EA Playfish exec touts next-generation Facebook games

Sebastien DeHalleux was the No. 2 executive at Playfish when Electronic Arts acquired the social game company for as much as $400 million in November. At that time, EA was slashing its staff in traditional console games, and its big bet was that social games such as the ones that Playfish made were the future.

Now DeHalleux is vice president of business development and strategic partnerships at EA Interactive, which includes the Playfish business. DeHalleux believes the combination of Playfish’s game design and EA’s brands will prevail on Facebook, where brands have been weak because the primary way to spread apps is through friend recommendations.

This week, the company announced that EA Playfish would launch FIFA Superstars, a new Facebook game that taps the brand of EA’s cash-cow soccer game franchise. DeHalleux believes it will be possible to create a billion-dollar game on Facebook. We talked to him about EA’s latest plans in the social game space.

VB: Tell us what you’ve been up to, given the slowdown in Facebook games lately.

SD: While this has been going on, we’ve been delivering new games. Hotel City has been a tremendous success for us. Too much has been said about declining companies. In the bigger picture, the rules are changing right now. It’s time for franchise building. Now that we have announced FIFA Superstars, I can speak more freely. We are going to try to change the rules for the better so that the consumer finds a better experience on the social gaming platform. You follow the industry closely. You know that people have asked if social games are really games. Now we have a billion-dollar video game franchise coming to Facebook.

VB: What made Hotel City particularly successful at a time when other games were declining?

SD: We looked at everyone in the space and felt they were not innovating. We wanted to do something fresh. We felt we would do a simulation with high production values where you could run a hotel. We wanted it to be respectful of user communications. (Other gave have spammed users.) You invite your friends to apply for a job in your hotel. In our older Restaurant City game, you hired your friends. In Hotel City, you post a job opening and your friends apply for it. That is a viral mechanism. It’s a good game with beautiful art. That made the title into a top 10 fast-growing game, with 14 million monthly active users in six weeks. While others have not had growth, we have shown if you deliver a proper game, and tap the right genre, you can grow very quickly, even today.

VB: Did you make the game in anticipation that Facebook was going to make changes to its platform that could hurt the spread of games?

SD: We knew about the changes. In all honesty, we never focused on optimizing the channel. We focused on the high quality experience. You don’t have to trick users into  including their friends. You naturally want to invite your friends to a good experience. It’s a lot less reliant on traditional Facebook viral channels than other games. It focused on game design, which is the mantra of Playfish.

VB: Do you not advertise, or just advertise less than your rivals do?

SD: Like everyone, we do some advertising. We do that to raise awareness in portions of the social graph that have not tried the game yet. We do it significantly less than others do. We put more dollars into the design of a game than its advertising component.

VB: With FIFA Superstars, what schedule are you on?

SD: It’s been announced by EA Sports head Peter Moore. It’s a vote of confidence for the Facebook platform, since EA is putting one of its best franchises on it. It’s a billion-dollar franchise already. FIFA 10 sold more than 10 million units at $60. It’s our way of saying to the world that the Facebook ecosystem is valid. It will create a long-term opportunity. We think Facebook can deliver a billion-dollar hit on the scale of the film Avatar. It’s early days, but we’re serious about it. The World Cup is happening very soon, and the last one drew the attention of more than 750 million people. An event of that magnitude is ideal for us.

VB: A lot of game publishers have tried to create branded games on Facebook and failed, including EA. How can you succeed?

SD: The trick is not to rely on the brand itself, but rely on what the brand means to users. People play FIFA because they identify with specific players and teams and want to talk about the sport that they love. The trick is to use the brand assets — 9,000 real-life athletes that we have rights for in games — and build a meaningful exchange between fans and the athletes. The trick is not to launch a role-playing game with a brand and hope it works. It won’t. You have to understand what the brand means to users. It’s how to weave an offline passion into an online activity for all of those people in the world who are not gamers. How do you extend social experiences into a platform like Facebook. That is what we are building on. Don’t expect a straight port of a game.

VB: When I think of FIFA, I think of the beautiful and realistic 3D game art. That’s not at all what I think of when I view the art of Facebook games. What is the ideal style of art for this kind of Facebook game?

SD: That’s a very good question. You have technical limitations of having a Flash player on a low-end PC. It’s not the same as a PlayStation 3. That said, one way that Playfish and social game companies have been innovative is in meaningful interaction with friends. We still believe you should involve your real friends.

VB: How big a project is this for you?

SD: I can’t talk about specifics until the game is live, which is soon. I would not look at it from a cost side. I see it as significant because it’s the first time a game has this kind of opportunity. Someone can create a billion-dollar game on Facebook and the question is, who can do it? It will take a lot of work and it won’t be delivered all at once on day one. It’s a service you slowly roll out.

VB: This is the first project you started working on after joining EA?

SD: It is the first and not the last. We are committed to innovation and quality. You will see us release more original games over time. EA is the largest independent game company in the world. There is so much variety of what it has.

VB: What does it take to be successful in the next generation? Right now, what matters is being able to copy somebody else’s innovation. To market your game aggressively. And to let people play asynchronously. I have high hopes for the upcoming Civilization Network on Facebook from Firaxis/Take-Two. What are your hopes for next-generation social games?

SD: There is no silver bullet. If you want to talk to the non-gamers of the world, you have to touch them in a specific way. I don’t think one single game will be able to do that. A company needs a diversified portfolio. You will see us try to occupy other categories and genres. We released a new game, My Empire, which is a radical departure from the games we have made before. It’s set in ancient Rome and is an empire-building game. You work together in a social group to build the great wonders of the world. You build your city, you mine resources, and then work with your friends toward a greater common goal. It’s like working together on a quest in a traditional massively multiplayer online game. Different games will work for different people.

VB: That’s a game with an original brand that isn’t known?

SD: Yes. When we talk about building the next billion-dollar franchise, it’s a two-way street. Facebook can be leveraged to extend a popular brand. It’s also a fantastic platform to create new intellectual property.

VB: Will you take the FIFA and My Empire games to other social networks or web sites too? Zynga has begun to do that with FarmVille.

SD: Absolutely. We believe a core success factor for game companies is to deliver games on different platforms. Some users may be in love with the iPad. Others may hate it. We don’t want to dictate what platform people use. Are we following Zynga? EA is the No. 1 company on many different platforms. I would say they are following us.

VB: How do you feel about Facebook Credits now?

SD: We’ve been vocal supporters of it since the beginning. They hinted at it two years ago. We think it could help distribute value down the chain. In a healthy ecosystem, platform holders are aligned with publisher interests. The biggest promise Facebook Credits can deliver is liquidity on the platform. That means more people will spend. Today, on Facebook, the number of spenders is small compared to the number of active users. Compare that to casual game platforms where the number is 10 percent or more. We are very very far from that. Facebook Credits could create a more frictionless environment for users. We believe users should be able to choose what is most convenient for them. We don’t believe users should be forced into Credits. If you something else today, or go to a store and buy a prepaid card, you should be able to use that. Facebook Credits has been deployed across all Playfish games for some time now with very promising results. It is very early days. Facebook has a lot of work to do. They’re rolling up their sleeves to roll it out. We’re working with them to create more value for the ecosystem.

VB: Do you also use your own currency inside your games, in addition to Facebook Credits?

SD: Yes. We have Playfish cash. Playfish coins. Across our different games. EA works across platforms, and it’s quite important for it to have the currency transfer across different platforms. It’s working so far. Facebook is working on adding more payment methods for buying Facebook Credits. We are thrilled they’re doing that.

VB: Do you worry that the 30 percent fee Facebook is taking is pretty high?

SD: I believe the terms are in beta testing right now. Market forces will probably settle that question. Ultimately, it’s tied to the value you create. If you double, triple or multiply by 10 the number of spenders, that’s good.

VB: I have a cultural question. I realize it’s easy for social game companies to work their people really hard. You publish so many updates to games, it’s easy to see how the staff can get into a perpetual crunch mode. How do you avoid that?

SD: We see Playfish as an inverted pyramid. We in management are the top layers and are enablers for the true rock stars of the company, which are the studio employees. They all work in small teams in different places. We want them to be able to pursue their creativity and passion and art. You can’t be creative if you don’t have the right environment. Everybody works hard in the whole industry. But you do not work hard as a mandate. We have to remember to stop and play more games.

VB: How many people are there at Playfish now?

SD: We’re growing very quickly. There are 600 job openings at EA now. We have a ton of applicants. Growing in the social gaming space is hard. We have 8,000 employees at EA, and around 200 full time at Playfish. With contractors, we are at 250. We’ve tripled in size in the last year.