GamesBeat

Frank Gibeau on EA’s digital ecosystems, Star Wars games, and Titanfall (interview part two)

Above: Frank Gibeau,president of EA Labels at EA

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

Electronic Arts has some gigantic properties in the video game business, including FIFA Soccer, Star Wars Battlefront (an upcoming title under license from Disney), and Respawn Entertainment’s widely acclaimed Titanfall. The man who has to make the biggest decisions about those releases is EA Labels president Frank Gibeau, who runs the division at Electronic Arts that produces most of its blockbusters.

Among Gibeau’s big titles coming this fall are Titanfall, Battlefield 4, the latest batch of EA Sports titles, and the zany shooter Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare. That’s a big slate, but EA faces more competition than ever from all directions. If the publisher is going to win, Gibeau has to make the right bets.

Gibeau is often named alongside chief operating officer Peter Moore as a candidate for EA’s CEO job. The company is searching for John Riccitiello’s replacement, who left in March. Longtime former EA CEO Larry Probst is executive chairman. But EA is running on autopilot in part because of executives like Gibeau, who has worked at the software giant since 1991. We caught up with him for an in-depth interview. Here’s the second of two parts of that wide-ranging discussion. See part one here.

PS 4 controller

Above: The PlayStation 4 controller.

Image Credit: Sony

GamesBeat: It seems like you guys, as EA, can believe in a digital ecosystem around games. If you’re Disney, you can believe in transmedia. You can do toys and films and whatever. You guys have the Need for Speed film. When do you step outside that?

Gibeau: We have an embarrassment of riches in terms of intellectual properties at EA. Then, you couple that with the ones that we rent or have partners with — FIFA, Madden, Star Wars. And then that leaves the last room, which is something completely new, something you never heard of before. We have bets there as well. We have three to five bets in the next console cycle that we’re very excited about. They’ll be very ambitious projects. We’ll want to get them out early in this next cycle. You’ll hear more about them in the future.

GamesBeat: Mark Cerny, the PlayStation 4’s lead architect, gave this interesting speech in Barcelona where he was talking about how long it took — maybe a year — just to get a prototype on the PlayStation 3, especially in the early stage. With the switch from the Cell microprocessor to x86 chips in the PlayStation 4, everybody already knows the tools and how to make PC games. The time to prototype can go down to zero, basically, right? Or very short. I wonder if that’s proving to be a big advantage in this generation. The technology is more familiar. Is that helping you guys?

Gibeau: Absolutely. The power of these machines — certainly with the PS4 — is going to be realized a lot earlier in the life cycle of the system. PS3 was extremely exotic in terms of the development environment. It was very powerful if you could master it, but it was like 3D chess as far as getting everything nailed. Once you got it nailed, it was incredible, but it took so much time and learning to get there.

This time around, it’s a more familiar architecture. It’s a very high-performance architecture. It allows us to do things like bring Frostbite over efficiently and add a lot of new technology to Frostbite, from effects to rendering to storytelling, that allows us to get to high-quality games much earlier in the life cycle. We’re excited about the x86 environment. The games you see right out of the chute will be powerful products. They’ll be maximizing the hardware very early on. Consumers are going to win here because in years one, two, and three they’re going to see some extremely high-quality games.

Electronic Arts Executive Chairman

Above: Larry Probst

Image Credit: EA

GamesBeat: It seems like a very complex business still, though. Is it hard to operate without a CEO?

Gibeau: Well, we have a CEO. He had a tour of duty at EA before, which went OK. He doesn’t operate like an interim CEO. He’s running the business. He has an experienced group of people in leadership positions here. We had and have a sound strategy. Larry has come in — we’ve worked with him before — and we really aren’t missing a beat. We had a strong E3. We put together a strong plan. We’re guiding to a strong outcome.

I can’t comment on the process and the other things we’re doing there. I can tell you that he doesn’t feel interim and it doesn’t feel like we don’t have a CEO. We definitely have a CEO.

GamesBeat: The console transition is in the works. Does it feel comfortable to you in general?

Gibeau: I think they had a great reception at E3. There were a lot of articles being written about how the tablet had killed the console going into E3, and that hasn’t proven to be the case. Demand is high. The scenario of playing games in your living room on a big screen has not gone away. It’s very resilient. People love it. Mobile can be complementary to it, not cannibalistic.

Both Xbox and Sony did a good job at E3, showing distinctly different visions, which is good. It’s always good to have choice. The architecture is very high performance, so we’re going to be able to create experiences that gamers haven’t seen before. We’re going to be able to do new things. Having worked on these consoles for a long time, to finally have them out in the open, out in public, is awesome. Seeing the positive response has been great.

GamesBeat: You said at E3 that Sony was having a good show. Did you catch any crap for that?

Gibeau: [Laughs] They had a good show. I think it was a factual statement.

Nintendo Wii U

Above: The Nintendo Wii U

Image Credit: Nintendo

GamesBeat: What about Wii U? Are there conditions under which EA could find that an attractive market?

Gibeau: Sure. We’re good partners with Nintendo. They’ve been good partners to us. We published four games on the Wii U so far. They have to grow their audience. We’re observing what’s going on in the Wii U. We never count Nintendo out. We have nothing to announce about new games, but we’re observing the Wii U. Our focus right now, though, is nailing the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One launches. That’s where most of our attention is going.

GamesBeat: Once upon a time, you talked about the gambling market and whether that would be a question EA would figure out. Have you decided what to do about going into online gambling since there is this connection to social casino games and the like?

Gibeau: We continue to look at it. We publish free-to-play casino products. We’ve looked at building games in that space. We’ve looked at the real-money segment of that. There’s a lot of challenges in it. It’s very complex, both from a business standpoint and from a regulatory and legislative standpoint. Again, we’re observing it. We haven’t ruled it out, but we haven’t ruled it in, either.

GamesBeat: When it comes to Star Wars, are you going to tell me what you’ll do with the Battlefront game? Can you give any hints to all the fans?

Gibeau: Take all the goodness DICE is bringing to Battlefield 4 and imagine that’s being applied to Battlefront. But we can’t just slap the license on it. We’re not doing that at all. Battlefront is going to have a lot of unique features. We’re going to add a lot of new stuff and new ideas. We’re well down the path of development on it. As soon as we’re ready, we’ll tell you more.

GamesBeat: What do you think about e-sports right now? League of Legends is very popular. The people behind it are almost making it look easy to run a game. They just collect all this money. It seems like no coincidence that a huge e-sports movement formed around it.

Gibeau: I think e-sports and that category of product drives a lot of behavior inside the gaming ecosystem, like what Twitch.tv is doing. A lot of those video views are matches and tutorials on how to play and get better. I love it. There’s a lot of people inside EA’s development organization that participate in e-sports and like it. We have some categories like shooters and sports games that are opportunities that haven’t really jumped on the stage yet for e-sports. We’re looking at multiple opportunities there. But I think it’s awesome. I think it’s great for the industry to have this type of activity. It brings more attention and audience.

Plants vs. Zombies T-shirts

Above: PopCap’s Plants vs. Zombies T-shirts.

GamesBeat: Casual-game developer PopCap Games has a lot of things coming this year. Are you happy with where it stands? Things there were sort of quiet for about a year after you bought the company. Do you see it becoming something like DICE or BioWare?

Gibeau: Absolutely. These guys are a premier, world-class developer. Very strong culture. Very high production values. This is a big year for PopCap. We took this last year and spent it building Plants vs. Zombies 2, which is already in soft launch in some territories. Early reviews have come out. Edge gave it 9/10. The user scores from the soft launch are good. They’re working on new versions of Bejeweled and Peggle. They’ve been busy. This summer is a great opportunity for us to show off a lot of their intellectual property. They’re building new IP as well. It’s not just about Bejeweled and Plants vs. Zombies. They’re part of the EA family and portfolio, but we’re going to keep them PopCap and keep them unique.

GamesBeat: You no longer have the NCAA license. How does that affect EA? Why would a deal like that unravel after so much time?

Gibeau: Honestly, the only real change is that we won’t have those four letters on our game next year. We had a good run with the NCAA, but, clearly, the NCAA is fighting some bigger battles right now.  

We anticipated this day would come and are well under way making the next game with the Collegiate Licensing Company. So we are definitely in the college football game business next year, and I hope we keep making them into perpetuity. Next year’s game will have the same conferences and features that fans have come to expect, plus a lot of new innovation. There’s a dedicated fan base out there who love college football, and we want to keep making it for them. And personally, I want to keep making the game because it’s the only way I can get USC football back to its former glory. 

GamesBeat: Many surprising leadership changes in the industry have happened recently, like Microsoft’s Xbox boss Don Mattrick going to Zynga or Julie Larson-Green now running Xbox. CEO John Riccitiello left here. You’ve stayed put. Why do you stay at EA?

Gibeau: I love making games. I love this company. This company has felt different every year. For as long as I’ve been here, and it hasn’t felt that long, it’s been a different job every year. We continue to grow the company in unique ways. We’ve faced big challenges and come through them. We’ve been growing the company aggressively, building some of the best games we’ve ever made as a company in the last 30 years. For me, I can’t think of a better place to be inside the gaming space than EA. We have so much opportunity. We have the best talent in the industry. We have the best intellectual property. When you can check those boxes — and you get to play on any platform, in any market worldwide — why would you leave?

GamesBeat: So you’re a games guy. You’re as hardcore a games person as there is in this role.

Gibeau: I play everything. I started as a tester.

GamesBeat: What do you think when the nongaming executives or managers come in charge of some of these games businesses?

Gibeau: Imagine someone trying to run a movie studio who doesn’t like movies. It doesn’t really compute. So, I’ve always felt that you have to have an insight about gamers and games and interactive entertainment. That’s how I’ve always managed. I always managed passionately, with the product and the gamer first. If you can get those things right, everything else falls into place. That’s where I think you have the most successful teams and the most successful leadership. You have to have a deep and abiding respect for the gamer — even though they’re very demanding and very vocal – and at the same time you have to be able to attract, lead, inspire, and create great games. It’s hard, but you have to have it.

Respawn Entertainment's Titanfall

Above: Respawn Entertainment’s Titanfall.

Image Credit: EA

GamesBeat: What was it like seeing the whole Respawn thing come about from the inside?

Gibeau: It was a unique opportunity. It’s been awesome. When they pitched us on what Titanfall was going to be, you could see the passion and the insight and where they were going with it. Watching something from Powerpoint or design doc to the reception at E3, that’s what makes this business so special. Those guys approach game development differently than some of our teams at EA. Being able to work with diverse cultures is very cool.

They had a very clear sense of what they wanted to build from day one. They haven’t deviated in any significant ways. They did not bounce around. They had a vision and a clear purpose. Every time I see the game, it gets better and better. From that standpoint, it’s been awesome.

GamesBeat: It’s different in that the single-player component seems to have less emphasis overall. Was it an easy pitch to approve, even though it seemed so different?

Gibeau: I think that’s what people are rewarding, because it is so different. It’s easy to be derivative in this business. Trying to find what is truly unique and different and being able to foster and support it is the trick. That’s where you get the breakthroughs. These guys were charismatic, passionate, and clear about what they wanted to do. That engendered a lot of confidence. We believed they were going to break new ground and try some different things. We felt it was going to be the perfect messaging to come out with in the next generation. It fit inside our overall portfolio in a great way. By all accounts, different is better. Different is what we were looking for.

GamesBeat: It turns out that August is just jam-packed with a bunch of big releases. Ubisoft has two of them. Saints Row IV is coming out. It seems like everyone’s in a rush to get their last title out before the next generation of consoles hit. Is that what would explain why all of a sudden August is such a big month?

Gibeau: I can’t speak for those guys. I can speak for us. The last generation’s hardware is going to be here for a while. PlayStation 2 had a very nice run deep into the PlayStation 3’s life cycle. I’m in no hurry to get everything out because of some idea that we’re going to turn into a pumpkin come Christmas. These are going to be great platforms with a very long tail. We’ll continue to build our franchises for gen three. We don’t have any big releases other than our traditional annualized sports games in August. But Battlefield, Need for Speed, and future versions of these other big franchises will be on gen three.

Grand Theft Auto V

Above: A gamer playing games inside a game (Grand Theft Auto V).

Image Credit: RockStar Games

GamesBeat: I think everyone’s also staying out of the blast radius of Grand Theft Auto V.

Gibeau: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s a bad one. Great game, but one of the big things that’s in play right now in the market is that gamers are looking at gen-three titles and trying to figure out which platform they’re going to buy. Xbox One or PlayStation 4, should they wait for those? That impacts other companies and franchises.

What we’ve done — and there’s going to be a series of announcements about this over the next few weeks — as far as your persistence as a player of FIFA, for example, however far you go and whatever content you unlock, what you do on gen three will show up on gen four. Because of our technology and our game services framework, we’ll know — based on your login credentials if you opt in — that you’ve played on the PlayStation 3, and when you get your PlayStation 4, you want all the content from your EA games to be there.

We’re looking at trying to make that transition as painless as possible for gamers so that they can continue to have a blast playing Madden but also be in a position that, whatever platform they choose, they don’t have to start over. That’s one of the beauties of running these things like a service. We can have continuity through versions and platforms because we have the relationship with you. It’s not a relationship between you and a disc.

GamesBeat: I’ve been waiting to hear why these consoles are more than consoles, that these systems can provide some digital solutions for people that make it easier to move from the old games, where they leveled up on very high, to the new ones. I don’t think I’ve heard enough of that from the console guys just yet. You can incorporate a lot of cool things into these machines through Xbox Live and PlayStation Network.

Gibeau: Right. That was a big deal for us early on, as we were thinking about how we were architecting our cloud components and the client-server relationships. All the work we’ve been doing building an infrastructure with ID and commerce and the boring plumbing components of the backend, that now enables scenarios for gamers. “All my cards come over? Great!”

GamesBeat: I was curious what you thought about that very geeky Microsoft cloud processing technology, where 300,000 servers in the cloud can do the AI processing for something like Forza. It sounds like, if possible, a whole new avenue for computing itself. It also brings back memories of Larry Ellison’s network computer or whatever. [Laughter].

Gibeau: Yeah. I’m not gonna comment on that. But the cloud architecture that they’ve talked about is something that we’re researching and looking at how we might implement it in our games. The idea that we could offload different aspects of the game to be processed elsewhere at scale is a powerful idea and it could unlock new experiences. You would completely re-architect much of the game as a result. We’re excited about it. We’re doing research as we speak. We’re looking at ways to productize it in our games.

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