Electronic Arts exec Nick Earl: "We expect tablet sales to double by next year"

by John Gaudiosi

February 8 2012

Electronic Arts has invested in mobile and tablet game development more than most traditional video game publishers. Has it paid off? And what's to come?

Electronic Arts has been undergoing a seismic shift in its videogame strategy over the past few years. The game maker, which has its roots in PC and console games, was an early entrant to the mobile gaming space and the tablet gaming business.

EA has purchased some of the leading game studios in the mobile space, including Chillingo, Firemint, PlayFish and PopCap, in an effort to develop games across platforms. Nick Earl, Senior Vice President & General Manager, EA Studios, has recently transitioned from the console space to the mobile space. Here he talks to TabTimes about the strategies Electronic Arts is pursuing in regards to tablet entertainment in an exclusive interview.

TabTimes: What strategies has EA applied from its console business to the emerging tablet games business?

Nick Earl: I’ve been really driving the business strategy with the group and quite simply, it is all about quality. We have a saying inside the company, “fewer, bigger, better,” and that’s something that we pioneered over on the console side when I was running the console side. It really drove our meteoritic rating improvement. 

It drove more innovation and a higher quality experience to the consumer. With mobile and social, we’re taking our big brands and really getting behind them with our resources. We’re looking to craft out innovation and drive the market.

Part of that is moving to the freemium model, which has been a big transition for everyone in the marketplace. From the console space we learned that it’s better to do one thing great than three things mediocre.

What have you learned about the tablet space?

We’ve been in the tablet space from the beginning when the iPad launched and we’ve been very bullish and very supportive of it as it’s grown in size and fragmented out into many players.

What we’ve learned is that you have to be early. You have to bring the right franchises and then the right innovation and experience against those that really match up to what the user interface is and how and where they’re played.

Tablets are interesting devices because they have the portability of a smartphone but with a larger screen that in some ways reflects playing on a desktop PC or a television. We’ve been able to dedicate resources to building games expressly for the tablet customer with brands like The Sims, Battlefield 3 and Mass Effect.

How does the tablet consumer differ from your typical smartphone or mobile phone consumers?

There definitely is crossover of the two, but what we tend to notice is a general trend that the tablet consumer tends to go for longer sessions and they’re looking for games that will deliver a longer play experience. The smartphone user is really looking for those two to five-minute bursts of gaming.

Even though we’ll have games on both smartphone and tablets that are the same franchise, we do try to cater gameplay to adapt to the different playing styles. The challenge is how do you take a franchise and work it across all of these different platforms and customers and not lose what makes that franchise unique?

What strategies have you put in place with cross-platform gaming since launching Scrabble on tablets, smartphones and Facebook?

The key is having a consistent user experience and user interface for each device. We’re doing a lot of work to insure that it’s completely accessible to move across games seamlessly. Over the course of the day, consumers are using different devices.

We’re working with Scrabble and other games in the Hasbro universe, as well as original games, to develop experiences that the user can engage with from multiple devices. Any franchise that we take cross-platform, we look back at Scrabble [as an example of how] to make it a comfortable experience as gamers move across platforms.

How are today’s more powerful tablets influencing the games that you’re bringing to tablets?

The Sims has been around in so many shapes and forms from Sims Social to Sims Freeplay on mobile and tablet. That game goes back to the roots of Sims and has been well-received by the audience. You can go as serious as you want or as casual as you want depending on what you want. Battlefield 3 or Medal of Honor or Mass Effect appeal to a more core audience.
 
How do you approach developing core franchises versus original IP for the tablet market?

EA has been dedicated to building a portfolio of successful franchises. We’re putting a lot of enthusiasm, resources and energy going into creating original games. Chillingo has been great at finding original games. We have two studios in Melbourne, Iron Monkey and Firemint, and they’re working on original IPs like Real Racing and others that haven’t been released yet.

Do you see tablets as an incubator to introduce IPs that could migrate to consoles and other platforms?

That’s a great strategy. We absolutely feel that certain ideas are better and more appropriate for the mobile space, whether it’s tablet or smartphones or even thin client PC games, which can reach the market faster and are less expensive to make.

And then there’s the possibility of growing those into a full console experience. It’s important to note that we don’t take shortcuts on the experience even though we’re spending less time and money on developing games for tablets.

With so many rich classic game properties like Populous, M.U.L.E. and Road Rash, how do you choose games for the tablet space?

We’re looking at these classic IPs very seriously. It’s been a treat looking in EA’s IP closet to see what’s not being used.

Theme Park was one that we identified as a good fit for tablets. We’re developing that now and there are plenty of others we’re looking to bring out. We have the option to do something new or to bring something out that has huge equity in the hearts of gamers from over the years. A lot of the gameplay can remain intact with tablet iterations of games, rather than what we did with Syndicate on the console side recently.

How specifically are you adapting Theme Park for tablets?

Theme Park focuses more on the decoration and building style of game that has emerged as a leading type of freemium game experience. It borrows the elements and culture of Theme Park and adapts it. There are examples of games that will be coming out later this year that are more intact to what people remember. Some games, like Tetris, have evolved with the touch user interface for tablets.

What role do tablets play at Electronic Arts versus console or PC games?

Tablets are a big part of our business. This is a diverse company and although we have an agnostic view of all the formats, we expect tablet sales to double again by next year into triple-digit million units. That’s a real market with no signs of slowing down.

Tablets play a big part in our thinking and planning. It plays a big part in our games. We’re putting more energy, more resources and focusing more attention on the tablet world.

As tablet games become deeper and richer experiences that compete more directly with consoles, how does price point come into play?

We watch the market and the numbers. The challenge we have is not to get into over-engineering. Playfish, who is all about understanding the analytics of customer behavior down to the second, is staying in close touch with customer behavior and monetization, and even where they’re getting stuck in games. Those analytics are impacting how we build games, how we price games, and informing our thinking on how we adapt to this changing market.

What are your strategies for core gamers versus casual gamers?

The whole gaming audience is expanding in such a big way with the casual user, which we haven’t been a part of until recently. We need to be really true to understanding what that casual customer wants, as opposed to what the core PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 customer wants. Sometimes they want the same thing and in other cases they’re going to want a differentiated experience. Staying in close touch in terms of gameplay, innovations and features is how we address that challenge.

Is Battlefield one of the first ones that you classify as something that was designed more for the core that you were just talking about?

Yeah, it is, and you kind of look at the core franchises that come out of the label, so that includes the games playable which I was a part of for ten years and it includes sports and the RPG group.

Those are really driving towards that core customer and the core gamer who spends most of his or her time on a console in front of the television. But now they're increasingly moving  to tablets to complement their gaming as well as being a great portable device, so if they’re commuting or in between meetings or whenever they can get their gaming minutes in.

The other side of business which I really represent is going after the casual audience. We tend to focus less on those deeper core experiences and more on the casual connect experiences like term-based games like Scrabble and Sims and  games like Tetris and Theme Park and things like that.

How quickly do you see things evolving in the tablet market with consumers becoming more mainstream, especially with the influx of the lower priced tablets like Kindle Fire and the Nooks?

Those devices fall kind of brilliantly under my purview on the casual side where we have the perfect licenses and original IP that address that lower end of the market or the less expensive tablets.

[This audience] loves word-based games like Scrabble, especially on the Kindle and the Nook. We’re really spending a lot of energy and resources in continuing to improve the whole Scrabble game and how it’s connected to other devices and the user interface and user experience.

John Gaudiosi has been covering the videogame industry for 20 years for outlets like Reuters, The Washington Post, Forbes and The Hollywood Reporter

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