GamesBeat

How EA is marshaling a new assault on mobile games (interview)

EA Frostbite game engine running on mobile

Above: EA Frostbite game engine running on mobile

Image Credit: EA

After EA appointed Andrew Wilson as chief executive last year, longtime exec Frank Gibeau moved over from the EA Games Label to become executive vice president of EA Mobile. EA has more than 800 games in its mobile catalog, but it can’t beat some of the luckiest and smartest rivals in the category, like Supercell, the maker of Clash of Clans, or Candy Crush Saga publisher King.

The Simpsons Tapped Out

Above: The Simpsons Tapped Out

Image Credit: EA

That’s partly because EA’s mobile business, which it acquired in the Jamdat acquisition of 2005, started in feature phones and migrated to paid apps on smartphones. Only recently has EA begun to learn how to make free-to-play mobile games and operate them as live services. Gibeau wants EA to churn out dozens of prototypes a year, with teams as small as three people making a working mobile game in just three weeks. But EA will be disciplined about what it ships, reducing that number to about 12 a year. That will give EA plenty of shots and a chance to churn out games such as The Simpsons: Tapped Out, a mobile game that has monetized extremely well.

We caught up with Gibeau at EA’s headquarters in Redwood City. We talked about EA’s demo of its Frostbite game engine running on Apple’s Metal applications programming interface, which aims to improve 3D graphics on mobile devices dramatically. Here’s an edited transcript of our talk.

GamesBeat: Have you figured things out on the mobile side?

Frank Gibeau: I’ve been getting my Ph.D in the mobile business the last six or seven months. It’s been awesome. The focus has been great. We’re marshaling a new assault on the mobile business from Electronic Arts, going forward. We have some powerful competitive advantages, and we’ve got some things we can do better.

The big brands, the intellectual property, the production values, the technology, the creative talent, I think we’re in good shape there. What we’ve needed to master and we’re getting in position to be able to do is the science of live services, being able to engage customers and sustain that relationship over long periods of time.

As you know, in the live services business, it’s kind of a combination of art and science. While EA’s been good at the art, we haven’t always been good at the science. When we transitioned from feature phones that were premium, we were in good shape there. The transition to smart devices and freemium live services was something we had to learn from scratch, like a lot of other people. That’s what we’ve been doing over the last period of time. I feel like we’ve come through that. Now it’s about going on offense and creating some spectacular games.

On Monday, we made our first technology announcement, where we brought Frostbite over to mobile. Which is really exciting. The idea that Apple was going to pull the OpenGL stuff out of the way and allow us to talk directly to the metal was a huge win for a company like us, which has decades of investment in high-end 3D engines and assets and IP. That gives us a great opportunity to bring over a lot of the stuff that we’ve been building for PS3 and Xbox 360, as well as, in the future, Xbox One and PS4. It’s a big announcement for us.

They announced some other great things too, in terms of how they were optimizing the App Store, in terms of search. Some of the new ways you could merchandise with video and identity. The ecosystem at Apple just gets better and better. For us that’s key.

frank gibeau

GamesBeat: Apple did a lot of work on Metal. Did you guys have to do much on the engine side to make this work?

Gibeau: Not as much as you’d think. The challenge had always been, how do you navigate all that overhead associated with OpenGL to get to experiences that you would find on your big-screen TV with a console? By removing that, it allowed us to do what we’re already doing in a very efficient way.

There was clearly a lot of rework that we’ve been having to do as far as getting to work in the battery environment, the power environment, looking at how certain aspects of mobile and the APIs are set up. But in general, that was a lot less difficult than you’d think. That’s good for us, because as the hardware gets better, we ride that.

Clash of Clans screen art

Above: Clash of Clans screen art

Image Credit: Supercell

GamesBeat: The general picture I have of mobile, or the question I have — why is it so easy for some folks and so hard for everyone else? The example I usually bring up, you guys have 800 or 900 games, but Supercell can get to the top-grossing position with just three games. That seems to go to this difference in knowing live services or getting used to them. You have a lot of advantages. You should be No. 1 by far, right?

Gibeau: That’s the mission, to get us into position for that. That’s what I’ve been spending the last seven months doing, getting us into position, restructuring and recalibrating our studios, how we go to market, our technology platform, so that we can get into that position.

Supercell is a spectacular company. But if you take a step back and look at the overall market, I think there’s 70,000 games shipped a year in mobile — 1.5 million apps just in Apple App Store? The difference between console and mobile is vast in terms of the competitive set, how you operate the games, the different network environments you deal with around the world. The level of complexity in the mobile business versus the console business is several orders of magnitude bigger.

When we’ve come over and started to look at how EA was going to compete and be successful there, again, you go back to a really clear-eyed competitive analysis. What are you good at? What are you the best at in the world? I would argue that we have the best portfolio of IP for the mobile business, everything from Plants Vs. Zombies to Bejeweled to the Sims to Real Racing to The Simpsons on down. I have great brands and IP and we’re building a whole bunch of new ones. We have talented developers. We have great tech. We have fantastic production values. But again, have we mastered the live services piece?

GamesBeat: This is kind of a restart?

Gibeau: That’s what we’re going after right now and that’s what Supercell has done such a great job, marrying spectacular games in Clash of Clans and Hay Day and Boom Beach, along with a sharp-clear-eyed sense of how to run a live service and maintain that over a long period of time across multiple geographies. Your contention is correct. They have done a very good job, and absolutely, their model works for them. But there’s not just one model. Supercell’s model is to have a few games and do them very well. EA has a broader opportunity, because we have more IP that appeal to different audiences. We’re going to build those up.

We don’t operate the 800 or 900 games you called out. We’re only building maybe a dozen games. If you look at our slate going forward and what we’ve launched over the last year, we’re going to a fewer, bigger strategy. That was one of the first decisions we made when we created this mobile division. We were going to fully invest in freemium live services games, in fewer and bigger games, much like we did in the console business over the years. You saw that strategy manifest itself in what we did with gen three and gen four. That playbook can work here, because Supercell has shown that it can work.

The difference is, there’s a lot of new features and ideas EA is going to be able to go after that are relatively easier to accomplish than not having IP, or not having technology, or not having production values, or not having the installs. You might argue that EA is generating very large audiences. If you look at Real Racing, it’s installed over 120 million times. If you look at App Annie, we had 600-plus million installs in the last 12 months. We’re bringing in the audience. What we’re not doing is servicing them in a live environment as effectively as our competition.

If we’re able to improve our performance on live services, with everything else being solid, then that should start to translate itself into a stronger leadership position for us. We’re very ambitious about mobile. We’re fully committed to it. It’s the biggest segment of gaming. It’s growing the fastest. It’s a global opportunity. It allows us to get into markets that are possible, like the middle east, southeast Asia, eventually India, obviously large sections of Asia, places that just aren’t console markets. From a PC standpoint, they’re okay PC businesses, but from a mobile standpoint, they’re rocking businesses.

Real Racing 3 in action for iPhone 5.

Above: Real Racing 3 in action for iPhone 5.

Image Credit: Electronic Arts

GamesBeat: You have something that worked in The Simpsons. Have you figured out what that is and how to bring that over?

Gibeau: I would argue that, when I started back about seven months ago, the two studios we had that were extremely good were The Simpsons studio, our Prince Edward Island group, and then the Fire Monkeys team. Those were developers who had been in the mobile business for a very long time. Popcap has started to double down on mobile and moved out of social and PC. Garden Warfare on the console was alongside that. But between Popcap, Fire Monkeys, and PEI, EA has three of the best developers in the world for the type of content that makes sense on mobile.

The idea is to get the rest of the studios to that same level of performance while we master live services across the board. We definitely have pockets of excellence. We just need to be more consistent overall across the whole unit.

Tetris Blitz

Above: Tetris Blitz

GamesBeat: What’s the mix you would envision for born-on-mobile brands versus brands you would carry over from console?

Gibeau: They’re not just console brands. They’d be brands that were on PC or Amiga or Sega Genesis. The born-on-mobile, you could argue, are things like Real Racing and The Simpsons, where we have a tremendous amount of success. It’s going to be a mix. We’re going to have a mix of new IP that you’ve never seen before.

The beauty of mobile is it’s relatively low-investment, high-reward. One of the things we did was, we created Pop Labs and a team called Argonaut, which are skunk works teams. They’re about 50 to 60 people inside EA that are doing weekly prototyping. They’re building action games, arcade games, casual games, core games.

We set up a system inside EA called the Sandbox, where we publish these prototypes to our 8,000 employees and let them play them. Our first soft launch, our first test market, before we go wide into Canada or New Zealand or Singapore, is EA. We take high-end gamers who have the ability to speak very honestly if the game is good or bad, and we’re putting games through them right now.

Peggle just went through Sandbox. We’re getting tremendous feedback from that internal audience. Two more are going up today that have never been seen before. They’re brand-new IP. We’ll have teams do three- or six-week prototype sprints. We publish them into the Sandbox and see what 8,000 people think of them. Then we determine whether or not we proceed.

That’ll be an important part of our portfolio, because as you said, born-on-mobile bolts from the blue like Flappy Bird are going to continue to be a part of the business. As Apple simplifies its programming language around Swift, there’s a continued democratization of coding. What all of those moves will lead to is a vibrant indie game development community in mobile, as well as a strong community for companies like ourselves.

Plants vs Zombies 2 on mobile

Above: Plants vs Zombies 2 on mobile

GamesBeat: So much of this business is self-publishing. How does a publisher make itself leveraged in this space?

Apple Metal

Above: Apple Metal

Image Credit: Geeks3D

Gibeau: It’s the size and power of the network, first and foremost. When I mentioned the 630 million installs, those are all coming into the EA network. We’re able to cross-promote and look at their propensity to move on to something else, stay in a game, and understand them. If you look at King or Supercell or us, the value of the network is to be able to bring out the next game to them. That’s the ultimate truth of what publishing is like in this environment.

It also allows you, by having a diverse portfolio, to have good strong relationships with Apple and Google. That’s another key part of it. Then, as you go through a market that has 70,000 games released a year, discovery and acquisition of customers is brutally hard. If you don’t have the capital, the network, or the relationships to be able to bring in that audience, you’re going to find it very difficult to be prosperous and find an audience.

That’s the other advantage that we have. When we launch the next new IP from Popcap, we can leverage the Bejeweled audience and the PvZ audience from Popcap, and then go wider to Sims and Scrabble and Pogo and Simpsons, bringing all those audiences together to have them organically in the game day one, very efficiently and in a very smart way. Those will be quality installs. That’s the key advantage of publishers.

GamesBeat: It sounds like the point of re-entry here is bringing console quality into mobile, as Metal provides for this.

Gibeau: That’s going to be one aspect of the business, but there’s going to be another vibrant aspect, which is going to be casual and indie. It isn’t driven by pixel power. But we will overindex in the core console-level quality stuff. We’ll also play in the indie and casual range with Chilingo, bringing in partners with what we’re doing in Sandbox. Again, that’s why we have model of a broader portfolio. Not 800 games, but 12 games across a broader portfolio than just two or three. That would be our competitive advantage. That’s what we pursue. It will lead to a larger network of users, a more diverse and sustainable set of users, we believe.

Leaning into mobile devices over the next four or five years as they increase in their capabilities around GPU and CPU, that’s going to be in our strike zone. That’s where we’ll have a lot of leverage.

GamesBeat: Do you have a good feel for how large a team is the idea team here? Consoles are 100, 200, 300 people. What should a mobile team look like?

Gibeau: A couple dozen. That’s actually been a liberating part of the transition, from managing the console business to this – how much faster we can go, how much smaller the teams can be. Those prototype teams I laid out are three people. It’s an artist, an engineer, and a designer. They produce a prototype and bang, it’s in the hands of 8,000 people. On the console side of the business, we couldn’t even get 8,000 people to have test stations to play the game. We’re leaning into that.

The other magnificent thing about mobile versus console is the idea of soft launch – the ability to go out and test the game with audiences and iron out issues related to quality or the core loop or the technology or the scalability, and then be able to go wider with it. Taking our development model and game development framework we’ve had—We’re heavily modifying for how to build mobile games, because it’s very different. The scale and size and speed is frankly liberating. It’s like going back to PSX, maybe even early PS2-size teams.

The Sims FreePlay

Above: The Sims FreePlay

GamesBeat: You still don’t want to take too many shots on goal, I suppose?

Gibeau: You want to take a lot of shots at the prototype stage and kill early. You don’t want to take a lot of shots when you’re finally going to a billion and a half game-enabled devices. From my perspective, I would love to have 60, 80, 100, 120 prototypes per year that we burn through. The Darwinian kind of process we’ll go through about who makes it to the next level, that’s where we want to have a lot of shots. That’s really cheap to produce with three or four people on three-week sprints. You can get a lot of prototypes done.

At the same time, while you’re pursuing those moon shots, you want to have your tent poles, where you have proven IP with proven teams that are much more disciplined in management, more traditional kind of game development. The portfolio will be a combination of those two. You won’t see a lot of shots with the tent poles. You’ll see a lot of shots with the prototypes.

GamesBeat: The Kabam folks tell me they had 75 people on The Hobbit. Machine Zone’s gone crazy with 150 on Game of War. I guess once it’s a hit, that’s when the team could grow a lot.

Gibeau: That’s true. The other thing about these is that it’s not a new release business. If you look at the charts, the vast majority of the games in the charts have been out for 18 months or more. The Sims FreePlay just had its biggest month, and it’s been out 26 months. You scale those organizations up over time as you reach wider audiences.

The reason they scale is you bring in product managers, analysts, performance-based marketers. You add customer service layers. When you’re going through 25 million DAU games, you have to have that infrastructure to be able to service those customers efficiently. The actual designers and programmers and artists, that doesn’t actually get much bigger.

I can’t speak to those other guys. I have some sense of how they’re configured in some cases. But in our teams, we don’t find the creative core expands too much. It’s the logistics tail around it that starts to grow a bit. That’s a high-class problem, because if you have a big hit, you need to have customer service people and product managers and analysts looking at all the segments and what’s happening in regions, sustaining the games.