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.
GamesBeat: If we’re in a cycle now for brands in games on mobile, what are some of the characteristics of this cycle?
Mooney: When I look at mobile right now we’re seeing several things. The quality of games has raised substantially. Investment is meaningful. Two years, a team of 40-60 depending on what stage you’re at. Serious investment. Marketing is an interesting question. One of the big benefits of paying for an IP, obviously you’re hoping to not have to spend $20 million a month on marketing and still receive a lot of the organic benefit. EA installs very well in that way.
Coming to that, where I’m going is, before, five years ago, it was mostly enthusiasts and aficionados. They would find something fun, it would pop up, and there was a lot of churn. Now we have so many games that the bar has risen. Expectations have solidified as people have turned into gamers. I used to joke at Zynga that we turned your mom into a hardcore gamer. Clash of Clans has taught a lot of people how to be a good strategy gamer. The bar has raised.
The price of that is that it’s hard to innovate. It’s hard to be 25 percent better than Clash of Clans. Bing Gordon talked about that at Zynga. It applies very much. To beat Clash of Clans you have to be better. People love it. They have years of investment. They’ve spent hundreds of dollars. To be better than that, you have to come in from a different angle. IP is a chance. Playing with The Simpsons, that’s a unique differentiator. As the market matures, brands become important because it’s an entry and a differentiator in a profound way that players will care about.
GamesBeat: What predictions would you make about how this cycle will proceed?
Mooney: It’ll move in the way we’ve generally seen with console. It will become fewer, narrower, bigger in terms of what succeeds. There will still be the occasional thing that pops up the list, coming from nowhere. The reskins of the original versions, or the non-branded IP, that’s interesting. Working with your own IP—this is an experience EA has. SimCity is an interesting one. It is an effectively a branded IP. That’s worked in our favor. The game has to deliver on that, though.
You have to deliver on the promise of the IP. You have to look at it carefully. Is this something worth having from a marketing standpoint? Can I deliver something that, for someone who loves this, they will want to play it? That’s hard. I wouldn’t say we’ll see consolidation, but we’ll see a disappearance of the middle class. Lots of little three-person studios, lots of little companies focusing on some very specific thing like the Apple Watch, and then the biggest games—which we’re starting to see now—are from bigger companies who are able to put muscle behind it, guarantee quality, and deal with big branded IP. You have to have a certain level to even have table stakes to play.
GamesBeat: I’m curious how the hardcore gamer brands are going to do on mobile. We’ve seen Take-Two bring Grand Theft Auto onto mobile via premium sales. They’re not launching these games as live services. But when they make a transition to free-to-play live-service games, do you think the hardcore gamer brands are going to take their share of the market?
Mooney: Some will. It’ll vary. The Grand Theft Auto game has been relatively successful over the last two or three years. It would be a question of whether it’s the halo or the experience itself. I’m not capable of answering that. EA believes that some of those hardcore gamer brands—you’ll see us explore — in a methodical — committed fashion, stuff like sports. Some of our other brands I expect we’ll do. We’re actively working on it. I myself am working on brands that gamers love.
For what it’s worth to this room, part of the reason I came to EA—a meaningful factor in my decision to join—was precisely because I did feel like brand and quality were going to be critical. I wouldn’t say you do every single game in your portfolio that way, but to be a serious player you must be good at branded IP. You must have deep pockets. You must be able to deliver quality.
GamesBeat: What about some other things that require huge investment, like mobile gaming as part of this larger toys-to-life trend?
Mooney: It’s fascinating. I believe Lego announced its game just now. I don’t know a lot about it. I think it’ll be interesting to see. The VR stuff will be interesting to see. This is where, in terms of table stakes, you have to be a relatively big company, because you have to be doing this stuff. We released stuff on the watch. We released Real Racing. Admittedly very early.
Toys are an interesting one. You have to have the right combination of toy brand. Skylanders, to me, is a one-off. Stuff like the Lego and the Disney Infinity games will be more like what we’ll see.
GamesBeat: Apple says there are 607 games on the Apple Watch now. I don’t know if there’s a big hit yet.
Mooney: It’s an interesting platform. I’m wearing one. I love it as a watch. It’s a fascinating piece of technology. We’re very committed to it, just within my own group. EA as a company has separate efforts. Within my own group, for my new stuff, I have people working on the watch. It’s important in how it extends the experience, particularly in terms of deepening social. You have that capability.
That said, since the focus here is on branded IP—again, that will require a higher degree of difficulty. We’ll have to think carefully. Not only will we have to deal with the watch, but we have to fit it properly. I thought Family Guy did a rather naïve implementation of it. We didn’t. We want to make sure it fits with the IP.
GamesBeat: EA itself has gone through a fair amount of reorganization in mobile. The main transition seemed to be the one where you went from premium games to free-to-play live services.
Mooney: That would be my perception. I’m newish, but that’s certainly where I think the focus has been—hiring people like myself who have deep roots and experience in free-to-play.
Question: You mentioned that you thought the industry was going to break into a couple of big players and lots of really small studios. What’s your take on how the revenue will break between those groups?
Mooney: Hard to say. It’s going to be very hard to be in the top 30 for a sustained period unless you’re a fairly big player. It’s one thing to have a hit. You will see a couple of companies that take a hit and leverage out. But already, when you look at that list, it tends to be—of all the games that have ever been in the top 25 grossing, I would imagine that it’s a surprisingly small number of companies that have had any sustained success. The list is relatively static. It’s hard to break in.
GamesBeat: Andrew identified a risk of the branded game business, which is that the IP owner may take away your license after a period of time and give it to somebody else. You have that with the Minions game coming up. The last company that had the Minions license was Gameloft. Now the next game coming out is EA’s Minions Paradise. It comes out in concert with the movie. A licensing relationship doesn’t last forever.
Mooney: That’s true. I feel confident—not to bring it only back to the games, but with somebody like Gracie, we are deeply integrated. It would be very difficult—That is a really tight integration. There’s commitment and deep knowledge and effectiveness. The way you tend to mitigate against that is you take it very seriously. In many ways it’s a marriage more than a marketing opportunity, if you’re going to do it right. To buy a license you’re spending a lot of money. You’re providing a lot of guarantees. You’re committing a lot up front. That is a deep integration. That will tend to keep the relationships longer term.
Question: I’m curious, being a recent devotee of the Mad Max franchise, and having recently read that Kabam was going to do a mobile game based on that—unlike a product marketing to film release, how is the window so wide and broad between a film’s release and a mobile game being released in support of that?
Mooney: This is directly relevant. The short answer is that the quality of the game is more important. We’ve seen, with other IP, that it’s much more important for the game to be good than to be day and date with the movie. If you have a big movie it’s in people’s minds. If you need to take a couple months more to make sure the game is right, do it. I expect, without any knowledge of it at all, that they wanted to tune their game better.
We’ve seen that a lot. The Gameloft Minions game came out well after the movie and lasted for a fair while. Get the game right.
GamesBeat: On the flip side, Reliance Games admitted that their Hunger Games game that came out was falling short because they were in a rush to meet the day and date launch of the last movie.
Mooney: There’s a philosophy on soft launch, but that would be my guess. My own strong preference—you want to be day and date with the movie. You want to be before to get full benefit. But be right on the game. You can’t make a bad game and expect it to win. In social, at Zynga, we started off making games that were very opportunistic. Within a couple of years it had gotten to quality. Mobile moved much faster. After the first year in mobile you had to make quality.
Premium was okay because people expected a defined experience. You could get it out on time by chopping 20 percent of the levels. You could reduce the feature set. I don’t think, in mobile, you have that same luxury. There are minimum expectations if you’re shooting for the top of the charts. You don’t want to ship without meaningful pieces tuned right, without engagement, without monetization. Even at the cost of losing some acquisition. I’m with Andrew all the way when it comes to LTV. Engagement and LTV, in that order, are the most important things. That’s where you need to deliver.
To tie it back into brands, what brand helps with is engagement. People are engaged in that product. That’s why you make that deal, because engagement is the hardest thing. It may affect your audience size, but if you get more engagement, you win. Lots of games in the top grossing have very small audiences. Many, many good IPs are much bigger than that. If you deliver that core experience, even if you miss the movie, you’re going to win.
GamesBeat: Quality is this moving bar. Kabam came out very publicly this year and said that they’re going from 16 games released last year to four games this year. They’re moving much higher on the quality bar. If we’re thinking about quality two years from now, what are some of the elements of how much focus on quality has to happen?
Mooney: It’ll increase. My own personal opinion is that we’re headed toward an MMO world, where you expect very rich, very deep systems. The social better be right. The core gameplay better be right. You better not only have regular content, which requires a lot of people to produce at quality, but you’d better be introducing—to go old-school here—expansions on a pretty steady rhythm.
Simpsons, we basically have an event—I believe we have six weeks on, six weeks off as our pattern, and then we have mini-events within it. We find that the audience demands it. They might even take more. That’s a function, with a very large team, of just how much we can produce. That is still worth it. I would do more very comfortably. The numbers and the audience feedback—it’s an art. You have to look at the numbers and be informed on them and check your thinking with them. They’re all saying, “Do even more.” It will be more as well as high quality.
Question: When you’re using IP, are you more likely to spend on marketing, because you want to get the word out and let people know you have this branded game? Or are you more reliant on the IP to drive user acquisition in the existing IP channels when you spend money on it?
Mooney: A major short-term benefit is you get a lot of organic. You get a lot of lift from the brand itself. When you do advertising it’s multiplicative. At least you don’t have to explain why people might be curious about it. I would say that on balance, it helps massively with acquisition if you can hold them. Again, going back to your Mad Max example, my guess is they weren’t holding as much as they liked, so they took more time.
That’s one of the great things about a brand, a big, powerful brand. You get that. Certainly you should expect to get a big uplift off of it early and have a continuing uplift. It helps you make a splash, and if your game’s good enough it will hold and people will keep coming back.
I also think that with reactivation—My own expectation and experience is that I treat a reactivation like an install. Again, it helps, especially if the IP itself is live and doing something new. Treehouse of Horror for Simpsons is a regular reactivator for us. It’s consistently the best over the last three or four years of events. They make a big deal out of it on Fox. We make a big deal out of it in the game. That brings people back. We do reactivation campaigns. It’s very powerful, because you have something new.
A disadvantage of Mad Max is that it’s great to have this huge tentpole. Maybe you’ll have the DVD release, although I honestly don’t think the audience cares about it. But that’s the beauty of episodic TV-related stuff, or trilogies, where you’re getting multiple uplifts. You’re getting a cumulative benefit. I wouldn’t say it’s multiplicative, but you’re getting cumulative, because you get back those people you activated once. They’re more likely to reactivate when the IP has something interesting.
GamesBeat: With the celebrity part of this market, Glu has had some interesting observations about the Kim Kardashian license and those with other celebrities. They say that right now, their reach with these celebrities is about 400 million people on social. By the end of next year they predict that’s going to be 500 million. It’s an interesting way to guide people to think that the potential for your mobile game just gets bigger and bigger with the social reach of these celebrities.
Mooney: That’s true across the network. Games can actually max out. Simpsons has had a couple hundred million installs. SimCity announced recently that SimCity mobile has installed more than all the people who had ever bought a SimCity before. I saw this at Zynga as well. You reach an exhaustion. I was surprised that Hero Charge bought so early, because I would have thought they had other efficient methods of acquisition. I would assume Glu is mostly referring to network effect. They’re also bouncing people around similar games. I’m not confident they’ll keep them all.
GamesBeat: I guess they weren’t worried that they had reached everyone yet. But with signing on some of the people who have this kind of reach, you get some sort of predictability to how many people you can really go after.
Mooney: We’ll see. I’m curious. I don’t know their numbers. It feels like there’s a lot of people in a very similar space that they’ve signed.
GamesBeat: The assumption is that maybe all these people would download a mobile game.
Mooney: Maybe? I’ll make one more comment, and I mean in no way to be critical. There are different ways to do this. My own belief, which is why I voted with my feet to join EA, is that especially when it comes to branded IP: fewer, bigger, better. You want to get into the top 20. That’s a reasonable strategy.
We’ve seen smart companies do a bunch of smaller games and move people around in their network—Storm8, people like that. I think, personally, that the way you get into the top 20—Simpsons, three years in, I think it hit number five at Christmas. That’s remarkable. It’s consistently held in the top 30 over the last year. That’s remarkable for a game that’s three years old in this space, of that sort, with us spending a tiny fraction in paid acquisition compared to our competitors at that level.
We’ll see what happens. Again, I tend to agree with Andrew about fewer, bigger, better in terms of what you launch and push. That’s the way we’re going to win.
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