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In-Depth: EA's Gibeau On Reinvigorating EA Games

Spore has been "a big bet," says EA's Frank Gibeau, and in an in-depth Gamasutra interview, the EA Games boss discusses the considerable expectations for the title, as well as refocusing on quality in his publishing label.

September 5, 2008

22 Min Read

Author: by Christian Nutt, Staff

Since its unveiling during Game Developers Conference 2005, Will Wright's evolution sim Spore has become a huge investment for EA, one which the company hopes might eventually expand into an entire division of the company, as has Wright's mega-hit franchise The Sims. Until that happens, however, Spore falls under the EA Games umbrella managed by label president Frank Gibeau. Beyond that game, Gibeau is working to encourage a label-wide focus on quality, one which he admits had "slipped" in the years prior to CEO John Riccitiello's wide-reaching reorganization of the company. Gamasutra sat down with Gibeau to discuss the high expectations for Spore, what exactly success means in the context of that game, plans for the franchise, and why it's important to EA's long-term bottom line that studios be allowed to prioritize quality over rigid development deadlines. [Parts of this interview featuring Spore, game quality and Electronic Arts Los Angeles have previously appeared on Gamasutra.] Spore And Electronic Arts What does Spore mean to EA? Frank Gibeau: Spore is a huge priority for EA and specifically for our EA Games label. This has been a big bet for the company over the last several years. It's a Will Wright project that carries a level of expectations for quality and, frankly, success. And we're finally on the verge of bringing it to market after a few E3s and a few years of working on it, and we couldn't be more proud of the product and we're very excited about it. We believe it has the potential to become a platform on which we can build a very large and enduring business. The team that is building Spore has been the team who put out The Sims and The Sims 2, so they bring a lot of experience and knowledge from the business side about how that grew, but even more importantly, we have a really powerful creative idea in Spore with the combination of the editors and the gameplay and the quality of content that frankly we think travels pretty well. It's a global idea -- an idea that appeals to eight-year-olds all the way up to 80. It appeals across gender lines -- probably not as much as the female-skewing of The Sims, but there's a lot of women who find Spore appealing and have been playing the Creature Creator. On [September] 7th, we'll be launching it on the PC, Mac, DS, and also iPhones and mobile phones. We haven't even scratched the surface of other platforms out there like consoles and the Wii and some others. Clearly we're thinking about those, and we believe the Spore concept and IP can move a lot across a lot of platforms over a long period of time. The Meaning Of Success I know this has come up before, but can you define what success means, in the context of Spore? Obviously, we the public probably won't know how much in the way of resources went into it, but success is definitely a big question in terms of that game. FG: I think that we will consider Spore successful based on the critical reception that it receives, based on the commercial reception, and how long and enduring the business will be. We believe that we've got a very high quality game that we're anticipating that we're going to meet success on a critical level. On a commercial level, the indicators are pretty positive with the reception to the Creature Creator and the buzz that's out there. Obviously, you want to score with unit sales and revenue profit, and those will start to roll in and we'll be able to gauge whether we hit our goals or not. And frankly, time will tell whether or not Spore as a concept is as broadly appealing a concept as controlling people in The Sims, and whether Spore's unique blend of editors and pollinated content gameplay can expand and move across more platforms. I think when we think about Spore, we believe that it has the potential to be another label inside of our company, much like The Sims is. That would be something that we would ultimately aspire to. But we're a very focused bunch, just in making sure that we have a great release on September 7th and that our SKU plan shortly thereafter starts to roll out with a lot of content and new gameplay modes for our customers. Can you talk at all about the kind of investment you've made thus far? FG: I can't give you hard numbers. I can say that it's been a significant investment for the company. It's been in development for a number of years, and you've probably seen it at a number of E3s. It's a significant investment for the company, but I can't really give you hard numbers. This is pure theory, but what would the roadmap be like if it turns out that Spore doesn't have the reception that you're hoping for? FG: I think we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. (laughs) I'm not sure speculating on a hypothetical of "What if it doesn't work?" is something I want to do right now. Again, we're really focused on nailing the 7th and making it a hit. If something isn't hitting expectations, we'll make adjustments. We always do. Again, we believe that we're on track and we believe that we have something that's a pretty powerful idea. It wouldn't be getting the buzz and the anticipation if its core didn't have a compelling quality and idea. The Creature Creator's reception has been pretty positive. We released one segment of the game back in June and we've got millions of uploads on our creatures and millions of downloads, and a very positive customer reception to it. How has the commercial success of the Creature Creator been? A lot of people are using it, but it's unclear how much of that translates into commercial success. What do you think about how it's performed so far? FG: I think you saw it in the PC charts -- I think it was number one in the month that it was released. It's a relatively low price point, so it moved quite a bit of volume to get to that chart position, and the same was true in Europe. Also, what's not tracked by that chart are digital downloads that our store and other third parties experienced, so between the digital and the retail sales of the Creature Creator complete [version] were very positive. But again, we looked at that as an experiment, which was to put out a free version so that the folks who just want to try and see it for free can do that and have a great time, and for the people who were investing more time, we had the blocks set up for a purchase. We sweated that, and we wanted to really make sure that the customer saw value for that dollar. We believe that we successfully nailed that, and the feedback from the marketplace has been very positive. Spreading Spore You're alluding to this potential that it could become a large-scale brand like The Sims. I feel like Spore sort of exists outside of the Games label already, in the sense that it's got a large, comprehensive, multiplatform strategy. It doesn't feel so much like the other versions are ports of it, but they sort of plug in to this overarching strategy. Can you talk about how that has developed? FG: I don't think of Spore as a product. We think of it as a platform. We have lots of opportunities to take that platform to other consoles and to smart phones. It allows us to bring different styles of gameplay. It allows us to bring multiplayer to it. I think it's a very flexible platform for us to be able to bring with lots of experience, because the idea is so gigantic -- creating and controlling a universe -- we can take it in lots of different ways. When you talk to the design team and brainstorm of what we're going to do next, we never really run into walls. It really is, "Is it fun? How can we move it to a different region or customer in a different way?" Again, we think of it as a platform, and that's ultimately why when you make that development investment, you do it on a really big idea. You're just going to see the opening salvo on the 7th in terms of those four platforms, but rest assured, they're not going to be ports on the Wii and the DS later on in its cycle. It's not going to be ported to the 360. We're going to look at how to bring that idea to life on those platforms in a unique way, because that's the only way it's going to work. The strategy with other platforms -- do you think it's risk mitigation, or is it trying to serve the Spore strategy from the perspective of getting a global, broad appeal for the title? FG: We actually looked at it more fundamentally, which was, "What would a Spore experience be like on the Wii, and why would that be cool?" And if it passes muster on that type of brainstorming and design, then that's when we start to move forward with it. Of course there's a business strategy behind it, which is platform extension and brand extension, but ultimately, where we've started is looking at, "Okay, how do you create and control a creature on the Wii in a universe and have it be fun?" Does Spore exist in a browser experience? Sure. Could you create and control a universe in a browser? Sure. Is it completely different from what we're doing on the PC? Yeah. Again, we go back to that original creative idea that Will had, and the combination of pollinated content and editors, and bringing that to life in lots of different ways. Is there a browser version of Spore in the works right now? FG: We're not announcing anything, but speaking against your hypothetical, that was one of the platforms you could look at, sure. Will Wright And Electronic Arts Will Wright is not only a great fountain of game development ideas, but he's also becoming a significant player, culturally, and is starting to get the recognition that goes along with that. How do you see the significance of Will Wright in your organization, both in terms of designing games and in the broader question? FG: It's a tough one to answer, because he is Spore. He created The Sims. These are incredible entertainment experiences from a genius, so when we look at Will Wright, he's the guy. When you look at what he wants to do and how he works, it's very much a collaborative and flexible environment in terms of how we work together, but he's the guy who came up with Spore. Now, there's an incredible team around him at Maxis that frankly helps bring these things to life and makes them a reality in terms of the game design and the code and the rest of it. But he's magnificent when he's in these teams and inspiring young designers, and he's surrounded himself with some pretty capable engineers. And Will Wright is Will Wright. He's everything he's cracked up to be, and he's an excellent part of our company. Mainstream Appeal The title is getting some mainstream notice. What are your expectations there? Have you been finding this is a concept that's really being embraced by the larger world of media and culture that encounters it? FG: Yeah, we've been very surprised and have loved the reception we've been getting from non-traditional gaming media, and frankly, just from the people downloading it who have never played a game before and who are casual players. I think the vessel or the idea that has really worked with them has been the Creature Creator -- the fact that you can make these fantastic animals and make them do different things. You're almost a Pixar artist overnight without training, in terms of how easy to use the editors are. That's really been the entry point to this idea of Spore for the mass market that I think has captured their attention -- this idea of evolution and the toolbox of the editors to create whatever you can imagine. Frankly, we've been blown away with what we've seen uploaded to YouTube. We knew we could get to some pretty wild designs, but the quality of even the ones that are salacious is amazing. It's really cool to see what people can do when you give them these tools. It's funny just to see the ones that mimic preexisting characters. I saw a really convincing Pikachu, which kind of surprised me. FG: I saw a Viking ship! We were just stunned. Every day here we're just shooting around different creations that people have made. Again, I think what's so killer about the game is that you can download it. When you're playing the game, that Viking ship is in the game, or that Pikachu that you saw could be in the game. I think that's another powerful part -- this idea of the pollinated content and the social networking that can happen inside of that. It's really elegant, simple, and I think it ties to a lot of interesting things that people are doing right now with user-generated content. Reinvigorating EA Games At E3, John Riccitiello spoke to Dean Takahashi and the quote that stuck out in my mind was, "I don't think the investors give a shit about our quality." There's been a big push for quality from EA, and it's been building over the past couple of years, but the EA Games label is probably under the most scrutiny, especially from the hardcore gamers, to deliver on that strategy. What do you think about it? FG: I think our quality slipped, and that was one of the things -- as an assumption and then an objective -- that I brought to this job, which was, "We are going to improve the quality of our products, and we are going to create IPs that have the same resonance as some of the top ones we're seeing in the industry." In the 24 or so months before I got the job, there were some big mistakes, and the quality was down. I think what I brought to the job and thought about most carefully on the initial, "What are we going to do here?" was, "How do I unlock the talent I saw inside EA?" I think there's incredible designers and creators inside this company, but the talent was being stifled or prevented from really manifesting itself into great games. That was really job one, to figure out how you unlock that talent and how you find room in the business plan to give yourself the time to create the hits -- "hits" meaning games that are averaging north of 80 on Metacritic, as opposed to being in the 70s or lower. It's going to be a long process, but I'm very pleased with the start that we've had so far in the first part of this year. I'm very proud of Burnout [Paradise] and [Battlefield:] Bad Company, and I'm very pleased with where Spore's ending up. Warhammer [Online] looks to be doing great, and Mirror's Edge, Dead Space, and Need for Speed: [Undercover]. We've really given the teams the autonomy, the flexibility, and the time to really get after quality in each of these different franchises. And while we're not perfect, I think we're definitely making strides here. Our average quality is way up through the first part of this year. We're not satisfied, though. We need it to be higher, and we're going to continue to press and push to make it that much better. If the games are better, they probably will sell better. Investors don't care about quality directly, but they care about it indirectly. It's obviously much more creatively satisfying to encourage talent to blossom and to see great games coming out, but what do you think about it strategically? FG: Strategically, you've got to find a methodology that allows you to orchestrate all of these different game releases into a financial plan. But it all operates off the idea that good games generate good profits. Frankly, they generate long-term, enduring profitability, and when you cut corners on quality and ship a game that's a 65 in order to make a quarter, you might make the quarter, but I can guarantee you that the gamer customers are not going to be happy and they're not likely to buy the sequel in any sizable numbers. In fact, you might even get some of the units back because you overestimated or you dumped in the channel. I wasn't party to John's interview to Takahashi on that quote. My view is more simple, which is, "Great games generate great profits." I know that John feels that way, and that's what we dialog at internally at the company, but for me, I try and look at all the different studios inside of our label, and I try to figure out how to orchestrate a plan over the long term that generates this long term, enduring profitability, but it starts with great games, because that's what we do. We've been there where we've been pumping out games, and you can look at the reception and the response from gamers out there and our fans kind of starts diminishing. You can't get that back. The only way you get that back is by making great games and winning them back one at a time. That's what we intend to do and are doing, frankly. "The Core And More" One thing that the label split does is that it sort of shuts the EA Games label out of the casual boom to an extent. I mean, you've got the EA Casual label, The Sims label, and you've got Pogo, but you guys are focused more directly on the core. What do you think about your positioning there? FG: I think the way we describe it internally is, "The core and more." If you look at Need for Speed or Spore, they're pretty broadly appealing designs, and they do reach a customer that is more casual in terms of their play pattern. It depends on what you call casual, but a guy who's on Kongregate or Addictive Games... they're hardcore gamers, in all those cases. They're playing for free, but at the same time, they're [also] playing World of Warcraft or they're playing Metal Gear Solid on the PS3 or they're playing Bad Company on the 360. So I tend to come at it from a point of view of that we're not shut out of the casual games market at all. We're really looking at male gamers, 15 to 35, and where they spend their time. There's lots of different expressions of the franchises and brands that we do that could work in a play-free model, as well as a traditional packaged goods model. So I don't feel like I'm shut out at all. It's really a play that's "the core and more," but acceptability is pretty key to us, being able to grow this market. I'm not interested in being "only M-rated games that appeal to a certain segment that's only this big." Dead Space isn't the first M-rated game that EA's published, but it's maybe the first significant M-rated new IP developed by EA. I could be going out on a limb here, but it stands out in my mind. FG: When we started that project, it was a very careful calculation, frankly, that said that the survival horror genre is a great genre, as represented by Resident Evil, but there's room for more in that category, and there's ways to innovate there. That was an example of very carefully saying, "Yeah, this is a survival horror game. It's M-rated, and we're going all out. We're not going to compromise and try to make this T-rated." But when you look at something like Spore or Need for Speed or even Mirror's Edge, we're trying to reach a broader audience with an accessible design -- something that can really appeal to the mass market. In those cases, again, it all starts at the original game idea and really understanding where its limitations are and where its opportunities are. Are you concerned at all with the extreme, hard-M kind of content that's going to be going into Dead Space? As you're publicly traded and open to criticism and are to an extent new to dealing with that sort of content as a company... FG: Not in the least. For me, the rule is, "Does it have creative integrity?" And I think that it does. I would be proud to be the publisher. If we were a cable channel, I would be very excited to have The Sopranos, Generation Kill, The Wire, Weeds, or any of those M-rated shows, because at their core, they have incredible creative integrity. The writing is spectacular, and you can be proud of that. The thing you have to watch is that you need to follow the rules in terms of how you promote it. As long as the right age groups are buying the game, I'm satisfied, because I'm very proud of what's in Dead Space. But Dead Space has creative integrity. If something is just there for gratuity, bolted on to try and hype it, then that's not something that I'm interested in. The Casual/Hardcore Divide, Or Lack Thereof You're talking about the distinction between casual and hardcore, and I think it's awfully forced sometimes, in the sense that it seems like an "either/or." It's not really as much of a black-and-white situation as it's painted. Mirror's Edge does have a broad appeal in a lot of ways. Just on the face of it, it's fairly hardcore just in terms of it being first-person action-oriented, but its worldview is so different to a game like Dead Space or Medal of Honor. FG: Absolutely. I couldn't agree with you more. I kind of reject the notion of casual and hardcore gamers. I think it ends up putting you into boxes with limitations that you don't need to be dealing with. But when I look at what we do in our label, it's not about EA, the corporation. It's about the developers, and it's about the individual city-states -- the studios. I play a lot of games, and I'm a big fan of Infinity Ward and Call of Duty and Blizzard and World of Warcraft, and I think of those development teams and franchises just as people think of Maxis with Spore or DICE with Battlefield or BioWare with Mass Effect. I think that's where the value is in what we do, and that's where the importance is. That's why the model that we're trying to use inside of our label is much more focused on those developer brands and going after ideas like you describe, which is Mirror's Edge as well as Dead Space, as well as Skate and Need for Speed. The State Of EALA EALA has been primarily creating games that fall under EA Games. Since it's the end of the Neil Young era, can you tell me a little bit about where it's going and what's going on there? FG: Neil hasn't run EALA for a while. EALA reports into my organization. There are multiple groups down there. There's the mobile team and some casual groups. But in general, we have Command & Conquer, both Red Alert and Tiberium. We've got Medal of Honor down there. We've got a very good business. Mike Verdu, who ran the Command & Conquer business with Neil, is now the general manager of EALA. He reports in to Nick Earl, who runs our California studios. He manages Maxis, as well as our Redwood Shores group that's doing Dead Space. I feel very good about the management and the leadership and the franchises at EALA. Across town, you have Pandemic, so we have a pretty sizable footprint in LA inside our label with the EALA group as well as Pandemic. It's a group that we have very high expectations for, and we have a future plan for them over the next few years. We feel really great about the Red Alert product coming out this November. EA A, I'm going to be blunt here, has been a disappointment by and large, I think, in terms of output. It's produced a number of games that disappointed creatively. The last installment of Medal of Honor was, I'm sure, a disappointment commercially, too. That's why we're kind of wondering what the story is there. FG: We're very confident in EALA. This isn't BS, because if we weren't, we'd do something different. I believe in Mike and his leadership. I believe in Nick, and I believe in the teams down there. We have a product in Command & Conquer that has delivered 80-plus rated Metacritic, which is a tough standard, for seven years now. It's an extremely successful business for us globally, so if you just take it by pieces, certainly the Command & Conquer business has been humming along. Medal of Honor? It's been bumpy, no question about it. We hope to have a different strategy there that allows us to get back and bring that brand to greatness, and I feel confident that we have some good moves underway there. And we have some other products down there that we're evaluating with Doug Church's team, on the Spielberg projects, and also on Tiberium. This is software meets entertainment. Things get bumpy. Sometimes you have groups that have uneven performance. But all I can speak to you right now is what I'm responsible for, which is what's going to happen to LA going forward. It's a key part of our organization, we have some top franchises there, and I think we have a very proven, stable, aggressive leadership team there in place now where we intend to change your perception of EALA, for sure.

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