When former Electronic Arts COO John Riccitiello returned to the company last year to serve as its CEO, he immediately made his mark by reorganizing the company into four labels, each of which is then comprised of development studios, under what EA calls the "city-state model."
Mike Quigley serves as group vice president of global marketing for the EA Games label, the group containing both EA's highest number of internal studios as well as the broadest number of genres - ranging from Criterion's racers to DICE's online shooters to newly-acquired BioWare's RPGs.
During a recent EA press event, Gamasutra sat down with Quigley to discuss the charter of the most ambiguous of EA's four labels, how the company fills gaps in its long-term lineup, how Riccitiello's "all about the games" strategy has affected business, and how the BioWare and Pandemic acquisitions kept EA from "getting our ass kicked in RPG and action."
What is the EA Games brand all about right now?
Mike Quigley: With the label right now, we really have the mission to become the world's greatest collection of developers that are really focused and have a passion for innovation and creativity. We are proud of the fact that the depth and the variety and the diversity of the teams are pretty unique, if you look across the industry.
When you add guys like Ray [Muzyka] and Greg [Zeschuk] from BioWare and their teams and the Pandemic team - those are two examples of groups that have just recently joined in the fold - to teams like our DICE team up in Sweden, or Black Box in Vancouver, it's a pretty fun place to work, when you think about it. It's all that talent.
One of the things that we've been really focused on - it sounds really simple - is on game quality. When John Riccitiello came back last April, he'd done some student tours and wandered around, and he'd just said, "Hey guys, we've got to get back to basics. It's all about the games."
I've been with EA for nine years, and one of the things that I'm proudest of is...if you think of some recent examples - Army of Two
moving from November to March, Battlefield: Bad Company
moving from March to June, and Mercenaries 2 moving
- we had it at last fiscal, and now we're looking at August 31st - those changes were made for one reason and one reason only, which was the games weren't ready.
MQ: In the past, that may have been a little bit more driven by some corporate financial needs and that sort of thing, but I'm telling you now, that's not where we are and that's not how we are as a company.
It's really exciting to be a part of that. It's fun when you see the company making the right decision, and John is frankly setting the vision and the strategy for that, and we're all eagerly behind him on that.
What defines an "EA Games" game, as opposed to another label?
MQ: Again, the main driver is amazing talent that is very passionate about what they're building and are best-in-class for what they do. So if you think about BioWare's RPG heritage, or DICE's FPS heritage, or Will Wright's and Maxis' strategy and life simulation heritage, that is really the core tenet. Some of this may be a little more accessible for people.
I think if you had to force the answer, I think we're more about core games, if I had to give something to help people stay more grounded. If you think about the genres that we participate in, like racing and action and FPS and strategy, they might be considered a little more core.
But I think it also shows whether it's internal games like Skate
that are accessible and have a lot of potential, or some of our EA Games partners like the MTV Games/Harmonix partnership on Rock Band
, core games doesn't necessarily mean core gamers. There are games that, frankly, have accessibility and potential beyond that.
It's a good question, because I know for a lot of people, it's like, "Well, are you the 'all/other' label?" or that sort of thing. But really, it starts with the teams, and the passion of those teams, and the quality of those teams, and if you had to summarize, yeah, we're a little bit more on the core gamer side than anything else.
What makes Skate an EA Games game, and not an EA Sports game?
MQ: That's a great question. Right now, again, that is driven by the fact that the game was made by Black Box, and the Black Box team is near the Need for Speed team, and those guys work together in Vancouver. That's just where we put it.
But in that case specifically, we are kind of going "anti-everything" with that game. It's more about getting back to the roots of skating, and it's just trying to be more of a real... having the style and tone and feel of actually getting on the board and getting out in the streets. In that case, it's not about the leagues, the points, or the standings. It's just about, "Hey, how does it feel to go out on the board and see what you can do?"
Ultimately, that kind of core nucleus of the game drove the fact of whether it should be an EA Sports or an EA Games game, at the end of the day. That and the fact that the Black Box team is part of us.
How much of EA's business is in EA Games?
MQ: I would probably guide you to the earnings calls for guidance on that, but if you look at the studios and you look at the lineup of the products we've announced so far, we are a big part of the EA entity, in terms of the products released and the revenue expectations and that sort of thing. It is a decent share.
I think if you call, you can get some specifics on what we can or can't say, as far as that kind of thing goes. I don't want to get in trouble with IR [investor relations]. (laughter)
I can understand. What is your role in all this?
MQ: I'm the global marketing lead for the Games label. I have product marketing, product PR, and some community management teams that work on my group. We have one basic philosophy.
We localize the teams, we embed them with each of the studio groups that are located around the world, and I hold my guys to be as knowledgeable, as passionate, and as vested in the games as the executive producer and all those teams are that are putting in the countless hours as well.
That is a formula that has worked for us for a number of years, and we're keeping it going. We've got teams embedded with Black Box, over in Sweden with DICE, over at Criterion with the team in London, Mythic in Virginia, et cetera. That really for us creates a team that is vested and is as passionate about the games as the developers are. It's pretty unique.
Do you recruit those people from the developers, or do you recruit them local to where they are, or is it a mixture?
MQ: It's a total mixture. A lot of times, one of the great things about the size and scale of EA is that we have a lot of great talent in a lot of different functions - not just in engineering or artists and that sort of thing, but also within the marketing function.
A lot of it comes from internal people who want a career change or a different career path. A lot of it's local. Some of it's from people wanting to make a career shift, as far as what they're doing now, but it really is a mix.
I think the diversity of the team is probably the one thing that we really strive to have. I want to have a good mix of classically trained marketers, as well as hardcore gamers that spent a couple of years at GameStop or whatever. We recruit a lot from the testing community. These guys are really dialed in. They're really passionate about the games, and they make good marketers, actually.
What roles do you have embedded with the development teams, and what roles do you keep back at the corporate level?
MQ: We have the three that I mentioned earlier: product marketing, product PR, and some community management is based at the studio. There is a global publishing organization that supports all four labels - not just the Games label, but all other labels - and that's some of the more traditional go-to-market functions that you'd think: the field sales organization, retail marketing, creative services for pack design, et cetera, our ad agency, management... that sort of thing.
Those are centralized, and a lot of the different teams, like my team, will lean on those teams. They are now actually managed by a new hire named John Pleasance, who just joined us about four weeks ago.
You manage these teams of people who are embedded at the developer level remotely, but they basically become part of that team.
MQ: Yeah. Absolutely. That's the goal. If they don't, they're not doing their job. I want the studio GM and the executive producers to feel like those guys are in bed with them and invested with them, and we're in it to win together or lose together, or whatever the situation is. That's exactly the goal. When I don't have that, that's a problem, and I change out the team.
You said you've been at EA for quite some time.
MQ: Yeah. Nine years.
With John Riccitiello coming back and bringing in some new philosophies about how to run the business, and acquisitions like BioWare and Pandemic, how do you feel about where he's going right now?
MQ: I've never been more bullish about the company than I am right now. The quote I keep coming back to is when John was doing different studio tours and coming in and talking to a lot of folks. He just summed it up as, "It's all about the games."
We've got to get back to focusing on the games. We can't get hung up on quarterly goals and those sorts of things. You obviously need to run the business and you need to do that in the best interests of shareholders, so I'm not just ignoring that, but his point was that it's really all about building quality game experiences.
Again, if you just look at... I've been here nine years, and in the last year, and specifically within the last eight months, we've made three huge decisions that point directly to what John's trying to do, which is to focus on the quality of the games.
It's the Army of Two
move, it's the Bad Company
move, and the Mercenaries 2
move. That was all about guys like John and Frank going to studio teams and saying, "Guys, are we ready? Are we there?" Talking to my team, "What's our consumer testing? What's our feedback?" Talking to the developers and saying, "Hey, is this the game that you guys want to ship? Is this the game that after three or four years in development that we want to put our mark on and release into the market?"
If the answer's no on any of those questions, we're not shipping the game. It's a pretty exciting place to be.
Is it difficult to make anyone who's been at EA long-term understand the advantages of doing things this way?
MQ: No. So far, everyone loves it. Again, I don't work in the studio. I partner with them, and I work very closely with all the studio GMs, but no, everyone totally gets it.
Again, there's a balance. We have to manage the business. We have to manage our costs and everything, just like other teams do, so it's not just, "Hey, lead a team of X size and leave them alone for three years and see what they come back with." There's check-ins and stuff.
We have to be responsible, but at the end of the day, those teams are allowed to go and build what they want to build and what they're passionate about, and the results, the majority of the time, they're going to work out in your favor.
There will always be the fact that it's entertainment and that can be subjective, and all the consumer testing in the world that my team might use is not going to pick out every hit and every miss we have.
But it's the fact that it gives us feedback, and the studio teams use what is actionable and try to build the best game possible. So far, if anything, it's being embraced, because people are like, "This is a fun place to work."
You're showing a lot of PC SKUs. PC is a complex market right now.
MQ: Yeah, it is.
Not to say it's down or up, but it's complex to deal with.
MQ: Yeah. I agree.
So what do you think about the PC market in 2008 and beyond?
MQ: Well, obviously, as you just noted, with our SKU plan, we're a pretty big believer in the platform. The tides are shifting. The landscape's shifting, if you think about the business models tied to that, right? There's a lot more, whether it's online subscription, or microtransaction-based types of revenue streams that are tied to driving the business part of the PC, but we're believers in it.
As a platform, there's still genres like life simulation with our Sims label, our own Spore
from the Games label. And BioWare - I played Mass Effect
on the Xbox 360 and I love it, but as a Baldur's Gate
fan, historically, I can't wait to play Dragon Age
when it comes out on the PC.
It's a platform we're investing in. We like the breadth it gives us and the diversity of the lineup that it gives us, and frankly, it's a great place for us to experiment and be able to iterate a little more quickly.
If you think about titles like Battlefield Heroes
, which we've announced, and BattleForge
, which just debuted, those are games that are not going to be just your typical, "Okay, I'm going to go to Best Buy. I'm going to buy my $49.99 product," or that sort of thing. These are games that... some are going to have a free client, and some are going to have microtransactions or different content packs you can buy.
will be more traditional in the MMO category later on this year when we ship that with the packages component and the subscription component, but again, there are a lot of different models we're trying. Some will be for Western markets, and some will be for Asia, but the PC platform gives us a lot of flexibility from a global standpoint, both to try out different consumer strengths, and also try out some different business models.
Obviously, Battlefield Heroes is a strikingly different business model than anything EA's tried before.
MQ: Absolutely. And that's another example of... you know, this is probably one of the reasons that John is so passionate about this label structure. You want to give teams the ability to go deep and experiment and try some different things.
, if you stack it up against Need for Speed, Madden
, and Sims
, it maybe doesn't make the top five list. But if you start to break it down as a label in and of itself that's managing its portfolio in different ways, it's got some - I don't want to say "sure bets," because that's always a dangerous word in this business, but some things that are maybe established.
There's some new IP that we know is exciting and innovative, like Mirror's Edge
or Dead Space
, and some new things we're experimenting with. To have that flexibility and being able to do that is rewarding as an employee, to try new things. I think that's exactly what John is trying to encourage.
How do you strategize across so many platforms, and then now, if we're moving to different models, everything from packaged software on retail shelves to download free games? There are a lot of choices that you have to make.
MQ: Well, that's where, again, it comes back to the teams. Whether you call them city-states, like we do internally, or independent studios, or that sort of thing, it starts with the creative team and their passion around an idea. We've got that idea internally with a core group.
You know, guys like [EA Games president] Frank [Gibeau], myself, other people... we're pretty big gamers, so having the conversations that mirror the business side and the gaming side will branch from those things, and ultimately, it comes back to the studio team and what they want to build.
Then we figure out what the right business model is that goes with it. It is absolutely not, "Hey, we need some more subscription revenue," or "Hey, we need some microtransaction revenue. Anyone got a game for that?" That is the opposite of what we're doing.
The DICE team always... I can't speak for the origins. I'd let Sean Decker or Patrick Soderlund speak to the origins. But Battlefield Heroes
, that was just recognizing the fact that there's a core group of Battlefield
fans that really love the game, but the game is so unaccessible for a broader market. So hey, why not make a game that's a little more accessible?
I spoke to [Battlefield Heroes producer] Ben Cousins about it.
MQ: Yeah, exactly. There's Sean, Patrick, and Ben is obviously the guy. But there again, you just go straight to the point: a team that is passionate, focused, and have something they want to build. We then come in from bringing in the publishing and marketing side of it, figure out what the ideal model is, the team then gets excited, and we go to the races and see if it works. I hope it works. I think it's going to work.
It's very traditional in the gaming business to go, "We need a competitive game in this genre or this market." That's kind of the way things are done.
MQ: Well, I'm not going to lie. It's not like we don't look at two or three years out and try to anticipate competitor releases and figure out where there's gaps, but we're not going to force a team to build a game that they don't want to make.
It is all about a core team that's passionate about the idea. If there's not, then we're not going to go there. We'd probably push that aside and look at other market opportunities to try and double-down there, in an area where we're in a better position on, than we would try to do something that is forced or doesn't have a passionate, creative team behind it.
Well, that's the policy behind the acquisitions. That's my understanding.
MQ: No, it is.
Acquiring BioWare gives you a strength that you didn't have as a publisher before.
MQ: And like I said at the beginning, I'm not saying that we don't look at the overall portfolio and that sort of thing, and from a mergers and acquisitions standpoint, which frankly I'd let John and Owen speak to more than I... what I would say is, that is true.
But the real driver behind those decisions was not the fact that we were out of position on an action RPG. The real driver was the fact that those are great, passionate teams that build high-quality games. That is more in line with the philosophy of where we're going, going forward.
If those were two big developers that didn't have a good track record, then what you suggested might be true, but that's not what it is. It's kind of, "Those teams, what's their caliber, and can they be additive?"
And of course we'll look at, "Are they complementary?" And you're right. In those cases, they're spot-on complementary, because we're getting our ass kicked in RPG and action, to be blunt.