When The Wall Street Journal wanted to talk to Electronic Arts about its E3 plans, the company didn't point towards its stand-out titles like Medal of Honor: Warfighter or Need for Speed: Most Wanted. EA started talking about its plan to spend $250 million over four years to connect its games across multiple devices.
The Journal wrote that EA plans "to develop technology that links multiple versions of a single game played on different hardware." EA is spending real money on making cross-platform play a reality. Why? Because it has no choice.
To some extent, it's a fight or flight response. EA understands that it can't stand still, but nor can it move gracefully from one console generation to another. The world has changed too much.
Peter Moore, COO at EA, tells Gamasutra, "We're picking our way through what 'digital transformation' means. We recognized that we are standing on a burning platform. It's an oil rig in the middle of the sea, and it's exploding. You can stay or you can hold our noses and jump. At least that way, you have a shot."
Anyone who has become obsessed by a game understands the value in a connected games experience, that when you are waiting for a bus, it's pretty neat to tinker with your weapons set or explore your locale or fiddle with your cities' output or do anything useful that connects you with the game you care about.
Moore says, "The company has a vision and a mission, which we don't talk a lot about externally, but you find it a lot when you go to the [EA] office. In broad terms, we talk about uniting through play, bringing people together through play. The mission is to build the world's best digital playground with fun for everyone, anywhere, anytime. We think that the future of gaming is cross-platform play, always having something with you that's a gaming device, but everything you do connects."
He adds, "I have four or five games here that I play on the wireless network and it saves my data, it adds to my achievements or adds to my score and my place on the leader list. We think that is the future, if it's not already the present. We're building infrastructure and data services and all of the stuff you have to do to make all of that work, and we've been doing it for a number of years."
That all sounds fine and dandy. But what does it mean in practice? Take a game like FIFA. How can the cell phone experience be the same as the Facebook experience and the the console version?
"The intention is not to say 'I'm going to play 11 versus 11 on Facebook.' This is what people may be misinterpreting. Already on your iPhone, you can play with your FIFA Ultimate Team and manipulate your starting lineup, and see what's available."
Moore explains, "Eventually you can actually make a player transaction. It saves to the cloud and then when you log in on your PC at work, they're ready to play with a new starting lineup. Whatever the device is, what is that experience you can put on it that adds in aggregate to the whole idea? It's 'horses for courses." (This is a Britishism which means "things go in their appropriate places.")
"It's taken us a long time to build what we need to support that experience from a technical perspective. It has taken a lot of work," he says.
Of course, this concerted effort to "bring people together through play" isn't just for the sake of bringing people together through play. Moore explains that it makes sense for business. While there's a lot of activity going on that doesn't directly translate into revenue, EA has long-since decided that it's not merely in the business of transacting entertainment experiences for cash.
"We like to think that if you're connected to us 24 hours a day then the opportunity to make a buck is greater. People laugh at me, but I play Bejeweled Blitz at every opportunity I get. I love the competitive nature of it, I've probably spent 180 bucks of my own money on things that accelerate my performance. And it's purely about getting up the leaderboard every week. I can spend five dollars right now with three clicks of this [cell phone] device.
"I won't use the accelerators until I've got home to my iPad later on tonight because I'm faster at playing the game on the iPad than the iPhone. We're seeing more and more of that. We're seeing hundreds of thousands of people every hour somehow transacting with us that way."
I mention to Moore that I spent way too much money buying players for my FIFA team. Classic Moore, he replies, "There's no such thing as spending way too much money on FIFA. And imagine if you could do it 24 hours a day!"
We turn to the next generation of consoles, and he points out that the conversation isn't just about Xbox 720 or PlayStation 4. "The complexity is that you have to deliver the games not only on an Xbox 720 or a PS4, but you'd better have a SmartGlass solution, you've got an iPhone and tablet experience and you have to be able to do something on the PC with a special app. And you'd better have something that sits as a community layer like we do with Battlelog in Battlefield or Autolog in Need for Speed, that allows you to interact with fellow players."
Colin Campbell writes for IGN. You can follow him on Twitter @colincampbellx.