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Interview: EA's Frank Gibeau on next-gen and new franchises

By Rob Crossley on Tuesday 27th Aug 2013 at 9:51 AM UTC

The motto at Electronic Arts is 'transition is our friend', and there's no more appropriate a time to remember that than now.

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EA's Frank Gibeau

This is a publisher which has had recent struggles - both commercially and with the community - but there's lots of reasons to think more prosperous times are ahead. Its headway on new tech has been demonstrated effectively (though still with vulgar dubstep) and the Star Wars deal is massive as JJ Abrams and co begin to rebuild that iconic franchise.

It's not hard to notice that EA wants to rebuild a more meaningful relationship with the community, and that shift in attitude was apparent when talking to Frank Gibeau, the publisher's Labels boss. The mild-mannered executive is comfortable talking straight, with not so much bravado but genuine pride.

He still annoyingly says "Gen 4" [which, you'll be pleased to know, I've edited to read as "next-gen"], but I suppose you can't change everything all at once.

In the interview below, we examine EA's relationship with Sony, its battle with Call of Duty, its commitment to new IP, and its hopes for a strong several years ahead.


How would you describe EA's relationship with Sony right now?

It's very good.

Even though you're building games exclusively for a rival platform which undermines the PS4's commercial prospects?

Not internally developed EA games. We're changing nothing in our policy about being platform-agnostic.

One of the things that struck me this week is how a tactical deal with one of our platform partners has been blown out and perceived as strategic tilt - that's a messaging error on our part. There is no strategic tilt.

The Sony platform and the Xbox platform are both very important to us. If you look at the previous generation we did tactical deals with both Sony and Microsoft throughout the cycle. Titanfall is different, it's an EA Partners game - everything else is platform agnostic.

Sony has been executing exceptionally well on the next-gen transition. Their hardware's hot, they're clear and disciplined and consistent with their policies, they are showing some amazing things with indies, so overall I couldn't be more pleased with how they're executing. I hope both systems are successful - EA succeeds when more platforms are doing well.

SLIDESHOW: EA's Gamescom 2013 line-up

That being said, have we seen all of the Microsoft-EA exclusivity deals now?

It's a long cycle, and certainly there's potential with Sony exclusivity deals too.

I meant a deal of the same magnitude as a console-exclusive game.

I can tell you now, our internal games, the games we make ourselves, will be multiplatform.

And I suspect you feel that you want every console manufacturer to succeed because that helps the whole business grow.

Yeah, success allows publishers to make new IP, to take more risks, to make sure things aren't being stale. I think the malaise and negativity about the industry is going to get washed away very quickly - in 2005 we had about 250 million game-enabled devices and now we have about two billion. We have new opportunities in new countries and on new platforms, so I think you're going to find things moving up and to the right.

There is a little confusion about EA's Wii U commitments, with a previous statement released and partially retracted. I was hoping to get some clarification on that.

Our position on the Wii U is you never should count Nintendo out. We've published four games on the Wii U, we've supported the platform and now we're monitoring it and watching how it evolves. Right now our big focus is on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One and that's where our resources are going.

It was interesting to hear your remarks last year about EA working on five new next-gen IPs - how are those projects coming along?

Yeah so we've now got half a dozen in development. We've announced a couple of them, Mirror's Edge and Battlefront, but we've also added some as well. The last time I spoke about this we hadn't done the Star Wars deal, so there's those games too.

And of course there's the new IP. We're going to try and announce the new projects in the next couple of years - so in years two to three in the next gen cycle, the plan is each year you'll see one to two new IP from us coming out. This year we have new projects too - UFC is new to EA and of course there's Titanfall.

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The much requested sequel to Mirror's Edge was unveiled at E3

With the Star Wars projects added into the mix, is this now a resource issue?

Yeah it is - if you want to do something you've got to do it right. Our most talented guys, people like Casey Hudson, are working on that. So these decisions are more talent-driven than hitting a certain window with a new IP. You want to get it early in the cycle so you can sequel it, hopefully, but you need the right people on your projects.

What do you make of Ubisoft's strategy? They've pushed hard on two new IP that they will try and build into franchises, one presumes, very quickly. Is that a strategy that you feel works for EA as well?

Absolutely, and we'll go after that. We're not doing that on the first day of release, we like to build a bit of the base. We have a broader portfolio, we've got a sports business, we've got Need For Speed, so we have more to bring over in terms of existing and healthy and growing franchises, and so we want to add a little bit more there.

But, if you look at a game like Dragon Age Inquisition, it's a sequel yeah but we're treating it as a new IP with a new approach. We're reinventing it.

"Console success allows publishers to make new IP, to take more risks, to make sure things aren't being stale."

I think the scaleable new engines that you have give you a unique advantage in this short cross-gen phase, in that you can build for older systems but also efficiently get your teams to switch to next gen too.

Yeah you're absolutely right, that's been very rewarding for us. The investment we made 18 months ago in building new technology is really paying off. It's also helping us on the new IP front, because we don't need to create new tools. We can just focus on the engine, the play mechanics and build out from there.

Sticking to the subject of cross-gen, Activision has announced that those who buy Call of Duty: Ghosts on current-gen systems can get a next-gen upgrade for $10. Is that something which interests you?

Well our approach has been to carry your persistence over, if you buy FIFA or Madden or Battlefield, your progress will carry over to the next-gen editions.

And with regards to pricing opportunities, do you feel there's potential there?

There's potential there, we haven't announced anything. There's still plenty of time.

In 2011, Peter Moore said the market share ratio between Battlefield and Call of Duty was expected to be 70/30 to Activision.

I think we did quite better than that, in fact we outsold them in certain countries in Europe.

Do you feel this year you'll tip the scale?

Look, we are absolutely going for it. It's a competition and we feel really good about Battlefield 4, and we have an old saying at EA which is 'transition is our friend', and we're going to try to lap them with new technology, new innovation and new capabilities. So do I think we're going to do better than last time? Absolutely.

When we started this challenge, back with Bad Company 1, I think the ratio was something like 95/5, so we pushed and pulled to get that figure even. Something I learned from the EA Sports business - with regards to FIFA versus Pro Evolution and Madden versus 2K - these fights are good for the industry. They're good for customers. Competition drives innovation, and from our perspective some people snigger at these two companies going head-to-head but actually it's good for our industry, it's good for customers and it's good for our dev team.

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You've taken Medal of Honor out of rotation, so are you not going to even challenge Activision in the years between Battlefields?

The shooter rotation we think about now is Battlefield, Titanfall and Battlefront, and so we like those three brands going forward. We're working out how we're going to line that up because that's what you'll see from us.

With regards to Medal of Honor, you try things in entertainment and if they don't work you try something else. From our perspective, Battlefield 3 and Battlefield Premium continues to grow.

I know you feel Mirror's Edge fell short, but I think a lot of people appreciate that you still have faith in it.

Well hey, I think it did a lot of great things with it. Our expectations were higher than what it performed, but we've kept faith and we're coming back at it.

There are other EA franchises that people want to know whether you're still backing them. I presume Dead Space is out of rotation right now?

No it's not out of rotation. I mean, I'm not announcing anything right now, but I will say we had a great trilogy of games and we still have faith in that franchise. Dead Space is something that we're very proud of. We are not making any public announcements on what we're doing with the next Dead space, but we definitely have a great set of IPs to pull out of the vault. But then again, we also have a lot of great new IP too, and you can only have a certain number of teams that can make world-class games. The worst thing you can do as a company is try too many things at once.