Browsing the Apple App Store, you are likely to find games such as The Simpsons: Tapped Out and Real Racing 3 as a mainstay in the top ten. Both are efforts from publisher Electronic Arts (EA), best known for high profile video game releases on platforms such as PC and consoles. Not only has EA been a pioneering force in bringing big budget games to the smartphone platform, it has also been a heavy proponent behind the free-to-play model. A few years ago the idea of a large publisher giving away its latest games for free was unimaginable, but that is exactly what EA has been doing, recouping costs through in-game purchases.
PC World tracked down EA A/NZ, SEA, South Africa and India mobile general manager, Mark Fordham, to talk about the publisher’s focus on mobile gaming.
EA became involved in the mobile game space quite early, before the smartphone boom was kicked off by the iPhone. Why was it important for EA to get into the space early?
EA A/NZ, SEA, South Africa and India mobile general manager, Mark Fordham (MF): EA has always evaluated new and emerging technologies, and with the rise of mobiles and mobile gaming, we saw a great opportunity to reach a larger group of consumers. By investing in mobile we were effectively allowing our consumers to access our content where and when they wanted. So they could play a game like FIFA at home, on a train, or in a lift when they wanted anywhere, anytime.
For the longest time, mobile game publishers were not convinced that mobile versions of console games would sell. However, games such as FIFA and Need for Speed seem to be doing well. To what do you attribute this to?
MF: Over the last few years, there has been a lot more excitement in mobile gaming driven by the ever increasing technological capabilities of smartphones, which has made publishers take notice. We now have the ability to deliver console quality graphics on a smartphone that were never possible before. Real Racing 3 and Need for Speed Most Wanted are just two examples of how stunning graphics and intuitive gameplay can be delivered on a mobile device.
With the growth in popularity of smartphones and tablets, are console gamers prepared to play mobile games?
MF: Console gamers no longer limit themselves to just the one platform. There are so many great titles specific to any number of platforms, both console and mobile. Usually that demographic is extremely tech savvy and hungry for content, such as games, apps, videos, and music, both in the home, on the go and even in the workplace. Some of our recent titles such as Need for Speed Most Wanted and FIFA 13 integrate with the console versions of the game, which is a trend we’ll continue to see emerging over the coming months. Increasingly, core gamers don’t see a difference between gaming on a console and gaming on a mobile. The only difference is accessibility.
Who is buying EA’s mobile games? Console gamers or a broader mainstream audience that may not have played games such as FIFA and Need for Speed before?
MF: We see a broader audience increasingly playing EA games on mobile devices. Many of the barriers that exist to those brands on console are not present on smartphone as we move to a freemium model where the game is free for all to play. Again the quality of graphics on smartphone devices has seen the audience grow considerably. We have a huge fan base on both franchises, and playing on smartphone allows them and new consumers to play our games on the go, especially considering Australia’s high smartphone penetration.
One of EA’s biggest hits recently has been The Simpsons: Tapped Out. What do you think has enabled the game to become such a hit?
MF: There have been a number of contributing factors to The Simpsons: Tapped Out success. The game has been popular as it let new and old fans connect with the show; create their own Springfield with such a great history of characters; receive monthly content updates with tie-ins to episodes and iconic events like Treehouse of Horrors; and it is free to play. The Simpsons is an extremely popular show and has been over its 23 and counting year run on television. Everyone has a favourite episode.
Which episode of The Simpsons is your favourite one?
MF: Personally, mine is the eight episode of season four [“New Kid on the Block”] where Homer gets thrown out of the All-You-Can-Eat Seafood restaurant.
EA has been increasingly been pushing towards in-game currency, with The Simpsons: Tapped Out and Real Racing 3 being most recent examples of this model. Why does EA view freemium as an opportunity over the typical “pay and play” model?
MF: If you look at the App Store’s top grossing rankings, you will see there has been an obvious shift in what our consumers want to play and where they are spending their money. EA has identified that freemium is the future of our mobile business. One key factor of the freemium model is that it removes the barrier of entry and allows a whole new audience to play a product that they may not have played before. By removing the price barrier you are giving consumers an informed choice, allowing them to play for free with the option to transact in the game. In Real Racing 3, for example, there are now more than 1000 races that a consumer has access to play for free with the option to purchase more $R depending on their level of engagement in the game.
The high Australian dollar has pushed out most video game development out of the country, though EA’s FireMonkeys studio continues to thrive. What is the secret to its success?
MF: The secret to success in any industry, be that video games or anything else, is quality and I really believe that is what you see with Firemonkeys, Australia’s biggest gaming studio. They have created some of the most critically acclaimed products on mobile. While Real Racing 3 is clearly one of their premium products, The Sims FreePlay continues to see high levels of engagement and receive content updates over a year after release; Need For Speed Most Wanted is the definitive arcade racer; Flight Control is the classic pick-up and play, time killer on mobile; and many more. These games have been critically acclaimed around the world as some of the best examples of what can be achieved on a mobile device.
When it comes to mobile ports, do you know if there is there communication between mobile divisions and other studios at EA?
MF: Definitely, where possible our studios talk to each other, and you can see that in two of Firemonkeys’ recent titles. With Need for Speed Most Wanted, the Most Wanted points you earn within the mobile game crossover into the console version of the game and vice-versa. In Mass Effect Infiltrator, the game takes place in the Mass Effect universe that Bioware had created.
Looking back at the last few years, how would you characterise the impact of the iPhone and iPad on EA's mobile strategy?
MF: Naturally we see the introduction of the iPhone and iPad as a game changer not only in the gaming space but across many different areas. The increased graphic capability of devices today make it perfect for the development of cutting edge mobile gaming products. Mobile titles can now deliver quality gaming experiences that rival those on console, and the longevity of gameplay through the freemium model has opened up a whole new market of consumers who are wanting to play and be entertained.
Want to read other video game interviews with key figures from Sony, Microsoft and more? Then check out PC World's complete interview archive.