended up running EA Studio for a decade. If you acquire someone who really wants to stop working or take the money and run, it doesn't work out. On the other hand, when we acquired Maxis, they never mentioned The Sims. They had decided that it was never going to come to market, and they shut it down. We thought that at the time that Sim City was interesting enough that we could put a new development team on it and make it work. But you can never prove that in games.
So with Ubisoft it would probably be a semi-hostile takeover, so it probably wouldn't be a good idea?
WG: If you do an acquisition, you have to think about whether the intellectual property can succeed without the people, or if the important people want to get promoted in a big organization.
How's it going in Asia? It seems like a really tough market for a Western company.
WG: We did a FIFA game that was doing really well. I'm excited about that. We're having some minor new successes, and our insourcing in Shanghai is better than any outsourcing competitor. We've got some successes, which is good, because in the previous ten or fifteen years of trying to do Electronic Arts in Japan, we only had two products that had a glimmer of success. One was Ultima Online, and the other was the first World Cup game. We never did any good in Japan. We just did this partial acquisition of one company in Korea called Neowiz. We announced that we were going to publish online versions of some of our Western games over there.
The dev studio in Japan just closed down. You're still just doing localization, right?
WG: We've got a little bit going, but we've failed a few times. I've been at EA long enough that it's really exciting when some of our skills and properties and processes can translate over in a market that we have a low share in. I remember when it seemed unlike we'd ever get into the video game business. Sometimes we buy our way in, and sometimes we invest our way in. So we'll see [how it goes] in Asia, but our market share there is low and the market is booming.
You mentioned recently that your favorite game is World of Warcraft. Why is that?
WG: There's a couple of reasons. For one, it's the best delivery of fantasy. The second is that I'm in a guild with my favorite people from work and I see them every night. It's the same way that my daughters talk to their worldwide friends on Facebook every night.
What got me into the business in the first place was that I once had a teacher ask, "If you could do anything and money was not an object, what would you do?" I said, "I'd like to try being an actor off-Broadway." I like that experience of being a protagonist of a really good story, but having a computer control the rest, because working with the other actors in stage is a total pain.
The next thing is that I did stand-up poetry readings in college. One was about sitting in a room in front of a piece of glass, and I could look into the glass and travel anywhere, including through time. To me, that's what online gaming does. It's a protagonist in a cool story in a virtual world delivered through a piece of glass. I have three characters that are 60+ priests, because I like buffing and healing people. I've got others, but I stick with the priests. I tell parents that being an officer of a successful guild is the best possible new media management experience that you can have.