Hardware transitions are difficult times for the game industry. As consumers move up to the next generation of technology, the market is uncertain, with no way to know for sure which way the wave is going to break.
Throughout its history Electronic Arts has had to make difficult decisions about where to allocate its resources. As Gibeau explained, "You want to publish on the platforms that have some degree of success built in. Where there’s something interesting about that technology that will give it an edge in the marketplace, that the company that is making the hardware has the capital resources and the long view of the marketplace, that it’s going to be in it for a while and not fold up shop. Because you make investments in these systems from from a software development standpoint, you want to be able to leverage them over a long period of time."
When the 3DO came to market in 1993, EA’s Need for Speed game was an early demonstration of the machine’s next generation graphics technology. Electronic Arts was also a partner in Trip Hawkins’ new console venture, and they published a variety of titles for the 3DO including John Madden Football, Road Rash, and Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger.
Although the 3DO failed to catch on at retail, when the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation came to market in 1995, the American public was ready to make the transition to 32-bit consoles. EA was quick to make the jump, porting several of its 3DO games over to the new consoles along with updates for their flagship sports titles. It did not take long for Sony to pull ahead of its rival Sega in the marketplace, and Electronic Arts seized the opportunity to expand its console publishing business.
Throughout the ‘90’s Electronic Arts brought many successful games to the PlayStation, and the company’s revenue grew along with the console market. In addition to further developing its EA Sports line, the company began to delve into movie licenses with the James Bond games Tomorrow Never Dies and The World is Not Enough. The Medal of Honor series got its start on the PlayStation and several of EA’s long running franchises received updates, with Soviet Strike, Populous: The Beginning, and Syndicate Wars. Electronic Arts also formed a partnership with the Japanese developer/publisher Squaresoft to publish their PlayStation titles in North America, helping to bring Japanese-style role playing games to a mass audience.
The Nintendo 64 saw only a handful of titles from Electronic Arts. Its popularity lagged far behind Sony’s PlayStation, and Nintendo’s reliance on expensive ROM cartridges made EA unwilling to take inventory risks on anything but the most surefire hits. In addition to versions of Madden Football and WCW Wrestling, EA brought a well-regarded original title to the N64 called Beetle Adventure Racing.
Electronic Arts entered the online market in 1997 when Origin Systems created Ultima Online, a persistent online fantasy world that could accommodate hundreds of thousands of players from across the globe. It was deeply ambitious and on a scale that was unlike anything attempted before. As Gibeau explained, "This was the first truly massively multiplayer graphic intensive game and it was a handful when we first put it out in terms of managing the technology, but it was incredibly innovative."
It was new territory for EA and despite some early difficulties, Ultima Online went on to be a huge success and is still in operation today. In the years since, EA has had ups and downs in the massively multiplayer online business. Ultima Online has done well for the company, but other efforts such as Motor City Online, Earth & Beyond, and hybrid online/ARG Majestic have had much shorter life spans.
In 2006, EA bought Mythic Entertainment, creators of the MMORPG Dark Age of Camelot. In addition to supporting Dark Age, the studio is currently working on Warhammer Online.
EA has also been providing online games for casual players through its Pogo.com site. The web site has a variety of free games and subscription-based premium games as well as a selection of games available for download. Pogo.com is partnered with AOL and includes a number of chat room features to keep players socially engaged. "Connected game play and the connected gamer is where the world is going. We see an incredible amount of opportunity, especially in Asia for us to chart a new path forward for the company," Gibeau said.
In 2005, EA acquired JAMDAT Mobile, a successful mobile phone game developer and publisher founded by former Activision executives. Renamed EA Mobile, the studio has drawn on the wealth of EA’s Intellectual Properties to produce mobile phone versions of established hits such as SimCity and Tetris as well original titles like JAMDAT Bowling 3D and Orcs & Elves.
Digital distribution of EA’s graphics intensive PC and console games is a much smaller business, but the company sees future opportunities for its EA Link service. As Gibeau explained, "People have been forecasting the demise of the retail for decades haven't they? I think retail is fine. Downloading full product is pretty much a PC only phenomena right now.
"We have found that digital distribution is largely incremental and rewards your power users who can buy a lot of games. It also opens up avenues for paid downloadable content and other places where we can distribute content that wouldn’t necessarily be a retail good. Over time that will increase in significance most certainly, but full product distribution on the connected consoles is more problematic, just because of the file sizes and the size of hard drives there.
"I think it’s ultimately going to happen, but I also think that the stores are going to be around for a very long time. Especially if you look globally, in Europe for example," he said.