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EA is one of the biggest game publishers in the world, but it has taken an interest in “smaller” games.

Sure, titles like Madden and Apex Legends will always be its biggest money makers, but the company sees value in fostering development from tinier studios. That’s why it started the EA Originals program in 2017.

“Our mission with EA Originals is to find, cultivate, and maintain successful partnerships with the very best and boldest independent studio talent across the world, large and small alike,” EA Originals vice president and general manager Rob Letts said to GamesBeat. “We want to showcase them with the full support of EA, with talent being front and center, as Electronic Artists. We’re building a credible, admirable label we want independent studios to aspire to be associated with, demonstrating EA’s leadership position in independent game publishing by creating a tailored framework to successfully bring their games to market. We want to bring in and delight new types of players into our platforms and games.”

Other big publishers have shifted their resources to focus almost exclusively on their biggest franchises. Activision Blizzard, for example, is dedicating many of its studios to Call of Duty development.

EA, meanwhile, is using the Originals program as a way to release games that its triple-A studios wouldn’t. This includes Hazelight’s co-op adventures, A Way Out and It Takes Two. These games are experimental and story-driven. For a giant game studio that needs to make money in order to please shareholders, these kinds of games could seem uninteresting at best and risky at worst.

Big hits from smaller studios

But these bets can pay off. It Takes Two released in March. It isn’t just a critical hit. It’s sold over 2 million copies.

“We give studios full creative freedom to make the game they want to make, and we believe we will only get their best work that way, and so much so we put it in writing,” Letts told GamesBeat. “We don’t want to get in the way of that or ‘reel them in’ in any way. That’s why we work with the studios we work with in the first place. They are doing something bold, fresh, and innovative, and we don’t want to get in the way of that process. Our central tenet across all our partnerships is a support mentality — our job is to protect the integrity of our partner studios, whilst harnessing the formidable capabilities of the EA organization for the benefit and support of our partnerships and the amazing games being produced through them.”

It Takes Two takes collaboration.

Above: It Takes Two is both a critical and commercial hit for EA Originals.

Image Credit: EA/Hazelight

It’s one thing for EA itself to pledge that it wants to give these studios freedom to make the games they want. Josef Faris, Hazelight Studio’s founder, says that it’s the truth. I asked him to explain how EA gets involved with it’s game.

“Here’s the thing. Creatively, zero. Production-wise, helping out with what we need, we have 100% support,” Faris said. “Nobody believes me when I say this, but look: To give you the long answer short, we have a super-good relationship. We decide everything that’s going to be in the game, what it’s going to be about, how it’s going to be played, and so on. That’s it. I can’t speak for all the EA studios, but for Hazelight, it’s like that.”

Hazelight isn’t the only EA Originals team to create a hit this year. Velan Studios partnered with EA to release Knockout City, a multiplayer dodgeball game. It released in May. By June, it already reached over 5 million players.

Knockout City emphasizes positioning, skill, and timing.

Above: Knockout City.

Image Credit: Velan/EA

Velan spent 18 months developing and prototyping Knockout City before signing with EA. According to Velan Studios CEO Karthik Bala, EA’s support has been invaluable.

“They’ve provided feedback on builds of the game when we’ve asked for it,” Bala told GamesBeat. “We’ve been able to take advantage of EA’s user testing process, ability to run private and public betas, which was absolutely crucial, and some of the infrastructure pieces such as the EA ID account system, which gave us a way to implementing seamless crossplay/cross-progression on Day 1. The Knockout City team at Velan is about 50 developers, and we built the game engine and a lot of the networking tech from scratch. But to get to scale and launch globally on so many platforms, we needed that support from EA.”

A little help from a giant gaming publisher

When you’re a smaller studio, EA’s resources for features like online matchmaking and cross-play can be a huge help. And, of course, the studio is able to help market games to a large audience that is out of reach for most indie developers.

“Our role is to foster and support the optimal conditions for these studios to produce the great work they’re capable of, providing service when asked rather than forcing it upon them, and to provide enabling resources from within EA Partners, the wider EA org or from outside, which we collectively determine will assist our partner studio,” said Letts. “We only step in where and when our partners indicate they need support.”

EA Originals has been a big win for the company so far. It gets to diversify its software portfolio, and these games can still become hits.

“My hope is that big publishers in gaming understand more and more, yes, you have a responsibility, money-wise, for your shareholders and so on,” said Faris. “But you have to understand and not forget that it cannot be only about that. You have to have an understanding that we need to make great games.”

In short, EA Originals is bringing the art back to Electronic Arts.

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