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The game industry took notice yesterday when John Pleasants left the No. 2 job at Electronic Arts to join a small social gaming startup, Playdom.
It seemed to signal a brave new world where social game startups and iPhone game companies were actually more attractive places for top executives than the biggest video game companies. But that’s an interpretation that apparently makes some at EA say “wait a minute.”
Today, EA spokesman Jeff Brown clarified what happened. He said that EA decided to rehire John Schappert as chief operating officer. Then he added, “When we informed John Pleasants of this, he elected to pursue another opportunity.” In other words, in EA’s version of events, EA wanted Schappert back and it chose to replace Pleasants.
Reached on Friday, Pleasants said he didn’t want to stir up anything with EA and is very friendly toward EA. He said it shouldn’t matter who told who about something first. “The fact of the matter is that we made concurrent announcements,” Pleasants said. “I am excited that I am going to work at a pure play digital games company.”
The sequence of events isn’t a big deal in some ways. Executive departures happen every day. Sometimes they leave on their own. Sometimes they’re nudged. Sometimes they’re fired. But the communication on this change is interesting because it exposes the sensitivity that a big company has about whether it is suffering a brain drain.
Brown said that EA chief executive John Riccitiello hired John Pleasants in March 2008 to help execute on a vision for taking the company into casual games, social networks, new game platforms and direct-to-consumer digital distribution services. Both Riccitiello and Pleasants were in lockstep on that vision.
But Brown said that Schappert, who left EA in 2007, had clearly become a well-rounded executive as he made the leap to Microsoft, where he led efforts to take the Xbox Live online gaming service to a new level. Schappert had deep experience in making high quality games (he ran the EA studio that made the company’s crown jewel, Madden NFL football), but this new part of his resume made him more attractive to EA. Schappert’s new role will be to lead EA’s into a leadership role in online game publishing.
Yesterday, in an interview, Pleasants had nothing but good things to say about EA and Schappert. In yesterday’s conversation, as for the timing of the announcements, he noted, “These things don’t happen over a matter of days.”
What makes this story more interesting is that EA felt the need to clarify the record. It does not want to be seen as a company where all of the executives are unhappy and they’re leaving in droves to go to the new companies. The effect, of course, is to take a little luster off of both Pleasants and Playdom.
EA has taken a bit of a beating in the press as the natural interpretation is that, when executives leave the company, they are part of a continuing exodus of talent from old guard video game companies to the new guard of companies such as Ngmoco, Zynga, Social Gaming Network and Playdom. There are, in fact, an awful lot of people from the big video game companies working at these startups, which are more plentiful than ever thanks to a record amount of venture capital going into games last year.
But Brown said that EA continues to invest heavily in things such as digital distribution, casual games, online games, social games, and iPhone games. It’s just that when you’re a $4 billion company, it’s hard to notice the impact on revenues. You can’t blame EA for expressing this point of view. We are not, in fact, going to wake up tomorrow and find ourselves awash in social gaming to the exclusion of all else.
At the same time, it’s easy to see the allure of the new companies to executives. If you want to become wealthier than you already are, it’s probably a better bet to move to a fast-growing game startup that has a good shot of being acquired or, eventually, going public.