The Sports Desk – 12 Questions For The Minds Behind EA Sports
In this week's installment of The Sports Desk (don't miss it every Monday), we have some illuminating questions and answers from two of EA Sports' bigwigs, Cam Weber and Matt Bilbey. Weber is the senior vice president and general manager at Madden studio EA Tiburon, while Bilbey is his counterpart over at FIFA's EA Canada (above). We cover everything from the return of the NCAA franchise, to spinoff sports titles, to what's next for FIFA's The Journey story mode, and more.
The Ultimate Team mode is very valuable to both FIFA and Madden. Have you ever considered spinning it off into its own game?
Weber: In terms of whether we'd ever do that on consoles, it's really something we've talked about in the past. The problem is, as Madden has transformed the past few years, and as we've done a lot of work to kind of increase the planned Ultimate Team experience around it, the engagement in that mode is getting deeper and deeper. When you look at our players in our telemetry data, those who actually play Ultimate Team are our deepest, engaged users. It's the session days, the time....they are our most engaged users – and they also play other modes as well. So, taking our most engaged audience in the most competitive place to play Madden – which is really what it's become – segmenting those groups and pulling them out doesn't make sense. Every time we have that conversation it ends quickly and we decide not to do that.
Both games had a draft mode as part of Ultimate Team. However, Madden's loop was easier to replay while FIFA had a pretty steep buy-in after the first time. Is FIFA considering changing this buy-in?
Bilbey: The fortunate part of a live service is our teams really work closely with each other. We try and encourage our teams to try different things, but then not to the point of arrogance. Our team tried something slightly different based on engagement patterns. I would say the Madden route is probably the better route, and we'll probably tweak and change that over time.
Are we going to see more EA Sports titles on PC?
Bilbey: PC is literally based on demand. There's still the high demand for FIFA on the PC globally because of the global appetite for the game. I think that's less so with Madden, but I think if that changes and an opportunity presents itself, I think we would definitely leverage the opportunity.
Weber: Yeah, I think with Madden in particular, it used to be a good business, and then it declined and the economics just didn't make sense anymore. Then the compounding problem is that I guess in the last four or five years...as we get away from PC development, it becomes more and more difficult to get back to it. We're open to it; it's just a matter of when's the right time and when does the opportunity make sense.
Bilbey: I think part of the vision you've heard about aligning on Frostbite as a company makes that a lot easier going forward, because Frostbite is a very core PC engine that has the ability to move across consoles, up and down.
In the past EA has done spin-off sports titles like Head Coach for the Madden franchise. Are you considering doing this again?
Bilbey: The way we're looking at it at the moment – fortunately the mobile sports business goes into our teams as well – a lot of those ideas we're looking at prototyping for the mobile business at the moment. You're able to get concepts up and running, test it, prove it out. I think that's where we'll start. I'm not announcing any of what exactly we're going to be doing, but that's where we'll start, but if that then presents itself with an opportunity to take [it] back onto console and PC, then I think we'll have the proof points to be able to justify it.
EA talked about the Ignite engine at the beginning of this generation, but now it's talking about all the EA Sports titles going to Frostbite. Is this the failure of Ignite? How does Ignite fit into Frostbite?
Bilbey: Ignite has not failed in any way, shape, or form, and it's not going to go away, either. Ignite is a suite of technologies put together – many of which are actually part of Frostbite. We'll continue working – a lot of the benefits and technology improvements of Frostbite also continue to help different parts of Ignite as well. Ignite definitely played its role, and will continue to play its role into the future as well.
Rory PGA Tour last year was the first EA Sports title using Frostbite, but the game didn't have a full feature set. Will we see other titles drop features as they move to Frostbite?
Bibey: I think we've learned a lot through those experiences, and we tend not to repeat things that we've learned that shouldn't be done again. So, no, I don't anticipate that.
Some gamers have theorized whether a non-yearly schedule and longer development time between games would improve the franchises. Does EA have an opinion on this or the appetite for it?
Bilbey: We've looked at that. We've looked at whether there's the opportunity to do...to get to the depth of features designed on an annual basis that gamers have the appetite for. At a point in time, if our gamers are telling us that's what they want...maybe in console generations in the future, possibly. I think that the strategy we have right now for our games, in the sports context, is the right one. Will that evolve and change in the future? I bet you anything that will, and we're trying to build our games in a way that at that point in time, that appetite's there, we can actually change our entire build to a 100% service if we need to.
EA Sports utilized Kinect and Move in its games, but the company seems to be taking a more cautious approach with VR at this stage. Is that how you'd characterize EA's mindset to VR?
Bilbey: That's spot on. We have in the past maybe made mistakes or learned lessons around diving in early to maybe tick a box. Under Andrew's leadership [CEO Andrew House] and Patrick [Söderlund, executive vice president], the player-first approach – thinking of the benefit of the gamer as the number one, two, three things to think about at the beginning and end of a meeting – has not slowed down our investment in thinking around VR. But our consideration of what we actually bring to market...we don't have the answer today.
I've played VR in sports in many different shapes and forms over the last 12 months. Some of them have been absolutely horrendous, some of them have been, "Hmm, that could be fun." Patrick has spoken about the team we have at DICE that are looking at a lot of future thinking about VR, AR [augmented reality], machine learning...so we're exploring, and when we come out with the right consumer-first [experience] that actually does benefit the gamer, we'll have news to share.
Does EA want to bring back the Fight Night or MLB franchises?
Bilbey: I think we're getting to a place now with hockey, UFC, FIFA, with NFL and NBA, where I think we're ready to start exploring new opportunities again. I think those new opportunities will likely be first explored on mobile as Cam was saying, just because the speed of understanding the opportunity and that allows us.
How about NCAA? Do you know where the legal situation is at with the NCAA?
Bilbey: We're very fortunate in that I have no idea what's going on with that. I can say, because I've spoken to Cam about it, it's a similar answer – the opportunity on mobile to test something and do something there is perhaps the one that's in nearer sight. But I don't keep up to speed with the legal wranglings of the NCAA conversations.
Madden greatly expanded its commentary package this year. Is that something FIFA is going to do in the future?
Bilbey: I think it's exciting; I think we'll learn a lot from what they've done. We have the slight challenge of complexity in that we localize FIFA into how many languages, now? It just means that try our hardest in FIFA not to create two speeds, where like English gets this; everyone else gets this. It creates challenges, but I think we'll learn and then we'll consider it. I think the FIFA game will definitely evolve faster based on what we learned from Madden, and I think it's going to be pretty exciting to see how that can evolve.
FIFA's The Journey story mode only covers the English Premier League. Have you reached out to other leagues around the world to include them in the next iteration of the mode?
Bilbey: The conversations I think we'll have will be with our gamers. We're fortunate that our relationships with our leagues allows us to do it. Not that we wouldn't ask them by any means, but that's not the deciding factor. The answer is, "Yes, this is not just a one year thing." How The Journey evolves...we have multiple scripts for how it could evolve, but we want to wait for people get their hands on this year's game to decide which road to go down.
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