Between yesterday's article on EA not chasing pirates, Thursday's bit on them humourously making light of a glitch in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2008, the word from CEO John Riccitiello, and now this interview with EA Games' Frank Gibeau, it's getting pretty hard to hate the company.
Gibeau is president of EA Games; he also oversees EA's Partners (EAP) program, something I'd not heard about until now, and gosh darnit, it sounds marvelous. Basically the program is an umbrella which encompasses publishing deals, those of which seem to involve "major independent" developers, the idea being smaller studios can partner with EA, taking advantage of its vast resources while also retaining autonomy and independence. Sounds a lot like Take-Two's situation, overseeing 2K Games and Rockstar, and as we know, those've turned out pretty well. Some big names have signed on already: Epic Games, Valve, Harmonix, and id Software. Gibeau commented in a Gamespot UK interview on how they operate with the deals:
"We ask our partners, "You need this? You don't need that? You need to use some EA resources to help you with a particular issue?" We've been very much more progressive and custom in terms of how we put the deals together."
Judging from the conversation, it seems the company has turned a new leaf and this seems to be in part to Riccitiello's recently acquired position as CEO. So it is said, previously Larry Probst manned that post, and was responsible for a period reigned by trading off game quality for financial deadlines. But if you've read many interviews with the new man in charge lately, you'll see he's pretty open and forward about what his company now is and is after. Whether or not you agree with it isn't all that relevant, the point is, EA seems to be doing some pretty nice things, and isn't shying away from the criticism, which, for a gigantic video game company, is real good to see. Gibeau elaborated on the shift:
"Of all the things we've done inside my label for the past year, year and a half, I'd say EAP has just gone crazy. Developers are saying, "Hey, they're not the evil empire..." We've excised the baggage the EA name brings. We've gotten rid of it. Word gets out when you have Valve, Harmonix, and Crytek saying, "These guys aren't so bad, actually. In fact, all the stuff we heard about before we haven't seen, and we're selling more than ever before." Stuff like that gets around the development community, and performance is what creates business deals. And it's our performance, we believe, is what is allowing us to bring these deals together."
But here is my absolute favourite part of the interview, and actually, possibly my favourite part of any video game-related interview ever (honestly), where Tor Thorsen straight out asks him how they've changed, and if they put quality before profits (and this is from the notorious GameSpot no less!):
GS: Previously, though, EA was notorious for implementing strict milestones, working their employees very hard, and just generally having a very heavy managerial hand. How much freedom do the EA Studios now have?
FG: I think it starts when John and I got together on where we were going to take the label. I looked at what we had, and we had a very top-down organization, where we told people what to do, told them when to do it, and gave them strict milestones. Frankly, quality wasn't the same priority as schedule date.
So when I looked at that equation, I just thought, "Well, that's just upside down." What was most important to me, and what I had learned over my career at EA, and frankly what I knew from being a hardcore gamer, is that when you think of Call of Duty 4, you think of Infinity Ward. When you think of World of Warcraft, you think of Blizzard. When you think of Battlefield, you think of DICE. When you think of Spore, you think of Maxis. You didn't think of the conglomerate, you didn't think of the corporation, you think of the development team.
So what I saw inside the EA organization was a lot of talent and a lot of ideas that were just being stifled by the organization and the way it was being led. So the first move that we made was going from highly centralized to completely decentralized. We flipped these studios out and gave them the creative and cultural autonomy to build the game that they want to build at the quality that they want to build them at. Now it's hard to manage all that against your Wall Street expectations and such. But, frankly Wall Street isn't as important at times as getting to great games, because great games will create financial performance. It's not the other way around.
GS: So it's EA's position that even if it means sacrificing profits in the short term, quality games will ultimately pay big dividends?
FG: Ultimately, long-term sustained profitability is our goal at levels we've produced in the past or better. Operationally, that's the goal. However, if you take a franchise you've been working on for two or three years, and you take all the millions of dollars you've spent, and the hundreds of hours people have put into it, and you put it out too early to make a quarter, that game doesn't become a sustainable franchise that you can make money on long-term. So for me, the biggest goal was to crack that code and come up with an organizational design which could allow really smart talented people like Alex Ward at Criterion to make the right decisions for their games. That delivers the greatest quality.
Basically it seems to be the perfect compromise between doing the best they can financially as a company, and serving the gamers as best they can, too. And you know, I can't say anything bad on that, that's awesome. EA: just keep this up. Gamers can be a pretty forgiving bunch; we'll welcome you with open arms if it goes on and upward like this.