EA Mobile on partnerships, acquisitions, growing pains with Simpsons, Battlefield and Rock Band

EA Mobile is in a state of transition following EA’s massive restructuring efforts launched earlier this year. As the company works to bring all its franchises under a unified management team, the mobile games spaces continues to grow at a rapid pace. Nick Earl, senior VP and head of EA’s mobile and social segment, explains to Inside Mobile Apps how he hopes to keep pace with growth while learning from some of the mishaps EA Mobile has experienced in recent months.

Inside Mobile Apps: Catch us up on the state of EA Mobile. You’ve lost a lot of people to Zynga and EA itself is still actively transitioning from a packaged goods business to a digital goods business.

Nick Earl, Senior VP of EA mobile and social (pictured right): We view this as what’s going to be the beginning of enormous growth. The departure of folks hasn’t really affected our commitment and capability here. We believe this is going to be an enormous opportunity based on just how fast and explosive the mobile market is. You look at how the world has upgraded to smartphones and the adoption of the freemium business model and the move to [high quality] graphics, it’s really fueling the growth of this space.

Our approach is to take our franchises, of which we have very strong properties that we license or own across the board, and build these ecosystems that not only allow you to play via mobile but also allow you to interact via console and PC. We’re taking a very holistic view of building ecosystems that mobile is a part of. What we believe will happen is that mobile will be a huge growth area that will expose us to new customers, and whole new groups of gamers — whether they’re lapsed gamers or new markets — and just kind of jump in, whether it’s FIFA or The Sims, which is a good example of ecosystems that you could play anywhere, anytime.

IMA: You’ve had a couple of games with rough launches, and some games have been pulled off of the App Store entirely — like Battlefield 3 and The Simpsons. How are you struggling there?

Earl: With the Simpsons, what happened there is that we did a test and soft launch and everything was fine, we put it out for worldwide launch and demand was just so great that we crashed the whole system. We pulled it off the App Store and we’ve been hard at work over the last month or so to rebuild and address the infrastructure that runs the game. We’ve almost got that complete and we’re going to be relaunching the game shortly.

We believe it was a crucial learning experience for us [in] being ready for high-DAU games. [F]or something with really strong brand power, it’s going to drive high DAUs. So we’ve learned a lot about what the real numbers are for these kind of games and a lot about the technology that’s going to run them. So, painful in the short run, highly educational in the long run in terms of how we run the business.

IMA: What do you see as EA Mobile’s main challenge in the next 12 months?

Earl: The largest change is going to be building an experience that’s not an isolated experience on a given device but that’s part of a bigger experience. So you can, for example, tap into a FIFA game on your mobile phone, trade players, change who’s going to play left forward, change stats, and that night go home and all the stats and changes come down from the cloud onto your console or PC and you play in a tournament mode with your friends online based on the changes you’ve done during the day. There’s a lot of learning to create these cross platform ecosystem experiences and we’re one of the few companies positioned to go after this in a big way. And I think that’s what consumers are demanding.

IMA: EA is somewhat experienced with cross-platform — last year, you released Dragon Age Legends, which was supposed to be an HTLM5 cross-platform experience for social and mobile that tied into the console and PC versions of Dragon Age 2. It didn’t quite work out like you planned, but some of the cross-platform groundwork was in the final product on Facebook. What did you learn from that experience that will shape the cross-platform experiences you launch this year?

Earl: I wasn’t directly involved in that, so I can’t speak in depth on it, but I’ll just say in general that the learning we’re finding as we go after this is […] that the experience has to be tailored to a given device, but it has to be part of a larger experience. So you’re balancing those two objectives. You want to create something expressly for a smartphone, or for a tablet, or a PC or a console — but you want to do it in a way where they speak to each other which allows the consumer to play anywhere anytime.

What we’ve learned as we go is one, balance those objectives. They’re not necessarily competing, but it takes a tremendous amount of planning, logistics and design to pull that off. There’s been a lot of learning on the technology in being able to integrate these devices, which is why we’re pursuing a strong infrastructure and a ubiquitous funnel — Origin — to be able to connect players. Those are two of the key learnings. The third would be the pure design challenge. We have a strong fundamental belief that [winning] in social and mobile — just like in console, as we’ve learned over the last couple of decades — comes down to quality above everything else. Quality is crucial and that comes down to a lot of factors; the design, the graphics and the way a game comes together. So our learning there is, hey let’s make sure we deliver the highest quality and map that anywhere anytime and that’s how we can win in the next stage of the industry.

IMA: So, if we’re talking about quality, let’s talk about Battlefield 3 on iOS. The app was pulled after low ratings. What was the learning there?

Earl: Be very careful with whom you work. That was done by an external studio managed by an internal producer. We found that that particular developer just didn’t have the skill and capability to deliver the game that we wanted. And the end of the day, that’s our responsibility and we took full responsibility for it. You’ve just got to be really thoughtful about what teams build your games, and about the communication factor, the logistical equations behind having teams work together to deliver quality. It was still early on for us, relatively speaking, so we were still trying to figure it out how to do a shooter on mobile, so it was just something where we had not developed that core expertise.

IMA: And the issue with Rock Band Mobile? Why did a notification go out telling users the game would no longer be playable on their device?

Earl: It was just an error. That notification should never have gone out and it won’t happen again. It’s still available. That was just a learning problem with notifications and an internal communication mishap. We don’t see that happening again.

IMA: Going forward, are you looking to staff up your own internal studios or will you acquire or partner with external studios to get that level of quality you’re looking for?

Earl: I think you’re going to see both happening. Acquisitions where we can pick up great talent anywhere in the world. We’re always looking, we have a very active corp dev team that’s always trying to seek out those opportunities. We are staffing up.

One thing that makes us kind of different, again getting back to core IP or franchises, when we staff up teams, regardless of where they’re based whether it’s Beijing or Shanghai or Vancouver or Montreal, if they’re working a franchise, they all roll up to the same management. This is a coordinated effort with the recent organizational changes that we’ve made, we put this into place across the entire company. Really for the first time, every single franchise, regardless of where it’s being developed and on which device, is under one management team. So we think there’s a much better level of coordination and drive toward a single vision of that franchise. That has not always been the case and that’s one of the core learnings and key organizational changes we’ve made in order to adapt to this new growth space.

IMA: So are you soured on partnering with third-party studios?

Earl: Not necessarily. We have really strong relationships — for example, we’re doing a social game with Insomniac. We believe Outernauts is going to be a great [model] of how to partner with external groups.

There are other examples of how we partner well. We’re bringing out World Series of Poker, which is getting a worldwide launch over the next two weeks and we’re showing it at E3. That’s a different kind of partnership — it’s an IP partnership. It’s on iOS initially and we’ll follow on Android. What’s interesting about this game as a poker app, you can play on phone or tablet and if you win enough points, you can earn your way into having a real seat at the World Series of Poker tournament in Vegas. That’s a great example of a partnership that adds huge value to the customer experience. We’re way more thoughtful and very careful about how we partner with different studios, but we’re not soured on it. We’re just smarter about how we do it.

IMA: So you’ve got Chillingo on your mobile publishing side — are you going to do more with social game publishing? Or was Outernauts a by-product of your preexisting relationship with Insomniac?

Earl: We’re not ready to talk about that yet. We’re open minded about how we can take advantage of our publishing capabilities. We have a long history of very strong publishing partners through the EA Partners group. We’re still evaluating what the right path is, but [Insomniac] is an existing relationship, they’re just such a strong studio and such strong designers that we felt it made sense to partner this way. It’s still up in the air as to how we’re going to go down that path. What I will say is that we have a very strong infrastructure, we nailed it with Chillingo and mobile so we want to continue to expand there and just see what happens on the social side.

IMA: So how does PopCap fit in? They have their own IP that’s already killing it on mobile and still going strong on social.

Earl: They’re following the exact same playbook. Six labels cover all development for EA and PopCap is one of the six. They have a unique set of properties that have been very strong on mobile. Bejeweled Blitz is our number one earner on mobile. But they’re really going after the same integrated, holistic view going forward and again [we can] take advantage of PopCap’s innovation and design and match it up with the infrastructure and publishing capabilities of EA to pursue this initiative. They’re absolutely key to this whole initiative as much as EA Sports, as much as Maxis.

IMA: How does Origin fit in? You’ve called it a funnel, but it’s also an online store. Are we going to see it become more integrated with mobile games?

Earl: We’re going to do that step-by-step as the technology is made available. Ultimately, Origin is ubiquitous funnel that’s going to bring users in, match them with the kind of games we think they’re interested in. It’s a cash register, it gives us the telemetry that we need to understand what kind of games they’re playing and how we can continue to improve the experience.

The success of Origin that we’ve had so far as an online store — I think it’s number two right now — we think this is just the beginning of how big this service is. So every game inside the company is going to support it and attach to it, and the funnel in how we acquire potential users is going to come from Origin more than anywhere else. We think this is a huge competitive advantage in the long term, so kick the creation of a platform, matching it to really quality IP that are available anytime anywhere is really the singular vision for the company.

IMA: What do you think of the growing competition from GREE and DeNA entering North America?

Earl: I don’t know if I can speak directly about what they’re doing or not doing. We view everyone as strong competition and we don’t take anyone for granted. Any kind of innovation in the marketplace, whether it’s business innovation, tech or game innovation — we watch closely. We feel that we have a strong core mission in terms of the cross-platform approach and quality games and at the end of the day that’s what really matters. That’s what’s going to make a difference more than anything else.

IMA: What are you showing at your E3 booth today?

Nick: I can tell you a few games — Word Series of Poker, Outernauts, a massive update to Scrabble. It’s been out there for a while, but we’ve done an intense facelift to Scrabble in terms of user experience and user interface. We’re showing that on Facebook and iPhone. It’s a good example of play anywhere, anytime.

IMA: Is this the second or third facelift for Scrabble? As you say, it’s been around for quite a while and it was completely cross-platform as of last year.

Earl: This is the second time we’ve done a key update. This one is profound in many ways — it’s in fluid canvas on Facebook, giving us lots more real estate to do chat and online dictionary. We have leaderboards so that you can see which friends are playing at what time and how they’re doing, how you stack up against them. It’s really easy with one click to get into a game. The [amount of time] it takes to start playing a game is much faster. It’s got a fresh look to it and you have the ability to play words when it’s not your turn. That’s just a sample of the improvements. On the phone, you can swipe between different screens from the chat to dictionary to the game itself, to the discovery page that lets you find your friends and start games with them. Pretty significant improvement for Scrabble and it follows the same path we’ve been on. We believe it’s the real word game out there and this is going to take it to the next level.