EA’s E3 Message: We’re Social, Mobile and Always Evolving

Gaming publisher pushes into social gaming, tablets, the cloud

Video games are each a social network onto themselves. They're never quite finished. And video games are no longer bound by the console hooked up to giant TV screens.

Those were some of the bigger themes hammered home during Electronic Arts’ press conference at E3 in Los Angeles on Monday—and those themes also capture much of where the video game industry is in 2012. Still immensely popular and highly profitable, the gaming industry is hardly immune to the rapidly changing consumer media landscape—where being social and mobile is a requirement—and the digital entertainment industry as a whole, where the cloud is replacing the hard drive.

For example, during EA’s boisterous event on Monday, which CEO John Riccitiello described as more like “Sundance than the Oscars” (is Sundance really that loud?), the company repeatedly echoed the point that its games are inherently social.

For one thing, fans will soon be able to create franchises and join Madden leagues all over the world, even competing to enter EA’s version of the Hall of Fame (a feature brought to life with an appearance by NFL Hall of Famer Michael Irvin). Plus, gamers will be able to play Madden on their tablets and even on Facebook. FarmVille, it's not.

Similarly, for the soccer/football title FIFA, the company has established the Football Club, attracting 11 million members in its first year. Indeed, following a recent epic upset win by the U.K.’s Manchester City over Manchester United, fans amassed 100 million minutes of play in a single day (May 13), illustrating the communal impact of titles like FIFA12. Like Madden, the upcoming versions of that game will be playable on iPads, smartphones and other mobile devices. And players will be able to earn currency while playing the game, as EA borrows yet another page from Facebook-infused gaming.

Much like popular Facebook games such as Zynga’s FarmVille and CityVille, EA’s biggest franchise titles are embracing that "always iterate" philosophy that's uncommon to console and PC games of the past. As Riccitiello put it, “Games are changing. The box you buy is no longer it.”

For example, the immensely popular shooting game Battlefield 3, besides providing the stat of the day (1.6 bullets fired to date by 50 million players), shed some light on the future of big, expensive gaming titles. Rather than waiting for the next version of the game to arrive on shelves in a year or so, players can now become "members" of the game, receiving access to five "expansion packs"—i.e., extensions of the current game they own, complete with new storylines—for $50 a year.

Similarly, the mega hit multiplayer PC game Star Wars: The Old Republic was update just 30 days into its launch. Execs at the event described the game as a living service that's always on.

Among the other highlights from EA’s event:

-EA is going after Zynga with the latest version of The Sims, a CityVille-esque multiplayer game being distributed on Facebook. The company even tweaked Zynga, showing an animated alien ship zapping a cow (presumably from FarmVille).

-The upcoming Deadspace 3 generated big cheers from the crowd of reporters and bloggers gathered (a group that apparently doesn’t abide by the "no cheering in the press box" rule). EA showed footage of soldiers attacking and then getting swallowed by an alien being, accompanied by noise and vibrations that made the typical summer blockbuster at the multiplex feel like an art film.

-Interestingly, there was no mention of games built for the upcoming update of Nintendo’s Wii console or Microsoft’s mega-selling, motion-sensor-driven Kinect. Nor were games targeting kids mentioned.

-There was, however, a new, apparently long-awaited multiyear deal announced between EA and UFC to produce various mixed martial arts games, eliciting even more cheers. A pumped up Dana White looked to the crowd and said, “Finally.”