Bill Mooney is the vice president and general manager at EA Mobile, and reports directly to Electronic Arts’ chief executive Andrew Wilson. That tells you how important mobile gaming has become to the video game giant.
EA has had some breakout hits like The Simpsons: Tapped Out, a free-to-play mobile game that continues to grow its business after three years on the market. It has also had luck with the launch of SimCity BuildIt. But EA has a long way to go to catch up to mobile gaming leaders such as Supercell’s Clash of Clans.
If a path exists to get there, Mooney believes that it’s through brands. And not just any brand. He believes that working closely with a holder of original content — as EA does with Gracie on The Simpsons: Tapped Out game — is the answer. Quality, good gameplay, and branding are all key.
I interviewed Mooney onstage at the recent Mobile Gaming USA conference in San Francisco. Here’s an edited transcript of our talk.
GamesBeat: Bill, why don’t you tell us about some of the games you’ve worked on?
Bill Mooney: Probably the most interesting is The Simpsons: Tapped Out. That’s a game we’ve had for a number of years. I would argue that it’s one of the most successful integrations on mobile of existing branded IP into a live service. There are a number of games that pop, but we’ve had years of sustaining. I came to it five months ago. In learning how the team has worked, I think it’s the best example.
Some other things we’ve done in my group—I don’t know which are announced yet, but there’s Heroes of Dragon Age and some other upcoming stuff that will be announced very soon.
GamesBeat: Why don’t we jump into the pros and cons of IP licenses for mobile games? You just heard Andrew talk about how original IP was the way to go.
Mooney: It’s a plus and a minus. On balance, what I would say is that the value of branded IP—we’re at a point in the market where it’s relatively choked. Acquisition is a huge challenge. I do think table stakes is making a strong game. I think that’s an even higher bar when using other people’s IP or co-developing. With Simpsons, we literally co-developed with them. We have the real writers. The head writer of the show is essentially our game showrunner on their side.
Why it’s worth doing that is because you capture an audience that loves something. In a place with a million and a half apps, tapping into that – especially a long-running, beloved, powerful IP – gives you access to an audience that would be very difficult to get to otherwise. We can capture casual as well as core, too.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting that they maybe realized early on that it was important to have that much engagement with the mobile game makers.
Mooney: Gracie has been an excellent partner. One thing that’s interesting with them and with other licensers we’ve worked with is that they’ve become knowledgeable about how to make games. Gracie’s been having games made for 18 years, 20 years, back to Simpsons pinball or the Simpsons arcade game. They’ve learned how to do it. Not only have they learned about how to be a good licensor, but they’ve learned a lot about how to make sure their IP breathes.
One of the powers behind Tapped Out is that it’s the real writers writing it. They love it, because it’s a chance for them to explore stuff in a different setting and a different time. Andrew talked about the production company model. That’s valid in live services, in many ways. There are some parallels to producing soap opera. I think a lot of folks very much enjoy spreading their wings. The process is interesting, where the game developers within EA will pitch ideas, write temporary stuff, and then the writers will come in and edit, give notes, suggest ideas. It’s a profound integration.
I’ve had lots of experience with branded IP myself over the years, and I’ve learned that you have to do it right. If you don’t do it right, you’re wasting your money. If you do it right, it’s very powerful. Particularly if it’s a big brand with beloved, long-running power.
GamesBeat: This is why it’s lasted three years?
Mooney: Right. The numbers on it demonstrate, for the genre—it has unusually good long-term retention. I was the general manager of FarmVille at its biggest. I worked on lots of builders at Zynga. The numbers are very different for Tapped Out. That’s a function of people engaging in content. One thing with branded IP, people talk about the content treadmill. A huge strength of branded IP is, people want new content. You get to tap into somebody’s rich universe and work to expand that.
We’re telling stories where there’s already a lot of interesting things to extend from. There are probably 50 characters from The Simpsons that have been featured. We have a lot of room to expand. In live services, which is the core business, producing an extended, broad, extensible, universal experience is key in the long term to keeping people in day 365, day 730, day whatever.
GamesBeat: I wonder why it’s such an outlier. You’ve described something fairly simple as a strategy — work closely with these IP owners and create the game as a service, update it as much as you can to keep the audience happy. What else explains why lots and lots of other branded IP efforts just don’t last as long as something like The Simpsons has?
Mooney: It’s a combination. First of all, if you’re going to get IP you need to get good IP. It’s not worth paying for Paris Hilton, not to pick on her too much. She had those match-threes, what, seven years ago? The IP is worth it when you’re getting that core audience. A limited amount of IP is worthwhile. It will be interesting to see how many of the music games, for example, do well.
One thing that’s been part of EA’s strategy, with stuff like Madden, we want to go for the premier IPs. That’s where a lot of the benefit comes. What’s powerful about Simpsons is we’ve been able to take it to mobile into live services. I’m not aware of any branded MMO, other than something like Star Trek, where they obviously extended it. Taking a mass-market entertainment brand and essentially almost MMO-ing it on the platform is hard. But we routinely talk to the licensor several times a day. Numerous people work on both sides making sure everything is flowing through. They touch every asset to make sure it’s at quality.
I’ve worked with lots of licensors, but I would say that Gracie is obsessed with the brand. 26 years in, 27 years in, they care about every detail. We have conversations—I think a year in they realized that the shade of yellow wasn’t quite right. That sounds obsessive, but good games fundamentally—the difference between an excellent game and a pretty good game is that obsessive detail. Having a partner who wants the game to be better—They also have a long-term view. They will work with us on gameplay. It’s not just short-term thinking. Being long term in that is the power if you’re building a live service that’s set up to succeed over the years.
GamesBeat: We have a mad rush into brands in mobile right now. Could you categorize some of them? We have celebrity brands, brands from outside of gaming rushing into mobile games, and then we have gamer brands that are also moving in. What are some observations about the categories of brand opportunities here?
Mooney: A single celebrity brand, you can do it. That is very dependent on that celebrity having staying power, very dependent on that celebrity having a nuanced and interesting world to participate in over the course of a year or two. The way we at EA want to look at it is, how is this not only going to help us launch and establish, but is it worth it in year two? Is it worth it in year three? Mobile games are live services. I will be interested to see how long the celebrity brands last.
Stuff like TV has worked very well because it maps well to the mobile experience, where there’s episodic content that comes in regularly. People are liking it for 26 episodes over five or 10 or 15 years. It maps fairly nicely to the relatively shorter extended periods of time people play on mobile. Movies have, for the most part, done fine, but haven’t shown that same lasting power. There might be a counterexample.
EA obviously owns a huge chunk of sports. That’s worked surprisingly well. EA iterated on it to get it right. One of my teams is working on some sports-related stuff we’ll be announcing. Getting that right, again, you need that back and forth. If anybody’s played Madden on mobile, it’s materially different from what you see on the field. That team, over the course of several years, has changed it. Again, they’re working with the licensor to find the right balance between experiences that’s correct on mobile, but still true to the IP. That’s a licensor that’s become very educated in games. They’re willing to try stuff that they might have been uncomfortable with as a more naïve licensor. It’s not just a celebrity or something new where they’re still figuring out and defining their brand. I personally am skeptical that second-tier brands will be worth it.