EA Sports played a particularly key role in Electronic Arts' presentation this year at E3. The label's portfolio lies at an intersection area for the publisher's strategy around a couple key trends: Social play that encourages players to engage more deeply with a brand, and further progress in gesture-based gaming.
"We are probably in year three of a very focused community management strategy that allows our consumers and our fans to provide us with feedback," says EA sports head Peter Moore, talking to Gamasutra about the label's plans "to give them platforms for their opinions as well as finding ways to be able to integrate that in a very public manner."
That Madden 2012 cover star Peyton Hillis -- who appeared on stage during EA's presentation -- was chosen to front the title by public vote is a good example, in Moore's view: "If there's a piece of real estate in video games that's prominent, it's the cover of Madden," he says.
"There were 32 players, one from each team, and it all came down to Peyton Hillis and the fans have spoken... it's the first time we've ever had a player from a losing team the year before on the cover."
"I think the ability for us to be able to utilize the power of the community to listen, to learn and to improve as a result is very important in our industry," he adds.
When it comes to the quickly-evolving motion control arena, EA Sports continues a calculated increase of its presence in that space. Last year the company released EA Sports Active for Kinect and an edition of Tiger Woods PGA Tour for PlayStation Move; following the initial unveil of those input technologies at E3 2010, Moore told us the label's approach to utilizing them would be 'very prescriptive'.
Through those releases, Moore says the teams "learned a lot of lessons that have taught us what we need to do to make the application of that technology more prevalent. We know exactly what we need to do. We have four Kinect games next calendar year. In the case of Move we had Tiger, and we're looking at ways to be able to integrate Move going forward."
The Wii U's New Frontier
And what about this year's newest console innovation: Nintendo's Wii U, which will add a touch tablet controller to the home experience? Nintendo was joined in its presentation by EA CEO John Riccitiello, demonstrating the publisher's interest in supporting the hardware early.
"My dev teams -- their heads are exploding, in a good way and a bad way," Moore says, and it appears the label will use caution in its eagerness here, too: "How do we look at this new technology? We don't just want to bolt this on; this has to be relevant to the sports gamer."
Moore says he likes Wii U, "from the perspective of once again, Nintendo is putting a different spin on things, showing that it's not all about graphic fidelity and processing power. In the world of sports, our minds are racing as to how we can bring a sports game to life in a unique way." For example, he feels that being able to use the controller to call plays in Madden would be "kind of a no-brainer for us."
And the exec finds it heartening that with its next console, Nintendo seems committed to addressing some of the issues third parties have seen as limitations on the Wii platform: "We love the fact [Wii U] is high def, that Nintendo has a renewed focus on building online communities. Nintendo adds that kind of outlier mentality that is a very different take on what the industry needs, and more power to them," he says.
The Multiplatform Social Explosion
EA Sports' games in particular stand to benefit from the rapid flourishing of multiplatform, social play. "We look at our research and see, there are 130, 140 million fans of the NFL in America. What do we need to do to bring a Madden experience to them? It could be as simple as a three-minute experience every day, or as complex as playing Franchise Mode, or every stop in between."
The divisions between gamers and nongamers, or even among gamers on different devices, is a thing of the past, Moore enforces. "Now everyone who's a sports fan who has a device is a consumer," he says. "The goal ultimately is to move those folks further along the value chain, and that's what we're intending to do. It's a double-edged sword: It's a more fragmented marketplace, but there are more gamers than ever before. It's a broad swath of experiences and a great opportunity to grow our business."
One way is to offer consumers in-depth social tools around games: "We're already doing that [with] FIFA," says Moore. During the development of EA Sports Football Club, the team looked at ways players would want to represent their real-life team. "There's a massive humanity that supports this tribal thing called soccer out there, and how do we bring that to life within the video game experience? It's a quantum leap in the virtualization of the passion I have for the game, more than just for the video game."
"You can imagine that being extended, this concept of persistence, to Madden next year," Moore suggests. "We want to use this ability to make our games less discrete, standalone experiences and more like services. Madden shouldn't be a place you buy, it should be a place you go. And skill-based gaming is the next frontier we continue to look at with our partners at Virgin Gaming: How do I allow you to prove how good you are and have a monetary value around that as well?"
New innovations are currently being driven by platform holders, and software publishers must leverage them and adapt, Moore says. But the game business is "clearly becoming an industry that's taking massive franchises and then spreading that experiences across multiple platforms and multiple geographies, anytime, anywhere. There will be no offline games, and it's very pleasing to see how our industry has embraced connectivity, has changed our business models to react to consumer demands."
We spoke to Moore in a room lined with large individual posters representative of each of EA Sports' major franchises, but notably missing from the lineup was EA Sports MMA. Last year, he acknowledged that breaking into the new, popular MMA field would be difficult with the major UFC license held by rival THQ, but that the entry represented a "long term play" for the publisher.
"MMA's doing fine, we just have no announcements to make on future iterations," Moore says. The company has a boxing title with Fight Night, which Moore says has been particular in particular for its ability "to tell a story outside the ring. It could be a precursor to some interesting ways of having an RPG-type storytelling with a game like this," he suggested.
But the main challenge facing sports gaming remains the fact that there's generally little room for multiple publishers contending for one sport. "When you look at the math in today's world, and the number of platforms you're obligated to be able to develop for, is there room for three players to still make money? We have to be able to show shareholders a return on investment, and there are very few instances where there are multiple publishers all fighting over the same sport and all are being successful."
"That's not to say there can be only one player, but if you're a distant number two, the numbers don't add up for you."