EA’s Nick Earl on the transition to free-to-play, relationships with mobile platforms and core gamers on tablets
Gaming giant Electronic Arts, which has seen years of success on console, PC and handheld, is seeing more and more success in the burgeoning mobile games market. The company released the highly-anticipated driving game Real Racing 3 yesterday and will launch Command and Conquer: Tiberium Alliances soon for mobile.
Nick Earl, senior vice president and general manager of EA’s All Play label, recently spoke with Inside Mobile Apps about EA’s transition to free-to-play, its relationships with the mobile platforms (Apple and Google) and the core gamer market on tablet.
Inside Mobile Apps: What has EA learned so far from some of its freemium titles like The Simpson: Tapped Out and The Sims FreePlay?
Nick Earl, senior vice president and general manager of EA’s All Play label (pictured right): We’ve learned a lot. Top of the list is how open this model is in terms of the number of players and how big the audience can be when a game is free-to-play, even though there are a lot of opportunities if you’re willing to spend money inside these freemium games. Having [games] as this model means it’s completely open and free for millions to play on a daily basis. We’ve learned that we have to be able to support a large audience and that’s the infrastructure of the game. The operations has to be able to support large audiences and we’ve learned that on games like The Simpsons, for example, which now has now more than five million daily active users, and when we started it, we struggled. We rebuilt the infrastructure to support and maintain large audiences.
We’ve learned that the design of a free-to-play game is different from a premium game or console game where you pay upfront and get all you can eat. It requires a different style of design, that’s a core compulsion loop, that the user experience as well as the sinks where the game tends to monetize. You need to construct a game that’s going to work for the majority of people that are not going to pay at all but is still going to make sense for people who have the disposable income and desire to speed up and experience or get access to a premium item, and that doesn’t really upset the balance that exists for the entire community that are playing the game. There’s a real art to creating and designing these games.
IMA: With Real Racing 3 recently releasing, which is a free-to-play game, could you talk about the decision or the process of making the change from Real Racing 2′s premium model to the freemium model?
Earl: From the beginning, we made the decision, both EA and Firemonkeys to go freemium from the beginning for a couple of reasons. One, is that the market was moving and voting for going freemium, even though this it’s not supported by everyone because some people don’t like change. We acknowledge that and understand it. The vast majority like that there is no barrier to download a game and to start enjoying it and be a part of that community and experience. It’s clear to us that the way we we’re going to make this the most accessible and get the audience to appreciate what we believe to be a high-quality experience — free-to-play was the way to go. Secondly, we came up during the course of development with this unique, innovative multiplayer mode called Time-Shifted Multiplayer, which allows you to compete with your friends but do it in an asynchronous manner. Once we came up with that, we realized that this game is going to be more fun if there was a large audience. If there wasn’t a limit of people willing to spend $5 or $7 or $10 dollars on a game. We wanted to open it up and make it free. As we were developing, it was validating the decision to go freemium and that’s why we went all in at that point.
IMA: On the flip side, you still have premium titles in your portfolio on iOS and Android and you’ve seen some success with games that are premuium with a price upfront and in-app purchases as well, like Need for Speed: Most Wanted and FIFA Soccer 13. Is EA still seeing success with premium mobile games?
Earl: We have not made the decision to focus exclusively on premium. There’s a place for premium with in-app purchases — we call that “paymium” to make it more confusing. There’s a place for those games and we’ll continue to evaluate each game by a franchise by franchise or game by game basis to figure out what’s the optimal way to construct a game and construct a business model for that game. The majority of games are going to be freemium going forward unless something radical shifts inside the industry. I don’t see it departing from this model any time soon.
IMA: In EA’s last earnings call, the company mentioned again how much revenue The Simpsons: Tapped Out generated. Distimo recently put out a report, which showed EA at the top spot among all top grossing cross-app store publishers. With mobile development having better margins than console development, will EA be focusing more of its business on the mobile platform?
Earl: We can’t talk about our gross profits and gross margins from system to system, but what I would say is this — we are enormous believers in the mobile platform and we’re excited about the future. If you take a look at the numbers and the trajectory, there’s no argument against how fast these devices are being adopted. We’re seeing unbelievable activation rates on a daily basis. We saw enormous numbers over Christmas. We’re seeing a whole market spring up in front of us. We’re excited about mobile. There are potentially millions of people that will upgrade from feature phones to smartphones and tablets in the years ahead. So there’s just no denying that mobile is enormously exciting to this company. And, our goal is to make the greatest highest quality games we can in front as many people as possible.
With all of that said, the company is invested in the future of consoles, and now that there’s some announcements about the next gen, we’re excited about the possibilities there and we’re also big players in the PC business and have some big franchises like The Sims that make sense for the PC — both online and offline. We’re a large publisher that has the ability and the resources to go after multiple markets and find a way to tie these franchises, so that you can play and interact with them across any device at any time, anywhere. That’s the Holy Grail here — to have the ability to access a given franchise from multiple devices, and your data moves seamlessly across sessions. That’s something EA believes in.
IMA: We recently spoke with the developer working on Command & Conquer: Tiberium Alliances, which will launch on mobile soon, featuring cross-platform play between mobile and PC. Will more EA games feature cross-platform play?
Earl: That’s something we’ll push toward. There’s a lot of intricacies around design. I don’t think you can necessarily stop playing on web and then pick up where you were on mobile, but I do think you can interact with it. I like to use FIFA as a good example of that. On your phone, you can act more like the manager and switch positions — who your players are on the starting eleven and later you can take that new roster and play a new game in all its 3D glory with your 5.1 surround sound on a beautiful HD screen. And then the next time you can open your iPad and look at all the stats that you generated from that game. We love the notion of having your data in the cloud and being able to interact with it no matter where you are and when.
IMA: Is EA transitioning away from social and more toward mobile?
Earl: What I would say is that we are huge believers in mobile and are excited about where it’s going. Social has been a little tricky, so we rethought our resources there and which franchises to get behind. We still believe that there’s a market there, but it’s a matter of doing the right game at the right time. You’ll see a lot of energy and output on tablet and the iPhone side. We believe there’s no ceiling on that market in the foreseeable future.
IMA: For mobile, is EA seeing a difference between how games perform or how users interact with tablets vs. smartphones?
Earl: Definitely, and we love that tablets are taking off because it’s a longer play session. It’s a little bit more of a core gamer that spends time on the tablet, and that plays into our wheel house. As games on these phones start to include core games and compliment casual games that became popular in the past few years, it really plays into EA’s skill set — strong graphics, the design we learned over the years with console games. a lot of these fit perfectly to the core experiences, that’s especially true or relevant to tablets. It’s not that you don’t see core games on mobile — you do — that’s where a large part of the market is and that’s where we’ll continue to go.
IMA: EA has the luxury to spend more than most studios on user acquisition. Plants vs. Zombies was recently featured in the Apple App Store, how much does that help you in terms of acquiring users and generating revenue?
Earl: It’s important. It’s a big advantage we have — our relationship with Apple. Our placement is based on the quality of games we have and our relationship with Apple and their support of what we’re doing. They’re particularly fond of what we’re doing with Real Racing, they’ve had it on stage a couple of times. The placement on the app store is hard to overestimate how important that is. It’s crucial. We’re appreciative of having such strong connections. That’s true with google too. We have a strong connection with Google and Amazon on the Android side. We rely on placement to be a big part of the acquisition strategy.
IMA: What else is EA doing to increase user acquisition?
Earl: We focus for the most part on big licenses and brands — The Simpsons and Scrabble as well as our own licenses like The Sims and Madden, which is shared by us and NFL. We go for those brands that turn your heads. That does’t mean we won’t have new IP. We’ll always have new IP and help raise their exposure. Real Racing is not a licensed game. It’s our IP that we built up. It’s an unknown quantity that moved up the charts. At the end of the day, what really matters is quality of experience. That rules our direction. Our goal is to create the greatest experience we possible can and deliver it to the consumer. If we do that, the rest takes care of itself. If a user engages with a game and enjoys it, the rest happens.
IMA: What is the difference between the performance of your games on iOS and Android.
Earl: We can’t talk a lot about how they perform differently from a financial perceptive. We’re a little behind the eight ball on Android but we’re catching up. Going forward, you’ll see we have simultaneous releases for every one of our major launches. Some cases we’ll lag a little bit, but as a platform agonistic publisher and developer, our aim is to support all of the successful devices and hardware platforms. Sometimes one has to catch up to the rest, that’s the case with Android but we’ll definitely get there soon.
IMA: What are your prediction for mobile games in 2013?
Earl: We’ll see Android get stronger. Apple will continue to grow. We’ll see more core games, that a strong market segment. We believe it fits well into what EA does. The rise of causal games will continue. We’ve seen big success here, and with our competitors, capturing large audiences. We’ll see a tremendous flight to quality. It’s crucial for casual and core. Audiences will be more demanding. We’ll see the standard inflation with development getting harder and more expensive. You have to bring a lot of production value, great assets, a solid design. We view this as a competitive advantage to us. We have the right people, the right resources. They will be put to a significant test this year.