All Things Sports With EA Sports' Andrew Wilson

by Matthew Kato on Jul 16, 2012 at 08:03 AM

Gamers might be accustomed to sports titles coming out every year, but for EA Sports executive vice president Andrew Wilson, there are myriad details to keep track of as the next-generation of consoles looms, EA moves into UFC, and the industry as a whole is changing. Find out how Wilson and the teams at EA Sports plan to deal with these issues and more.

Where's the line between fans wanting to see a feature they like in one sports game appear in another sports game, but not have all EA Sports titles being the same?

Andrew Wilson: We don’t mandate anything to any teams. Sharing is great because ultimately it gives teams more time to innovate for their specific product. But we don’t mandate it. We try to empower teams to use the best tech available to them.

For the most part what that ends up meaning is that everyone uses some version of our core tech stack: animation, physics, AI, audio, online, and in more cases rendering as well; more shared rendering. There have been some differences rendering from outside games to inside games, but what we’re seeing now is that teams recognize the value of using that core tech stack because it basically opens up more time for them to innovate on their game’s specific features.

[So we say to our teams,] “Listen, you can use whatever tech you want, but if you do use this tech you kind of get a walk-up start to quality at the very base, construct level. But we want you to innovate at a feature level for a game, something that your fans like.”

What we are seeing as a result of smart game teams, creative game teams who want to do new and cool stuff and who want to deliver even deeper games, is that there is more and more sharing in not just the core tech, but in feature sets as well. That allows them to push the boundaries in other areas. Ultimately for EA Sports, that’s cool because we end up with this convergent set of features that get bigger and deeper and more expansive and more compelling every year across the entire portfolio. So it has been a real change over the last couple years.

I started working at EA Sports 12 years ago. Back then it was almost a sin to use someone else’s tech, it was almost a sin to use someone else’s feature and it was really kind of competitive within the organization, which I think sometimes was to the detriment of the gamer who missed out on some cool stuff. What I see now is there is still that competition amongst teams, but it is not to the detriment to the gamer. The gamer always comes first. And then the competition is what new things can you build on top of that that takes the game experience to a whole new level. So I think it is positive internal, this friendly rivalry amidst teams, but ultimately the people who win are the gamers.

Are there more instances of sports games using tech from outside the genre?

Yeah, and vice versa. The Frostbite 2 engine uses a bunch of sports tech, a bunch of the animation tech, a bunch of the locomotion tech to come out and was built by our sports games. Conversely, the physics that you see coming to our games this year is actually a core EA physics tech that started in sports some time back, but actually was taken forward by the Battlefield 3 team and is now come back in a way that innovating on top of that. So a lot of the physics that you see in Madden, the physics you see in FIFA and NHL, have kind of been on this journey from where they started within our central tech organization, through the sports development cycle, through the Battlefield 3 development cycle, and back through the sports cycle. What that means is it just gets better every year. What we’re seeing, again, is a friendly rivalry between FIFA and Battlefield and the competition of who is EA’s biggest game.

Do you think you guys EA Sports are better prepared for the next-generation of consoles than you were in this generation?

Yes, I think we feel very good. I think we feel very well prepared and positioned, and there’s a few reasons for that. One is, for anyone who was around for the last transition, it didn’t go so well for us or many people in our industry, and there are a few reasons for that. 

One is we went from standard def to high def, so all of the art in games had to be redone. We went from single-thread to multi-thread processing, and that meant writing code very differently. The 360 construct was very different from the PS3 construct. It was kind of like the three dual-core processors were like Clydesdales and they could do a bunch of stuff. Then the seven in PS3 were kind of like thoroughbred racehorses that could do stuff quickly, but were temperamental. We had this dual construct, but again, it was single-thread to multi-thread, which is a whole new way of building for us. And then there was [the transition from] offline to online. There had been online before, but not like in this generation.

So all together there were three big challenges for us that took it out of us. As we have systematically rewritten our engines for that and on an ongoing basis through this cycle, what we’ve done is ensure that our engines are scalable. Our engines are all data-driven now. So what we get is, we can’t go “HD is HD,” so we’re going to get maybe a greater fidelity HD, but we don’t have to redo our art. We’ve got one of the most complex constructs that we write code for now. It is hard to see that we’re going to get more complicated than that. If I were a betting man, I’d say that it is actually going to get cleaner and easier for us as developers to build toward and again, we’re online already in a big, big way.

So for us, I think we are well positioned. What we get, I think, is increased processing power. Our engines are written so they are data-driven, so all that means is you get more fields of decision making in the AI, you get more fields of decision making in the physics, you get more fields of decision making in the animation, so you just get a much great fidelity product. From there, I think, if you look at what Microsoft talked about with SmartGlass [at E3], it is very easy to see this is going to be a cross-platform experience in the future. We started that last year, we are doing it this year. So depending on when that transition happens, we are at least two or three years into the design process of what cross-platform means. I think gamers win because we are not battling SD to HD, we are not battling single-thread to multi-thread, we are not battling offline to online, we are not battling even the design challenges of cross-platform because we started that last year.

Does having to develop for Wii U now, with its specific functionality, hamper your ability to make games for Microsoft and Sony's upcoming platforms?

No it doesn’t. The reason that is is because we’ve built our engines in a scalable fashion, so we can scale them up and down based on data. So we launched our PS3 FIFA engine on Vita. There was some scaling that had to be done to make it operate effectively on Vita, but anyone who played that product will say, "Hey, for all intents and purposes this feels just like the real thing. This feels like a PS3 in your hand."

When we think about Wii U, we think about whatever the next generation build of platforms are. We believe our engines are scalable based on what performance availability is there. When I look at the Wii U, what the Wii U has done is basically taken the SmartGlass kind of concept and they’re just going to put it in the box that you walk out of the store with. I think the functionality there for us is not going to be fundamentally different. I think the purchase experience for the consumer is going to be more seamless because you don’t have to go out and buy a separate tablet; it comes with the box.

Is there anything that you see in the next generation that might change the $60 retail box copy price point for sports titles?

Not at this point. Our intent is very clearly, we have three core pillars of our development and what we give to consumers and what we believe is of value at $60: Innovation that changes the way you play every year. We’re not just trying to change it every second year, we’re trying to change the way you play every year. When you look at the skating engine in NHL this year, when you look at the new dribbling mechanic and the impact engine in FIFA, when you look at the Infinity engine in Madden, we are fundamentally trying to change the way you play the game every year. We are trying to deliver service on top of the product purchase– you know MUT (Madden Ultimate Team), HUT (Hockey Ultimate Team), FUT (FIFA Ultimate Team), EA Sports Football Club, Connected Careers in Madden, Connected GM in hockey. So we are trying to build that service component around our core innovative experience, really trying to connect you to the real world of sport, connect you to other fans playing the game, connect you to us so we can build better for you, and ultimately connect your experience across platforms.

Now, if there are other business models that start to evolve over time as we’ve seen in other parts of the world of varying price points or free-now-pay-later or, you know, different things, I think the way we construct our consumer proposition allows us to present that in many different ways across many different platforms on many different business models. But I don’t think we anticipate a fundamental change anytime soon, but we are prepared should gamers decide they want to do this a different way.

The NBA franchise took time off, and some gamers were okay that you taking more time with the franchise. If there were another situation where you had to or wanted to skip a year, does NBA show you that this is possible? What did you take away from that experience?

Well, I would go one step further than NBA. We just released FIFA Street and SSX for the first time in four years. They both came out to rave reviews, they both were the best in their series, they both were reviewed higher than other products in the series, and gamer uptake has been better than just about any other product in either of the series.

I think that as a brand, as a label, what we believe is we need to release products on the cadence that gamers want to play them. We want to release products on a cadence that we believe we can deliver true innovation, we can deliver true game-changing service, we can deliver true connection. In many cases that will be every year. In some cases it will be every other year. In other cases it will be every four years. We are very comfortable with that, especially as gamers are playing our games longer and longer and deeper into the cycle than they ever have.

Take-Two  says it has lost money with the official baseball license. Would those licensing costs prevent EA Sports from possibly getting back into the sport?

I love baseball. I'm a big baseball fan, I'm a big sports fan in general.  I watch a lot of baseball.  I'm a Giants fan – we go to a lot of games. I would like for EA sports to get back into baseball one day.

Right now, as we announced earlier this week, we just signed the UFC.  Right now we've got unbelievable innovation going on in Madden. We've got continued service delivery on FIFA. We've got game-changing performance on NHL. We keep trying to do new things in Tiger. We're launching great NCAA products. We're bringing NBA Live back in a very aggressive way later this fall. And now we've got a brand new global property that we're going to take multi-platform, multi-business model. We're going to take [UFC] global, like we had FIFA.

So right now, all of those thing are taking up the first part of our focus. We want to make sure that we don't take on anything new if we don't feel it's right for us at the time, if we don't feel like we're able to deliver the best game in the marketplace. And right now, we want to put a lot of focus on what we have. We want to put a lot of focus onto the UFC. We think it's a tremendous opportunity. If at some point in the future it makes sense for baseball as well, we'd love to get back into baseball. The timing right now just isn't right.

Would you guys have to wait for the next-gen consoles if you were to get back into baseball?

Not necessarily. Right now, we build for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, we're still doing some stuff on Wii, we've got Vita, we've got done stuff on 3DS, we've got iPhone, we've got iPad, we've got Facebook, we've got Android. So, next generation consoles are of course a big part of our business, but they're not the only part of our business. We've got free-to-play on PC with FIFA in Asia, and big plans for that. So there are lots of different opportunities when we think about building a game, and it's not just about console, although that represents a decent chunk of what we do. 

When we think about it, it's not about, "When is the console transition going to happen?" It's really about, "How do we deliver the best cross-platform, global property possible?" That takes a lot of effort. Building games now – if all I did was build for console, it might be a different story. But the expectation from gamers now is that the game is different week-to-week, that the game has ongoing content that makes it dynamic and interesting and enhances and extends the way they play. They expect that they can engage with their game while they're away from their 60-inch television with their mobile phone or their PC at work. They expect that when they do things on Facebook, it shows up in their console. They expect that they can buy into the experience with different business models and a different monetization model. Our world is significantly more complex than it was even three or four years ago. So when we take on a new property, we're taking on a very, very big responsibility to deliver great things, not just on one platform, but cross-platform.

Has EA Sports worked on a baseball game since you left the sport in 2006?

No. Our teams are focused on delivering products that we're launching for gamers. We did some stuff with World Series baseball on Facebook and we continue to experiment in that space to see if there's a different way for us to interact with baseball. But, no. The teams that we have, we have them 100-percent focused on delivering stuff for gamers.

Former EA Sports president and current EA COO Peter Moore once talked about the possibility of making more worldwide sports other than those on your current roster. Are you still looking at making games like cricket or rugby?

Again, we're a global brand. We want to do global sports. We want to do global sports that touch hundreds of millions of people, not just millions of people. I started my career building cricket and rugby games a long, long, long, long time ago, with development budgets that probably wouldn't pay the end-of-team party these days. I think there's an opportunity for us to do that again.

But I mean, the UFC is probably the fastest-growing global sport in the world. I think their last event in Brazil...had 60 million households watching. That's Super Bowl numbers. When I go to Asia and ask them, "What's the big thing that's blowing up here?" it's MMA. It's UFC.  It's in Korea. It's in Japan. When I go to Russia, Fedor Emelianenko and a bunch of other Russian fighters who fought in the UFC and fought in M-1 over there...MMA, and more specifically the UFC, is growing at such a rapid rate – we think there's a real opportunity to really establish ourselves as a global brand there.

Can you tell us about the timeline of getting the UFC license?

The ink is still wet on the deal. They've been a tremendous organization to deal with – consummate professionals. It's been so much fun to work with them. They have so much passion for what they do. They have so much passion for what video games mean to their fans, which is really, really cool for us. After E3, I'm going on vacation for a little while with my family. It's a been a really busy few months. As you can imagine, right after that, we're going to get back together with Dana [UFC president Dana White], the team at UFC, and our teams, and start to say, "OK, what does this look like?" It's a long-term, multi-year, multi-product, exclusive global deal. We're going to plan big.

Did UFC approach you, or did you go to them about the license?

We have good relationships with most people in the sports world. We've continued to maintain strong relationships, and it became apparent that they were not going to be working with their current partner anymore, and it made sense for us to work together.

Were they free and clear from THQ?

At the point that we had a deal in place, yes.

Previously, EA Sports talked about a program that would institute a persistant EA Sports identity across different franchises with rewards for players. Is that initiative still going to happen, and will it be as it's been described?

Absolutely. This is one of those things that I talk about. [You have a] base tech stack, you've got a feature set, you've got sharing amongst teams who understand the value of initiating the system like that to gamers. More importantly, to be honest with you, we're going to do it across the company, not just across sports. We have an initiative for a huge investment at the company level that I, as the head of the sports level, I wholly support of that is actually going to deliver this kind of experience for gamers for every game they play. So if you play Madden, you get recognized in FIFA. If you play FIFA, you get recognized in Battlefield. You play Battlefield, you get recognized in Sim City. That's profound. That's what we're building towards.

The sports genre has changed a lot in the past 10 years, with some publishers no longer making sports games, and some sports themselves no longer represented in video games. Where do you see the category going in the next five years?

I think entertainment in general polarizes and converges around quality. What we're seeing in our market right now – whether it's sports, shooters, racing, fighters, action adventure – is more and more gamers are converging on fewer products of higher quality.

For me, there's an opportunity for anyone to come into any marketplace, whether it's video games, whether it's music, whether it's movies – all of which have seen the same polarizational convergence around quality. There's always an opportunity for a new player to come into the market and deliver quality experience and actually gather a lot of gamers' support.

The challenge of course, is when you've got teams like FIFA who continue to deliver amazing things, and you've got teams like NHL who continue to deliver amazing things, when you've got the new Madden team who delivered the best Madden in 23 years, that have just changed the entire game from boot-up to shutdown, it's hard to come in and compete against that. It is. But there's nothing to say that people can't. You just gotta figure out what quality means to gamers, and you can have breakout hits.

It's how we get movies that break out and have more people watching them than Avatar. It's how we get music that comes from nowhere, a little Australian singer, Gotye, featuring Kimbra with his crazy song "Somebody That I Used to Know" that seems to be everywhere on the radio right now. They come from nowhere if they deliver something meaningful to a gamer. I think that can still exist for video games. I think there's a big challenge, of course, for it. But at the end of the day, gamers win. Because as long as we are up to delivering them amazing quality, they get a game experience. Other people will come in and push. That means we push even harder to deliver a game experience. If we falter even for a second, there's going to be someone else there delivering a great game. So I don't think they have to worry – there's always going to be people there looking to do the best for them. As long as they continue to converge on quality, that's going to define our industry.