Frank Gibeau Interview

Frank Gibeau Interview

Electronic Arts' transformation from quantity-over-quality behemoth to the agile, slimmed-down company it has become has been a dramatic one. But although it may seem like it, it certainly didn't happen over night. We sat down with EA Games president, Frank Gibeau, to discuss the publisher's continuing metamorphosis, its strategies for the future and the reinstatement of classic IPs.

EA's efforts to rebrand itself are starting to pay dividends. How has EA been so successfully transformed?
You create long-term value for a company. We’ve been in existence for 28 years, been on top, been challenged and are coming back, we’re on the offense. Regaining your reputation starts at a creator level, customers and fans. Three years ago when I started to look at EA games we had a bunch of licences such as Bond and Lord of the Rings that were gone, a Need for Speed franchise that was in steep decline from a quality and sales standpoint, we didn’t have any IPs and had to figure out how to dig our way out of the hole.

It started with a lot of conscious decisions. One of the things I learned at EA when we were great and at the top of our game was each of the studios that were creating games had their own unique culture. When you would go to Black Box, the UK, Dice, they were different and it felt like travelling to different places. As opposed to one homogeneous centrally planned economy which is what it started to feel like, and frankly was.

So we purposefully blew the place up and the concept that we created was ‘city states’, which mean you had creative independence and autonomy to build a product as long as you got to a couple of key issues: you had to be able to hit a date you committed to, a quality level we were proud of and had to be profitable and we also had to lean into the online idea to transform from a packaged goods fire and forget model to a digital model where it’s service oriented and we’re connected to our gamers and fans over a long period where we can entertain them for long periods of time.

That was the original idea three years ago, but when you have two and half year product cycles it takes a little time to get out. Battlefield 3 technology is three years old, we green-lit that and the Frostbite 2 technology and started putting things together, we had some rough roads to ride there since we had to take some capacity out of the organisation. We had too many teams building games that the market didn’t want and had to focus on fewer games with great teams and double down on making products.

Battlefield 3

That’s the process we went through and DICE is very different than BioWare, which is different from Visceral, which is different to Danger Close. Giving them the opportunity to create their identities, invest in their cultures and come into work – if you like coming into work you like building what you’re building – fundamentally that was the key dynamic. A stupidly simple idea, but if you don’t consciously go after it and make it the focus of what you do it doesn’t happen. It’s easy to fall into the category of ‘I have a year, let’s just rip out another game’. The market said ‘no, we’re done and you need to do something different’.

I think it’s a credit to John [Riccitiello] and our company that we were able to respond to those shocks to the system and have started to rebuild our reputation. I’m very proud of the products we put out.

We’re doing a lot of interesting things because we care about the products we’re making and know it’s the right thing to do long-term and the profits are coming around, the company is doing a lot better financially, we’re starting to put points on the board and we’re on offense. We feel good about it.

Dead Space 2 is a clear example of that. How important is it for developers to maintain faith in an IP, even if it initially faces a mixed reception?
I think what we learned was that we had an idea that resonated with the audience and it was high-quality – it was an 89 average score I think. That was the hard part, then we said ‘how can we make this broader appealing, more interesting, how do we invest and turn it into a hit’ When you’re launching a new IP it’s very rare that the first game comes out and blows the doors off and that’s the end. It took until the third Grand Theft Auto to have a hit, a few Call Of Dutys and a few Medal Of Honors.

You've got to stick with it. It isn’t always easy because there are analysts, press and investors that don’t like it, get pissed and want stuff now, but you have to be confident in your team and resolute that it is the right idea. The things we had with Dead Space 2 worked and it felt good, but we also had a lot of shocks to the system in how the IP developed; we had some people leave the company, found a great benchmark, had a succession plan in place and made a better game that is outselling the original. We feel really good about it.

The cool thing about making games now is that you have a lot of telemetry and analytics coming in from user behaviour, on what levels they churned on, what they liked and didn’t like and then going out and fine-tuning changes to you can make a Dead Space into a Dead Space 2 or Dragon Age into Dragon Age 2. You can add more, take away things they didn’t like and make a better product. You have to give the same team the opportunity to make the same game through multiple iterations to hit their potential.

There’s been a lot of confusion on Mirror’s Edge recently, has EA given up on it?
Not at all, we’re just trying to figure out how to bring Mirror’s Edge back and in what way, that’s part of the creative development process. I know there were some stories about how EA killed Mirror’s Edge. I’m the guy that green lights the games, I didn’t kill it. What we was said was ‘what do we need to do to make this a hit, to go from version one to two so that it sells three times as many units and has a much bigger audience?' The game from a quality standpoint was good, but now needs to be great, so we’re actively working on ideas in the Mirror’s Edge universe; we just haven’t locked on a way to bring it back so that fans will be excited and at the same time we get to a bigger audience. That’s god's honest truth.

Need For Speed Hot Pursuit

EA has a library of games that goes back a number of years. Are any of these franchises considered when embarking on new projects?
I worked on Desert Strike and Road Rash back in the day on Sega Genesis so trust me I’m familiar with the IP history. When looking at a new bet, a new investment to make, we always look at whether we should create a new IP, bring one back or have something in active growth right now that we can double down on. So we constantly look at ways to grow the recent category of titles like Burnout and Need for Speed. Same thing with the old Bullfrog IPs like Dungeon Keeper, Populous, Power Monger, Magic Carpet… I could go on. So we do look at that stuff and are very cognisant of our past.

The key thing is if we do bring it back it has got to be good. I don’t know about you but when you look back at GoldenEye you think of it as this amazing game and then you go and play it and are like, ‘oh really?’ So from our perspective we have to manage that time that makes things look nicer in the rear view mirror, and what you have to do now. Production values and game mechanics are very different than what you see on some of those IPs but trust me, it’s a part of the asset of our company to have 25 years of IP and you’ll see them come back in different ways at different times.

Do you feel there are any gaps in EA's portfolio or any areas that you could be stronger in?
I think there’s always categories and platforms that are interesting. Action: there’s opportunity for us to grow there. We’re in a good position with BioWare’s RPGs, we’re going after FPS and driving is something that's solid for us. I’m really interested in smart phones and tablets, and we’re doing great work there figuring out how to bring more IPs and integrate them in interesting ways; the Dead Space iPad game is phenomenal, so we see opportunities to grow platforms.

Free-to-play is a model that is going to be very powerful in the west; it’s so cool to be able to go into a game at your own pace and go as far as you want or as little as you want. It’s a very appealing development model to be able to get games out cheaper and faster, to respond to supply. You’ll see us dabble a lot more aggressively in free-to-play, action, social networking, mobile and handsets.

Is EA open to further studio acquisitions over the next few years in order to strengthen its portfolio in other departments?
Absolutely. It’s actually pretty tough to be a HD developer right now. There’s a lot of shakeout going on in the industry and independent development community. Fortunately in EA partners we can go in and work with the best of the best and access the talent there. But at the same time there’s a lot talented people we’d love to be part of EA, and the label to help us keep building the run that we’re on.

Entertainment is about maintaining momentum and we want to keep that momentum and keep adding to the portfolio. Acquisition has always been a growth tool for us and over the 25 years we’ve always been buying companies like BioWare, DICE and Criterion. We’re not going to slow down on that, but at the same time it needs to fit with what our strategic imperatives are; about being a digital online company and being able to go after the extremely high-growth categories like free-to-play, mobile and those areas.