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Sega kicked off the transition to the sixth generation of consoles by bringing its Dreamcast console to market in 1999, a year before Sony’s PlayStation 2. With game development budgets growing along with increased processor power, EA had to make a choice.
"We looked at the Dreamcast and we didn’t believe technically that it was that compelling of a system compared to what we thought was coming from some of the other companies like Sony," Gibeau remembered. "We didn’t like the economics of it, we didn’t think that it was going to be successful globally. We’re a global company, we have units all over the world and it’s rare that we can get the economics to work, or that it even makes sense for the hardware company, when they can only be successful in one market versus all three. So that was ultimately why we decided to go someplace else."
Sony’s PlayStation 2 was the odds-on favorite, but the console market was becoming more crowded. Nintendo was making a fresh start with its Gamecube and Microsoft was a new arrival with its Xbox console. As the largest independent publisher, EA’s tactic was to divide its efforts across all three platforms, insuring that no one manufacturer could claim dominance.
"Our basic competitive advantage is that we can publish games across multiple platforms simultaneously in a cost effective way and in multiple languages and deploy it globally better and bigger than anybody else," said Gibeau. "So when you look at that core sustainable competitive advantage and you look at the environment, you want to have as many platforms as possible out there to publish on.
"When you have single platform environments like Nintendo 8-bit, basically all you do is what Nintendo tells you to do, back then at least. When you have a multi platform world, that increases the leverage of the third party publishing companies, because you can take your goods from one place to the other."
EA Sports led the way, with the PlayStation 2, Gamecube and Xbox all receiving updates to EA’s prime franchises. The Xbox also saw Cel Damage as an exclusive launch game from EA and, later, Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath. The PlayStation 2 was a showcase for several high profile movie licenses including games based on the Lord of the Rings films, The Godfather, and a series of original James Bond games: 007: Agent Under Fire, Nightfire, and Rogue Agent.
EA also secured the rights to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and produced several successful games based on the books. The Medal of Honor series flourished on all three consoles where increased graphic horsepower enabled the developer to produce an intense, cinematic experience.
Video games never had any difficulty appealing to young males, but the young female market was notoriously difficult to crack. For a company like Electronic Arts, which was founded on the principles of savvy marketing, that disparity was always a vexing hurdle.
"When you decide to build the Britney Spears simulation, you’ve lost," Gibeau noted. "It’s almost like you put so much pressure on yourself to figure out how do I make a game for girls that you screw it up."
However, the development of Will Wright’s game The Sims taught EA some important lessons on how to reach that under served female audience.
As Gibeau remembered, "It started out as an architecture sim with an interior design component, and then [Wright] put in people as little AIs just to see how they would work, and all of a sudden it became clear to him and to the company that the people were the most interesting thing on the screen and not the house designing part. What made it unique and different was that you’re creating and controlling people."
He continued, "We launched it with the idea that we could get SimCity players and more casual PC players to pick it up. We never, at the time, thought that we could get teenage girls. We put it out into publishing and all of a sudden we started to see in the registration data and in the research that we had a tremendous number of teenage girls playing."
Realizing that they had inadvertently found the holy grail, EA’s marketing was quick to react.
"That’s when we started to change how we built the Packs, that’s when we went to Hot Date as a concept for the expansion pack, that’s when we started to buy advertising in fashion magazines and television advertising on MTV and female oriented TV shows. I think that right now The Sims are 66% girls under twenty five in terms of the buyer base. So we truly stumbled into it, but the part that makes me feel good about it is we were listening and watching who was playing and trying to learn from them."