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LOS ANGELES — Andrew Wilson became the chief executive of Electronic Arts in the fall of 2013, after the giant video game publisher suffered a couple of years in a row as the winner of “most hated company in America” award.
Since then, the former game developer and EA Sports chief has focused on a mantra of “players first.” And he says his mission is to remind us that we all need to stop and play a little more in our lives. Wilson said that EA’s competition isn’t with Activision, Supercell, or other game companies. It’s competition with anything that takes our time away from games. And EA is doing well in that competition, restoring investor confidence. It’s stock price is higher than it’s been in years, and with its deal to make Star Wars games, strength in sports with the NFL license, and mobile prowess, EA remains one of the most powerful companies in both the console and mobile markets.
I caught up with Wilson for an interview at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the big industry tradeshow in Los Angeles, a day after EA unveiled a dozen new games coming soon. These include Star Wars: Battlefront, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, Unravel, and Mass Effect — all console and PC games that should be blockbuster hits for the publisher.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: You guys had a good slate here. The interesting thing I see you doing is taking some risks on the game design. Even though golf can be serious and boring, your people are making it fun. They’re saying, “Hey, let’s throw the Grand Canyon golf course in, anyway.” That seems like a different kind of approach.
Andrew Wilson: It’s a culture that the entire management team is driving. Patrick Söderlund also has a unique view on games and fun. He’s gone into sports in particular and injected a level of fun into that that maybe—a lot of us who grew up on EA Sports would not have done that in the past. But we’re also trying to build a culture where people feel safe taking risks at a creative level. It’s important. We have an obligation to lead from the front and do new and cool and creative and innovative stuff. That’s risky. We’re trying to create a culture in the organization that supports that, makes it normal and natural and part of who we are.
GamesBeat: It seems to run counter to the strategy at, say, Activision, where its whole process has been narrowing down the number of things they try to just a few, just the guaranteed hits. It looks like, as a business strategy, it’s working. You guys are doing some of that, but you’re also trying new things like Unravel — big games and small games.
Wilson: We look at how human beings interact with entertainment. One thing that you observe is that—if you think about TV series, they get about four to eight seasons before they run out of ideas, before the audience decides to go watch something else. Movie studios will release four or five Bond films in succession, or Marvel films, and then they take a break. As human beings we have this insatiable appetite for content. We consume and consume, and then we get up one day and say, “I don’t feel like that anymore. I’ll go try something different.”
Sports, by the way, is the exception to that rule. I’m happy in the strength of our sports portfolio. It’s ongoing. But we understand that there will come a day when people get up and want to play something completely different. We have to prepare for that day. We have to start building and investing against new IP that might feel like a big risk today, a big creative risk, but it ultimately might be the next blockbuster. That’s an important part of our strategy.
GamesBeat: There are very different ways that companies are approaching this. Ubisoft is allowing developers to create a new engine any time they want. You guys have gone with Frostbite. Are you feeling good about that strategy? Is Frostbite working out?
Wilson: I feel great about that strategy. What we want to get to is where studios feel like they can create any game they want. We want to free up time for innovation at a consumer-facing feature level. Some of that will happen inside the engine. What you get when you have multiple teams working on the same engine, every time they create something cool in a game at an engine level, it rolls back in the main line and all games get it.
When you saw Dragon Age: Inquisition last year, there were amazing things in that game that were built for that title. The reason you can put the Grand Canyon in golf is because those assets have been built somewhere else. What we’re trying to get to is the empowerment of game teams to be creative at a consumer-facing feature level and innovative at a game level. We’re getting to a point where the engine is a multiplier to that, not a time sink.
GamesBeat: I’m curious about small things and big things that come out of this “gamers first” strategy. If you look at adding women to FIFA, what is the gamers first goal there? How do you apply that to trying to decide something like that?
Wilson: That one’s pretty easy. As we start looking at the amount of players in our FIFA world who are girls and women, as we look at the amount of girls playing soccer—particularly in this country, by the way. There are more girls playing soccer than there are guys. We had this huge audience playing our game who didn’t feel they were represented inside the game. We went after that. We’ll continue to do that.
GamesBeat: That doesn’t feel risky or progressive. It feels like good business. Some people reacted negatively, and you could worry about those people, or you could worry about building new audiences.
Wilson: The negative reaction to women’s teams in FIFA?
GamesBeat: Peter Moore brought that up on Facebook, saying he was sad to see “misogynistic vitriol” around FIFA.
Wilson: Here’s what I’d say. Having gone and read a great deal and had our community teams looking at that, that was such a marginal element of the overall feedback—more power to Peter for taking it on and dealing with that individual, but in all honesty, I think that only made it bigger than it was overall. In reality, the feedback to putting women’s teams in FIFA was almost universally positive.
GamesBeat: I wonder about EA’s thought process in making a decision like that. You didn’t know the feedback would turn out that way, right?
Wilson: We have about 350 million in our network that we know. We have another half a billion across our social networks that we know to varying degrees. We’re doing our best to engage in a conversation with them on a moment to moment, day-to-day basis. They told us they wanted women’s teams in FIFA, and so we built women’s teams in FIFA.
For us it’s not that risky. It’s listening to our community and delivering what they want. When I started making games, we would all get together in a room and say, “What do we want to build? What do you think the player wants?” Then you put it in the marketplace and you tried to see what people played. That’s how we built games. We don’t have to do that anymore. Part of building relationships with our players, part of telling them we want to hear from them, part of engaging in a conversation, is that we can do things that might look profoundly risky, but on the inside they’re simply answering the requests of the players who play our games. We’re going to keep doing that.
GamesBeat: When you think about platforms and alliances, is there anything think you’ve done that might be critical, that feels like you just made a big decision? Whether it’s supporting VR or getting behind Windows 10, is there anything that feels like you still have to make some important platform decisions?
Wilson: EA’s legacy is we are a platform agnostic company. We have a commitment to our players, a commitment to making great games for the platforms our players play on. The critical decision we have to make is to build an underlying technology layer, ID, commerce, security, infrastructure, data, plus an engine layer that can get games to whatever platform players play. The critical investment for us, the critical decision we’ve had to make, is to invest heavily in this layer that effectively abstracts us out of any kind of platform ambiguity.
When we started we built for a couple. Then we were building for a couple. Now we’re building for 20 or 30. In the future we might be building for 200 or 300. Who can know? What I know is, almost every device I own plays digital music. As I fast-forward three or four years, it’s not unreasonable to believe that every device we own will give us the ability to play games.
In that world, being a platform agnostic company means having a very strong technology layer that facilitates the distribution of content through any platform. Those are the decisions we’re making. Our commitment is to our players. Our commitment is to building great games and getting those games to our players wherever they play.
GamesBeat: That’s true for Origin as well? You don’t have to favor Origin.
Wilson: Wherever our players are, that’s where we want to go. That’s why we’re building for Apple devices. That’s why we’re building for Android devices.
We look at VR. There’s a core motivation that players have to immerse themselves into an experience, to escape into an experience. VR is an opportunity to do that. But as you know, there’s five or six players right now. Our job is not to pick one of them. Our job is to build a technology layer that can facilitate distribution of virtual reality experiences irrespective of how they come – whether it’s goggles, whether it’s augmented reality, whether it’s a room you step into, whether it’s a pod like Total Recall. We’re trying to build at a core engine layer to facilitate that type of experience.
GamesBeat: You’re very engaged in mobile games right now. Some of these GMs are reporting directly to you. Is that a sign of how important mobile is going to be, or already is?
Wilson: Mobile is already important. We had more than 700 million downloads of our games last year. We have 160, 170 million monthly active users playing our games every month. There’s going to be another 300 or 600 million devices or something launched this year alone. We went from 200 million players to two billion players in large part because of mobile devices. It’s already super important to us. I’m proud of what we’re doing.
Them reporting to me directly is me saying, “It’s important to us.” I want to make sure that we are investing time and money and resources at the appropriate level, given the magnitude of opportunity there.
GamesBeat: What competition do you think about these days? There are things like Supercell being valued at $5.5 billion. There’s League of Legends. There’s Activision. There’s toys-to-life. What shows up on your radar?
Wilson: The competition we have is competition for your best time. As human beings, we have an amount of time we allocate every day to entertainment. That might be watching TV. It might be playing games or listening to music or reading books. These days it’s shopping for a lot of people. Amazon wants your shopping experience to be interactive and fun and give you rewards. It sounds a lot like making games to me.
When we think about competition, we think about you as a player and what you’re engaging with through the day. We know that we need to engage with you a certain amount of time per day in order to maintain that relationship. That might mean we’re competing with another console developer, another mobile developer. It might mean we’re competing with your bank, which is trying to make the banking experience interactive and fun. We might be competing with you and your articles.
It’s not just competition for games. The world has woken up and recognized that interactive entertainment is the best form of entertainment. All of a sudden everyone is trying to do what we do. We get up and we’re looking left, right, front, back and trying to make sure the experiences we deliver to our players are the most entertaining, most rewarding, most inspiring experiences possible.
GamesBeat: So you’re hoping “Game of Thrones” episodes are not very good.
Wilson: Or we’re understanding that as part of your life, you’ve gotta watch Game of Thrones. How do we enhance that? How do we give you something as a lead-in to that? How do we make sure you’ve got something to do right as Game of Thrones finishes? Before you start thinking about the next TV show you want to watch.
Interactive entertainment is no longer a discrete experience. When I grew up, you would decide that you were going to play a game. You would go somewhere and sit down and boot it up. I had a Commodore 64. You’d have to run, go, press play on tape, enter—it was 30 minutes just to get a game started. Now games, by virtue of the evolution of technology, permeate our lives, in much the same way digital music does. Whether it’s on our mobile phone, smart TV, console, or internet-enabled fridge, more and more games are going to be part of our lives. We’re trying to help players find content that’s new and interesting and entertaining to them. Curate that player journey.
GamesBeat: Is there any particular trend in the game industry that makes you happy?
Wilson: Yeah! More people playing more games more of the time. That’s awesome. I firmly believe games are the best form of entertainment. When you measure games against any kind of metric, value over time—you can buy a $60 console game and play that thing for 100 hours without blinking. You connect with your friends.
Think about fulfilling needs. Once you get past air, food, water, shelter, you get to the sense of belonging, social connection. Games are one of the best ways on the planet to connect with your friends. Then you get to self-esteem. We build self-esteem by overcoming challenges, challenge and achievement. That’s games. Self-actualization, leaving a legacy, creating in this world. That’s games.
It’s really cool that more people are waking up. When I started in this industry, gamers had a real stigma. If you were a gamer you were a particular type of person. Now I love that you can walk down the street and young people, old people, men, women, everyone’s playing games. It’s a better world.
GamesBeat: Is there anything you know about Mass Effect that could get a tremendous number of readers interested in our story?
Wilson: Yes. But we’re not gonna talk about it.
GamesBeat: What kind of ships might be in there?
Wilson: I’m gonna speak abstractly. What I would say is, I saw Mass Effect—the first time I saw it was probably a year ago. They have a particular creature in that game that is unlike—I actually tried to get it into the demo, because I thought this thing was so awesome. I saw the demo and said, “Hey, where is this?” Because I thought it was one of the most awesome things I’d ever seen. They said that they’re not going to put it out yet, so I can’t tell you about it either. But know that there’s a thing coming, a simple thing, and I thought it was unbelievable.
GamesBeat: It must have felt good to have cheering like that at the press conference. You don’t always get franchises that people go that crazy about.
Wilson: No, you don’t. I was overjoyed with the reception.
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